The images went around the world. In August 1995 convoys of civilians mostly elderly people and children, walking along the roads of Yugoslavia under the scorching sun.
By then, Balkan fatigue had made most western observers oblivious to the real meaning of yet another mass exodus of refugees in the Balkans, and few seemed to take much notice of this latest turn of events in Europe.
Those people on the roads were the Krajina Serbs, escaping a swift Croatian offensive that swept through the self-proclaimed republic of Krajina Srpska in Croatia. Two weeks later the escaping masses reached Serbia and other ethnic Serbs who had come from Bosnia and Northern Croatia. They had fled nationalistic expansionism in the early years of the the outbreak of hostilities in 1991.
In theory, the Dayton accord signed in 1995 provides for the repatriation of the refugees, or “expellees” as they are technically known. Most international observers agree, however, that these people are very unlikely to be able to go back home to Croatia or Bosnia & Hercegovina, despite the efforts of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR ) and others to make the civilian parts of Dayton, including repatriation, come into effect. The homes and in some instances entire villages of the Serbian refugees have been burnt down or taken over by Croats or Muslims, and should they choose to go back, the former Serbian inhabitants of these ethnically cleansed areas can expect to be met with strong hostility by the new occupants.
A number of refugees have attempted to go back assisted by UNHCR and have subsequently been beaten and forced back to Serbia. And so, we can expect to see half a million refugees stuck in rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) for quite a while yet, if not permanently.
A relatively small group of refugees (about 10 percent) live under poor conditions in so-called “collective centres” in groups of 50-300 refugees. But the vast majority of the Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia & Hercegovina live in private accomodations throughout Serbia and Montenegro. A dew have taken up residence on abandoned, isolated homesteads (salash’es, as they are known in Hungarian) scattered across the vast, fertile farmlands of Vojvodina in the norternmost part of Serbia. Some still receive occasional food or hygiene parcels from the Yugoslav Red Cross, UNHCR and the few foreign donors who acknowledge the plight of the Seriban refugees in Serbia. But this is all short term emergency relief that does not address the need to find viable solutions to their needs in the longer term.
Some of the refugees have been passively waiting around for up to five years, and they have lost any motivation or energy to do anything. Some still engulfed by bitterness and depression, others seemingly overwhelmed by the embarrasment of suddenly being dependent on others for your most basic needs. For many it appears that the memory of what they had and have now lost forever is almost harder to bear than the daily struggle to survive. When they tell of their hardships they do so with a shrug of the shoulders, but when they describe the home they left behind in Krajina their voice trembles and they can no longer hold back the tears.
Better than staring at the walls
One approach to getting the refugees back into active life is through so-called Intcome Generation Projects. irc is a UNHCR implementing partner. so UNHCR puts up the money, while irc does the “doing.” The idea has been adapted by UNHCR from similar hugely successful programs in Africa and Asia. An interest free, short-term loan is given to a refugee intent on starting a business venture on his own or as part of a group, but who lacks the necessary initial capital to buy machinery or rent a shop or some land. The refugee is requested to submit a formal application with a business plan and an estimate of the required loan. By the spring of 1997 irc had started about 50 such projects in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina.
An important aspect of IGP project is to try and to help refugees get a sense of purpose in their otherwise miserable lives. Which is why project managers behind several IGP programs throughout Serbia are quick to point out that while they would love to see the projects become financially succesful, and thereby helping the refugee’s family towards financial independence, the primary aim is psycho-social. Participating in an income generation project is hoped to lead to a sense of purpose and to build confidence. If successful, it can encourage dispondent refugees to think more about future possibilities for themselves and their family than about the loesses they have suffered and the happy life they used to have.
Local field operatives associated with the irc program undertake the day-to-day contact with the refugees. They are responsible for encouraging refugees to apply for loans and help evaluate the applications, and they stay in touch with them once the project is up and running to give whatever help is needed along the way. They also collect the monthly installments on the loan. The irc loans are quite modest, and DEM 1.000 (approx. USD 670) isn’t much when you’re starting a whole new life.
Three cases in point
The following three case stories from Vojvodina should give an idea of the range of projects that may be funded through irc’s IGP programme.
1. Welding together a new future
A decrepit red Yugo sits in front of the big, modern house. Next to it an ancient tractor is rusting away;that is the ride that brought Samac Dusan and his family from Prizlitse in Croatia to the town of Bracka Topola in Vojvodina, a couple of hours north of Belgrade, just south of the Hungarian border. When he and his family fled the Croatian offensive in August of ’95 they came here because Samac has relatives in town.
Initially, the family of four relied on assistance from the Yugoslav Red Cross, but lately they’ve managed on their own. Samac’s wife worked as a teacher, and he taught at a vocational school back in Krajina. They would both like to go back to teaching if it were possible, but for now they live off the income from Samac’s blacksmith shop which is set up in the garage under the house.
He had already started the enterprise with his father when he applied for a loan through irc’s IGP programme. The DEM 1.000 (USD 670) loan he was eventually granted, constitutes 20 percent of his total investment capital. While he rents most of the equipment in the shop, the loan allowed him to buy a spot welder and other heavy duty equipment for the shop. Samac proudly shows off one of several hundred bent metal rods with welded nuts that he’s produced for a local builder. He only does commissioned work and charges half the payment up front. That covers materials, the other half is his income. Most of his customers are local entrepreneurs and a couple of state-owned factories in the area. But with the current state of the Serbian economy, they have almost no money to spend. Things are going reasonable well, Samac says, but it is still difficult to make ends meet. The loan was a help, but he had hoped for a bigger loan which would have enabled him to buy bigger, better and more modern machinery.
He is confident that spring will bring in more work, and he is quite optimistic about the future possibilities for his shop. Samac hopes to one day be in a position to hire some outside labour, and the driveway is already full of the building materials that will be used to construct a new workshop in the back yard of the family house. It should be ready by the end of summer. Samac no longer harbours dreams of going back to Krajina. He has put a lot of hard work into establishing this operation, he explains, and no matter what changes may occour over the coming years, he intends to stay here in Bracka Topola. While it’s a hard life, they’re at least making headway. “The past is history,” he maintains. “I’m fortunate enough to be young and able, and blessed with a good set of hands.”
2. A cow and a half
There’s a wonderful twinkle in Savo Lubobratovic’s eye, and a couple of teeth missing from his upper gums. He looks at least 60 years old, but as he leads me to the stables he points out that he has in fact only just turned 50. His wife is 47, and the two live in a small farmhouse in Vojvodina.
In 1994 their old house in Croatia was burnt down while Savo was away on business. The following day their Croatian neighbors showed up and offered his terrified wife a miserable price for their remaining livestock and the land. She accepted this offer she couldn’t really refuse it and took off to meet her husband in Serbia. Listening to their discription of what they remember, they had everything: a lovely farmhouse, fertile land, he had a steady job as a carpenter and kept cows, pigs and sheep as well. They ended up in Vojvodina because her brother lived in the region.
In december of 1996 Savo was given a loan of DEM 1.250 (approx. USD 840) from the irc IGP programme. He used the money to buy a cow and a half he payed for the other half of the cow with the meager proceeds from the sale of the livestock and land back in Krajina. He’s been very rational in his choice of how to spend the money. “Goats are no good, because people in Serbia aren’t particularly fond of goat’s milk, and pigs require special feed which is expensive. I would have liked a different breed of cow that yields more milk, but these are just fine, “he says with a smile of satisfaction. One of the cows is pregnant. If the calf is a bull he’ll eventually sell it for slaughter; if it’s a cow he’ll keep her.
Savo is a tough old guy who a lot of self confidence and a belief that it pays off to make an effort, in spite of every one else claiming that it’s impossible to make any headway in present day Serbia. “Some of the other applicants thought the 1.000 Deutschmarks offered was too little, and they complained bitterly. “That tiny sum won’t do us any good at all,’ they lamented. I, on the other hand, was happy to accept the loan, considering a means to an end and a new beginning.” But things are tough for Savo and his wife. I ask them if they can live off the proceeds from the two cows, and they hesitate before answering. Barely, they confess. While they sell the milk to the local plant, he still has to work as a menial worker at a local shop and as a gravedigger for the church. He’s payed in feed for the animals. Before getting the loan from IRC he did odd jobs around town and they recieved some help from UNHCR and the Red Cross.
Savo’s dream is to one day have some pigs in the back yard, but his big dream is to one day have some land of his own. If he could take out a new loan it would be to buy a tractor so he could run the farm more efficiently. But first he wants to pay back his current loan, and he’s well on his way to doing so, as a matter of fact, he’s ahead on his payments.
The couple opens the door to their home, and it immediately becomes apparent how poor they really are. There is nothing in the combined kitchen and living room, exept for the old stove that the wife is using to keep the chill out, continuously stoking it with corn cobs. It smells nice, but it doesn’t give much in the way of heat. In one of the two small bedrooms, half hidden behind a pile of empty old Red Cross food parcels, the mother-in-law is wasting away. “I just want to die,” she says, and by the look of things she soon will. It’s less than 15 degrees Celcius in the room, the floor is stamped earth. Savo’s wife is very worried. “How will we afford the funeral,” she asks? She’s sick, too, and should be going for treatment at the local hospital once a week. But the Serbian government has recently done away with the free transport offered to refugees, and they can’t afford the ticket. They have even heard rumours that the authorities will be cancelling their free electricity and demanding back pay for past supply.
As she tells of their home in Croatia, Savo’s wife can’t help shedding a tear, and it’s hard for her to tell about her escape three years ago.
The whole village was burned down, so the couple have nothing to go back to in Croatia. Their children live a couple of hundred miles away, but the couple cannot afford to visit them. They are not in touch with old friends or neighbors, and they don’t know any of the refugees in the new community. They’re not very keen on associating with the other refugees, because “refugees are desperate people, you can’t trust them,” as Savo points out. “Now a days,” he contiues, “you can only trust yourself.”
3. What to bring in an emergency
“Not many people here in Vojvodina can afford to buy new clothes these days. It almost only happens for special occasions.”
These words are Bogdanka Pavlica’s. In July of 1993 she fled with her family from Ogulin in Croatia. They ended up here in Bracka Topola because her husband’s friend the best man at their wedding, no less lives here. She worked briefly as a secretary at the local army barracks, then found herself without a job. But she had had the presence of mind to bring her sewing machine with her when she escaped, as a contingency plan if all else failed. And soon she established herself as a seamstress, offering alterations and repairs, working out of her home.
In november of ’96 she applied for and was granted a DEM 800 (USD 540) loan through the irc IGP programme, and with the money she bought raw materials and sewing supplies to enable her to taylor new clothes for her customers. Her mother had taught her the skills, the designs are her own. Judging by the suit in progress, she is good at her job. It was not difficult for Bogdanka to muster the courage to ask for the loan. “After all, it’s not like begging,” she is quick to point out. She was confident that she would be able to pay the loan back, so she was willing to run the risk of putting herself into debt in order to get on with life.
When she isn’t busy working with needle and thread, Bogdanka looks after the family home and her two boys. She has ample time for that, unfortunately, because business is slow. For the month of February she only had two orders to fill, and it only takes her a day to complete a set of dress clothes. She charges DEM 120 for an outfit, 90 of which cover the cost of materials. It’s not bad when keeping in mind that the average Serbian worker makes about DEM 200 a month.
Bogdanka does not belive she and her family will ever return to Croatia. She just hopes they will be able to sell their old house in Ogulin. “We all have hopes,” she says, “but we really need the money badly. We barely have enough now to cover the basic needs for us and the kids.” Her husband works at a local, state owned furniture plant that is failing. The factory has provided Bogdanka’s family with the apartment and all the furniture in it.
She would be happy to see the business grow larger,, and she intends to focus on her tailoring work in the future. “I definitely feel a lot better now that I am doing something at long last,” she says. “Anything is better than sitting around staring at your own four walls all day,” she says with the conviction of someone who knows too well what that is like.