10 December 2003
International Federation of
the Red Cross
Surviving Day-to-Day in Serbia
by Marie-Françoise Borel in
"Just give me a normal job,
and I will be able to buy a house and give my children a
better future." There is frustration, resentment and sadness
in Gojko Grubic's voice as he thinks back on the eight years
which have passed since he was forced to flee with his
parents, his wife, Mira, and their two children from Benkovac,
a village now in Croatia.
Mira, 38, was pregnant then
with their third child. They left their house, their land,
their garden by tractor on August 4, 1995, and entered Serbia
on August 12. The baby was born in Pancevo, a town just
northeast of Belgrade, ten days later.
Gojko and his family are
among an estimated 700,000 people living in Serbia and
Montenegro, who have been displaced by the successive
conflicts in the region since 1991. More than 95 per cent of
them are housed in private accommodation, just like the Grubic
After spending five years
living in a collective centre in Kragujevac, some 90 km south
of Belgrade, they moved to Stara Pazova, 40 km north of
Belgrade, where Gojko thought he would have a better chance of
finding a job. Nearly 40 per cent of the town's population of
60,000 are refugees or displaced.
Gojko, 46, is a plumber by
trade and his wife used to work in a factory. Now, he
scrambles for odd plumbing jobs in private homes. Mira cleans
houses and does some laundry.
"In a good month," Mira
explains, "we are able to make 300 euros, but we pay 75 euros
in rent for the house, plus electricity and school fees.
Today, there is enough for food, but tomorrow? We are living
day-to-day," she says. If they do not come up with the money
to pay the rent, they will be expelled from their small house.
Survival is precarious in
Serbia where, according to the government's latest survey,
published in April 2003, some 1.6 million people, out of a
population of 7.5 million, live at or just below the poverty
line equivalent to 67 euros a month. Those statistics do not
take into account the refugees and displaced people who are
considered even more vulnerable than the local population.
The Red Cross of Serbia and
Montenegro is doing its best to provide them with the
essentials for sheer survival, providing monthly food supplies
- 12 kg wheat flour, 1 kg sugar, 1 litre oil, 1 kg beans per
person - to those over 65 years old and to children. It also
serves 42,000 meals a day to the poorest.
Such help is welcome in a
country where the economy and government resources are
insufficient to meet the needs of the poorest. But with most
international aid ending at the end of the winter, the Red
Cross will have to cut back its assistance.
Milan Skoko, Secretary of
the Stara Pazova Red Cross branch explains just how serious
the situation is in this town, which has received 23,000
refugees since 1992, most of them coming from the Krajina
region in 1995: "The situation is particularly critical. A
large number of people are too young, too old or too sick to
work. And those who can work cannot find jobs. If humanitarian
aid stops, people will starve in the heart of Europe. This
conclusion is drawn from the facts, not from my imagination."
The Grubic family wants to
stay in Serbia, as their house has been burned and return is
impossible for them. They are placing their hope in their
children, and trying to put them through school so they have a
chance for a better future.
The three children are good
students; the eldest, their 19-year-old son, Ljubisa, is
working towards a diploma in technological sciences, while
their daughter, Milena, 17, is studying to be a pharmacist.
They are both in Belgrade since local schools cannot offer
them the same opportunities.
Grandfather Savo Grubic, 75,
has just lost his wife. He says, wistfully: "It's been
difficult for me, but my life is almost over, and now I worry
about my children's and my grandchildren's future."
The situation is just as bad
for the refugees as it is for the local population, says Milan
Skoko. "What will the Red Cross do when we have no more food
to distribute? How will these people survive? They must not be