The last story
It was a regular Monday. A day when CBAid set up sanitation container units in the refugee camp “Lipa” in Bihać.
In that camp, there is currently a few thousand people surviving on one meal a day provided by the European Union through the International Organization for Migration, an organization running the camp. The site is located out ide of Bihać, around 30 minutes by car, settled deep in the woods. There was no infrastructure, no access to water or sewage, as well as no electricity.
Just to remind ourselves of the context of the beginning of the crisis and CBAid’s ministry in Bosnia, through providing aid and support to refugees: due to the politics in the country, refugees are often used both as ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments, depending on what fits the current government. Today, there are over 15 000 refugees in Bosnia, roaming the country without any official support that would firstly provide adequate locations for housing, and give people accommodation. In two years, only a handful of camps have been opened, with maximum limitation on the number of people that can be received.
Several other countries such as Austria, Qatar, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, Czechia, donated generous funds and logistical support to Bosnia to help refugees and build camps. A very small portion of that money and logistics actually reached those in need. At the beginning of the crisis in Bosnia, many non-government and faith organizations got involved, especially through distribution of basic items such as food, clothes, blankets, etc. However, what was missing the whole time was this decision by the government to set locations for building camps so that refugees could have adequate accommodation. The reasons for not making that decision often find their source in corruption, but we can leave that aside for the moment. The number of refugees grew and it was visible that Bosnia is becoming the new route for refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa towards their desired destinations – western and northern Europe. Since the first day, CBAid joined the cluster group of organizations, led firstly by UNHCR, and then by IOM. Several organizations took part in this: IOM, Save the Children, Danish Refugee Council, Jesuit Refugee Service, Doctors Without Borders, No Name Kitchen (NNK), Red Cross Bosnia, and CBAid as the only Protestant organization. In that first meeting, NNK stated that the largest number of refugees was located in Velika Kladuša and addressed the big issue of a lack of adequate sanitation conditions that would help keep up health and prevent spreading of disease. They asked if anyone would help them build showers so refugees can have access to clean water to shower and wash their clothes. At that time, large numbers of families with children was living in the fields, near a dog shelter. It was a dreadful sight. Sick stray dogs and families with small children, malnourished and hypothermic, living together in hand-constructed nylon shelters. Due to loads of bureaucratic complications, that find their roots in former Jugoslavia, this region is a sensitive area. Therefore, lots of organizations couldn’t get involved in the work in Kladuša because the local government wouldn’t allow it, or any humanitarian work. In this situation, CBAid was a living testament of God’s hand. We asked for a meeting with the major of V. Kladuša and were accepted without problems. We spoke openly and in a friendly manner, explained our point of view, why we feel it is necessary for refugees to have access to water and showers, shortly educated the operations group of V. Kladuša about the importance of sanitation for prevention of diseases, etc. Without too much conversation we got our approval and we started our project. The location that was provided was a former slaughter house, which was used as a space for torturing and raping women during the war. It was a ruinous building that NNK volunteers cleaned and prepared for the showers. This was an image of how God can turn something that was used for destruction of lives, into something that serves as a source of living water and protection of life. The meetings of the cluster group were every 15 days. At the next meeting, we were invited by IOM to actively participate in setting up the WASH infrastructure in new locations assigned by the government. One of the locations was a former factory of electronic devices “Bira” and the other was a students’ home that was never finished. With the help of partners, CBAid set up sanitation units in both camps, and distributed hygiene packets, clothes and footwear. When another camp was opened, “Miral”, CBAid again provided sanitation units that to this day serve over 400 people. We are deeply grateful to God for sending prophets to us that have guided us where to go and what steps to take in order to help those in need.
At that time we were working both in V. Kladuša and in Bihać. The situation in Bihać, however, became complicated at one point. We developed a really good relationship with the Red Cross in Bihać, that then opened the door for us to serve in the illegal camp “Vučjak”, as the only other NGO. That camp was located far outside of town, on a landfill near the border with Croatia, with the goal of forcing refugees to leave the canton as soon as possible.
But God’s work and his glory were evident in this situation as well. We had to search for an apartment where our coordinators can stay while they work in Bihać and V. Kladuša. The apartment that was best for us turned out to belong to the cantonal Minister of Defense. That opened many door for us, not only for our refugee work, but also for networking among politicians and government structures. The cantonal Prime Minister invited us to help him with advice, and gave his support to our humanitarian work. CBAid is still actively involved in Bosnia within all refugee camps (2 in Sarajevo and 4 in the unsko sanski canton) and outside of camps through our mobile units.
So, back to the beginning. This is the second year of Bosnia facing the refugee crisis within its territory. There is still confusion within the national political sphere, various games being played, some of the locals are triggered by this situation as it brings them back to the war period, others have a strong desire to help and are accepting refugees in their homes. In all that chaos, this is also the year of election. The rhetoric is changing, becoming more aggressive, parties are egging on the people, elevating levels of hatred towards the refugees, which is also increased by the behavior of some of the refugees (internal fights, etc.). The situation is heated. Heated to the point that even CBAid staff have received over 50 death threats because of our work with refugees. However, IOM workers are also facing the discontent of the locals. Most of the organizations have withdrawn from the work, and only a handful of organizations are left, and are oriented towards providing help within the camps. Mass protests are happening in the canton. The local government decided that all refugees found in cities are to be transported to the newly opened camp “Lipa”. However, there is not enough space for everyone there. So, large numbers are settled outside of the camp. IOM has provided tents, while CBAid provided sanitation units and distributing hygiene, clothes and blankets. The increasing influx of refugees is setting the tempo of our work.
As our team was doing distribution of hygiene packets, I was doing monitoring, visiting the camps and overseeing the implementation of the project. It was a regular Monday, and we were in Lipa. I was approached by a refugee called Ali. Our conversation went like this:
“Excuse me sir, are you with CBAid?”
“Yes, my friend. I am the director.”
“Sir, thank you so much. I have seen this logo when I was in Greece. And I see it here in the camps. The only shower we had in Sarajevo was in the container with this logo. Thank you sir for your help.”
“Call me Toma. I’m glad we were helpful to you. Where are you from?”
“From Afghanistan. I tried to cross the border several times but no luck. Every time they take my clothes and shoes. It is really difficult to be here. I have one more question for you. I see the word “Baptist” here. Are you Christian?
“Yes. We are a Christian organization.”
“But you also help Muslims?”
“We help everyone who needs help. That’s what our Gospel teaches us.”
“I’m really happy to meet you. I am Catholic. Being Catholic in Afghanistan is difficult, but God cares for us. He cares also through you who help us. Thank you for that. Can I ask you to pray for me?”
“Can I take a photo with you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You are my friend.”
This is just a part of my conversation with Ali, a Christian from Afghanistan, that has been served by the aid CBAid provides. Every time he tried to cross the border he was robbed of all he had. But seeing his faith and his smile during those minutes that we talked was such an encouragement for me to stay faithful to the Gospel and continue serving people. During those few minutes, several people gathered to listen to our conversation. They were happy to talk to someone. This encounter reminds me of Christ, who met all kinds of people rejected by society. Those meetings were moments of the new life promised in the risen Christ. Our paths crossed that one time, and I haven’t seen him since. My prayer for him is that God would comfort him and give him strength. And for me this is a lesson, to continue serving people and through that know the living God more and more, and to be strengthened by him as I face suffering and the devil’s obstructions that have attacked us from all sides. We continue to testify to the living God.
“Ali, you are my friend as well.”
If you wish to support Croatian Baptist Aid, send your donation to:
Account Name: RUKE NADE (this is Croatian registered name for CBA and means Hands of Hope)
Address : Radiceva 30, 10 000 Zagreb, Croatia
Bank name: Privredna banka Zagreb
Bank address: Radnicka cesta 50, 10 000 Zagreb, Croatia
Bank account / IBAN: HR3823400091110817743
SWIFT ID Code: PBZGHR2X