AIM: start

MON, 02 APR 2001 23:51:56 GMT

Everyday Life in Kragujevac

Who Cares for Refugees

In Kragujevac, a town whose inhabitants have been living on the verge of social poverty for years, refugee tragedies no longer shock anyone. According to the incomplete data, some 120 refugees and displaced persons have died in Kragujevac last year alone.

AIM, Belgrade, March 28, 2001

A four-year boy is feverishly clutching the front door of an old three-storey building in the centre of Kragujevac while his father, rather angry, begs him to come explaining that this is not the building in which they used to live in Pristina. "Before we were forced to flee, we had a flat in Pristina in a building which looks very much like this one. Whenever we pass along this street the boy cries and asks to go home. It is simply incredible how he can remember the building in which we lived because he was very little then", explains his father to passersby who stop to ask why is the boy crying and so feverishly holding the front door knob trying to get into the building. This is just another picture from everyday life of "Kragujevac refugees" who have been forced to live in this town for years.

In Kragujevac, a town whose inhabitants have been living on the verge of poverty for years, refugee tragedies no longer shock anyone. At the times when refugee columns came flooding in, the town did what it could. Today, the possibilities are more modest than ever and donations fewer. The only thing left is to organise a census once more so as to obtain precise data on the number of these unfortunate people who are still wandering around Serbia.

According to the 1996 data of the Commission for Refugees, there were 5,574 registered refugees including 500 children up to 18 years of age looking and "recognising" their homes in strange towns. Despite great willingness of the Town Assembly to help refugees during 1992-1994 period, it managed to secure accommodation in collective centers for only 500 vulnerable families. Today, although registration of refugees is still underway, it is assumed that there are no more than 3,300 of them in Kragujevac. Some 240 infirm persons, who really had nowhere to go, are accommodated in collective centers. The others either returned where they came from or moved to third countries or, simply died. There are still no accurate data on the number of deceased refugees in Kragujevac during the past ten-year tragedy. Social status of refugees is getting worse by the day and, according to Ratko Jovanovic, Director of the Directorate for Humanitarian Affairs of the Town Assembly, hardest hit are those outside collective centers on whom there are no accurate records.

Only children up to 18 years of age and old people (women over 60 and men over 65, as well as chronic patients) are entitled to food aid distributed through the International Red Cross Committee and Republican Commission for Refugees. Others have to make do without it. In a town with practically 20 thousand unemployed workers and an equal number of them on forced vacations, it is getting harder to secure wages for bare survival.

Over the years of exodus, Mental Health Institute in Male Pcelice received 61 patient, while 43 elderly and infirm people got a roof over their head in the Gerontological Centre. Most of them have lost all hope of returning to their homes they were forced to abandon.

The greatest victims of the refugee tragedy are children. Some 25 very young children found a new home in the residential-type Kragujevac School for Children with Impaired Hearing, while four of them were placed in Child's Home "Mladost" (Youth) for children without parental care. It is hard to say what has happened with the others.

According to the official terminology, some 13,220 "exiled and displaced persons" who had been forced to abandon their homes in Kosovo and Metohija (out of which only 541 have found place in collective centers) are currently in Kragujevac. Many of them are on the waiting list for collective centers. They have recently took part in a rally organised by former inhabitants of this southern province in the centre of Kragujevac. They urged the Republican and Federal authorities to end their agony and secure their safe return home, even though they had been burned to the ground. The fact that the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) is behind these protests, which by its wrong policy and fake patriotism has driven them out of their homes, does not diminish the tragedy of these people, among whom there are many children.

In late March, Sandra Raskovic Ivic, Republican Commissioner for Refugees, called upon all refugees to register at the current census because if they failed to do so they would not get their refugee identity card which enables them to use their right to health care, humanitarian aid and accommodation in collective centers. According to news agencies, during her visit to Kragujevac the Commissioner reminded that according to the last 1999 census there were 570 thousand registered refugees from Croatia and Bosnia&Herzegovina in Serbia, but that this time this figure is expected to be much lower.

Namely, figures show that some 50 thousand refugees died in the meantime and another 30 thousand moved to third countries. No one knows exactly how many refugees have died in the past years in Kragujevac alone. According to the data of the Directorate for Humanitarian Affairs, last year alone 120 refugees and displaced persons died in this town. Despite the decision of the Town Assembly to refund funeral expenses to all refugees, funds could not be allocated from the budget for these purposes due to a very difficult social situation in the town. In case of death, the refugee families get 2,000 dinars while those of displaced persons get some funeral accessories from humanitarian organisations. The donated funeral gear is practically all used up so that "displaced and exiled persons" will soon be left without aid which is welcome in the days of mourning.

Registration of refugees in Serbia will be concluded by the end of this month. Despite the assurances of the authorities that it is for their own good and that this registration will not deprive them of any rights, many of them are fearing or still pondering what they might lose and what they might gain. They refuse to register with the census commission despite the offered explanation that the census is carried out just for the sake of obtaining accurate records required by foreign donors.

Census result will be known soon. Question remains how many refugees or displaced persons will live to be registered at the next one due to hard living conditions. One thing is certain - they will not return to their homes soon.

Olivera S. Tomic