Memories from a Croatian Refugee-camp

Shyu, Shyh Yi

Published by Con-Temporary, Nr. 111, 1 July '95. Taipei, Taiwan .


This writing is about my experience in the Non Governmental Organisation Suncokret in the summer of '92.
The war in Yugoslavia started in the winter of '91.
Serbia began to bomb the newly independent Croatia.
I studied in Belgium at the time. I could feel the heat of the war from the media coverage, and my Croatian classmate's anger.
Because of geographical relationship and the ethnic passion the western Europeans opened their arms for the surrender of eastern Europe; the west and the east were one family in the time of the roman empire.
However, western Europe had an economic recession, and the burden of unemployment besides this refugee flood. Added with conservative neo-nazi rebirth.
All these reasons made that western Europe could not make a clear decision about the ethnic slaughter.
The Balkan Peninsula has the title of "Ethnic bomb storehouse". The sparkle of the first world war was in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.
The first world war started from Bosnia, but after four years of war were finished, the independence issue between Croatia and Bosnia was not yet finished. The dark flood of ethnic tension between different people threatened deeper.
After '29, the six countries in the Balkan Peninsula were coined as one country.
During the second World War, Croatia had a fascist regime, supported by the Nazis. Did this Croatian puppet regime execute a secret suppression over the Serb people which were lead by Tito, or is it like my Croatian fiend condemned, that Serb terrorists and Cetniks had already killed 1% of the Croatian and Muslim population in '41......?
Let the historical hatred of different ethnic groups be judged by the historians. But for being a working member of a humanitarian organisation and for searching the truth, I think that the understanding of the historical context is a fundamental base. This understanding offers a condition to better reflect on our historical position and give the humanitarian activity more depth.
Before departure, what kind of feeling for this work?
Why going to the refugee Camp?
Is there any experimental plan that wants to be tested?
In this organisation, there are so many different cultures, so many backgrounds, so many different nationalities: how could they co-operate?
Is the member of a humanitarian organisation 'a God'?
Are the helpers coming to rescue refugees and to bring the refugees out of their miserable plight?
Apart from producing hot tears stories, what kind of experience can community work in the refugee camp offer for continuity and improvement?
All these questions floated in the ocean of my brain during and after the work. They too forced me to write down the working experiences.
(This was also necessary for Taiwanese people to extend their world view, and to make a real imprint on the transition of Taiwan).
The Photo's were taken by my friend Joris Peutz. The drawing work was made in the refugeecamp by myself. I hope the graphic representation could shorten the distance to the feeling on the spot.

The City Image in Zagreb of 1992

After more than 10 hour of train-travel from the railway station of Leuven (Belgium) passing through Germany and Austria, the train arrived in the border town Spritstr. A gang of people, dressed in police uniform rushes into the carriage to check the passports. It is difficult to distinguish between the behavior of these people and a group of robbers. The train stays at the border for more than 10 minutes.
There are some policemen checking, smoking, strolling on the platform. There are some groups of policemen coming and going. At the border I can feel there are many policemen in this country: are they the redundant people from the secret policemen's system in the former communist regime? Or is it because during the war Croatia needs specifically to prevent the incoming of illegal immigrants?
After the train moves again, another middle-aged man, wearing a big belly, and dressed in police uniform, opens the compartments doors one by one. He murmurs a simple sentence repeatedly. A passenger tells me that he was announcing the money-change for tourists. The tourist industry in Yugoslavia's time was indeed very profitable, to offer the money-change service in the train is probably a special heritage from the ex-communist regime.
There are some piles of cardboard boxes piled up in the gangway outside the compartment. The owners of the goods look nervous. Shapeless pressure forms a veil over the owners face and their heavy cardboard boxes.
Are they legal? Are they doing illegal smuggling?
The Yugoslavian socialist system has collapsed, but the economic production has not yet been adjusted. The war started. The chaotic political and economic situation, with a great lack of resources, is offering a fertile soil for the smuggling business and other profitmaking from the war.
On the chaotic graphics, the line between underground economy and the formal economy is floating when uncontrollable big accidents happen.
The war changes the economical demand/supply mechanism. The war rewrites the city-life. This peculiar transportation business is chasing for an alternative profit which is derived from the war.
The sky is getting dark. At eight o'clock, the train arrives in a small town, Tobova. Another group of cops climbs in the train. The typical characteristic of the policemen is: young, probably just graduated from the police school, aged between 20 and 29; some have a 30 year old face but already have a greasy beer-belly.
The contours of these cop's heads, some big, some small bellies, loosely form a line with the platform that composes an interesting paper-cutting.
In the Zagreb railway station, a serious and responsible policeman checks my passport again, carefully, when I step out from the train. It is a special period for security, they must be on guard for spies.
Looking for the house of Suncokret, I am in a restaurant street.
The air of Zagreb's evening of the 25th of July is mixed with hot summer humidity, laughing sounds are carried with the seductive seafood smell from an open air cafe. The charming shadow and the lighting are floating in the shining lamp-ornaments and the wine glasses......
Is this beautiful scenery in wartime?
This stage-like luxurious life, is it to suppress the fear and unstability?
Through the quasi-enemy surrounded border control, enter Zagreb.
Appearing in front of me is the happy, noisy city life. It really surprises me.
But what do I expect to see? A completely bombed-out city? Like the troubling city-pictures in the media? Am I 'eager to search' for this kind of scene? Is it my intention to put myself in this kind of movie-like war-scenery? What is the purpose of my coming here? To bring a bullet as a souvenir from the battle?
The city-image is based on the observer's life experience, it is the co-ordinate grid that corresponds with the mental image of the real phenomena.
However, it should not just be the reflection of the experience, it should be a critical reflection: a correction of our own existing image.
My first impression of Zagreb-city is completely different from my expectation. Should I rethink my old stereotype of a city in war and rediscover the city? Or should I hold a strong determinate wish to find the image I expected (and am expected to see)? And keep going forward to the east, to the front, where the Serbs are heavily bombarding?
Concerning the goal of going to the Croatian Refugee-camp, my interest is not to perform a great death. To play the role of war-tourist or of a refugee-camp hero, is not much help for the victims and the refugees which have been deprived by the war. Rather than coming to help them, it would be better to put it this way: this city will help me to extend my practice of community-work and environmental planning.
The surprise of my first impression of Zagreb-city means that there are more real-city phenomena waiting for me to discover, but 'image-making' is not only to think, to reflect, but also to do, to change ourselves and to change the reality.
Beyond 'surprise and curiosity' it is necessary to dig in the content of our own existing image, and continue to question ourselves, during the image-producing process.
The first day, as I arrive in Croatia, my Zagreb-city image is like this. When I finish the work, what will the meaning of Zagreb-city be to me?
Retrace the trail by which this city-image was produced and rethink my own working-orientation in Croatia, it is another lesson I learned from the Zagreb-city image.

If only I have one finger left to pull the trigger, I want to go back to the battle field.

There are several types of population in the refugee camp.
The first type: babies and children from zero to thirteen years old.
The second type: The teen-agers, from fourteen to nineteen.
The third type: Woman from twenty-five to fifty-five
And the forth type: old people.
In this special community there are not many man. Where are the young man, where have all the young men gone? Yes, they are fighting at the front. They leave their women, parents and the kids in the refugee-camp.
In the refugee-community, some men. The male residents of the camp can not go to the front, partly because physical inability or special mental condition. Another kind of men, wearing combat suits, either coming to the refugee camp to visit their family or on leave from the front to recuperate. When they meet with their wife, all the suppressed emotions break through. The women in the refugee-camp must squeeze out their energy to sustain their life and the survival of their kids. They have changed. The men wearing combat suits stay in the grocery of the refugee camp. Alcoholic drinks and cigarettes do not leave their hands.
Before they don't know if the other is still alive
between the life and death there is a mysterious unknown
Now, the reunion during the war
is so awkward, there are no words to tell each others misery
there is no start, no end, to express their agony.
As long as the bomb fire continues
the men have to step on the road to the front.
Of all the Suncokret activities, football and basketball are the only ones they can join. They don't only kick the ball. Every inch of their high-tensioned muscles seems to want to kick out their anger. They chase the ball as if they chase the enemy. They get a chance to transfer their barbarian brutality in the ball-game.
One evening Suncokret working members have a meeting with the soldiers who came back from the front. A man wearing one arm in a bandage sits in front, cool from the beginning to the end. A lamp, suspended from a branch of a tree shines on his typical Slavic high-nose.
He does not talk much, but when there is discussion about the situation at the front, the anger is shooting from his eyes, directly into the dark trees, far away.
After a couple of days, I meet him near the grocery. He still wears the combat suit. There is no anger in his eyes. He lays spread out in front of the shop, as well as his alcohol smell. He walks to me, there is some murmur in his mouth. The people in the grocery translate to me: "He said: If only I have one finger left to pull the trigger, I want to go back to the battle field."
To be drunken and to lie in the sand of the battlefield,
my dear friend, please don't laugh about me,
how many have returned from the battle?
The drunk in front of the shop, is he trying to memorise the hero dream, or is he trying to forget the horrible battle scene?
At the front he misses his family, in the refugee-camp he misses the front.
The wounded drunken fighter, where is his battlefield? Where is his enemy?

Between them, the thin gratitude

The working members of this humanitarian organisation can be divided in two groups: the helpers from Croatia and the helpers from the European and other countries. Although the later also learn some simple local language, during the whole work, due to the language and cultural conditions, the Croatian workers can be seen as a bridge between the European members and the refugees.
The Croatian working members themselves are the victims of the war. Some family of these workers are at the front, some have lost their family, some are refugees themselves. The shadow of the war still hangs over them: nervousness, tiredness, strangle them. They focus on their own problem, to them it does not matter why you are here, or what your problem is. The war is the big problem- and it is the only problem.
They don't hide their condemnation of the Europeans or the Americans. Some European workers find out that some Croatian workers unconsciously react in an emotional way against them: "Our country has been in war for a long time. We have suffered for a long time. You should have come to help us earlier. You live in a place without war. You have a home to go back. We live in a pace where the fighting is. Your counties have no war. Your countries have no refugees. Why did the war, the poverty, come to my country? Why haven't I a home to go back?"
After a big accident happens, when there is no immediate solution, but the disaster is becoming bigger and bigger, and there is no considerate management, the 'helpers' coming to rescue risk to become 'the scapegoat'. They deserve to be condemned.
In the first working stage, all the workers are divided into some activity-groups, for example: drawing, swimming, theatre, percussion......
In each group there is a Croatian worker, doing the translation work with the European workers.
In the second working stage, the focus shifts slowly to the Suncokret organisation's center. The working place is mainly in Zagreb-city, the content of the work is more in meetings and communication. The European workers start to be puzzled; it is not clear to them what the purpose of their work is: to help the refugees, or just to help the Croatian workers in Suncokret.
The European outsiders hope that they are helping the refugees, but they are limited by the language and their familiarity with the environment.
In the second stage they start to recognise that: "I am helping the Croatian helpers to help the refugees."
The raw division of 'outsider-European/insider-Croatian' is becoming sharper, corresponding with the rise of the number of Croatian helpers in the Suncokret work.
When the European workers find out that there is a limitation for them to develop a relationship with the refugees, they need to have a preparation to adapt to their new position in the working organisation.
At this moment a conflict develops in the relationship between 'the European-outsider' and the 'Croatian-insider'.
Since the former have accepted the fact that they are helping the latter who helps the refugees, they also expect that the latter will utter their thankfulness for their hard work. However, in the reality, this kind of thankful feeling can not be produced by the helped Croatian workers because the Croatian workers themselves suffered from the war, need more encouragement and thanks than the European workers. If the European workers and the Croatian workers both need a feeling of achievement from the work, could then the Croatian society give them any encouragement? The answer is negative. However, in fact, after working for a certain period we have to admit that the Croatian Society is occupied, that this society is traumatised, that it can't feel too much thankfulness for refugee-work.
The European workers complain with their helped Croatian friends; they don't give them any thankful feeling. Croatian workers complain that the Croatian society does not attach much importance to their work; The Croatian society protests that the International society does not rescue them from the disaster......
All the complaining, condemnation and protest point to the war, which takes the human life, bombs-out the property, destroys gratitude.
The war destroys everything, and causes the gratitude and compensation to become a rare feeling compared with peace-time.

Helpers are not Superman.

Case: A woman has the experience of managing a kindergarten before her fight. In the refugee-camp she tries to organise a kindergarten, and asks for help from Suncokret. After working for a certain period she discovers and complains: these volunteers can not accept the fact that she has higher kindergarten professional education.
These helpers and volunteers are busy to perform the role of the helpers in the refugee camp and they neglect a good chance to learn how to manage a kindergarten from an experienced person who might be a refugee.
Between the working members in the refugee-camp there exists a kind of dangerous 'self-bloating sympathy'. It means that the 'outsider/helpers' think that what they do is always more appropriate than the actions of those that are helped. It is why Superman is Super, it is why Superman can come to help.
The Superman looks normal, like the lay-man in normal condition, but in an urgent situation he will become the 'flying man that can pull the mountains and rivers'. This modern myth is not only performed in the movie-theatre, but also in the refugee-camp.
Between the helpers and the helped the former have reason to think that their resources are greater than the latter', because the latter have lost their families, houses, properties in the war......, even lost their country.
The helped refugees' frame of mind, influenced by the loss of everything, also strengthens the effect of the helpers 'self-bloating sympathy'.
How can the helpers, engaging in the humanitarian work, produce a serum against the Superman-infection?
First of all, this helper has to understand his own limitation. To think about why he or she wants to come here? Apart from contributing the time, what do you have to offer? Besides 'to work', there is 'to think, to work'. Understand yourself honestly is a prescription to prevent the 'self-bloating Superman sympathy' in the refugee-work.
This helper must understand his or her special ability clearly. To be sure, realistically, about his skill. The most important is that the helper is responsible for his or her own work.
In the professional domain, the helper could be better than the other persons, but we must not forget that in the other professional domains the helped could be better than the helpers. Recognising this fact, there is the possibility for the helpers, to accept the help from the refugees. Receiving the help from the refugees is not only to make the relationship between 'the helpers' and the 'helped' more equal, but also to give a chance to let the refugee rebuilt their self-esteem.

The women in the refugee-camp.


About 60% of the refugee-women is smoking. When I ask a woman of around 30 years old with a very handsome face, when she started to smoke, she replied: it started after coming to the refugee-camp.
"Why you started to smoke after arriving in the refugee-camp?"
"I don't know"
Her eyes turn away. I feel I just asked a question that should not be asked.
"How much time did you get to prepare to flee?"
"Half hour."
"What did you bring with you?"
"The kid's clothes. No time for bringing photos."
"Could you contact your friends?"
"The Serbian soldiers were knocking at the door. I escaped through the back door. The address-book with my friends addresses was laying on the table in the living-room. I did remind myself: you must bring it. But I forgot it. Friends...... no way to contact them. "
The leaving-home stories of the other refugees tell the same rush: Lock the door and bring the key, but what use for this key? The house has been bombed or destroyed. Bank's papers, but for what use? This bank does not exist. The bank-saving of the previous life has gone with the bombs. What about the future life?
The past is cut off. Nothing is owned, possessed any more. Can I still go home? Nobody knows. Where to go? Nobody knows.
No home, no job. No husband, no family. She lives a kind of life she never has imagined. During this refugee-time, which has no past and an unknown future, agony and cigarettes, just like that, easily, enters her world.
In the refugee-camp, the refugees are not allowed to go out to work. They are waiting for a message from their family. Being a refugee, the work for 24 hours a day is: waiting. Waiting for food. Waiting for shoes from an humanitarian organisation. Waiting whether there is a chance to transfer to another country. Waiting for the negotiations by the United Nations or the European Society.
Wait, wait, wait. Wait for a future which can't be understood, can't be influenced, can't be prepared for. There is no way to predict.
Wait, wait, wait. How long will the waiting take? The motherland can't answer. The enemy does not answer. The United Nations also have no answer.
In the cigarette advertisement, the cigarette accompanies the strong cowboy, or the smart, confident woman. They are expanding their territories. They have the determinate power, lighting a cigarette helps them to chase for what they want.
In the refugee-camp, the good feeling of the cigarette is not trying to console the tiredness of the cowboy, or to be a symbol of the confident modern woman. Loosing the territory, where to expand? There is only to flee. Do they use the smoking to prove the female confidence? No. In the heat of the warfire, what to prove? Just try to grab one more pair of shoes in the queue, try to contact family or friends, try to leave the refugee-camp.
They are the woman in the cigarette smoke: Hope to do, want to do, have to do.

To make a drawing of them.

A forty years old woman with strong arms is washing and rubbing the clothes with force. The tap water falls with a thunderous sound. Nobody knows why she rubs so hard.
A twenty-years old women with a pony tail is knitting in front of a camp-tent. She bows her head and knits tightly. Nobody could read her feeling. Only the silent melancholy of her knitting hands can be seen.
A small-sized, strong little boys taps me while I am drawing and pulls me, points to the opposite tent. I go with him. He goes into the tent, exited, and pulls out his mother. They sit together in front of the tent. The line is drawn, but I feel the shadow hanging over the mother can not be painted. The little boy moves around excitedly. I also feel I really can't depict him in a stable way.
How much I would like that my drawing ability was powerful enough to draw away the sadness of the mother, to brush away the shadow that weights on her shoulders. If the nip of my pen can express my feelings, how much I hope I could draw the lively eyes of the little boy, let my pen and my sad heart be replenished by his vigorous spirit.

Shyu, Shyh-Yi

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