A weekend in Bosnia with one of the charities I support:
The day before I left for Bosnia-Herzegovina I had been grilling MPs in London about the Autumn Statement, the UK’s public spending crisis and the Coalition’s austerity package. Here, unemployment is 40% and the state levies an effective 70% jobs tax – it is the economics of the mad-house. Widows of the civil war, particularly the genocide of Srebrenica, literally scrape a living from the cold soil. Buildings, twenty years on, still bear the pot-mark battle-scares of shelling while others remain empty wrecks- crumbling monuments to lives lost, people disappeared.
Nearly two decades after the Dayton Accord stopped most of the killing, there is a sense things are getting worse. As Italy and Greece rely on the wiles of unelected experts to claw their way out of indebtedness, in Bosnia-Herzegovina there is a common harking back to the ‘good old days’ of Tito and the socialist totalitarianism of Yugoslavia. He was an unelected man who made this montage of ethnically and religiously diverse groupings cling to together.
One young man tells me “I‘d swap that oppression for this freedom”. At day break, soup-kitchens in Sarajevo do a roaring trade, though some potential clients cower in the alleyways until we have gone. Pride has survived much deprivation and continuing hardship.
I am here with CARE International UK, part of an international charity which began life sending food parcels from the USA to war-torn Europe. In an irony of history, today CARE is a big player in the increasingly important micro-finance initiative – small loans to those with big needs. They work, in Bosnia & Herzegovina, with Women for Women International. Among the Muslim population, the Serbs and their allies guaranteed there are many widows who have become keen and needy clients.
We entered Sarajevo from the west, passing a huge factory complex on the left of the road where thousands of Muslim men and boys were rounded up and either executed or deported. Across the road, a cemetery. Its dimensions pay a chilling tribute to the scale of the atrocities committed on the other side of the street.
In the hills, clusters of simple white stumps, marking the resting places of other victims.
We meet Mustafa, a Policeman, his wife, a qualified lawyer, and their two beautiful girls, aged five and six. At the outbreak of war, Mustafa fled to the mountains with his father and brother. Most refugees clung together in a big group and were caught and slaughtered. Mustafa was among those who broke away and survived. The family is lucky: they enjoy a modest income and live on a small-holding of family land. Micro-finance has enabled them to expand, buy sheep and goats, sell meat and wool, and do better. They also sell sheep to the Muslim community for ‘Kurban’ , the sacrifice of Eid. They are planting beet. They trust the micro-financiers who are more ’simpatico’ and less admin-bound than the banks. But they make their payments and their dream is economic independence.
Snerjena runs her own hair-dressing salon. She worked in one, borrowed E500, trained, and set up her own. She arranged two more loans, repaid them, and is now on her fourth. She makes a profit and wants to employ someone though that 70% tax makes her pessimistic. She is 27 and married to a geologist.
“This has transformed my life – it has taken me to a different level”.
But the strikingly different level for me was Namina, a fifty one year old widow who, with all the courtesy I can muster, looks much older. She lives in her dead brothers house. The Serbs threw her and her teacher-husband out of their down-town apartment when they occupied the town; they killed him and she was deported to Tusla with her young sons. To this day she doesn’t understand why they were allowed to live.
“This loan means life for me – if the lender was not here life would be impossible”.
Hens and guinea-fowl scratch the soil among the remnants of last summers vegetable crop – cauliflower and cabbage from what I can see. A plastic-sheet green house boasts seedlings and the promise of next years crop of cucumbers and peppers. The poultry lay eggs but she mainly ’brings on’ chicks and sells adult birds as food in the nearby market town of Bratunac. A neighbour does the ploughing and her twin-sister, who lives nearby, helps. She needs another E750 in June. She’ll get it.
In the hills above Srebrenica, Tima and her son have sheep and a few fruit trees. The war took her husband and her home. CARE rebuilt the house and is now helping her re-build her life. The family fled to the mountains but her husband didn’t return – his remains were discovered in a mass grave in 2008. She is now on her second Lendwithcare loan – E 1000 – and they survive, just. They work hard – seeds in the spring, a harvest, some sheep sales and then something of rest in the bleak winter. Her priority is a job for her son – that, and survival. CARE is helping with survival. The job prospects, more bleak.
This is simple economics transforming ordinary and extraordinary lives. It can enhance the existence of those on the brink of destitution; it can take a low-wage group of survivors to a new level; and it can salvage lives, like Tima’s, from utter destitution. In a time of multi-trillion Euro-lunacy, it is a moving experience to see how little, administered by caring and committed people, can take some of their fellow human-beings out of despair. They may not reach Nirvana but, for them, the hell of twenty years ago, is slowly being put behind them. It is impossible to describe how proud I am to support a charity at the heart of that process.
Posted by Alastair Stewart. 28 November, 2011 )