Roger Cohen, Author,Hearts Grown Brutal
Lindsay Neal, a Brigadistas
Matilda Vatavan, Teotecacinte business woman
Terri Tolkat, Montessori teacher, Jefferson County
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground.
In this edition of Common Ground, a report from Yugoslavia; not about the effects of the current war concerning Kosovo, but rather about the status of refugees still suffering from Yugoslavia’s last war, the one in Bosnia and Croatia.
SANJA STANISIC: So they are not citizens of this country and in the situation when they try to find job, somebody who is citizen will find job easier. And somebody who is citizen also can’t find job easy. So for refugees it is a really big problem.
MARTIN: And then later in the program, the story of a town in Nicaragua and the remarkable affect it has had on the citizens of its sister city in Colorado.
DAVE HARMON: The very fact that under these tremendous odds these people make a life and make a living and in the midst of the misery you find joy, you find dancing….
MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.
With NATO carrying out bombing runs and Serb forces marauding through Kosovo, the world’s attention has been riveted on Yugoslavia’s southernmost province. But with the world focused on Kosovo, attention has turned away from the continuing plight of Bosnia, Croatian, and Serb refugees left homeless by an earlier conflict. There are more than 600,000 refugees in federal Yugoslavia. Most of the refugees live in Serbia and most of them are women and children. Karen Louise Booth recently returned from the region. While there she met a group of ethnic Serb women who were driven out of Croatia during the war that began in 1992. Today the still live as refugees without a country they can officially claim as home.
KAREN LOUISE BOOTH: The story of the war in Bosnia is one of deep betrayals. Betrayal at the political, ethnic, and even family levels. Today many refugees who fled Bosnia or Croatia find themselves still living in Yugoslavia. They’ve lost their homes, their ties to their land, and in many cases, their families. And due to a lack of political agreements between Bosnia and Yugoslavia they live without citizenship to either country. They live, as 62 year old Anna Sestovic puts it, “somewhere between the ground and the sky.”
ANNA SESTOVIC: [as summarized by Sanja Stanisic] So she said that she plans to stay here some time. She can’t go back to her home and to her place of birth because everything, her house is burning. And she hasn’t her house anymore. And she is in Yugoslavia and she, like most of her other people, will wait, will be happen in Yugoslavia.
BOOTH: Anna lives in a housing program for women refugees called “Lastavrca.” It houses eight women in Pancevo, a small town near Belgrade. “Lastavrca” means “swallow.” It symbolizes their present migratory status, and Pancevo has 11,000 refugees in all, nearly one-fourth of the community’s population. All of the women in this project come from the Croatian region of Kriana??, an area where more than 200,000 people were expelled in August of 1995 by a Croatian military campaign aimed at Serbs. Most trekked the 300 miles to Yugoslavia. They didn’t know what would lay ahead for them, facing only the hollowness that exile presents.
Their route of travel was the late Communist President Joseph Tito’s “Brotherhood and Unity Highway.” The name is itself a bitter reminder of all that has been lost since the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Sanja Stanisic is Project Coordinator. She says, unlike a couple of years ago, many of the women have now accepted they will likely never return home.
SANJA STANISIC: They, that’s know, that the situation is different, they can’t sit and wait for the similar or the same like they had. And they start from the beginning.
BOOTH: But for Anna, who only recently took up residence at the project, acceptance of her situation is only beginning to take root.
ANNA SESTOVIC: [as summarized by Sanja Stanisic] And it’s not easy for her to start from the beginning. Because when she back, if she back to Croatia, she have to start from the beginning. And she do not feel that she could do it. She said, “I am alone, I haven’t husband. I have daughter, but my daughter have her own family. And it’s not easy for me to start from the beginning to build my life and to build my house and everything, from the beginning. So I accept that I will stay here.”
BOOTH: But Stanisic says accepting Yugoslavia as their new home is only the first step toward taking root in the new land and applying for citizenship. Because most of the women still hang on to the hope of returning, they’re not ready to relinquish their legal ties to Bosnia or Croatia. But any lingering thread is wearing thin, as stories from those who did take the risk to return make their way back to the housing project. Those who went back found they had no claims on their property. Many homes had been seized by the Bosnia Army. Others returned only to find their property burned to the ground or smashed and looted. Because the countries have yet to work out dual citizenship the women must remain as refugees in Yugoslavia. Stanisic says this puts them at an economic disadvantage.
STANISIC: So they are not citizens of this country and in the situation when they try to find job, somebody who is citizen will find job easier. And somebody who is citizen also can’t find job easy. So for refugees it is a really big problem. So most of them, although for example there are higher education or something like that, work in some markets or try to sell something on the black market or something like that, and I believe they do not feel good in this situation.
BOOTH: Miletza Perovic is 52 years old. In Croatia she was a well-paid teacher. Today she drives the project’s shuttle bus, unable to find employment in schools. Perovic says shortly after the war ended there was a lot of economic assistance from non-governmental organizations. Today, she says, she feels abandoned. Support has dwindled in the wake of the Kosovo conflict and frustration other Western nations have over the Serbian government.
MilETZA PEROVIC: [as summarized by Sanja Stanisic] And she said that in the beginning of the war and first few years in the war there was a lot of humanitarian organization, foreigners and domestic and their aim was to save the lives. And she said, of course it is important to save our lives and most of our lives are saved. But what we have to do with our lives now?
BOOTH: Help from international relief organizations remains sporadic since the end of the war in Bosnia. Some soup kitchens have had to close for lack of supplies. Other kitchens serve up little more than broth or pasta with a few drops of oil, and nothing else. Red Cross officials in the region say the need for humanitarian aid is high but interest among donors is not. As a result the Red Cross was faced with cutting back support on some programs, including soup kitchens and aid for economic development programs for refugees.
But the women of Lastavrca are attempting to take control of their own financial destiny. They’re doing this by marketing crafts like tablecloths, weavings, and pot-holders, to groups like peace organizations in the US. Lastavrca residents are also gaining a reputation for excellent cooking. A house run catering business is getting the business of social organizations and officials in Belgrade who are responsible for providing food at meetings. Stanisic says the women’s confidence goes up when they feel they can be self-sufficient.
STANISIC: Next level of support to refugee group is if you help them to sell it, or to buy them, from them something if you really need this. Whenever somebody like to support us in selling in market it is very nice for us. Because in Yugoslavia, economic situation is not so good, so it’s not to sell products. So it’s very good kind of support of refugee group, if you help them to sell their products.
BOOTH: Laurence Goldman is a native New Yorker who helps refugee women become thriving entrepreneurs in Yugoslavia. She says the catering business is just one of many examples.
LAURENCE GOLDMAN: The foundation of any economy is going to be a strong small, it’s going to be small businesses. So at least to start feeling positive and feeling there’s some room there. That women can maybe possibly move.
BOOTH: Goldman says more and more women are beginning to open up small business ventures. Many recognize that the black market is not the only way to make money. But the remaining obstacles are many. Starting a small business is a huge financial risk when the nation’s economy is continuing its downward spiral. As Goldman and others point out, it’s never easy being a refugee. But what’s even worse is being a refugee in a poor country where there’s no credit. The economic, political, and social fragility of the region is rooted in ancient hatreds among Croats, Serbs and Muslims. Now, with the conflict in Kosovo, past histories between Serbs and ethnic Albanians are at the core of disagreements and hatreds. Former Balkans bureau chief for The New York Times, Roger Cohen, says the theory is really far too simplistic, however. In his new book Hearts Grown Brutal, Cohen says the war in Bosnia was not inevitable as some in the international sphere have suggested.
ROGER COHEN: People have been living together in Bosnia in peace for 50 years, since the end of the Second World War. There were Serbs—that is to say people of the Orthodox Christian religion; there were Croats, who are Catholics; and there were Bosnia Muslims. But those distinctions had ceased really to have very much meaning. These people were living together, certainly in the big towns like Sarajevo and Musta??. They were often intermarried. There communities were all mixed. Their fishing clubs, their soccer clubs were all mixed. They didn’t look at each and think, “Oh you’re a stranger to me.” And it took the introduction I think of a virus of nationalist hatred from on high—that is to say, from Slobodan Milosevitch?? in Belgrade and to a lesser extent from the Croat leader Tuchman?? in Zagreb, to suddenly push these people back into their ethnic identities and then the killing began. When violence is introduced, when somebody shoots your child or something, it’s very hard to stop that spiral once it starts. But I think before the war people simply were not thinking in those terms. And of course under Tito, who ruled for a long time after World War II, under a Communist system, religions were very much secondary. So those religious divisions really did not exist.
BOOTH: Does Cohen see much hope on the near horizon?
COHEN: Not really. I don’t see many signs of hope at the moment. After an enormous investment of forces—American forces, money—Western money, we have had peace for 3 years. Or at least the absence of war since Dayton. And of course when people, you do drive through Bosnia now and see markets where people are mixing again, buying things off each other. You have to give it time, for these economic links. Maybe some people from different communities will make friendships, fall in love; these are the kinds of things that gradually build up the links between people again. But I think that the American commitment of soldiers now to Bosnia, they’re going to have to be there for ten years minimum to act as a kind of, make Bosnia a kind of a protectorate—Western protectorate, while these links are slowly built up. So I see, I guess, faint, faint signs of hope in Bosnia. But I think Kosovo will probably get worse before it gets better.
BOOTH: And as though relief organizations are not strained enough by the refugees left homeless by the Bosnian war, new arrivals crossing over the border of Kosovo every day are making the situation even more tense.
For Common Ground, this is Karen Louise Booth reporting.
MARTIN: We’ll break for a moment here and when Common Ground continues, a report on a highly developed sister city relationship between towns in Colorado and Nicaragua, and how that relationship has affected people’s perspectives.
LINDSAY NEAL: It kind of made me re-evaluate my life, realizing that, I guess I kind of leaned what life is all about and that it’s not about having all these things. It’s not about, you know, having what you want; it’s about wanting what you have and being happy with where you’re at.
MARTIN: Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities that provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MARTIN: Glenwood Springs is a suburb of Denver. Teotecacinte is a town in Nicaragua. The two communities have a sister city relationship that is deep and wide. Teotecacinte has garnered substantial economic benefit from the relationship, while the people of Glenwood Springs have had their lives enriched. Nick Eisenberg has the report.
NICK EISENBERG: Terri Tolkat is a Montessori teacher in the Denver, Colorado suburb of Jefferson County. In 1989 she was a student at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs, taking an ethics class from Dave Harmon. She had been politically active in high school, trying to get the Contras in Nicaragua disbanded and eliminating US intervention in El Salvador. So when Professor Harmon started talking about injustices in Central America, she not only listened she made a suggestion.
TERRI TOLKAT: I suggested that we ought to do something instead of just talking about it.
AIRLINE TICKET AGENT: [announcing a flight at the gate] Good evening ladies and gentleman and welcome to Continental Flight 769 with service to Managua. At this time I would like to remind you that this a non-smoking flight….
EISENBERG: Harmon heard her and her suggestion became a school club called the World Awareness and Action Society, which soon organized the Glenwood Springs Friendship City exchange, a sister city program between Glenwood Springs and Teotecacinte, a war-torn, poverty-stricken town of 5,000 people in northern Nicaragua. In the ten years since Terri Tolkat’s suggestion more than 320 volunteers called “Brigadistas” have visited Teotecacinte and lived with families there through the Friendship City Exchange program, radically changing the lives of people on both continents.
[sound of running water]
EISENBERG: The first change, and the biggest, is here at the Rio de la Mon?? It’s a quiet river now but this used to be a very busy place. It was where everyone used to bathe, wash their clothes, and where women in the village spent half of each day putting river water in buckets then carrying it home on their heads for drinking and cooking. Polluted water that according to Teotecacinte business woman Matilda Vatavan, was making everyone sick—very sick.
MATILDA VATAVAN: [via a translator] Maybe it was diarrhea, which was the biggest problem. Everyone around seemed to have diarrhea. Also what people, when they would go down to bathe in the river they would feel sort of itchy or their skin would hurt and burn because of the venom of the poison that people would pour into the river, the different sort of chemicals that they would use on their crops; they would pour that into the river and the people who were going down to bathe in the river, their skin would be affected by that.
Many children died. We don’t know of what. Their mothers wouldn’t take precautions. Their mothers didn’t boil the water that they would use in their bottles, that they were making formula and they wouldn’t boil the water that they would give to their children. So many children died at that time.
[sound of running water]
EISENBERG: Women no longer have to carry polluted water. Clean, chlorinated water is carried through pipes into the yard of every home in Teotecacinte. The water comes from a system paid for through another Colorado sister city program, the Boulder Howapa?? Friendship City Project. It installed, with labor supplied by Glenwood Springs volunteers, and at least one volunteer from every family living in Teotecacinte at the time it was built.
MATILDA VATAVAN: [via a translator] Now it’s very, very rare to find a case of a child dying. Maybe it might be some other kind of disease, but it’s never because of dehydration from diarrhea. It almost never happens.
EISENBERG: There was a sixty percent drop in cases of children’s diarrhea requiring hospitalization in the first year of the water system’s operation. And when an epidemic of cholera swept Nicaragua, not a single case was reported from Teotecacinte. And children are no longer dying from polluted water. And since people no longer expect many of their children to die, and because they no longer need girls to help carry water, families are even having fewer children.
In 1993 Lindsay Neal was going into her junior year at Glenwood Springs High School. She decided to join a group of Brigadistas who were coming here to build a health center.
LINDSAY NEAL: I became interested in going down to Teotecacinte because of my grandmother Emmy who worked at Colorado Mountain College in college and Dave Harmon had asked her to go down and start working with a group of women in a sewing cooperative. And so she’s been going down for a couple of years and working with these women. And she’d come back and show d me her pictures and tell me all her stories. And I was kind of interested in going down then and just decided it would be a fun way to spend a couple of weeks, get to spend some time with my Grandma, travel, and see some new things.
EISENBERG: Later she said, “I’ve never witnessed first hand such poverty. It was a real eye-opener to me. I just kind of figured that everywhere it was like Glenwood in its own way.” On the plane on the way home Lindsay was talking to Colorado Mountain College English professor Doug Evans Pitanko?? about how said it was that the kids she met who were her age were unable to go to school beyond 6th grade, because the closest high school was too far away and too expensive. So she asked Doug what it would take to build a school down there. He said about one million pennies, which is $10,000, a project the Friendship City Exchange was only dreaming about putting on its wish list. A year-and-a-half and 1,100,000 pennies later, Lindsay had raised money. But the people of Teotecacinte didn’t wait for all of the money to begin building.
NEAL: As we were raising money the school was being built. So that as we collected the money we would send it down so that they could start buying the supplies and begin construction.
EISENBERG: Again, Brigadistas supplied part of the labor. But the school was primarily built by the people of Teotecacinte. Everyone with even just a few moments to spare went to the school site and helped day and night until the three-room school was completed. And now kids and adults go to school both day and night. The first year the school was in existence it took first place in academic excellence in northern Nicaragua. So far 42 students have graduated from a three-year education program and 14 from a five-year program, most of whom will go to college, which is free in Nicaragua. Dave Harmon.
DAVE HARMON: It just expands their opportunities. Unbelievably. It’s just hard to estimate what it does for the young people in the community. When we opened it the first year the girls outnumbered the boys 2-1. And that has persisted. They know that education is the way out. It’s just amazing to watch them study, to see them work. There was a little lady here who graduated from grade school the year before we opened the high school. And rather than miss her chance she walked into Howape?? and enrolled herself in high school and she walked every day, 5 days a week, she walked 12 miles one way to go to school. She would leave the house at 4:30 in the morning, come back at about 7:30 at night. Spent more time walking than in school. And was getting straight A’s. This is the kind of dedication these young women have. They know that if there’s a chance they’re going to try to get it to get out of the daily grind of poverty. People understand they have this one opportunity. They blow it, then there they are, you know. They got nothing else to look forward to.
[sound of digging]
EISENBERG: This trip the Brigadistas are helping build a fence around a community forest. The trees will be used for firewood. The fence will keep cows from eating the seedlings, which had been a big problem. Dave Harmon says it’s the last major project. Glenwood Springs Brigadistas will still be visiting Teotecacinte because they really are friends. But it’s time to find another city in more need of help in Nicaragua or even other countries. He’s already visited Haiti and Bangladesh.
The almost finished fences are already working. Cows heading for a section that’s been completed are changing their minds and looking for dinner somewhere else. But all their projects haven’t been spectacular successes like the water system and the school.
[sound of machinery in a machine shop]
EISENBERG: Antonio Diaz is turning a leg on a lathe for a bed here at a woodworking co-op for veterans disabled from both sides of the Contra war. But he’s only one of the few people to still be working here. The sewing co-op started by Lindsay Neal’s grandmother Emmy Neal, made very little money. But she’s taught some women to sew and got them sewing machines, which they use for their families, and some to earn money. And the bakery co-op, built to create jobs for single mothers, many of whom were widowed in the war, is being rented to people operating it as a regular business. Most of the people left their co-ops to get new jobs available in expanding near-by tobacco fields, which provide regular paychecks as opposed to the fluctuating incomes of small businesses. Dave Harmon says, even thought the co-ops haven’t succeeded financially, it doesn’t mean they didn’t help the community.
If you had seen particularly the single mothers, for whom the bakery was built, they were a very defeated group. They were reduced to begging, other than those who had families that could support them, and working part-time in the fields during the planting and harvest season, which is not year-round employment. Through the process of developing that little business they became self-confident; their very appearance changed; their attitude toward life and toward each other and toward the community was altered. And so when they go to the tobacco industry they go with confidence and abilities that they didn’t have before. So, there, you know, there’s a real success there.
The road to Nicaragua hasn’t been a one-way street. People from Glenwood Springs have also been helped by the two city’s relationship, but usually in more abstract ways. Doug Evans Pitanko has become so close to the family he stayed with in Teotecacinte, he bought them a pregnant cow, which has become a small herd, replacing the one they lost in the war. And he plans on retiring here. Lindsay Neal is now 22. She graduated from college with a degree in Spanish instead of elementary education like she had planned, and she’s on her way to a Master’s in International Development.
But the biggest change in Lindsay isn’t her major. Like most people who visited Teotecacinte, it’s her values.
LINDSAY NEAL: It kind of made me re-evaluate my life, realizing that, I guess I kind of leaned what life is all about and that it’s not about having all these things. It’s not about, you know, having what you want; it’s about wanting what you have and being happy with where you’re at. I think that those kids demonstrate that in their daily lives, and even though they’re living in extreme poverty that they always come around with a smile on their face and ready to work hard at whatever it is they’re getting ready to do.
EISENBERG: Terri Tolkat, who’s comment in Dave Harmon’s philosophy class started the whole program, moved on from Colorado Mountain College to a four-year university and is one of the few people who have never been down here. But she says she’s learned that one person and groups of people working together sure can make a difference. And she says she tries to teach her students some of what Dave Harmon taught her. In the meantime, Dave Harmon is retiring from CMC soon. But he plans to continue teaching part-time by taking students here into other Third World countries where they can learn first-hand about the poor and all they have to offer.
DAVE HARMON: They need to understand that they need to know the poor. A lot of things have benefited from bringing people down here is that they get to know who poor people are. And all the stereotypes we have of poor people being lazy and inept and incapable, simply, you just do not find that here. I mean you just don’t find it. The very fact that under these tremendous odds these people make a life and make a living and in the midst of the misery you find joy, you find dancing and art and music.
[sound of Nicaraguan music]
EISENBERG: For Common Ground radio, I’m Nick Eisenberg in Teotecacinte, Nicaragua.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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