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Over thirty years ago, Edmund Stillman, an American writer, wrote: “We will never know the real story about the different wars in the Balkans.” Words of caution to remember when considering the recent war in the former Yugoslavia.

By focusing the cover story on the national Red Cross societies in the former Yugoslavia, we are not attempting to write a definitive history, rather we wanted to ‘flashback’ to events which began in 1991 and quickly grew into a huge international humanitarian challenge. The local branches of the Red Cross were the first in the Movement to respond to this emergency, with the ICRC, the International Federation and numerous sister National Societies joining the effort as the crisis spread.

Our purpose is to show, as objectively as possible, the sometimes painful and often dangerous path the Red Cross found itself upon during and after the war. A path where volunteers from different ethnic groups attempted to save lives, build shelters and provide safe passage for civilians fleeing the conflict. And when the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina ended, the National Societies assessed the rehabilitation and reconstruction tasks ahead, and began the long process of rebuilding which continues today.

Three elements deserve particular emphasis. Firstly, ethnic conflict affected all levels of society, including the Red Cross, which was made up of ordinary people confronting on a daily basis the tragedies and dilemmas brought on by the war and its divisions. In the midst of the troubles, the presence of the Red Cross was invariably a source of comfort for the most vulnerable, even if on occasion its efforts were insufficient or, in hindsight, misguided. To better appreciate the difficulty of being consistently neutral and impartial, consider for a moment how you would react if a war broke out in your country. Secondly, and it is a source of encouragement, the Red Cross kept working during the war and, against all odds, maintained social links between divided communities. It is the only institution in the former Yugoslavia which can claim such an achievement. Finally, and this is the challenge for the future, the National Societies in the region must move on and tackle the demands they are now facing.

Jean-François Berger ICRC editor

Jean Milligan Federation editor

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