The elderly survivors of the Balkan wars

International Federation of the Red Cross
International Federation of the Red Cross

The war in the former Yugoslavia uprooted millions of people and forever changed their lives. The three and a half-year war particularly affected the most vulnerable in society: children and the elderly. Numerous non-governmental organisations as well as United Nations agencies have set up programmes to provide assistance to the child victims of the war. But interest in the elderly survivors has been minimal.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: November 13, 1996


Wide Angle, a broader view of issues behind the news.

The war in the former Yugoslavia uprooted millions of people and forever changed their lives. The three and a half-year war particularly affected the most vulnerable in society: children and the elderly. Numerous non-governmental organisations as well as United Nations agencies have set up programmes to provide assistance to the child victims of the war. But interest in the elderly survivors has been minimal. Since the war destroyed the economy and the social structure of Bosnia and large parts of Croatia, many elderly people are dependent on aid programmes to survive. Even in the cities in Bosnia and parts of Croatia, elderly refugees and displaced persons are finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet. But in refugee camps too, the situation is far from ideal. The Gašinci refugee camp in north eastern Croatia is no exception. It’s home to over 2000 Bosnian refugees and displaced persons from Croatia. As in most other refugee camps, there are many women and children, according to Dzenka Radic (sp?), one of the Gašinci social workers, and large numbers of old people.

This is not the geriatric centre, but this is the part in the camp where we have the old people. There are in this moment 20 of them, and they are also alone without anybody, and the home care group is taking care about them. EB: What is the home care group do exactly then? They come here, do everything what they need to help them: take to doctor if they need to have some help, bring them medicine, do the laundry, write letters, everything what they need.

The geriatric centre in the Gašinci refugee camp is designed primarily for people who are bed ridden or in need of regular care. The elderly people sleep five to a room, says Mira Semić, also of Gašinci camp, and every single metre of free space is used to store their clothes, bags and other personal belongings.

You know, the old people don’t like that we take their personal things and clothes anywhere. Because of that, they are putting it around the beds and it’s full because of that. EB: Can we speak to this woman here then? What is your name? ?? EB: How old are you? 72. EB: How long have you been here in Gašinci? 4 years. It will be 5. EB: What about the rest of your family? Are you here alone? She’s alone here. Her family is from Vukovar, and they are here in some region also. EB: But why aren’t they here with you? Her daughter said that the refugees can’t stay at her home because of the government. So I think it’s more the problem between her daughter and her because she’s ill and the daughter don’t like that she stays. EB: Does this happen quite a bit? Yes, you can see some of them here have his daughters and families also in the camp, but the daughters leave them here in the geriatric and his family.

In this rooms where we was are living people who can work and take a little bit care, but in this big room are only people who are lying down. EB: Invalids.

If you can see the situation here, the baths with the showers, toilets are very bad. EB: And it smells a bit also. Yes, because they are old and only lying down and going to toilet. EB: They’re all bed ridden. Yes. EB: Let me see, this room is around 15 metres by 10 metres, and there are around 20 people in the room. We tried also to reconstruct this room because all the heat in the winter is going up, to do it here a little bit better.

But there’s a lack of funding to carry out this type of repair and construction work. And every winter, the staff has trouble keeping the elderly, bed-ridden people in this room warm. Refugee camps like this one in Croatia are still fortunate because they are receiving funding from foreign donors like the Dutch government. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to raise money to assist Bosnian refugees in the region. Even in Bosnia itself, most donors are now earmarking funds almost exclusively for reconstruction work. Humanitarian work has become a low priority. No one disputes the need for reconstruction, but Branko Vukaja (sp?), the head of the Gašinci refugee camp, believes many of the refugees, particularly the elderly, will need help for years to come.

You saw for yourself the situation in the geriatric centre. The future of these elderly people is precarious. They have nowhere to go back to. Most have no other choice but to stay here till their death. We hope with the hope of the International Federation of the Red Cross and other organisations that we can do our best to make the end of their lives as comfortable and as pleasant as possible.

The Federation of the Red Cross is also trying to provide some future to another group of elderly people in an even more difficult position than those in refugee camps. They are spread out over the Krajina, a region in Croatia hugging the border with north-western Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Krajina used to be inhabited mostly by Serbs and Croats, but when the war broke out, most of the Croats were either killed or fled. In 1995, the Croatian army drove out the Serb forces who were occupying the Krajina, and nearly 200,000 Serbs fled to Bosnia or the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. According to Sabina Slotke of the International Federation of the Red Cross, about 10,000 people, most of them elderly, remain in what are known as former sectors north and south.

Most of the people we find are old, sick, handicapped, mentally retarded, people who were living here before in that area and who were left behind or could not leave, so they are in a desperate need and they are usually living in pretty much remote, somewhere in the mountains and little farmhouses half destroyed.

The house of 80-year-old Maca Jovanović was destroyed in the fighting. All that’s left is rubble. She now lives in the burnt-out remains of the home of her son and daughter-in-law, who took refuge in Serbia. All the windows and doors are gone. The walls are full of holes left by bullets and grenades. The roof has caved in, and only a room on the lower floor is inhabitable. The room is filled with smoke and the walls are black because the stove that Maca Jovanović uses to heat her house and to cook has no chimney. But the stove doesn’t provide enough heat to keep the room warm during the winter, says mobile team member Mario Zubać.

It was so very cold. She was lying on the floor when we came the first time. She didn’t want to leave probably because she was left here to guard the house or something. The first time we came here, we left her the IP, individual parcel. So we gave her that and it’s the Red Cross package for those persons who are in desperate need for help. She didn’t want to open it, and she didn’t want to use it because she said she doesn’t have money to pay for it. We tried to explain to her that it’s free. She doesn’t have to pay. She said no, no. I’ll wait for my relatives when they come back. They are here in the next village. They’ll come tomorrow and then they’ll give me money and I’ll pay. But they’re not coming, of course, because they are in Serbia. She won’t use it. But probably some neighbour came and opened it for her. EB: How can she live here? There’s so much smoke. You can’t even breathe. I don’t know. I don’t know really. I couldn’t.

The parcels which the mobile team bring to people like Maca Jovanović contain food, coffee, soap and other essential items, which people cannot get because there are few if any stores in the region. Many of these elderly people are living in such remote hamlets and villages that the International Federation’s eight mobile teams have to use 4-wheel drive vehicles to find the people, says Sabine Slotke, and then to bring them supplies every few weeks.

Actually, we are searching them. We have information from neighbours, from people who live in the bigger municipalities. We have information from the Red Cross who was active before the war here. So they have numbers and they know the area where maybe people are living. And then we just trial and error, go through the woods and sometimes it’s should I stay? Should I go? You’re never sure if there’s really a house coming and then suddenly you see a house and it’s just wonderful if you find somebody.

Bekić Stana (sp?), a 67-year-old, eagerly unwraps the Red Cross parcel. She lives with her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren: one is 7, another 4 and the newest addition is only 5 months old. Her husband and her two sons are in the Yugoslav Republic.

When there are no men around, there are lots of problems. During the winter, there was no one to chop firewood. I had to feed the cattle and give them water all by myself, and I just couldn’t do it. Some of my livestock died during the winter. And another problem is that we are very far from everything and far from other people. There’s almost no police here at all, and there’ve been lots of gypsies looking around for empty houses and looting. On top of that, we weren’t able to sow the harvest because we couldn’t do it without the men. And now because my daughter-in-law has a small child, the social worker is trying to relocate us closer to a village or at least near one of the roads. She said she’ll find us an empty house. What will I do if the owner returns? And what will happen to my house? But the social worker says my two older grandchildren need to go to school, and the baby needs an operation. So the social worker says we have to move. We’re very dependent on the Red Cross. If they hadn’t come here, we wouldn’t have survived the winter. We owe them our lives. As for the future, well, we really don’t see much future for ourselves. What else can I say? You can see for yourself. We’re having a very difficult time.

The mobile teams do not only take food parcels to Bekić Stana and the other isolated elderly people. They also bring messages from family and friends. The Red Cross sends out technical teams too to do essential manual work, such as chopping wood, cutting the weeds around the homes or fetching water. But the house of Maca Javanović has suffered too much damage for the technical team to carry out any repair work. Ideally, says Sabine Slotke, she and many of the other elderly people in the former Krajina should be sent to villages or cities or to rest homes.

One goal of this programme was to evacuate people. But now we realised that these people usually do not want to leave. They do not want to leave their property, their house, the place where they were born. Usually the names of the villages, of the little hamlets it’s the same name as the family names. So people, they were born here, and they do not want to leave. EB: How long will this programme need to continue, do you think? Well, these people are in need as long as they are living because I believe that not so many people will return in this area, especially from the families, the support family that they can help them. So they will always be depending on the Red Cross or somebody who is going to help them. So they are 80, 100 years old. I think 5 years, something like that. EB: But is it possible to justify this? Because it is very expensive, isn’t it? You have 2 or 3 people using a 4-wheel drive vehicle. You have 8 teams throughout the former North and South Sectors. It’s expensive. Yes, but we are saving lives. I think you should not calculate a life in Deutsch Marks or dollars. It is expensive, and it is a lot of work. Yes, but I think these people have a right.

Sabine Slotke of the International Federation of the Red Cross bringing an end to this edition of Wide Angle. I’m Eric Beauchemin.