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Living apart together

By Iolanda Jaquemet
In 1991, a violent storm swept through Yugoslavia; nothing was left unscathed, least of all the Red Cross, which splintered according to the front lines, while confronted, unprepared, with a colossal humanitarian emergency. How are the new National Societies, as they emerge from the debris of the old Yugoslavia, facing up to the challenge of achieving reconciliation and political independence against a backdrop of social and economic crisis? Are they part of a dynamic process or a mere mirror image of their respective societies?

The deep, green waters of the river Drina flow gently through undulating hills. In stark contrast to the scenic splendour, Gorazde presents row upon row of gutted and burned edifices with crumbling façades and collapsed roofs. At every turn, this little town in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina displays the gaping wounds of a three-and-a-half-year siege.

On a hill overlooking the town, workmen are going about rebuilding the bombed-out buildings. Saliha, her face framed by greying hair, skirts the building sites, climbing up until she reaches a ruin that at first sight appears uninhabitable. Not so. A tiny old woman, her eyes brimming with tears, issues forth to greet the Red Cross volunteer who comforts her. Twice a week, Saliha makes this journey on foot to visit 88-year-old Dervisa and her invalid son and daughter-in-law, all of whom took refuge here in 1992 after being driven from their village.

The family lives in the garage, the only habitable room. Two makeshift beds stand opposite the cooker, propped against which is her son, an old man staring perpetually into space. Dervisa and her family receive 31 Deutschmarks a month from the local authorities to cover all their needs. Their survival, therefore, depends on the yield from a small vegetable garden and the food and hygiene parcels that Saliha brings each month. She does the housework and the cooking and washes and dresses Dervisa’s son. Saliha also provides a link with the doctor, does some of the shopping and, above all, offers a welcome diversion in the midst of the family’s terrible solitude.




The crisis continues

A thousand such Salihas take care of 12,500 vulnerable old people – for a symbolic wage of 40 Deutschmarks a month – in the two entities that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina (the Muslim-Croat Federation officially called the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Republika Srpska). They are the mainstays of a home care programme launched by the International Federation at the end of 1995.

However, in this mountainous country, where homes are few and far between, a good pair of legs is not enough. In a hamlet not far from Gorazde, at the end of several kilometres of difficult terrain, even in mid-summer, stands a Toyota Landcruiser emblazoned with the red cross and red crescent. The vehicle is parked in front of a house where two men are repairing the roof. Inside, two young volunteers are doing the housework for an elderly woman. These ‘mobile technical teams’ or MTT, of which the Federation and the local Red Cross are justly proud, number 29 and spread over both sides of the old front line, ensuring that elderly people have at least one habitable room. To counter the harsh Bosnian winter, the windows are weather-stripped with plastic sheeting, the roof is insulated and a stove and wood are provided for heating.

Three years after the Dayton accords ended the war, the need for humanitarian assistance is ever present. It continues to consume the lion’s share of Red Cross resources in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as in Yugoslavia and to a lesser extent in Croatia. It shows up in an endless series of emergencies, as demonstrated in Montenegro, which along with Serbia makes up the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Secretary general of the Montenegran Red Cross Slobodan Kalezic confides: “In March 1993, we had 72,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia. That’s 12 per cent of our population! Thirty thousand stayed, to which we can now add a further 30,000 displaced people from Kosovo. During the earthquake in 1979, at least we knew that at the end of all our toils, our task would be completed. This time around, we have been working for seven years without a break, without even a glimpse of an end. What’s more, in 1979, we had our colleagues in Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia to help us.”

The devastating effects of war

Between 1945 and 1991, the Yugoslav Red Cross and its components in the various republics were both wealthy and popular. Since the state provided a remarkable social welfare system, the Red Cross could go calmly about its traditional activities such as blood donation, first-aid training and holiday camps. Old-timers recall with pride that one of their own was vice-president of the then League in 1984. Then, from one day to the next, Red Cross staff found themselves cut off from their former colleagues and faced with wave upon wave of refugees, not to mention the growth of a ‘new poor’ as a result of the collapse of the economy and the end of the welfare state (recent unemployment figures range between 20 per cent in Croatia, 50 per cent in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and 70 per cent in the Republika Srpska).

The vice-president of the Croatian Red Cross, Dubravka Horvat, remembers the 24-hour vigils she and her colleagues carried out between June 1991 and 1995. The secretary general of the Yugoslav Red Cross, Rade Dubajic, talks emotively of the “the biggest humanitarian operation ever mounted on this territory”: the arrival at the frontier, in August 1995, of a large number of the 200,000 Serbs fleeing the Croatian army’s Operation Storm.

At the height of the crisis, most National Societies lost all or part of the support they received from their governments, whose attention had turned to other priorities. To begin with, the international community and Red Cross family filled the gap. Today, however, finances are waning, jeopardizing such excellent programmes as home care and the MTT. Soup kitchens, sole lifeline for tens of thousands of destitute people in Bosnia and Yugoslavia, have had to close down on occasion or turn away beneficiaries. In spring this year, a joint mission of donor bodies concluded that it was essential to double the flour ration for 225,500 refugees in Yugoslavia, while other donors decided to reduce the number of beneficiaries to 125,000. This decision was made without taking into consideration that Yugoslavia hosts, under particularly difficult conditions, some 600,000 people – the largest refugee population in Europe.

Worst of all, it often falls to the Red Cross staff and volunteers to say “no” and to explain the incomprehensible decisions taken in Western capitals. Be it in Tuzla, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina or in the areas of Croatia formerly under United Nations protection, “eight out of ten returnees come knocking on our door, and we have next to nothing to give them.” Sometimes, despair and shame turn to anger. “How do you expect me to ask invalids to run all over place to obtain papers proving that they have no means, so that at the end of the day they can receive a food parcel that won’t be enough for their needs anyway?” rants one Croatian Red Cross worker.


The Principles caught in the crossfire

Examples abound of tolerance and respect for the Red Cross Principles in a conflict that has inflamed inter-ethnic hatred. During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the majority of local Red Cross sections, in regions where the population was of mixed ethnic origin, distributed aid without discrimination. Montenegro (composed mainly of orthodox Slavs) prides itself on having taken in Bosnian refugees of which 27 per cent were Muslim, emphasizing also that of the 30,000 displaced people from Kosovo, the majority is Albanian or Muslim. In Croatia, torn apart for years by the conflict between a Croat majority and a Serb minority, “the Red Cross is the only national organization which is helping the Serbs,” points out one foreign observer. In the wake of the exodus of 200,000 Serbs from the Krajina region in Croatia, a relief operation was launched by the ICRC in August 1995 in order to help those elderly inhabitants remaining behind. This operation was then handed over to the Croatian Red Cross and the Federation in 1996. It was integrated into ‘Operation Save Lives’ a programme providing psycho-social and medical assistance begun in October 1995 to, literally, save the lives of 10,000 old and sick Serbs who stayed behind during the Croatian offensive and are now without sufficient means and often living in total isolation.

Joka, whom we met working in a holiday camp organized by the Republika Srpska Red Cross, recounts: “During the war I had regular contacts with the ‘other side’, notably concerning prisoners and missing persons. I encountered former colleagues and I can say that we helped each other a lot. The human factor overrode anything else 80 per cent of the time.” For his part, Mirko Bozic, another former Red Cross worker, was secretary of the Krnjak section (south of the Croatioan capital Zagreb), at the time under Serb control, from 1991 to 1995. “I kept in constant contact with the Karlovac and Duga Resa branch under Croat control,” he told us in August, in the presence of the secretary from the Duga Resa branch, who adds warmly, “we exchanged letters and parcels, received medicines and organized the transfer to Croatia of 500 people in need of medical care.” Today, Mirko Bozic is one of some 30,000 Serbs who have been able, despite innumerable difficulties, to return to Croatia. Most unusual, he has found work again...with the Krnjak branch.

These are just some examples that illustrate how the tensions were – on occasion – transcended and how one can remain true to the Principles, even though Red Cross employees, as much as any other citizen, suffered their share of loss, injury and ‘ethnic cleansing.’
Sadly, the reverse is also true. In 1991, the Serbian parliament suspended the Red Cross in the province of Kosovo in its constituted form and declared emergency measures. The Albanian staff found itself shut out, even though the vast majority of the province’s population is of Albanian origin. To date, despite various efforts and the formal repeal of the parliament’s decision, no solution has been found and the problem has been further aggravated by the outbreak of armed conflict in March. The secretary general of the Yugoslav Red Cross, Rade Dubajic, admits moreover that “the most complex problem facing our National Society is what is happening in Kosovo.”

In Croatia, the tale of Mirko Bozic finds a rather less happy counterpoint in eastern Slavonia. This region was the last to return to Zagreb’s control on 15 January 1998, following a negotiated settlement. All the same, seeing little future for themselves, a good many of the Serb population (50,000 until last April) made their way slowly to neighbouring Serbia. Nor did the integration of the Red Cross go without a hitch. As the secretary general of the Croatian Red Cross Dr Nenad Javornik points out, “We have found ourselves with two branches in eastern Slavonia: the Serbs who were already there and the Croats returning from exile. This makes 15 and seven professional staff respectively, far too many for the needs of the region, and I doubt there will be as many in 2003.” The Federation’s offer to pay the salaries was accepted, but by the middle of 1998 it was clear that only limited integration of Serb and Croat Red Cross activities had and would take place.

Another example of how inter-communal tensions can be echoed within a National Society, although to a lesser degree, can be found in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The Red Cross has not been spared the deep-rooted distrust that exists between the Slav majority and the Albanian minority. The Albanian population in the town of Tetovo, in the west of the country, perceives the National Society as “an institution which does not want to help Albanians,” bemoans the local secretary, although he himself is Albanian.

Above all, there is Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the war, the emblem was sometimes sullied, as it was by the president of the Prijedor section (in the north-west), found to have been involved in the running of the detention camp in Trnopolje and finally removed from office in 1998 by the Republika Srpska Red Cross. Certainly, in the words of Sead Hasic, secretary of the Tuzla section (in the Muslim-Croat Federation), “the past is past, we must look ahead.” But the challenge is considerable: the Red Cross of Bosnia-Herzegovina is the only one in the former Yugoslavia not yet recognized by the Movement. This is mainly because it is still constituted along ethnic lines.

Picking up the pieces

A first success was achieved in autumn 1997, thanks to the tireless mediation of the ICRC and the Federation. A structure entitled the ‘Red Cross of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina’ was created, bringing together the Red Cross sections that during the war worked in territories under government and Croat control. In the field, however, the problems remain: in Mostar, a microcosm of the country’s political divisions, a Croat section operates in the western part of the town, to all intents and purposes independent from the office in the east, on the Bosnian Muslim side. This division, admits Marinko Simunovic, the young secretary general of the Red Cross of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, also persists in Prozor, Jablanica and Vitez.

Efforts are now under way to improve relations between the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. Since the beginning of the year, a Red Cross ‘inter-ethnic contact group’ has been meeting regularly. This group has at its disposal a translation of the statutes of the Belgian Red Cross, intended to be used as a model (the Flemish and Walloon sectors of that National Society work mainly autonomously). As proof of the omnipresence of politics, most of the people interviewed for this article believed that the speed at which a central structure is created (which optimists are hoping will be in 1999) depends on the results of the September elections and a possible victory for the ‘moderates’ in the Republika Srpska. In this regard, the fact that the Republika Srpska Red Cross has been presided over since 1994 by Ljiljana Zelen-Karadzic (wife of the former President Radovan Karadzic, currently being sought for war crimes) would appear to complicate matters.

Despite the challenges, the desire to reunite in one form or another is widespread and not only on the part of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, for which it is official policy. Even if Svanimir Djokic, the secretary general of the Republika Srpska Red Cross, insists that they must be “given time” and that “things must not be imposed from the outside,” everyone knows that it is only in combining forces that delicate matters, such as the fate of nearly 20,000 missing people can be resolved – an issue that the ICRC has made an operational priority. Everyone also knows that only one recognized National Society can be truly credible in the eyes of the international community.

Meanwhile, hesitant attempts to cooperate are being made. Realizing that they are facing similar problems, the Doboj (Republika Srpska) and Tuzla (Muslim-Croat Federation) sections have decided to launch a ‘joint appeal to donors’. And a joint commission is carrying out an enquiry into the allegedly questionable role played by the Drvar section (Muslim-Croat Federation) during the violence against Serbs returning home last spring, in which two people died.


The Red Cross in Yugoslavia

1875 The Red Cross of Montenegro is founded and recognized by the ICRC the following year.

1876 The Red Cross of Serbia is founded and recognized by the ICRC.

1919 The Red Cross of Serbia admitted to the League.

1923 The Red Cross Society of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians is formed, also including Montenegro.

1929 The Society of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians becomes the Society of the Red Cross of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

1945 The Red Cross of Macedonia is founded as a branch of the Yugoslav Red Cross.

1946 Yugoslavia becomes a federal republic and the National Society adopts the name the Red Cross of Yugoslavia.

1991 The Red Cross of Yugoslavia begins to fragment.


1991 The Red Cross of Bosnia-Herzegovina is constituted as an independent National Society.

1992 The Red Cross of the Republika Srpska is constituted.

1997 One Red Cross of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina is constituted in Sarajevo.

NB: Recognition of the Red Cross of Bosnia-Herzegovina is pending.


1991 The Croatian Red Cross is constituted as an independent National Society.

1993 The Croatian Red Cross is recognized by the ICRC and admitted to the International Federation.

Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

1992 The Red Cross of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is constituted as an independent National Society.

1995 The Red Cross of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is recognized by the ICRC and admitted to the International Federation.


1991 The Slovenian Red Cross is constituted as an independent National Society.

1993 The Slovenian Red Cross is recognized by the ICRC and admitted to the International Federation.

Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

1993 Bringing together the Red Cross Societies of Serbia and Montenegro, the Yugoslav Red Cross adopts new statutes. The ICRC confirms the validity of the recognition of the Yugoslav Red Cross.


The challenges ahead

In the days of the former Yugoslavia, the National Society was largely a product of the communist state, with all its accompanying advantages – notably a remarkable penetration at all levels of society and from earliest childhood – and also disadvantages. Among the latter were a lack of initiative and political independence and a total ignorance of fund-raising, since there was no need to do other than draw from the generous coffers of the state.

This heritage cannot be extinguished in a matter of seven years. And it is perhaps here, in this rather passive way of functioning, this political reliance, more than the after-effects of the war, that the Red Cross societies of the former Yugoslavia face their real challenge.

For the setting has changed radically. Whether in Croatia, Yugoslavia or Bosnia-Herzegovina, the National Society is no longer looked upon as serving a useful public purpose, and by the same token is not exempt from taxes. More often than not, its traditional privileges (such as a percentage of lottery profits and ticket sales, and a monopoly on first-aid courses for people learning to drive) are things of the past. The one happy exception is Slovenia: in this country touched only briefly by conflict, with no communal tensions, in which democracy is firmly rooted and the economy relatively healthy, the National Society enjoys an enviable independence and prosperity, mainly thanks to an up-to-date fund-raising policy.

Today, funding has become a formidable weapon: to varying degrees, Red Cross salaries are paid by the local authorities or from state funds. Too often, threats, or even punishment, are meted out on local branches or National Societies that do not toe the line. The president of the Yugoslav Red Cross, Dr Radovan Mijanovic, sums up the general feeling: “Times are such that we can’t be entirely apolitical.” But it’s a fine line between an impossible-to-achieve independence and a servitude that imperils the Principles. Everyone knows it, and to quote Dr Mijanovic once again: “The conservative reflexes of the past can no longer serve the future.” It is especially urgent to transform the institution’s outdated public image and to market better its invaluable service to society. The Yugoslav Red Cross is now heading in this direction and has initiated a thorough internal evaluation. In Vojvodina, in northern Serbia, the sections are devising more and more ‘income-generating projects’, both for refugees and the local sections, but it remains an isolated example.

The most urgent need is “to have people who know where the money is and know how to get it,” sums up a young Macedonian volunteer. That said, on no National Society governing board is a businessman to be found, although successful companies exist almost everywhere. As for the younger generation of Red Cross workers interviewed for this article, they are waiting impatiently on the sidelines, demanding new resources and a change of thinking in the upper ranks of the National Society, where caution too often prevails over a pioneering spirit.

It should nonetheless be said that the Red Cross in the former Yugoslavia is the only social institution to have survived the war. This is why it is so important that the other components of the Movement continue to give it constant and direct support, thus helping to alleviate the tensions within the various communities. Furthermore, they must act as emissaries to inform decision-makers and the international community of the true nature of the needs.

Iolanda Jaquemet
Iolanda Jaquemet is a journalist working for Le Temps in Geneva, Switzerland.

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