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A matter of chance

When things go right in spite of it all

Almost three years have passed since Elma Babalija was born prematurely in March 1992 and placed in an incubator in Foca hospital in south-eastern Bosnia with only a slim chance of survival. Elma’s mother was discharged and returned to her home in a village outside Foca.

As the atmosphere throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina grew increasingly tense towards the end of that month, roadblocks sprang up seemingly overnight. One of them made it impossible for Elma’s mother, Mevla, to reach the hospital to visit her daughter. The men guarding the roadblocks were Mevla’s neighbours. It was the first time that she had seen them in uniform. “We used to work together,” says Mevla. “We were friends a month before, and then they started to hate us.

“I was begging, pleading, ‘Please let me through, I only want to fetch my baby girl’,” she recalls as tears run slowly down her face. But the neighbours-turned-soldiers told her: “Save the children you have and get out while you can”.

At first Mevla refused to leave. But when soldiers took her husband, Habib, from their home, she decided to abandon the village — and Elma. “I never enquired about my baby after being told that all the patients at the hospital had been killed. I was convinced she was dead.” After 13 months in collective shelters in Trnovo and Konjic, Mevla finally reached relative safety in the central Bosnian town of Zenica.

It is still a mystery how Elma survived before finally arriving at Igalo orphanage in Podgorica, Montenegro, in September 1993. There the ICRC tracing team registered the unaccompanied child and her name was entered into the ICRC’s database.

Mevla would regularly visit the ICRC tracing office in Zenica for news of her husband, never thinking to mention her lost baby. It was purely by chance that on one of these occasions a tracing officer noticed that Elma was registered under the same family name as Mevla and asked if they were related.

The day they were to be reunited last February, Mevla was excited but anxious. “It will be difficult,” she says, looking repeatedly at the photo of Elma sent to her by the staff of the Igalo orphanage. “I wonder if she’ll accept me.”

Two days later, Elma plays with her sister in the family’s two-room apartment. There’s an occasional smile amidst the more frequent screams of protest, “nichta, nichta” (I don’t want , I don’t want), especially when her mother tries to cuddle her.

Although she has still not found her husband, Mevla’s hope is rejuvenated. “Finally, I feel that my heart has fallen into the right place,” she says. “If God could give me back my daughter, another miracle might happen.”

Beware mines!

School children in Medinat el Shaab, near Aden, will never forget the first day of term in November 1994. During the break, a group of boys found a mine while digging in the school courtyard. The device exploded. The toll: three children killed and seven seriously injured.

It is hard to estimate just how many landmines and unexploded shells were scattered throughout southern Yemen in the course of the recent civil war. One thing is certain: several months after the end of the conflict, they continue to kill and maim unsuspecting victims.

The ICRC and the Yemenite Red Crescent have therefore decided to join forces to confront this intolerable situation. The two organisations have designed a prevention programme, with the financial support of the Deutsche Jemenitische Gesellschaft. Some 60 specially trained Red Crescent volunteers now travel from school to school in the Aden area and, with the aid of leaflets, photos and posters, raise awareness of the dangers of these innocent-looking but deadly weapons.

More than 20,000 pupils have so far been reached in this way. Encouraged by the success of the programme, the ICRC and Yemenite Red Crescent are planning to extend it to other governorates.

The art of war

Haunting, poignant, occasionally macabre — it would be hard to find more potent images to convey the horrors of the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Asked by their local Red Cross branches to illustrate the tragedy of war and the work of the Red Cross in their area, children between the ages of 7 and 14 in Sarajevo and Knezevo (Banja Luka area) took what materials they could find — crayons, ballpoint pens, pencils and news clippings — and depicted their own views and experiences in shockingly vivid terms.

“The local Red Cross took the initiative to organise these painting competitions because they wanted the world to see what was happening and the effect the war was having on the children’s lives,” says Glenn O’Neil, an ICRC dissemination coordinator in the former Yugoslavia.

The best of the artwork was put on public display in Bosnia-Herzegovina for World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, 8 May 1994. It has since been on international tour, hosted by a number of National Societies. So far the works have been on view in Canada, Norway and Switzerland. Other National Societies that have expressed interest are Portugal, the Netherlands, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Poland.

Hope in the occupied zone in Lebanon

Family visits begin at Khiam

For the first time since it opened 10 years ago, the Khiam detention centre in the occupied zone in Lebanon has opened its doors to the families of all its detainees. In the first round of visits, which began at the end of January and ran through the end of April, detainees saw their families for the first time in what for some has been 10 long years. In addition to the visits, detainees now also have the right to exchange messages with their families. Visits of families living outside the occupied zone and exchange of messages are done under the auspices of the ICRC which has been requesting access to Khiam detention centre for years.

In a modest living room in her home in Ein el Hilweh refugee camp near Saida in southern Lebanon, Safih describes what it was like to see her son Assad for the first time in four years.

“I couldn’t sleep the night before because I couldn’t believe I was actually going to see him. Even on the bus on the way to see him, I couldn’t believe it. When the bus arrived, we got off and had to walk up a very, very steep hill about 50 metres long. I am old and I was tired, but I went flying up that hill like a deer would have. I didn’t feel its steepness.

“At first I didn’t recognise Assad. He changed so much. But his sister Kamle pointed him out to me. I couldn’t believe it, though, because he looked so different. He had had a broken tooth and I made him show it to me. Then I knew it was him. I was happy to see him but I cried.”

Assad’s father also took part in the visit. “I just kept staring at him, wondering what he had done to be there. I couldn’t say very much.” Charges are not formally brought against the detainees and none of the prisoners benefit from any sort of due process of law. Assad’s younger brother did not get to see him this time, but hopes he will be able to go in the future. “We ran a small store together and were good friends. Not seeing him these last four years feels as though I have lost a part of my body.”

Balthasar Staehelin, ICRC delegate in Beirut, welcomes the family visits and messages while underlining the fact that the ICRC is still striving to have access to the detention centre itself. “This is a major step in breaking through the isolation at Khiam and it is of great humanitarian importance. Still, we can’t sleep quietly until the ICRC has direct access to the prison and its detainees.” l

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