Rita Plotnikova in Belgrade
On April 18, 254 children from 75 cities in Serbia and Bosnia, accompanied by the Red Cross workers, arrived in Belgrade en route to Athens for an Easter holiday.
These two-week holidays are organized three times a year – at Easter, Christmas and in the summer – as part of a joint programme implemented by the Hellenic and Serbian Red Cross Societies. The programme started in 1993, after the hostilities in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia had displaced thousands of people.
“The war is over now,” says Sladjana Dimic, Serbian Red Cross coordinator, “but there is still a long way to go before normal life is restored for children whose families have lost everything in the war, and who are today facing many other social problems. We do our best to support this programme initiated by our colleagues in Greece.”
All the children are neatly dressed, excited and smiling in anticipation of experiencing new things. One can see from their modest behaviour and the crumpled plastic bags that contain their possessions that theirs is not an easy life.
At the same time Greek families are awaiting their little guests with lots of care and some presents too. What do these children need most of all? Seven-year-old Milan says, “Pyjamas for my Daddy and some bricks ... We need to build a house in Avala,” he explains, referring to the hilly suburb of Belgrade where he lives.
“In Greece, the Red Cross is well aware of the problems the displaced families have to face today in our neighbouring countries,” says Maria Tranga from the Hellenic Red Cross.
“The Athens municipal council and Red Cross branch leaders all over the country help us to find host families. The HRC is investing about 6,000 euros a year to support the programme," she adds. "But apart from this there are very strong bonds between people that have developed as a result of this cooperation - this is something we shall never be able to stop.”
In Belgrade the minutes before the departure are always exciting for Dr. Mirjana Bogdanovic, a Red Cross volunteer from New Belgrade. “As a practicing paediatrician, I know the health of our children – both physical and psychological - has been severely damaged in the past ten years and most of them need rehabilitation,” she says.
“With this trip they get a chance to take a breath in a warm and comfortable atmosphere that the Greek people create for them. They get possibilities they cannot have at home: some children cannot even leave their homes because they do not have proper documents. Here the Red Cross can help,” Mirjana says.
She will accompany the group on their 36-hour journey to Athens. Two days later she will return to Belgrade. “I always go with them. This is my small input in the programme.”
Although the returnee process continues in Serbia, according to the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are still 205,000 displaced people in Serbia living in collective centres, host families or in overcrowded dwellings provided by local authorities. Those who return to their home villages often find their former property in ruins. Neither do they benefit from the growing macro economy indices. The Red Cross steps in to support the most vulnerable.
“It is not an easy task to decide who will go on holidays in Greece,” says Nikola Vicitevic, Secretary of the Red Cross branch in Lapovo, 110 km southeast of Belgrade, who brought five children from his district. “And although the criteria are clear - children who lost their homes, parents or families as a result of the conflicts - there are still many more than we can take.”
According to Vesna Milenovic, Secretary General of the Serbian Red Cross, since 1993 about 8,000 children have benefited from these restorative breaks in Greece. “It is good for our children, it strengthens the ties between our organizations and it builds good will between our nations,” she says. “We are grateful to our Greek friends who want to continue the project as the need is still so obvious.”
Milenovic says that raising funds for the programme in Serbia is difficult, so the Hellenic Red Cross and Greek families cover most of the cost. The Serbian Red Cross deals with the organisational formalities for the trip - passports, visas and transportation to Belgrade.
Sladjana Dimic has been coordinating the programme since 1993 and she remembers the time in 1995 when she and her colleagues were accompanying 1,360 children crowded into 11 train wagons.
“The departure for home was delayed as the Red Cross had to find the children’s families. By the time of our return they had dispersed around the country by the military and social conflicts in Yugoslavia,” Sladjana recalls. Only once have the holidays been cancelled - in the spring of 1999, due to the bombing of Belgrade.
“When the holiday is over we bring all the children back. No matter how much they like their new friends, they all want to come back home,” she says. “These holidays in Greece give them hope that life is not all bad and harsh, that there are friends in other parts of the world who will always think of them and care.”
Zorica Malicjocic is helping her nine-year-old twins Sarra and Stephan get on the bus. “I am very excited about this trip,” she says. “With the good reputation the Red Cross has, I have no worry putting my children into their kind hands. My life is hard and rather gloomy. Maybe the future will be better for them. But in the meantime the Red Cross gives my children a chance to have a better present.”
Serbia and Montenegro: appeals, updates and reports
Yugoslav Red Cross
Hellenic Red Cross
Make a donation