Bosnia and Herzegovina

In the wake of war: Rotarians in Bosnia-Herzegovina help to reconstruct communities and lives

By Beth Kampschror
Special to The Rotarian*
Editor's note: Ten years ago this week, more than 7,000 Muslim males were massacred in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina. On the anniversary of the genocide, the survivors are holding ceremonies to bury the remains of those who have been identified and remember all of the victims. As the world remembers the tragedy, we turn to an article originally published in the September 2004 issue of The Rotarian that highlights the work of Rotary clubs to assist survivors and rebuild the community as part of Rotary's worldwide commitment to peace and international understanding.

Though the guns fell silent in Bosnia-Herzegovina nine years ago, a casual visitor might think that peace came only recently to the mountains and foothills around Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia. Abandoned houses with boarded-up windows line the streets. Cows wander the two-lane roads outside of town. And unlike in other areas, only a handful of refugees have returned home after the 1992-95 war. Many fled after the Bosnian Serb army committed Europe's worst massacre since World War II, executing more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys here.

But 13 men, women, and children have finally come back to the tiny village of Karacici, thanks to Rotarians from Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany, and Slovenia, who sponsored a shelter project. In his new 13-by-20-foot home with an orange-tile roof, Nezir Bektic, one of two village men who survived the massacre by fleeing 35 miles through the woods to the nearest government-held town, says he had to return.

"I decided to come back because there's nowhere better than the place I was born," Bektic says as he drinks cups of strong, silty Turkish coffee. "Anywhere else I go, people say, 'Where are you going? That's not your house.' Everything belongs to someone else. So I say, 'You won't yell at a refugee anymore. This is my house, and that's it.'"

"Now you're a townsman," says his wife, Kadefa, ribbing him from her perch on a low stool. "Now I'm a townsman -- in my own place," he agrees.

The low-cost shelters in Karacici are part of the first phase of a €350,000 project to erect 100 shelters by the Rotary clubs of Klosterneuburg, Austria, and Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with nine other clubs.

Rotary itself only recently returned to Bosnia. Three Rotary clubs -- in the north central town of Banja Luka, in the northeastern town of Brcko, and in the capital, Sarajevo -- were established here in 1933. But the Nazi puppet government, the Independent State of Croatia, prohibited Rotary clubs, and the ban continued under the postwar leadership of Josip Broz Tito, though his Yugoslavia had more freedom than its neighbors behind the Iron Curtain.

"The Tito era was good, but it was still a dictatorship," says Drahomir Mirovic, 2003-04 assistant governor for District 1910 (part of Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia).

After Tito's death in 1980, Rotary clubs were chartered in Croatia and Slovenia toward the end of the decade. But Bosnia's potential Rotarians were caught in the war that broke out in 1992. The fighting raged for almost four years. Rotarians from other countries, mostly Austria, Germany, Italy, and the United States, were heavily involved in assisting the Bosnians during those dark years.

Immediately after the war, more than 60,000 foreigners poured into Bosnia. They included NATO peacekeepers and staff, and humanitarian aid workers, dozens of who were Rotarians. Members held meetings in Sarajevo to make up absences from their respective clubs, and they invited locals to attend. In 1997, clubs in Banja Luka and Sarajevo were given the green light to become provisional clubs. Three years later, they received their charters.

A top priority for Bosnian Rotarians is educating children to promote peace and reconciliation. They also give small-scale assistance to refugees, filling in the gaps left by other organizations. But the first priority is assisting land-mine victims. Land mines left over from the war contaminate more than percent of Bosnia's territory (equivalent to the entire U.S. state of Montana being off-limits). About 1,500 people have been killed by mines, and more have been injured since the war ended in late 1995. "In Bosnia, mine victims are unfortunately of all nationalities and religious groups," Mirovic says.

The Rotary Club of Sarajevo International-Delta purchased leg prostheses for an injured mother of two children in Srebrenica. Delta became Europe's newest international Rotary club (one whose membership is largely foreign residents) when it formed in October. Like Amsterdam, Budapest, and Prague, which have similar clubs, Sarajevo is home to scores of expatriates. But Delta is different. First, Sarajevo's foreign residents are not, for the most part, the business professionals, doctors, or teachers that join international clubs elsewhere in Europe. Most work in organizations that monitor or support peace in Bosnia, such as the Office of the High Representative, which oversees the civilian parts of the peace agreement that ended the war, or the International Commission for Missing Persons, which uses DNA to identify remains from Bosnia's hundreds of mass graves. Employees of these and other organizations make up the roughly 40-member Delta club.

Delta members also address problems -- dilapidated schools and refugees, for example, -- more commonly associated with the developing world than with Europe. And because many of these Rotarians' day jobs involve helping people, Delta club members are going the extra mile. Those who have family ties or multi-year contracts here are also committed to service, even though international donations are down to a trickle.

"To put your noses in and step back out is not enough," says Delta club president Dr.Sonja Moser-Starrach, who heads the Council of Europe office in Bosnia. "It's not enough to say, 'Oh, the war is over.' We have to stay on their side. There are two more generations we have to help, and then the reconciliation will start."

Some 500 members of Bosnia's youngest generation benefited last winter from a €15,000 Delta club project that restored central heating at the Kasin Do school on the outskirts of Sarajevo.

Members are also focusing on networking with other Rotarians throughout the country, an essential activity in a place where little gets done unless one has the right contacts or knows someone who does. Delta member Susanne Prahl-Landzo says her Rotary contacts were invaluable when the nongovernmental organization that she heads, Via Kult, organized a huge children's festival this past June.

"I am, of course, in Rotary because it fits my ideas but also because it gives me an entire new network," says Prahl-Landzo, who is from Germany but has been living here for almost 10 years and is married to a Bosnian man. "We had a meeting with clubs from all over Bosnia, and because I'm busing all these kids in, I got a call from Tuzla, saying, 'My wife works with disabled kids. She can help you.' Rotary is a completely new angle of friendship, one that's not private and one that's not strictly business."

Though the world's focus has moved on from the Balkans to the Middle East, Bosnia-Herzegovina's renewed Rotary clubs are here for the long haul. Back in Karacici village, the Bosnia project director of Farmer Helping farmer, the Rotarians' local NGO partner, notes that club involvement in the housing effort helps make up for the receding tide of international donations.

"The shelters aren't a permanent solution,but [the villagers] can live there for three or four years,"says Namir Poric.

Meanwhile, the shelters are so valuable to Kadefa Bektic that she describes theirs as "golden." Her husband adds: "We would still be refugees if [the Rotarians] hadn't done this."