The forgotten refugees of Montenegro

Refugee camp in Podgorica, Montenegro
Refugee camp in Podgorica, Montenegro (© Flickr/Dejan Dajkovic)

As a result of the war in the Balkans, nearly 60,000 people have fled the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia and taken refuge in Montenegro. The refugees now form nearly 10% of republic’s total population, an enormous burden for any country. The influx of refugees has added to Montenegro’s woes. The republic’s economy has been virtually paralysed by the strict economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations against rump Yugoslavia two years ago. But Montenegro is still accepting refugees, despite the hardships it’s causing.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 6, 1994


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “The Forgotten Refugees of Montenegro”.  The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

The war in the Balkans has displaced nearly four million people. They’ve taken refuge in countries across Europe and the rest of the world, as well as the rest of republics of the former Yugoslavia, including Montenegro. Montenegro and Serbia are the only republics to have remained in the Yugoslav Federation. Situated on the Adriatic coast, Montenegro used to be a haven for western Europeans, seeking sun and quiet. Today, the tourists have been replaced by nearly 60,000 refugees from the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia. The refugees form nearly 10% of Montenegro’s total population, an enormous burden for any country. The influx of refugees has added to Montenegro’s woes. The republic’s economy has been virtually paralysed by the strict economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations against rump Yugoslavia two years ago. But Montenegro is still accepting refugees, says the Montenegrin Commissioner for Refugees, despite the hardships it’s causing.

The current situation with refugees couldn’t be qualified as a satisfactory one right now. It’s primarily because of the heavy economic crisis that Montenegro is going through right now. Citizens and the whole economy is getting poorer and poorer every day and it’s very complicated to meet all the needs for the refugees.

Montenegro always was one of the least developed republics in the former Yugoslavia. And says Pierre Francesco Natta, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, few international aid organisations have shown any interest in the refugee crisis in the republic.

If you think that in Montenegro there are only other six international organisations or NGOs working, and if we compare this situation with many other areas of former Yugoslavia, you can see how limited is the presence of international organisations in Montenegro. Probably only 10 percent of the needs of the refugees have been covered and even if in general the assistance of the refugees here in Montenegro is quite good, that they have medical assistance, the children can go to school or to kindergartens. But of course in a country that is under sanctions, basic needs cannot be fulfilled. So I can say that our aid will never fill the gap that is created by the sanctions.

The UN embargo also prevents international aid organisations from providing direct financial assistance to the refugees. But Lyndel Sacks also of the UNHCR says her organisation has been distributing other forms of aid.

What we’ve been doing is providing food, some clothing, some basic supplies, hygienic items. There’s a couple of other NGOs working in the field as well trying to support the refugees, but clearly the needs are so enormous that there’s very little opportunity for us to provide all the needs, especially when the needs are only growing, when you see the social cases and the local population suffering as well.

In Montenegro as in Serbia only 5% of the refugees live in collective centres. The remaining 95% of the refugees live with host families, either relatives, friends or people who have simply opened their homes to the victims of the war. But because many of the host families themselves are barely able to make ends meet, the Montenegrin Commissioner for Refugees says host families are now coming into his office asking for help.

Recently they had many families coming to the Commissariat asking them to do something with the people they are hosting earlier because they couldn’t keep them any longer in their houses, and the Commissariat reacts usually trying to find a place in collective centres for those refugees. They are also trying to provide more space for those collective centres, which means more space for the refugees to stay in. They are also trying to build new capacity and the main sources for those building activities are from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and also from the federal and republican budget. EB: In the host families, is the situation overcrowded? In Belgrade I saw people, 15, 20 people living in one small apartment. Is that the same situation here? Yes, there are cases of families being overcrowded and with families that have 10 or even more refugees, the whole families that fled from Bosnia, and there are more and more families that are asking Commissariat for some kind of solution for this problem.

One of the collective centres for refugees is located in the heart of Podgorica. It’s home to about 200 young Bosnian students of all nationalities. I spoke to two young men, both Serbs, who began by telling me where they came from in Bosnia.

He comes from Jajce. EB: How long have you been here? For six months now. EB: Why did you come to Montenegro? First of all, he wanted to finish his education and to complete his college. EB: But you actually fought in Bosnia, right? Yes, he said he took part in Bosnian war. EB: And you were fighting on the Serb side. Yes, Serbian side. EB: And now you’re living with Muslims and Croats. How is that possible? Somebody from outside simply wouldn’t understand that. He said that he likes all three nations: Serbian and Muslim and Croatian also. But he may not identify all Muslims, he means all Muslim people with their political leadership or with political parties. Same thing for the Croatians. He feels a difference between actual people, real people regardless of the nationality and their political parties and leadership. EB: You fought for how many months? For four months you said? For a year. EB: And then you decided you wanted to quit just to go back to school. Is that right? It was some kind of policy in the army of the Serbian Republic in Bosnia to let all the college students and all other students out of the army to enable them to go somewhere else to continue their education. He said he was just thinking as a normal young person. He didn’t see any future in his life. He couldn’t go on fighting, just fighting. He wanted to do something for himself. So just for the sake of his own life, he wanted to quit that and to come back to school. EB: Did you choose to come to Montenegro or was it simply by chance? He came by chance. He first went to Belgrade actually and then found out that he would easier enroll in this college here, so he decided to come to Montenegro. EB: And what are you studying at the moment? Civil engineering. EB: How does he feel that he has been treated in Montenegro? Has he been welcomed? He doesn’t feel endangered here. He feels fine and is drawing a parallel between his experience in Belgrade, in Serbia and his experience here because he spent some time over there. He said he feels much better here because people in general do not talk that much about the difficulties they are going through, economic difficulties first of all, so it makes him feel better about being here. He probably doesn’t feel that he’s a burden here that much as he felt over there. EB: We’re sitting at a table now. There are lots of cigarettes. There’s also, I think it’s a type of brandy or something. Where do they get the money to buy these things? Are they receiving money from the Montenegrin government? He said that education, accommodation and food are free. They are provided for him. They do different things or even the black market. They usually go to the black market selling things and everything and all of their money when they want to forget about reality, they just spend their money on alcohol, cigarettes. That’s the only thing that helps them forget about reality.

Escaping reality is what many refugees try to do because they are unable to cope with the events they’ve experienced or witnessed in the war. Traditionally, humanitarian organisations haven’t provided counselling to refugees, but because of the nature of this war, says Lyndell Sacks, the UNHCR and other groups have been forced to at least recognise the refugees’ psychological and emotional problems.

This is an area that we are trying to do some work in as well in some of the collective centres. The Danish Refugee Council is running a fabulous programme to try and help with the psycho-social rehabilitation of the refugees. But these are only for people living in collective centres. We work on the principle that people who are living with families are probably getting some support from the families, but sometimes the problems that are manifesting themselves need specialised care. A lot of these people in Montenegro, in all parts of former Yugoslavia, have been exposed to the most horrendous experiences and they need help. We’re only being able to provide a minimum amount of assistance, and it’s a great tragedy.

The Danish Refugee Council started work in a camp in southern Montenegro a year and a half ago. Their first refugees were a group of 90 men who had all spent long periods in detention camps in Bosnia. Two members of the Danish Refugee Council told me how they went about approaching the ex-detainees and gaining their confidence.

It was extremely complicated. They were very aggressive. They were very demanding, nearly sometimes like spoiled children. We have a theory: they’re suffering. They’re not having a very nice daily life, but as much as they are kept busy doing what they would like to do, the less they will be thinking about what is going on in Bosnia and the less they will be thinking about what they have been through themselves earlier in these camps. And rather quickly after starting the programme, we sensed a kind of change with these detainees. They became more friendly. They became more cooperative. They wanted to take part in the programme. They were a bit suspicious in the beginning, but finally they started saying this is actually nice. We have a common room with TV, chairs, domino, coffee, newspapers and things like that. We activated the youngsters basically with sports, and we activated the women with handicraft work. Later on, we received some funding from UNHCR for doing some special treatment for the ex-detainees being interested in having some workshops with local psychologists. EB: Can you tell me what actually happens in the workshops? Aggression. That’s one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and so we cope with that problem. So we made a plan for psychological workshops. It’s not group therapy in a strict sense. We have a group from 8 to 12 persons, members of the group. We are only the leaders, as the psychologists, persons who are qualified, but nothing else. There’s a circle we sit in and we sometimes talk, sometimes express our emotions. I’ll mention to you some of the topics of our workshops: human rights, their worries, body space, personal identity. We had a time machine where we went into their most difficult moments in their lives. That’s mostly the time they spent in the camps. Then dreams, angers, conflicts, fears, confidence, everything that makes human life, and these are the topics they have to study for themselves before they are prepared to go back to normal life. EB: How long do these workshops last? One workshop lasts about two hours. EB: And then everyone talks and expresses their opinions and feelings and emotions. That’s right. Everyone including us. EB: So it tends to get very emotional probably. Yes, sometimes when they remember their homes, their families, what they left behind them, their homes burnt down and everything what happened to them. EB: After the workshops, can the ex-detainees put the past behind them or is it something that will accompany them the rest of their lives but it’s something that they can deal with it. They cannot put that away because very strong feelings are connected with that, but we think that when we finish that or even now, I think, they’re ready to deal with their feelings about that. EB: So they can move on in life. Yeah.

The group of ex-detainees receiving counselling from the Danish Refugee Council has been granted asylum by the United States. For them, the nightmare is now over and will slowly recede. But for others it continues. In Igalo, a resort town on the Adriatic Coast, an institute which before the UN embargo used to provide treatment to thousands of westerners suffering from bad backs, wrinkles and other ailments, is now treating hundreds of children from Bosnia. Some were injured in the fighting, but most have problems dating from before the war. The director of the Igalo institute is Milorad Duravić.

The precondition, the basis is that the project is multinational. We have more Serbs, of course, because we cannot get to the areas of the Muslims but we have about 25% of the Muslim kids in the project and 3% of the Croats. And trying to increase the numbers of other nationalities to make it more balanced. But as you know, refugees are moving to the different parts of the former Yugoslavia, so we have no access to all the areas and then we do ask the international humanitarian institutions to help us get those kids. But I think it is fairly balanced. EB: How do you get the children out? Is it the UN that does that? The authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina send us the papers about their medical state and then we accept them after reading the papers. When they come here, they are investigated by the doctors. And then the doctors prescribe the treatment that is needed for their recovery. EB: And obviously the nice surroundings around here make it also a lot easier for the kids to recover because the winters are fairly mild here. Yes, it’s economically also very good because we do not spend that much heating oil that is needed in other parts of former Yugoslavia. Another reason is that we are close to the war area so the transport costs are lower. And the treatment here because of the low costs and the salaries, etc., is really cheap. It’s a tenth of the cost, for example if you send those kids to Norway or to other western European countries. So I think it is better to treat them here. Those countries who give us some money to treat the kids, I think they are doing very well because that way they save money and we treat more children in the vicinity of their parents and relatives. It’s very good for them. They can visit them, and it is good for their traumas.

The Igolo project is being financed by the Norwegian government, the UNHCR and other organisations. According to Zeljko Uljarević, the project manager of Children in Need, it could provide care to many more children.

We are not lacking facilities. We have enough facilities. We have, I think, at the moment some 1500 beds standing empty, which means we could take another 1500 people to have treatment here or at least accommodation or whatsoever because we used to be a big institution and used to have some 10,000 foreign patients per year. What we are lacking is money to run these beds and make them usable. EB: If you had more money, more people could be brought in from Bosnia-Herzegovina for treatment. Definitely and besides finding enough means to run these facilities which we have here, it will unfortunately always be in the end a political decision by the different political sides if they are willing to send their people, their citizens to what they call the other side for treatment because we have access only to the Serbian side in Bosnia. From there we are receiving children. We could also receive adults. But to the Muslim-Croatian side, we don’t have any access.

Small children’s department. EB: How old are the children? Up to 4. This girl, her name is Aida. She was found in the children’s hospital in Foča. Her parents probably in that moment couldn’t come to take care of her. She was left there. Now, together with 4 other children, she came to us. You see, she has no hand and both feet. She’s a very active girl. She likes very much to walk, to be always somehow in contact with people, with other children. And also she has no feet. She is always walking somehow in her own way. She was born like that. It’s not a war injury. For that reason she was in hospital when the war came.

Dado is from the orphanage. They were evacuated. He was born in a complete family. He has parents, but they were divorced and that’s why he and his brother were left in the orphanage. When the evacuation took place, the brother and this boy were separated by some mistake, I think. So now he is alone here. The brother is somewhere in Italy. And so we don’t know what is his future. EB: Is he actually physically sick? No, no. He’s quite healthy. Only sometimes he asks for his brother. EB: Do you like it here? I’m always playing. I’m working, working, he says. EB: Do you have lots of friends here?  His friend he calls brother. EB: You’re getting chewing gum all over your fingers.

This boy was born just before the war in Sarajevo. The mother in that moment was not married.  That’s why she brought him in the orphanage just for a short period until she settled. Then the war came. The orphanage in that part of town from the mother’s family, they were separated. So all the time, 2 years, he’s 2 years old, this contact is broken. And he cannot contact at all. The mother cannot come here. And he cannot go back. Two years are spoiled, just spoiled. EB: This child is absolutely beautiful. He’s got beautiful blue eyes. He’s smiling. He’s carrying things around. He’s running around. He’s sweet. EB: What do you do with these children? Are you just going to keep them here? That’s the problem. That’s the problem. We are just lost. We don’t know what to do. Somehow the rehabilitation is not so necessary for them. Of course, they are a little bit retarded because of the social things but not so much the physical rehabilitation is so important. We do the psychologists, treatment with them. We have also the pedagogues that they are doing with them. But we are aware that that is not the solution. The adoption is forbidden during the war. We cannot give the children for some kind of adoption. We are thinking of all possible ways how to solve the problem, but until now, I do not see any good solution. EB: So they are just going to stay here. Of course, there are also other children. So we have to make some kind of circulation, and that’s a big ethic problem for us. EB: Have you already started doing that or are you just going to start it? No. We have no heart to do it until now. But somehow, I don’t know. It’s a big, big problem. For example, now I am going to show you the girl who is here from the beginning, from June. That’s the girl. She came here. She was just possible to turn in the bed, not to sit, not to walk, nothing. Not to speak. At the beginning in my opinion was that she is seriously retarded. But slowly, slowly, slowly I was surprised, she started to walk and also she started to make contact, to speak and that’s her favourite sister. Now she’s quite a different child. EB: So she wasn’t retarded. She was just traumatised. She is maybe slightly retarded but more of that she was. EB: Are most of these children suffering from trauma? How to say? Yes because they are not with their families. EB: But not because of the war. Not directly but maybe hearing explosions, hearing those voices. I do not believe that they have seen something. They are too young. EB: What do you do with children like that? What kind of treatment can you provide them? When they come, we make a psychological screening. So we are doing something in that way. And these sisters, they are the biggest psychotherapists. EB: They treat the children like mothers, basically. Not like mothers. That’s not possible but they are trying to replace the mothers. EB: Do you get a lot of enjoyment out of your work? Yes, I like it. Before I never worked with children, but now I work and I like it. EB: Is it difficult to work with these children because you become emotionally attached to them? Yes, because the children are alone. No family, and they miss the love of his father and mother, of course. EB: What happens when the children go back, when they are sent back to Bosnia? It must break your heart. I’m sorry for them if they go there. Sister Eleva, she is really very attached to these children and the children to her, and we are always so attached, too much. EB: That’s why you haven’t sent any children back yet. Yes.

EB: We’re going down to the room where the children receive hydrotherapy. This is hydrotherapy, the big pool. They can freely swim or they can do some exercises in the water. In the small pools, there is always a therapist with the children. We are also having underwater massages in these small pools and bubble baths, and also the mother ?? EB: And the children love it here. Oh, they like to swim. This is Kinsey Hall and they are doing exercises as a group or individually.

EB: There are drawings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the walls and also Bambi, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Through the playing, they are making movements, things that we need.

EB: This is the children and mother’s department. I would like to show you the boy who is really psychotraumatised. He has lost mother, father and sister in a car accident as the four of them were escaping too quickly, and car accident, three of them killed. And the only one is the boy. You are going to see him, Sacha. Quite alone and also very badly wounded. That’s a terrible story. So I wanted to show him.

Sacha, I was telling you about him. He likes so much to sleep. That’s a way to escape. He has some kind of relatives. They take care of him but that’s not that. EB: It’s not enough. No. I’m telling him to walk a little bit. He was here in the summer and he went back home and then he returned because of that knee. Now he walks very good. He was walking only with crutches. Now he walks alone but he cannot bend more than that. For the walking it’s enough, but other activities not just. EB: He wouldn’t be able to be a basketball player. This boy was burnt in an explosion, and we are waiting for the plastic surgery treatment in 10 days. He’s so much scared but we hope it will be better because aesthetically it’s really bad what you see. 

EB: And these two guys? Mirhad is one of the Banja Luka children. They come in a big group from the Banja Luka orphanage, the only one in Serbian Bosnia. Now we took a group of 10 children, mostly Muslims because this Serbian orphanage is full of Muslims, and so he is one of them. Not so seriously sick. EB: How old are you? 10 years. EB: Do you like it here? He tells that it’s better to be here than in Banja Luka. That’s possible because they are overcrowded in this war situation, really overcrowded. EB: Do you have a lot of friends here? Not only the friends from Banja Luka but also the new ones here. EB: Do you get lonely here? He tells not just. EB: Oh, not so lonely. He’s an orphan, right? Yes. EB: What’s going to happen to him afterwards? Are you going to send him back or is he going to stay here? This is only a visit and they are going back. This was only holidays for them. EB: Do you want to go back to Banja Luka? No. EB: It’s a lot better here? Yes. They have told me, the children, the pedagogues, everybody. EB: And yet he has to go back. Yes, but the babies, that’s tragic.

The children at the Igalo Intitute like the rest of the 60,000 refugees in Montenegro remain largely out of site of the international community and of the media, which prefers to focus on spectacular cases like Irma, the little Bosnian Muslim girl who was airlifted out of Sarajevo to Britain. Zeljko Uljarević, the manager of Children in Need regrets that the other refugees, and especially the children, aren’t getting the same type of treatment and attention as Irma.

Irma was probably just lucky to be spotted by some journalists or somebody, and this Irma crazy has been created and so many people’s attention has been drawn to it. We have all the time such Irmas. On some of the children, you see it on their face and their body where they have been injured and others you don’t see it but it’s deep down, inside. There are many thousands of Irmas and it’s a question to locate them, to find them and then to help them. One way to do this is to make a big media attention out of it and collect financial means based on that. But it’s important to help all of these children if it’s possible. Based on the realities we have here and the possibilities, sometimes or actually very often one day you have to send these children back, and very often you are sending them to a worse circumstances and conditions than they have been here. But you have to do it in order to take new children and help all these others. What we can do here is give them medical rehabilitation, psychological support, try to give them hope, to show them that a normal and healthy world still exists somewhere. Also these children are the future of everybody, not just of our place.

The forgotten refugees of Montenegro was…