Balkans: A Lasting Legacy
In their offices in the heart of the beleaguered city, a small group of IRC workers hit upon an innovative plan: a seed distribution program to help the increasingly desperate Sarajevans grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards or apartment terraces. It is the first step in what will become one of the IRC’s most heroic relief efforts—an effort that will continue for 14 years and involve lifesaving work throughout the Balkans.
“We were seeing an industrialized country descend into chaos,” recalls John Fawcett, the IRC’s Bosnia program director in 1993. “It was an environment for which we had no previous experience.” In response, the IRC improvised and adopted unorthodox methods. Rather than coping with the logistics of moving tons of aid into battered Sarajevo, for example, the IRC contracted with local factories to produce the supplies there. The IRC also provided seed grain to farmers to reduce the number of food convoys. “The economic activity helped people to withstand some of the miseries and also helped them to resist fleeing their homes,” Fawcett says.
One project was deemed so risky few thought it possible. Braving withering sniper fire, IRC engineers drew water from the Miljacka River, which winds through the center of Sarajevo, and piped it to safer areas of the city as drinking water. They hid the pumps and filter systems in tunnels to protect them from shelling. The engineers painstakingly repaired Sarajevo’s bombed out electrical and heating systems, projects that took two years to complete. Over 600 tons of supplies were transported over treacherous Mount Igman on a narrow, winding dirt track controlled by Serbian gunmen.
By the time the 1995 peace accords ended the siege of Sarajevo, the IRC had saved thousands of lives and brought food, water and light to the city’s populace. We then shifted our focus to the victims of war and destroyed communities in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans.
In 1998, when clashes between advancing Serbian forces and rebels in Kosovo ignited the last of the Balkan wars, the IRC launched one of its largest aid programs, providing extensive humanitarian aid and repairing thousands of homes, electrical facilities, roads, hospitals and schools. The IRC distributed food and medicine to tens of thousands of people in Croatia, lent assistance to Serbian refugees fleeing Croatia and Bosnia, and established emergency aid and reconstruction programs in Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro.
As peace gradually returned to the Balkans, the IRC began closing its programs, having assisted millions displaced by conflict. The IRC’s program in Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo closed in 2004, followed by Croatia in 2005. The Bosnia program closed in April 2006.
”Our years in the Balkans were without a doubt some of the finest in our history,” says Greg Beck, the IRC’s regional director for Asia, Balkans and Caucasus. “We saved the lives of many, many people and left a lasting legacy of change in the region.”