LWF is Making a Mark in Croatia

What keeps Dr. John Wood going?  At 77 years of age, he's clearly senior (and prosperous) enough to do nothing more than play shuffleboard in the sun.  His dashing Vietnamese wife, Lien, speaks longingly of their vacation apartments.  But she also respects her husband's inward drive.  "I tried to retire 15 years ago," John admits, "but it didn't work.  I got too old for the United Nations about 1982, so I've been working for the European Community and USAID since then."  Wood, a native of British Columbia, came on board with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) at the beginning of 1992.  He lives in Zagreb and serves as Country Representative for the ex-Yugoslav states of Croatia and Bosnia. 


And can the weighing of flour and the ordering of roof tile stimulate the mind of a former professor?  The LWF's program in Croatia and Bosnia is not even big:  It only sports one other full-time foreign employee.  In contrast to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which has been feeding millions, LWF's annual budget for ex-Yugoslavia has not yet reached two million dollars.


Hatred and bitterness abound in ex-Yugoslavia, but a program of peace and reconciliation is not part of the LWF project.  In fact, the LWF is active only in Croatian- and Muslim-held territories.  "We prefer to let the World Council of Churches in Geneva take care of what's happening on the Serbian side," Wood explained.  The local partners of LWF in Croatia are simply too sensitive.


Hermina Nikolaisen is the LWF's other foreign employee.  Her efforts also awaken a flurry of questions.  What, one could ask, is the source of her boundless energy?  Nikolaisen, who is an Osijek-based Regional Coordinator, may be the most athletic forty-plus-year-old-woman in northeastern Croatia.  She keeps her much younger, male interpreter panting.  "Ms. Nikolaisen never takes any days off!", he gasped.


Why has she chosen to serve so far removed from her family?  Nikolaisen, a bona fide Bavarian from Munich, is happily married to a Dane.  But Mr. Nikolaisen is not with her in Osijek:  He works for LWF in Mozambique. It can't be the gratitude of the 5,000 Croatian Lutherans that keeps her energized.  The lack of rapport between LWF and Croatian Lutheran leadership pains her deeply.  Yet, the Bavarian, who only arrived in Croatia last November, cannot be a source of that struggle.


Going door-to-door in tiny villages trying to identify the most needy is drudgery.  Ms. Nikolaisen admitted this may be the most difficult part of her work:  "We talk to the people ourselves, we ask about their personal situation, the number of family members, who has been injured, who has work, or who may have been fired because he or she was a Serb."


“We use data from the 1991 census to see where everyone had lived," Wood explained.  "We go from house-to-house to check on the status of each property.  We estimate material needs, but we don't give them money, that would be fatal.  We'll give them materials, but they need to find the volunteers to help rebuild. And when they're done, we hope they'll take in a few refugees."  Luckily, priests and pastors usually come to John and Hermina's rescue:  They know most about the needy within their parishes.


On a lazy Saturday afternoon we met one of them: Ante Mihaljevic, priest in Nustar.  Nustar was one-half destroyed during the fighting in late 1991.  Three-fourth of its residents are being kept alive by humanitarian aid; LWF is therefore supplying 70% of the seed needed to replant the surrounding fields.  The village is located near the city of Vincovci and only a stone's throw from the Serb lines.


“There are always a few bad apples," Father Mihaljevic admitted.  "I've seen people lie about their needs despite documented evidence to the contrary.  But there are beautiful people, too," he added.  "They'll say 'no, thanks,' please give that to someone who is more needy than I am."


A few reasons why

John Wood admires the Croats.  He still believes in Third-World relief, but Croatia is a happy change after years in Africa.  He's thrilled by the determination and spirit of solidarity among the Croats.  "In Bjelovar, the Yugoslav army shot up every house along the street when their tanks departed in 1991," he stated.  "But today, one sees very little damage there.  All those repairs were made without external help.  They did it themselves."


Stories circulate regarding citizens of Osijek or Mostar, who refused to stop repairs on their houses during artillery attacks.  In fact, repairs on the Lutheran parsonage in Osijek were never delayed by incoming shells.  Today, it stands proud and intact besides the damaged Lutheran church.  


In Ivanovac and Nustar, LWF is helping to repair houses only several hundred yards from the Serb lines.  War may yet return there, but Hermina would regard it as "moral and emotional torture" to keep the residents waiting longer for repair materials.


“People are sharing their living quarters with others whom they had never known before," John marveled.  "A spirit of hospitality can suffice for a couple of weeks, you know, but not for a year and a half!"


LWF cooperation with many Croatian and foreign relief agencies is intense; the small Baptist denomination's connections to industry help all.  A refugee center in Osijek has been opened by the Catholic organization "Caritas".  But the towels and bedsheets, thanks to Ms. Nikolaisen's support, are "Lutheran".


John Wood wants people to live as normally as possible, even though war is an abnormal event.  In the villages south of Osijek, LWF is luring families back into their homes by distributing seed and rebuilding schools.  Even the initial flight of families needs to be controlled according to Wood.  He believes foodstuffs need to be "prepositioned" now for the coming winter in Bosnia.  "It's a pity that so many donor programs don't have a mandate to stop people from becoming refugees," he notes. "Many people only become refugees because they were cut off from the usual supply channels."


Increasing the “absorbative capacity" of existing housing is another favorite LWF-buzz word.  John Wood believes it cheaper to house refugees by repairing existing structures rather than building from scratch.  He intends to keep disruption of every-day life to a minimum, to emphasize local support, and only to donate those items which the endangered population requests.


Despite its smallness, Wood believes LWF can be a catalyst, that it can plant brave new ideas in the minds of much larger organizations. It is the dream of hatching something bigger which keeps Wood from postponing his retirement and Nikolaisen laboring on the Sabbath.  In January, LWF was named the primary church relief coordinator for all Croatian-controlled territories.  Apparently, someone is watching.

Bill Yoder

Evanston/IL, April 5, 1993


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 1200 words


Note in January 2021: As of 2017, Hermina (I also see the spelling “Hermine”) and her husband Niels were still active in relief work for the LWF in Ethiopia. John Wood is deceased.