LWF Aid to Croatia is Proving to be Innovative

Aid should prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place

The Lutheran World Federation's relief project for Croatia and Bosnia intends to make its mark through innovation rather than size: It's annual budget has not exceeded two million dollars.  It's twin goals are increasing the "absorbative capacities" of existing housing and returning people to self-sufficiency.  According to Dr. John Wood, the LWF Country Coordinator residing in Zagreb, "We must return as many people to normalcy now, before the international community and media have tired of the Yugoslav question."  Concepts are more important than size.  "Do we assist people now, or do we rather help them work their way out of a bad situation," he asks.  "We have produced some models that can serve as a catalyzer for larger programs."


According to Wood, the German government spent $32 million to house nearly 5,000 people in prefabricated housing, yet LWF has been able to house 2,000 refugees in Neum, Herzegovina simply by restoring the broken glass in two tourist hotels.  Total cost for this project approaches $200,000.


Wood is concerned that foodstuffs now be "prepositioned" in Bosnia for the coming winter: Many persons only became refugees because they were cut off from normal supply channels.  "It's a pity that so many donor programs don't have a mandate to stop people from becoming refugees," he laments, "but only to help those who have already become refugees."


In villages south of Osijek in northeastern Croatia, Wood's models can be most readily examined.  In Ivanovac, residents are repairing a school with LWF supplies.  "We need families to return to the destroyed villages, and the opening of schools is a great incentive for them to return," explained Hermina Nikolaisen, German head of the LWF-office in Osijek.  Free seed is also a major inducement for farmers:  In Ivanovac and Nustar, which is near the destroyed city of Vukovar, LWF is supplying most of the seed required for this year's crop.


The LWF is donating building materials to restore dwellings only yards removed from the Serbian front lines in UN-controlled areas.  "It would be moral and emotional torture to force these people to keep on waiting," Nikolaisen claimed.  "They want to start rebuilding now, even if the war's outcome is far from certain."


Nikolaisen, only the second LWF worker in Croatia, described the identification of needy families to be her most trying hurdle.  Thankfully, local Catholic clergymen have helped identify the needy and oversee the distribution of LWF-sponsored supplies.


Unfortunately, relations between LWF and the Croatian Lutheran church, which has its own relief agency, remain troubled.  Senior Vlado Deutsch, the head of Croatian Lutherans, criticizes the fact
that Wood, a native of British Columbia, is neither Croatian nor Lutheran.  Rev. Deutsch explained:  "We think some of their people are unqualified.  They have people who've done relief work in Somalia or Bangladesh who come here and attempt to work with the same methods.  One shouldn't do that, these people don't understand us."


Nevertheless, LWF has been named the primary church relief coordinator for all Croatian-controlled territories; its counterpart in Serb-held territories is International Orthodox Christian Charity (IOCC), a relief agency of Orthodox churches based outside of Serbia.


Although Serbian-held territories hold approximately 800,000 refugees - Croatia hosts over a million -, Serbian agencies have been receiving no more than one-fourth of all church-sponsored relief aid.  Finally in February, Lutherans in Serbia helped found "Ecumenical Humanitarian Aid", a relief agency working under the umbrella of the ecumenical council of Serbia.  It will be based in Lutheran headquarters in Novi Sad, Voyvodina.  Dr. Andrej Beredi, Bishop of the Lutheran Church in the Serbian province of Voyvodina, explained that this new agency will be ready to aid relief convoys when they appear at Serbian customs stations.  It also intends to help refugees from Bosnia now living in Serbia; Bishop Beredi assured though that the agency hopes "to aid all those who are living in great need".  Pensioners, who need to survive on a fixed income in an extremely inflationary economy, will be among their target groups.


Bill Steele, a Southern Baptist missionary from Georgia now living in Belgrade, maintained that relief efforts in Serbia lag at least a half year behind those in Croatia.  "Serbian efforts are still restricted to food distribution," he explained, "but Croatian agencies have begun with food production.  Six months ago, Croatia had more refugees and consequently greater relief needs, but
recently the needs among Bosnian Serbs have increased significantly."


The most respected church relief agency in Serbia, ADRA, is run by the 9,000-member Adventist church.  Because it has small congregations spread throughout the entire country, it was able to quickly develop a distribution network unrivaled by any other church.  Even the national Serbian Orthodox relief agency, Dobrotvor, resorted to Adventist channels in order to ship aid to Sarajevo.  Thanks to a dearth of foreign aid, ADRA has been most active in transporting food parcel gifts from families in Belgrade to their relatives in all parts of Sarajevo.  Rev. Jovan Lorencin, President of the Adventist church, notes that "Dobrotvor can send aid only as far as Serbian military lines reach."  Yet, due to the fact that 3,000 additional Adventists live in Croatia and possess political contacts there, ADRA has been able to ship across battle lines.


Agencies such as World Vision and the Southern Baptist relief effort want to divide their aid 50-50 between Croatian- and Serbian-held territories.  John Wood though takes a different tack. "This is a complicated moral issue," he concedes.  "If everyone else has been kicked out of a Serb-held territory, should one then make it as comfortable as possible for those who have done the kicking?  Many Croatians would see this simply as rewarding the Serbs for the atrocities they have been committing."


Bill Yoder

Berlin, March 5, 1993


Written for „The Lutheran“ in Chicago, 940 words