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Balkan crisis:
Manmade tremors

by Gordana Milenkovic

“The most common complaints are stress, getting acute at the sound of sirens, anxiety arising from the uncertainty as to what has happened to the other family members during bombardments or displacements, and fear of the future. But we have also registered an increase in serious neuroses,” says Ratomir Petkovic, head of the psychosocial field unit in the local Red Cross in Nis, third-largest town in Serbia.

The unit was first set up within the joint Federation-Yugoslav Red Cross programme of psychosocial support to refugees from Croatia and Bosnia. Originally manned by volunteers, since the NATO air raids on Yugoslavia started, it has had to enlist two specialists in psychiatry in order to cope with the growing psychological problems of the domestic, as well as the refugee, population.

A Red Cross activist for ten years, Petkovic is not a trained psychologist, but by the way he relates to people, offering simple encouragement and straightforward advice, it is easy to see the soothing effect he has on his shaken and troubled compatriots. Petkovic is also the group leader of the Nis scouts. A few years ago, he agreed with his young team to volunteer for their local Red Cross. Over the years the help they offered was invaluable: from delivering aid to refugees to organizing entertainment programmes for the children living in the 13 collective centres in town.




Scouts to the rescue

Bratislav Maric, an electronics student and scout volunteer, works on the damaged roof of a house in one of the neighbourhoods in Nis severely affected by the air raids. “We came yesterday to hand out plastic sheeting. It’s been pouring rain for days now and people need to repair their roofs and cover windows. We brought some plastic sheeting to this house, and found this woman, mother of two small kids and no men to do the heavy work, just looking at us helplessly.”

In the poor, industrial neighbourhood of Sljaka lies a huge crater where a bomb fell. It reminds the residents of the night of terror in which sheer luck saved some of them from the chunks of stone and shards of glass flying around.

Natasa, a refugee from the Bosnian conflict, surveys the ruins of the house she had been renting since she arrived in Nis in 1992. Already dilapidated before the hit, the house is no longer habitable. Natasa has come to take her sewing machine, the tool supplementing her meagre teacher’s salary. She returns to the room the Red Cross has provided for her in a hotel-turned-refugee shelter.

In the neighbouring house, full of pots collecting water from a leaking roof, an elderly couple looks around at the debris in their living room wondering how on earth they will ever be able to get the place back into shape. But more than anything, they mourn the loss of their hens, which were their only livestock and direct source of fresh food.

As the sky fell on their heads

Next door lives a family of four: a 64-year-old man who looks much older in the gaunt, creased-up way of those who have spent their lives on the land, his wife and their two children in their early twenties. When they heard the planes above, they fled outside. Standing beside a wall, they covered their heads with rubbish-bin lids, for all the good that could do them. Still they are convinced that was what saved their lives, as heavy stones fell barely inches away from them.

Today, Petkovic dispenses some pieces of popular wisdom: “There is nothing that plaster and paint cannot repair.” People around him nod in agreement, and then ask for more plastic sheeting: it may be a while before plaster and paint can be applied here.


Gordana Milenkovic
Gordana Milenkovic is the ICRC press officer in Belgrade.

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