September - November 97
From September to November 1997 I was in Croatia for a three month voluntary position at a project called the Dunjak Shelter. This was organized through the International Voluntary Service/Service Civil International (MTV position VCZ 11.8), although it is not an IVS/SCI project in itself.
Dunjak is a really tiny village in the Krijina region of Croatia. This region is ethnically Serbian. It declared autonomy during the war, but a few months before the Dayton accord the Croatian army swept through the area and most of the Serbs left. Some have returned in the last year.
The shelter provides a home for about 20 old people who can't cope on their own, and is also a base for various humanitarian aid like distributing clothes and wood stoves and doing house repairs.
A destroyed house next to some abandoned, live, munitions
The situation in the region is quite bad for a lot of people. It's a very rural area and most people are quite old. Their farms have been neglected for several years and their houses are generally in terrible condition. It's not so much the military caused destruction that's depressing. There's actually not too much of that and I've seen bombed buildings before, when I went with an aid convoy to Sarajevo last year.
The truly sickening part is that most of the destruction has been caused by "normal" people, rather than the armies. After the ethnic Serbs fled the area, the remaining locals looted the houses, often taking more or less everything, including doors, window frames, and frequently the roof! And good chance after that they'd burn the house out.
I spent a couple of months doing emergency repairs on houses in the area. Fitting glass in windows, sealing roofs with plastic, building doors, testing people's well water for contamination, etc. We even rebuilt the race (the funnel for the water) for a small water powered corn mill.
The project then got a grant from UNHCR to provide firewood to people in the area. I was put in charge of assessing who needed firewood and who already had enough. The major aid agencies (UNHCR, Red Cross, etc) had given us lists of people who had recently returned to houses in the area. I had a translator with me, a man with a Serbian father and Croatian mother. We drove a couple of thousand kilometres, a lot over farm tracks, and assessed over 300 houses in a month. It was interesting to get a wide view of the condition of the people and houses in the area, and valuable work for people who depend upon wood as their only source of heat and cooking fuel during the harsh winters.