|Volume 10, No. 2||FALL 2007|
|Celebrating IOCC’s 15th Anniversary|
Bosnia: A Family Returns, A Nation Moves Forward
(above) Father and son Djuro and Dusan Latinovic in 1998, the first family to return to their village with the help of IOCC following the Bosnian war; (right) Djuro and his wife, Danka, today on their farm in the Bosanski Petrovac region. IOCC Bosnia-Herzegovina
Veteran IOCC Bosnia staffer, Dragan Isaretovic, remembers August 20, 1998 well, the day that Djuro and Danka Latinovic with their son Dusan courageously became the first to return to their village of Vrtoce in the Bosanski Petrovac region in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Their other son, Ranko, had been killed in the Bosnian War, and they were driven from their farm in September 1995 when fighting intensified. They fled to Derventa (155 miles away) with thousands of others and lived a bleak existence in a garage finding work wherever they could. “Returning to your home at the end of the Bosnian War was not a simple matter,” recalls Isaretovic. “The security situation was still unstable, and no one could guarantee your safety.”
In 1992 nine-month-old IOCC opened an office in neighboring Serbia, and began running emergency supplies into Bosnia. IOCC, working with the Serbian Orthodox Church, and supported by Orthodox in North America, distributed food and basic hygiene items donated by the World Council of Churches (WCC) member humanitarian agencies. In 1995 IOCC opened an office in Bosnia to continue fulfilling the emergency needs of displaced families, thousands of people just like Djuro and Danka. Eventually, IOCC would help them and hundreds of others return to their pre-war homes.
To facilitate the returns, IOCC staff set up a logistical plan that included extensive interviews with families to determine who was committed to returning to their communities. They took photographs of the villages and assessed local conditions, including the cost of repairing each damaged house. It was also necessary to get local authorities to agree to the reconstruction and returns.
While public tenders were issued for the actual construction work, IOCC often employed a self-help approach whereby the returnees would assist each other. After the houses were finished, two or three times a week, Isaretovic and his colleagues began taking the returnees on “go and see” visits to their villages ensuring that each person saw his house.
Isaretovic recalls wanting to make the day that the Latinovic family returned to their village a major event so IOCC staffers called TV stations and local and international police to be part of their convoy back to Vrtoce. “We wanted others to see that if [the Latinovics] returned, it was safe for them to return as well,” he said. Their convoy included NATO police which guaranteed their safety as they passed the many military checkpoints.
Others would have the courage to return because of the Latinovics. “They became a very important family because people saw them as the first returnees,” says Isaretovic. “Now we begin to live again,” said Danka who was motivated to return to her village despite the risks because she wanted to be able to visit Ranko’s grave daily.
(right) IOCC Bosnia staffer Dragan Isaretovic and a woman who returned to her village through IOCC’s help. In 1998, Isaretovic and his IOCC colleagues set up the logistical plan that would allow 200 families to return to their farms and villages in the Bosanski Petrovac region following the Bosnian War. Isaretovic (above) greets members of an IOCC study tour to Bosnia in 2004. IOCC Bosnia-Herzegovina
IOCC provided the returnees, “support kits” food, hygiene supplies, a major household appliance, and something to
help the families get started a cow, a sheep, seeds and small farming tools.
By 1998 IOCC was able to give even more substantial infrastructure aid through funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Community Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), the U.S.
State Department Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), and Christian Aid. Over the course of the next few years, IOCC rebuilt or repaired almost 700 homes, 5 primary schools, 35 miles of water supply lines and almost 100 miles of electricity networks, benefiting nearly 500 households.
However, rebuilding homes and schools was not enough to enable people like the Latinovic family to return to a normal life. Bosnia had suffered from a civil war and from the loss of an entire way of life as it changed from a socialist system to a free market economy. People accustomed to government controls and guaranteed prices would have no idea what their farms and investments would be worth or even how to market themselves in this new economic reality.
The focus of IOCC’s operations gradually changed to address Bosnia’s new economic and social realities. Four major grants by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed IOCC to create a three-pronged program that addressed Bosnia’s long term needs in the areas of agricultural revitalization, civil society development, and microcredit lending. This program continues yielding impressive results. Thousands of farmers and small business owners have received loans, tractor attachments, green houses, and repaired farm structures. In addition, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations have received capacity building grants, and have been able to send their leaders to IOCC-sponsored training workshops.
For Isaretovic, who today manages IOCC’s comprehensive microcredit program in Bosnia, the experience of helping people return to their homes was unforgettable. “When I now visit the Petrovac region and see life there, I feel joy that I was a small part of that,” he says. “At the beginning, we were restoring this country, but now we are developing it. We are moving forward.”