Bosnian citizens taking action through local organizations
Gutted by fire in 2001, the former Tito museum of Drvar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was only a shell when its reconstruction was begun by IOCC in 2002. Here are "before" pictures of the building prior to reconstruction and during installation of the roof. Set in the hills surrounding Drvar, the building is now a resource center for IOCC-supported community organizations. Photos: Milan Djuric-IOCC
By Chrysanthe Loizos, IOCC Intern
Drvar, Bosnia-Herzegovina (IOCC) From a Tito museum to a headquarters for community groups, the NGO Resource Center in Drvar has had a long and storied history. But today, the building is more about creating a better future for Bosnia than about preserving the past.
The Drvar Resource Center houses six non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide resources and services to Bosnians of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. The Center opened its doors in March of this year in a three-story house with a noteworthy past.
Originally a private residence in the 1930s, the home was abandoned before the start of World War II. It served briefly as the command center of a Partisan brigade and later as a school for communist leaders. After WWII, it was converted into a museum about Tito’s WWII hideout in the hills surrounding Drvar and his crafty 1944 escape from a major German paratroop assault there, aimed at his capture. After the war, Tito rose to power and ruled socialist Yugoslavia with a strong hand until his death in 1980.
The museum remained intact until 1995, when Croatian forces overtook the city. Late that year the museum was looted. A fire ravaged the building in the summer of 2001, leaving only the exterior walls standing.
In 2002, IOCC recognized the need of local NGOs in Drvar for a Resource Center similar to those IOCC had already established in other towns in northwest Bosnia.
IOCC arranged the reconstruction of the former museum’s roof and interior, the installation of a completely new electrical system and telephone lines, and provided office furniture and equipment. In exchange, the local municipal government agreed to provide the use of the building to the local organizations free of charge for five years, and for a nominal rent for the following five years.
As part of its wide-ranging efforts to strengthen these groups, which form the core of an emerging democratic society, IOCC has created Resource Centers in three communities in northwestern Bosnia, renovating buildings with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A Bosnian child (left) works on a computer at the newly-completed NGO Resource Center of Drvar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Center, one of three developed by IOCC, houses six community organizations that provide resources and assistance to Bosnians in need. Photos: Milan Djuric-IOCC
“The Resource Centers that IOCC has established represent the transition taking place in Bosnia today,” said Tina Wolfe, IOCC Civil Society project manager. “Whereas in the old socialist system, individuals relied on the authoritarian state which controlled everything, today in Bosnia citizens are taking action; they are taking responsibility for making positive changes in their communities. These Resource Centers are a stepping stone in that process.”
The Centers provide a range of opportunities and services for community organizations, including the free use of office and meeting space, access to equipment such as computers, fax machines, copiers and scanners, and the opportunity for groups to work side by side, promoting collaboration and cooperation.
Currently, six community organizations are housed in the Drvar Center, as well as the NGO Forum, a representative body for like-minded agencies in the region.
With IOCC’s assistance, the NGO Forum established and now manages an Internet club on the ground floor, offering much-needed computer access to the town's young people.
At the same time, the Internet club provides the Center with revenue to offset operating costs. The Center has plans to offer computer and English classes to youth and adults as an additional source of income.
The largest of the agencies located in the Center, Refugee Return Services (RRS), promotes human rights and democracy, and assists refugees and other people displaced by the fighting of the 1990s who wish to return to their pre-war homes. It does so by rebuilding their houses and repairing infrastructure such as electricity transmission systems.
Social service agencies such as RRS are still relatively new in Bosnia, first emerging at the outset of the fighting in 1993. Local groups have grown since then and work in areas such as emergency relief, infrastructure repair, health, education, job creation and the environment.
Despite providing crucial support to citizens, community organizations in Bosnia continue to face obstacles, including scarce resources, suspicion from the government and a lack of understanding of their missions and activities.
Four of the organizations in the Drvar Center serve young people. One of these is the Drvar Youth Council, which seeks to empower young people ages 15-32. The Council currently has 20 members, “but everyday someone wants to sign up,” said General Secretary Andjelko Rokvic.
For one of its recent projects, the Youth Council mobilized the students of a multi-ethnic primary school to clean nationalist graffiti off the school’s walls, and then to repaint the walls with a mural. “People passing by would join in,” Andjelko said.
Although the grants they have received to date have been relatively small, Andjelko hopes the Youth Council will send the message that even with small funds, they can work to make changes in their community and promote coexistence.
As for the other benefits of the Resource Center, NGOs often cite the ability to meet with one another daily to share their experiences and the lessons they've learned through their widely varied activities. The newer agencies appreciate the opportunity to learn from the experience of RRS, for example.
“Without this, they would cease to exist,” says Nikola Materic, secretary of the NGO Forum. “The building is helping the NGOs, and the NGOs are helping the community by addressing unmet needs and voicing peoples’ concerns.”