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.
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
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
“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
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
“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 is a journalist working for the British newspaper,
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