Down and out in Serbia

I meet Vuc over lunch. He is picking his meal out of a dumpster on an alley in central Belgrade. Like half a million other Serbs in former Yugoslavia he has come here on the run from the ethnic cleansing that has taken place in Croatia and Bosnia  during the past five years.

They’re an anomaly. Serbian refugees don’t fit well with the picture we have drawn in the west of the Serbs as the culprits and all the “others” as the victims.

According to the Dayton agreement signed almost two years ago, these “expellees,” as the refugees are known, will eventually be “repatriated.” In reality, that is not going to happen. The local players (Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia) have known this all along, of course, and the refugees are beginning to realize it, too. A recent United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) survey showed that only a fraction of the Serbian refugees in Serbia hope or expect to go home again. The Yugoslav government and most aid workers have reached the same conclusion. Unfortunately, Belgrade appears to be unwilling to allocate the resources required to the care of the refugees, insisting that it is not their problem alone.

A handful of international relief organizations are working in Serbia, but their focus has been on emergency relief directly linked to the fighting, and they’re unlikely to stay and handle long-term rehabilitation and integration needed. They are at the mercy of foreign donors (notably governments) who are reluctant to support the current Serbian leadership by taking over responsibility for its refugee problem, insisting instead that Serbia get its priorities right and take the steps required to become an accepted international player.

While the diplomats and politicians talk, the question remains unanswered: how to deal with half a million destitute people stuck in a country that’s hated, poorly run and basically bankrupt?

Loans, grants and motivation

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is doing its best in places like Kraljevo, a pretty town in south-central Serbia with 80,000 inhabitants and 8,000 refugees, where a bunch of little old Serbian ladies are knitting away happily in a social club on a Tuesday morning. Throughout Serbia and Montenegro DRC runs clubs like this, which serve about 18,000 people;they keep the Serbian refugees from Krajina and Bosnia  active and motivated, offer them vocational training courses and help them get involved with UNHCR projects like income generation. The IGPs, as they are known, are loans or grants given to would-be entrepreneurs among the refugees who can put together a feasible business plan and present it to an agency like DRC. With the funds they can generate income for themselves and their family, leaving them less dependent on aid from others. It is also a step towards establishing a new life in their new surroundings.

The concept was initially developed by aid workers in Africa and Asia, and has been a success elsewhere in the world. Today DRC has 3,000 beneficiaries in a few hundred projects. DRC has chosen to focus on large projects where groups of 7-10 refugees get together and receive a grant or a loan of DEM 10,000 (approximately USD 6,000) or more. While the aim is to establish successful business operations, DRC’s project director, Anette Christoffersen, points out that the psycho-social effect of just keeping the refugees busy remains an important aspect of the projects.

Establishing successful projects is not easy. The refugees are not used to long term planning, explains Anette Christoffersen, they find it hard to think about “the rest of their lives.” They tend to focus instead on the here and now, living as they do from hand to mouth. Some exaggerate their past experience when they put in a proposal, in some cases claiming to have worked in areas that they’ve never been near before.

In some cases this means the project is one of learning by doing. Once their project is launched, DRC must teach the refugees about optimizing utilization of capacity and planning of production, basic business concepts that are unknown to a would-be Yugoslav businessman. So, a balance needs to be struck between working with the refugees on their terms, yet at the same time teaching them critical skills that will help them get on with life. A popular theme for IGPs is greenhousing. DEM 8.500 (approximately USD 5,000) buys a 180 m2 (1,700 sqft) greenhouse, which can be assembled in a matter of days. It then takes about a season to teach the refugees how to run it efficiently, but they need to be closely supervised, and often lack the means of survival while they wait for the income from the first crops.

Land, but not his own

Bosko works on a plot of land just outside Kraljevo. He had his own land in Croatia, land that he spent nearly five decades farming. But in 1992, he and his family of six escaped from a village near Sisak, south of Zagreb when the fighting started there. Their first stop was Nis, but they did not care for the city life and couldn’t make a living there. As is the case for many refugees, this is the second time Bosko is on the run: in 1941, he escaped to partisan-held territory as the Germans and the Ustasha Croats went after the Serbs in Croatia.

Together with three other families Bosko’s family now runs a small-scale greenhouse operation financed by DRC with UNHCR funds. Bosko, however, still feels uprooted. He has heard that their house in Croatia is still in one piece, so if things should change for the better, he’d be eager to go back. “My kids can never feel content here,” he says. “There are no jobs for them, no assurance for the future.” Bosko and his family would love to work as much as they could, but there is not much for them to do. They are worried, and Bosko says he has little hope for the future.

Sitting idle

Half of the DRC projects are in the hands of refugees who live in so-called collective centres, a euphemism for the barracks, run-down schools and other institutions that local authorities have been forced to offer them as temporary housing. Adrani is one such centre just outside Kraljevo, housing around 85 refugees. It is in poor condition and has just one toilet for them all to share. “Still, that’s a lot better than the camp just across the street,” says the elected representative of the refugees, “They don’t even have one.” An old lady nods. At 79 she is the oldest of the refugees at Adrani. The youngest is a girl just two years old.

These refugees arrived from Krajina in May of 1995 and were first housed in the local sports centre. A couple of families to a room, they now share the crummy, cramped centre. As they are quick to point out, “Even the animals on the local farms are better off than us.” It seems that after two years, the realisation is slowly sinking in: “We won’t be going back anytime soon.”

On an old TV in a corner of the communal room of the Adrani collective center the confused images of MTV flicker by. A group of refugees have come in to explain what life is like in the center.

“We feel like prisoners. You should see what we left behind back in Croatia. Here, we are just guests, and we’ve overstayed our welcome,”

“We feel like prisoners. You should see what we left behind back in Croatia. Here, we are just guests, and we’ve overstayed our welcome,” says an aging man with a frown. The local Red Cross gives them clothes from deceased refugees at other camps, and the local municipality keeps them fed. The International Red Cross has provided them with mattresses, and DRC has given them material for bed sheets. Apart from that, they get no help to speak of, and basic necessities like running water and medicine are not available at Adrani.

Their representative holds regular meetings with the local authorities, but to little avail. “We are always told that things will be improved, that something will happen, but nothing ever does. Usually the excuse we are given has to do with lack of funds from Belgrade. Then, when we finally do get something, it’s often so little that it leads to internal bickering about sharing it fairly.”

In 1996 DRC’s local social worker managed to get the refugees at Adrani involved in some activities; they played games, started growing vegetables on a plot behind the centre, and socialized with refugees from other centres. But on this April afternoon it seems that they’ve lost all the initiative and returned to the apathy of waiting for something – anything – to happen.

Some of them have had temporary jobs, doing hard physical labor for around 60 dinars (approx. DEM 15 or USD 9) a day, but even those jobs are gone now as the Serbian economy has slumped further towards a collapse. Working the 3,000 m2 (27,000 sqft) of farmland they have rented nearby is not enough to keep them all busy, but only three of them have put in applications for income generation projects, and all were rejected. The rest of the group at Adrani seem to have given up hope. They complain obsessively about the food, the milk, the cold, the kids, the humanitarian organisations, and the system. Over and over they repeat the same laments: “What can we do? Where can we go? Who can help us?”

They are mostly peasants, whose simple lives for generations revolved around the land and their family. Before the war they didn’t have much; now, they have lost even that. They were never supposed to show much initiative, and the notion of “starting a new life” is clearly quite incomprehensible to most of them.

“Yes,” they admit, “we would have liked to have been part of a Greater Serbia, but not like this.” The fear has come with them from Croatia, fear of someone pointing a finger at them, sending them back to Croatia to stand trial as war criminals. Of course, none of them will own up to having committed war crimes, but most of them are old age pensioners and women anyway, hardly Chetniks on-the-run.

Could they ever consider Serbia “home” and feel comfortable in their new surroundings? “Yes,” says an old woman, “but it would be so much easier if things changed for the better.”

Twice is twice too often

A sweet old guy with a quivering voice and a mild stutter steps forward and quietly shows me a picture of a house; his house back in Krajina, it turns out. Milorad’s sad, tired eyes reflect what is in his photo. The house is a large, good-looking home, and in front a family is posing around an aging Opel sedan. He then hands me six other pictures taken by a neighbor who fled to Germany, and who recently went back to visit the village in Krajina. It looks as if someone stepped on the house with big, heavy boots; the outer walls have collapsed, and rubble lies strewn all around it. It takes a second to appreciate what the reality of these pictures must mean to him.

Milorad’s story is doubly tragic. As a three year-old he was expelled with his family from their home just south of Zagreb in Croatia. That was in 1941. They fled to Serbia, and by chance they ended up in Matarusjka Banja, the camp just across the street from Adrani. Milorad still remembers the family’s trip back to Croatia in 1948, where they proceeded to rebuild their home and their life.

Then, in 1995, he and his wife had to leave again. The journey to Serbia took them almost two weeks. He had a good relationship with his neighbors and never imagined that it would happen again. By chance he ended up in Kraljevo again, almost 50 years later.

Perhaps we can go back after all

An old resort south of Kraljevo currently houses 320 refugees, 55 of them kids. On the walls of the social club are children’s drawings and posters with irregular English verbs. Here, I meet an old Serbian couple – they wanted to stay anonymous, so let us call them Tomislav and Dragana – who escaped from the Croatian town of Nova Gradica in 1991. According to the woman in charge of the center they may well be some of the very first Serbian refugees.

In their dismal little room Dragana is complaining of back pain, depression and a plethora of other ailments, one hand on her back, the other pressed against her stomach as she speaks. She moans and explains that she can’t take the food any longer, that she has to be fed small portions several times a day and should be on a special diet, but that they can’t afford to buy anything. Dragana is convinced that the sanitary conditions in the kitchen are disgusting and wishes the state would do something. She needs medicine to stabilize her mental condition, but they can’t afford that, either. She has missed her last couple of doctor’s appointments because they can’t afford the bus ticket, and while she thinks she should be admitted to the hospital, she’s worried about what might happen to her there.

“How is anyone supposed to live under these conditions,” Dragana asks, and raises her arms in resignation. Two beds, a small table, a radiator, a cupboard and a couple of hot plates. That’s all they have in their “home,” all they have had for the past six years. She pulls out an old, brown sweater and holds it up in disgust. “I got this four years ago from the Red Cross,” she says, “and haven’t gotten anything since.” While the couple is very apologetic on behalf of the local authorities and the rule in Belgrade – “Oh, that’s just the system here…” – they are very quick to point out the lack of foreign aid and what they see as broken promises made by various relief organisations over the years.

They did not believe anyone would actually go to war in what was then Yugoslavia back in 1991, but all hell broke loose while they were visiting a relative in Bosnia. Fearing that their son might be drafted into the Croatian army to fight Serbs if they went back, they chose instead to stay in Bosnia. Like so many others, they were later forced to leave Bosnia and move on to Serbia itself. Their son lives in Belgrade where he works and studies at the university.

As a former civil servant in Croatia Tomislav was eligible for a DEM 1,500 (USD 900) annual pension. But while he was able to take it with him anywhere in the old federal Yugoslavia, he has, of course, not received any money from what is now independent Croatia since fleeing in 1991. “If only I could get back to Croatia and settle things with the pension,” he grumbles. He has heard from a few people back home and claims not to be worried about his security if he went back. His neighbors were nice enough, he says, and he has never caused anyone any trouble.

When I ask him why they don’t try going back as part of the UNHCR repatriation program Tomislav claims that his wife is just too sick to travel. But it quickly becomes quite apparent that they know surprisingly little about the options that are open to them. They haven’t taken part in any of the information meetings about repatriation and visit programs that have been held at the center. Tomislav says that’s because they’re ashamed to discuss their problems and anxieties in front of other refugees.

While they have heard of the “Going Home” projects run by the Red Cross and UNHCR, they have also heard of people returning home only to discover that their homes have been destroyed, something they do not wish to experience. They’re also concerned about whether they would be able to go back to Serbia if things were to prove too difficult or dangerous in Croatia. And what about their safety on the trip  can UNHCR guarantee that? Tomislav asks, unconvinced.

The figures vary considerably depending on the source, but no more than a few thousand Serbs have returned to Croatia. Some claim that the only people the Croats have allowed to return are old people who have gone to die in their home village. In Franjo Tjudman’s republic a law was passed recently, giving Croats legal rights to property seized from refugees, including their homes. And these days, only people currently living in Croatia are issued with proof of citizenship and other ID, effectively rendering the refugees in Serbia stateless.

Meanwhile, tension between Serbs and Muslims is building in Eastern Slavonia, threatening to restart the war and possibly send a new wave of refugees scrambling from the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska in Bosnia towards Serbia. The national Serbian elections slated for September of this year may bring a change in government, but while some relief organizations have found the Zajedno opposition party representatives more dynamic and easier to work with on a local level compared to those from the old guard, it remains to be seen what a potential Zajedno leadership can do for Serbia as a country. The economy and infrastructure of the country is on the verge of collapse, and several issues including the status of Kosova and Vojvodina, need to be addressed before the world will lend a hand with rebuilding Serbia.

Even with foreign aid, it will take time and significant effort by a nation that seems to have given up, collectively, to get back on its feet. Which makes it even harder to contemplate the fate of the half million refugees in Serbia. They will still be there when the next winter comes, but it is doubtful if there will be enough relief supplies for them to survive it.

And as with the Palestinian refugees I have met in Lebanon and Jordan, the dream of returning lives on in the minds of the Serbian refugees in Serbia. But as years go by and the reality of the situation engulfs it, that dream is turning into a nostalgic myth of better times.