Lutheran Aid in Ex-Yugoslavia

The Croatians will Take Care of Their Own House

Asked whether relief aid for Croatia was justified in view of Africa's more drastic needs, Dr. John Wood, the Lutheran World Federation relief director for Croatia, responded:  "To put it cynically, the needs in Africa are likely to go on and on.  I was in Somalia from 1980-82, and look at that country today.  Here though, in Croatia, participation and motivation are apparent.  They would actually prefer to do everything themselves, so all they desire is a catalyst, a little external help.  The same thing occurs in the military realm:  'Don't bother to send us any soldiers,' they say.  'Just give us the weapons, we'll take care of the rest.'  The Croatians only need a kind of jump start.  Six months after the end of hostilities, this economy will be restored.

One of the astonishing things about this country is the solidarity of the people", Wood continued.  "People who have never known each other end up sharing living quarters. Hospitality can suffice for a couple of weeks, you know, but not for a year and a half!  And this spirit of solidarity continues."

One could ask:  Is it responsible stewardship to repair houses and begin reconstruction even before the end of hostilities?  After all, these same houses could be damaged a second time.  "Yes," responded 76-year-old Professor Wood simply, "because that's what the people want.  They're willing to take that risk."  A veteran of nearly 30 years of development programs, he is impressed by the "fixability" of Croatia's social woes.

Wood, who moved to Zagreb at the beginning of 1992, envisions the creation of a "food-for-work" program, giving homeowners the materials they need to repair their own houses.  "We wouldn't give money, that would be fatal.  We'll give them the materials, they find the volunteers to help, and when they are done, they should take in a few refugees.  It's hard to place the condition that they accept refugees on this aid, but, from what I've seen, the people will do it willingly."


As of October, LWF had distributed aid valued at $860,000 in Croatia and Bosnia.  A winter appeal is presently in process.

At the end of June, LWF and German Protestantism's "Diakonisches Werk" suspended relations with the Zagreb-based relief agency of the 5,000-member Croatian Lutheran Church. It's officials have complained that the LWF cooperates with Orthodox, Muslims, and "sects" - meaning Baptists and Pentecostals.  Wood admits to having few scruples joint aid programs with non-Lutherans: "I'm not involved in theological disputes," he assures, "I deal rather with humanitarian questions."  The LWF has for its part been most concerned with bringing aid to the needy on the periphery located far from the beehive of activity in Zagreb.


Are there too many small relief agencies active in Croatia?  The several thousand Baptists of Croatia, for example, are involved in at least three agencies.  Wood responds:  "In one sense there are too many, in another, there are too few.  Cooperation could be much better, but the needs are enormous.  Anything is of help, is better than nothing."


Zelimir Srnec, a Baptist seminary director in Novi Sad, Serbia, is more blunt:  "I'm certain that Croatians active in relief agencies are motivated by more than strictly humanitarian concerns."  Power and privilege, of course, can be gained by those who decide where and to whom vital relief goods are to be distributed.


Interestingly, neither LWF nor the German "Diakonisches Werk" feels free to develop programs in both Croatia and Serbia.  Gunther Maasberg of the German agency explains:  "We would endanger our relief work in Croatia if we became active as peace advocates."  Wood adds:  "There is feeling in some quarters that the World Council of Churches has been supporting Serbia.  There may be some truth to that claim, but not here in Croatia."  Orthodox churches are members of the WCC, yet the Roman Catholic Church is not, and Croatia is predominately Catholic.


Consequently, it is being left up to the World Council of Churches to develop an aid program for the needy of all Serb-controlled areas.  The WCC sent Dean Hancock, a Methodist from Wisconsin, to Belgrade in August to begin a relief program under the auspices of the Serbian Orthodox Church.  His initial objective is to gather $650,000 in the West for blankets to be distributed during this winter.

Serb Christians feel abandoned by the West:  Despite having an equal number of refugees, Serbia has received only a tiny fraction of the aid offered to Croatia.  The Baptist Srnec explains:  "We also have three relief agencies, just like the Croatian Baptists.  The difference though is that they have money, and we don't."  The war damage is also equally serious.  Hancock, who has toured Serb-held areas of Bosnia extensively, compares the destruction there with that which he experienced in Cambodia 20 years ago.

The Methodist development consultant is not confronted with an easy task:  A visit to Orthodox headquarters in Belgrade quickly gives one the impression that efficient administration is not a priority within this church.

Dr. Bill Yoder

Berlin, October 6, 1992


Report written for the “Lutheran World Federation” in Geneva, 834 words.