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By bread alone

by Christine Aziz

In 1995 images of the Serb exodus from the former Krajinas were seen around the world: lines of tractors and trailers bearing huddled groups of dazed people and their belongings as they fled the Croatian offensive. Little is publicized now of their current plight and there is little will on all sides to address the situation. Yet if there is to be a sustained peace in the region, a long-term solution needs to be found.

Man cannot live by bread alone. So goes the familiar saying, but the Cotras, refugees from Benkovac, near the Adriatic coast of Croatia, are trying their hardest to disprove it. The family — including parents, grand-
parents and six children — survives on the four loaves, 2 kilos apiece, that Marija Cotra bakes each day. A skittish goat, Whitey, provides enough milk for the two youngest children, Mladenka, who is six, and her little sister Grozda, five, while their father, Zarko, farms a little vegetable patch to produce occasional greens.

Zarko’s mother introduces herself — “I am Stana, miserable Stana” — while her husband, blind and deaf, sits in the dusty yard. The family has lived in a shabby two-room house without running water in a village almost 100km east of Belgrade since fleeing the Croatian assault on the former Krajinas in August 1995. The Cotras are grateful for the shelter but worry that they may soon have to move; the landlady, who accepts labour in her fields in lieu of rent, is trying to sell.

 

 

Compassion fatigue

In the two years since around 250,000 people arrived in that single wave from Croatia, doubling the refugee population overnight, many have found Yugoslavia’s patience with refugees wearing thin and its resources drying up. The “inner wall” of international sanctions may have been lifted, but the outmoded communist Yugoslav eco-nomy is closer than ever to collapse and remains starved of the international development aid it needs. Access to funds from the World Bank and IMF, for example, is still banned — the “outer wall” of sanctions.

The Yugoslav Red Cross list of social cases among the native population is rising, even as donations fall — after all, the war in Bosnia was officially ended by the Dayton peace plan in November 1995, and there is a limit to the goodwill of those at home and abroad to keep supporting the needy.

“The donors just lost interest,” says Maurice O’Neill of the International Federation. Furthermore, the cost of providing aid to the former Yugoslavia — buying and transporting goods — is high.

Many Western governments and NGOs have focused aid on Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the war damage was worst; Yugoslavia was perceived more as a villain than as a victim in the 1991-1995 conflict. As a result, those refugees driven east by war are often forgotten.

Thousands of families in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia willingly gave up space in their homes to relatives and other needy people who fled the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia. But most thought such help would be needed for a few weeks or perhaps months, not as in some cases for more than five years.

“We are very grateful,’’ says Marija. “Both the local authorities and the neighbours helped as much as they could,’’ adds Zarko, “but we were thinking this kind of help would last for a short time only. We don’t know how to survive in the future.’’

Tensions have grown between refugees and host families under the emotional strain of living close together and the physical difficulties of survival in a collapsing economy. The Yugoslav Red Cross is supporting 250,000 refugees. Funds are running out for the soup kitchens that feed 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees every day. Children under 19 and those over 65 receive some food aid — a family of four might get 1 kilo of sugar, 1 litre of oil, 1 kilo of beans, a tin or two of fish or meat each month, as well as a hygiene parcel.

A census organized by UNHCR in 1996 registered 566,275 refugees in Yugoslavia, and a further 79,791 affected by war but eligible for Yugoslav citizenship. Nearly a quarter of those classed by UNHCR as refugees had no such status — the Cotras are one such family, Zarko being unable to provide a birth certificate to the authorities.

This is why Zarko, who works illegally as a janitor at a kindergarten, is paid 400 dinars a month at a time when the government decrees that a family of four needs 2,200 dinars per month for its basic needs.

According to the census, 20 per cent of refugees live, like the Cotras, in a rented house, while more than half (54.2 per cent) are staying with relatives. Only 12 per cent are housed in collective centres, mostly because they have no other choice, although at least they receive three meals a day.

No going back

The Cotras don’t like to accept hand-outs — few refugees in Yugoslavia will seek aid happily, feeling ashamed to be so needy. But Zarko cannot get a decent job unless he can conquer the bureaucratic maze and win refugee status or, as he dreams, Yugoslav citizenship. For only 9 per cent of the refugees in Yugoslavia want to return home: the bitterness and fear remain.

Both Zarko’s and Marija’s parents remained in Benkovac in Croatia while their children fled (“with nothing, just our lives’’), but it was to prove a fatal error. Marija’s father was murdered, and a Croatian neighbour whisked Zarko’s parents to safety at a refugee centre on the coast.
“We think we will never go back. I know what my family suffered,’’ Zarko says, as Stana and Marija weep silently.

“We felt such fear, even the children. We can’t ever face that again,’’ Marija adds. ‘’We are really nostalgic and cry very much, but that is the reality.’’

And so 60 per cent of the refugees want to rebuild their lives in Yugoslavia, where hospitals no longer distribute medicines, where schools in what was once a prosperous country now ask the Red Cross to provide paper and pencils, and where much of the workforce is on (poorly) paid compulsory leave.

Small wonder the government seems reluctant to speed citizenship procedures for another 340,000 people. This most likely solution to the refugee problem in Yugoslavia may need financial backing of the sort banned under sanctions.

But despite their poverty, the Cotras (or at least the two younger generations) are in some sense the lucky ones compared to many other refugees in Yugoslavia, where anecdotal evidence suggests that suicide has become a way out for too many of the sick and elderly.

The Cotras seem to have escaped the misery and apathy so many refugees fall into, bored as they are by a life of enforced idleness and the loss of hope. They must pump water in the yard if they are to drink or wash or cook, they must eat bread for every meal and wear thread-bare, second-hand clothes, but the family has survived and in the end, it seems, they are sustained by love. They have nothing else.

 

Emma Daly
Emma Daly is a journalist working for the British newspaper, The Independent.



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