Grassroots Relief in the Balkans

Illustrations by Paul Ollswang. Edited by Greg Bryant.

RAIN Magazine - Spring 1993

Preventative measures should be taken even when it's too late -- often the easiest time to broach the subject. The territorial and nationalist wars in former Yugoslavia might have been prevented, had people taken the warning signs more seriously. But given the war, now is the time to begin repairs. In these impressions of small-scale relief efforts, energetic Dutch activist Wam Kat omits detail about the conflict, concentrating on dealing with it.

By Wam Kat

Zagreb, Croatia -- A friend, who works here with the group Doctors Without Borders, tells me that the best way to deliver aid is to deal directly with border guards. Say "I am a doctor. Please let me help people," and if that doesn't work give them some money. It seems that honesty and cash are safer tools than guns for defending humanitarian aid. In fact, the only trucks these doctors ever lost were with a guarded UN convoy.

If you want peace you have to pay for it. Some people talk about solving problems with armies, warships and jets. But that money could be better spent on more quiet solutions. Tireless grassroots work in Serbia, done on a shoestring budget, has helped turn many Serbians against the fighting. Perhaps given more support, these small community groups could bring about peace they have already done well dealing with war.

I know two brothers from Tulza in Bosnia who regularly take two trucks from the coast and drive like crazy with their lights off for three nights, hiding during the day, dropping off food and medicine and picking up refugees in Bosnia's mountain towns. They take along whoever will help, like a German peace activist who spends his money on basic medicines, and goes along to distribute them. They make this trip twice a week.

Cowboys like these are just a small part of the loosely connected grassroots relief efforts scattered all over the war zones. If they get caught, they have no guns, so they may lose their cargo, but at least they survive. They run their own show, making decisions as they go. It may seem wild, but it works.

Such ad hoc groups, like the French Equil Libre which drives supplies boldly in huge unarmed convoys with lots of press coverage, have no big organizations behind them. They get through because they are flexible, and because they are not part of the war.

Grassroots action spreads when big organizations aren't meeting pressing needs. I can see this all the time: the work I do at the Centar Za Mir (center for peace) and the Suncokret (or sunflower) Center in Zagreb, helps grassroots groups communicate, and connects those offering help with the people who need it.

There are a thousand needs a day, and a thousand potential suppliers, but in the middle of war, grassroots organizers haven't much energy left to make the right connections. Or when someone gets a good idea, they may not know where to start. Our goal was to help get things going. We listen to needs and send requests to organizations, individuals, and governments, by fax, phone, letter, computer networks and the media.

When we tell people what's needed right now, the response is immediate. I think no big centralized organization could do this. The other day we asked for some supplies for the Sarajevo hospital, and within 24 hours we got a call from Finland: "we started a campaign with the information you sent and we have three truckloads to send to you."

We also get many surprises, like the truck full of chocolate a German factory donated for children in refugee camps; or the Berliners who brought tools, parts and refurbished bikes to refugee kids so they could set up a bike rent/repair center.

All through Europe people want to help. For example from my country, the Netherlands, we get calls all the time: construction groups offering to build shelters and schools, neighborhoods collecting money for medicine, cities wanting to adopt a building project in a sister city, people offering their homes to refugees. All this is wonderful, but it takes a great deal of time and energy to coordinate such things. So we have volunteers.

Many, like me, are foreign and have a hard time adjusting to the guns, soldiers, refugees and horrible stories, though Zagreb is relatively peaceful. Volunteers must bring their own resources, because we have no budget. But there is a freedom for people who come to work here in ex-Yugoslavia, with loads of enthusiasm and ideas for all kinds of projects. When they come with great suggestions, we say terrific, do it! Despite everything this is really the land of a thousand possibilities.

Without the local volunteers and organizers, nothing would get done. Not all Croats support the war. This is true too in Serbia, Slovenia, etc. and of course in Bosnia-Herzegovina. You can find projects, centers and volunteers everywhere. With their help we avoid most laws: we would have accomplished maybe 10% of what we've done if we always tried to be legal. The local people know all the backdoors and alleys of their communities. Sometimes our peace projects even get housing and materials from the military, through connections and tricks by the local activists.

We help local groups put together publications, protests, meetings, raise funds, find supplies and organize workcamps. We work with many kinds of groups: women, students, workers, refugees, ex-soldiers, and on and on. We put together workcamps for helping refugee kids. We helped organize a tour of Bosnian rock musicians in refugee camps. From here a solidarity peace workgroup of 500 people went to Sarajevo without escort the hardest part of the trip was getting over an unattended UN border barrier.

The centers provide a mad, open experience. We deal with rivers of people, sometimes war tourists (who we try to turn into relief workers), reporters, and politicians. We get all kinds of volunteers: Greens, Quakers, Mennonites, Buddhists, psychologists, doctors, mediators, construction workers. One of our places can bed and feed maybe 40 guests, and we have several centers now so that we can get more work done and not just manage a hostel. People come and sleep in their cars, or crowd into the basement. Some people take a lot of energy to deal with, but most are aware of our limits and just help where they can.

When people get here, they often end up doing something different than what they imagined. Take me, for instance: early in 1992 I thought the war was basically over and I would set up small environmental centers in the destroyed areas of Croatia. Instead I bike everywhere organizing things, fix computer problems in bombed-out buildings, and race around picking up supplies in our old Renault painted with sunflowers. Many people get here and then move on, tempted a little by danger. When people go off into the war zones, they're in the back of your mind. I really hate it when they get back and forget to call you. But life can be pretty distracting in former Yugoslavia.

People come to us for information. We put lots onto the networks, we give talks, write articles and do radio shows to raise money and get publicity for relief work. We get the news out, and get news back along strange routes -- I read a Beograd opposition newspaper, Vreme, which gets sent by modem to the US and back to me here.

Smaller kinds of media are also vital. Dealing with refugees takes most of our energies now, so we try to help them become self-organized. We get old stencil copiers, which are being thrown out all over Europe, and give them to people in the bigger camps for their own newsletters. This kind of local communication is of critical importance in the camps. We also try to network people in camps with lost relatives, and help them contact people in the rest of Europe.

One of our biggest projects has been helping refugee children to cope with stress. Most of our workcamp volunteers do this work. It doesn't take too much training -- although we did hold a conference on the subject. Primarily the kids just need people to organize games, and play with them. If they don't get this kind of attention right away the pain of losing their families and friends hardens them terribly.

Even donated rolls of tape and colored paints can help children cope. We try to get any donations we can for the camps: supplies, clothes, medicines, toys... In Britain recently the government asked people to donate shoeboxes filled with what they thought refugees would need, and at camps they gave one out to each person. This attempt at "person-to-person" aid bothered me: these people have real needs that should be addressed. Who knows what they'll get in a shoebox?

Relief should be a right, not a gift. People throughout Europe didn't pay attention to warnings from Yugoslav peace groups when this mess started in the 1980s, and now many just want their governments to make the problem go away. Their corporations have made profits here but won't help to buy peace when it's needed.

Everyday I hear about foreign investment in some new business for profit here. That money could be spent on people's needs, but corporations only want to make a return. Many towns don't have clean water, yet European companies are selling water tablets here on TV. They should be giving these away, helping to develop goodwill. The stores in Zagreb and Beograd are full, but that doesn't mean people can afford anything. Everyone abuses in this capitalist marketplace, locals and foreigners alike.

Europe isn't even waking up to the reality of the refugees. Countries say they've taken in too many refugees from ex-Yugoslavia, but they are apparently using tricks to over-count by including "guest-workers" who were already there. The immigration restrictions also make no sense. The British government just recently refused to let in 170 refugees, when an organization in Leeds had already arranged to take good care of them.

Dealing with refugees is of course nothing new for Europe. After World War II, my father helped set up camp with a group of orphans: children of collaboration and resistance alike. The kids ran the settlement themselves, and discovered that for their survival they needed to get along. When I mentioned this successful project, some people began organizing an orphan house in Bosnia along these lines. We learn.

One thing we learn is that community reconciliation is crucial, even if it's tough giving classes on non-violent conflict resolution in a blown-out building to battle weary police and soldiers. The mediation classes may seem absurd, but these people will be going back to their old towns, needing to mend their communal ties.

People don't usually want war, especially soldiers. When you first talk to hospitalized vets, they say they want to go back to the front. But that's not their whole story. When we were out getting gas the other day, we told the attendant that our check was from the Center for Peace (Centar Za Mir). Some soldiers came up and said "we're from the center for war (Centar Za Rat). Let's have a drink together!" After you get to know these guys, they turn out to be really scared like hell and not happy with the war.

We try to facilitate communication. People who learn to kill are not fighters on the frontlines and angels at home. Murders are up 20-fold in Zagreb since the start of the war. In a macabre way, soldiers from opposite sides already know how to get along. A soldier told me that there is one battlefield with no winds where the two sides agree to stop fighting now and then to collect bodies, because the smell makes it impossible to fight.

Many actions by countries outside are making cooperation difficult. The embargo makes people all over ex-Yugoslavia dig in. Threats to invade, by countries or groups, help the Serbian right-wing. Just the UN control of the relief situation leads to resentment from the armed sides, who fire upon them. On TV not long ago I saw a UN soldier say their convoy will return gunfire, no matter who shoots at them. So now UNPROFOR peace-keepers have declared war on everyone.

Many people at the UN know that a giant organization can't work well with people. They recently decided to give their medical supplies and some money to Doctors Without Borders, and help the work my group is doing for refugees. The UN wants to control small organizations, but we need to be a little out of control to get things done, getting aid from all over the world just when we need it. We've talked with some extraordinary people inside the UN, who see the folly of big aid, and who may let us stay unattached, flexible, participatory, and decentralized. Big aid agencies just seem partisan: a commander recently kept Red Cross workers out of a damaged area, saying they were working for the wrong side. Big aid also loses more than little aid. We're happy if 80% of the goods get where they were intended. Usually stuff that's stolen helps somebody make ends meet anyway.

With offensive foreign armed intervention people would suffer even more, and efficient relief efforts would be impossible. Besides, invading a country and killing lots of people doesn't make up for existing aggression. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Is it fighting fascism to intervene here? Though many think Croatia, where I'm writing from, is fascist, its far-right vote was actually lower than France's. And the police here are genuinely lax, so we get lots done. There are cities all over declaring themselves countries for their own protection, who want an end to war. The people who are fighting are not simply crazy. They have a point of view, which can include peace.

Our antiwar friends in Beograd help refugees, fight conscription, do political work, and organize demonstrations, meetings, concerts, guerilla theatre and huge rallies. They are among the people who would be bombed in an invasion. The West would do better to give grants to these groups, and to work at peace rather than posturing strength. Financial aid, not invasion, helped keep the peace here after World War II. Perhaps everyone needs to rethink the so-called "necessity" of intervention, be reminded of its costs, and look at the existing alternatives.