I haven’t written a post in a couple of weeks. I’ve been back and forth to the US twice–first to be ordained and then a second time to facilitate strategic planning for an environmental organization that I work with, Ceres. So I got home to Tuzla on Sunday night and it was an intense week of getting back into the flood relief work, and the economic development discussions and there were visitors from London and Paris who wanted to know about what’s happening here.
Last Tuesday, I took an artist from Paris up to see the landslide area on Ilinčica–the hill that borders Tuzla city center. We drove part way and then walked. We hit a place where the road has been destroyed. I could see that the houses below us were all akilter. But on the upper side, the house above the slide looked stable. I called out to the man in the garden and asked whether the house was OK. My question led to an hour and a half conversation. (That’s a very long conversation for me given my very limited Bosnian). The man and his wife took us into their house. the first floors were cracked in two–split so that one side of the room was a foot lower than the other. The walls have cracks. The stairway is akilter. Upstairs, the walls have shifted sideways, broken off from their moorings at the floor. Outside the stairs have separated from the house. The man and his wife showed us how the slide had come from two directions, shifting the house and garden down the hill and along it simultaneously.
The personal story that they told was heartbreaking. The husband is missing one thumb–lost in the war. One of his sons was killed in the war, the other committed suicide in Holland. The wife has lost all her hair. I guess that it is stress related. The two of them have moved into their car park–covering it with tin, putting two couches, a fridge and sink in this outdoor shelter. Like camping only without waterproofing. As they talked and talked, we cried. They knew that my Bosnian is limited. So sometimes they must have known that I was understanding only a fraction of the wife’s rapid fire monologue. But she needed to tell the story. She needed me to know what was happening and what it all meant for her. Some of the details, I could see for myself. The ways that they had carefully painted the rooms in the house with soft pastel colors–tangerine, yellow, lavender. Sometimes with a darker color on the ceiling, or one wall that contrasted. This house was not just shelter–they had put themselves into it. The wife told me that they had worked on the house for fourteen years. It showed in the lovely grape vine across the fence in front of the house, the fruit trees planted in the back. One of the few things moved from the house to the shelter next door was the man’s violin. I asked whether he still played–no (and I felt so insensitive for having asked) he cannot play without his thumb.
The tragedy of the losses. War trauma, the trauma of losing children, the disability and now the landslide. There is no making sense of why this family should suffer so much. I prayed with them. I wished that I could speak well enough to pray in Bosnian. If I could have prayed in their language I would have prayed calling for God to be with them as Jesus was with Mary and Martha at Lazarus’ grave (John 11:35). But even without my words, I hope that they knew in my tears, the depth of compassion that I felt for their situation.
I asked as we were leaving about the humanitarian relief the family has received. The woman told me that she has gotten three food packages (i know that these packages contained approximately $32 worth of dry goods) not enough to support you for very long and without any fresh food at all. How could this be that they haven’t received more significant assistance?
As I stomped around the end of last week, I found myself cursing the inefficiencies here. The federal government has been deadlocked in trying to establish an emergency relief fund for international humanitarian aid. Even in this crisis, there is no government will to move quickly and support the people who need the most. I found myself crying again, this time about the government’s blindness.
I was reminded of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem, “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation'” (Luke 19: 41-44).
Looking at the 1000 active landslides around Tuzla–hasn’t this Bosnian regime seen that “not one stone is left upon another” here? Now is the time for the officials to know that the “things that make for peace.” Now is the time to serve the people with special attention to those who need the most.
But in addition to weeping, I’ve been doing my rounds of the relief agencies. I’ve been hearing about a range of strategies. I’ve been bringing food directly to the people who are still housed in displaced persons’ centers. They need fresh vegetables and fruits. In Kiseljak, I’ve brought peppers and tomatoes, cherries and apricots this past week. One member of the community tells me that they will be out of the center by August 10th. (But I don’t yet know where they are going).
But when I was there this past week, I saw something wonderful happening. The youth organization that we supported in the first weeks of the flood (with cleaning supplies, art supplies, and food) has continued to serve this group of children at the Kiseljak center. But now instead of the 12 children who are living there, the youth workers have a group of 30 children. All of them have come from the surrounding village. Most of them Roma families, living in caravans (campers) by the lake or in poor housing that they have constructed themselves. These kids (I have been told) are not consistently in school and certainly the parents don’t have money to send them to sports or other summer activities. So the displaced persons’ center has become a drop-in center for children and youth. While I was there, they were reading stories, playing board games and had piles of art materials for a creative project. The youth leaders (who are volunteers with degrees in psychology) were giving the kids a chance to be kids, to play and express themselves in a safe, clean hall with people who cared. The women staying at the center were preparing lunch–a lunch that would serve not just those who live there, but also the visiting kids.
I felt like this was a system that was working–at least the community based organization had figured out how to intervene in a way that was clearly meaningful and right for the children who lost their homes in the flood and their neighbors. I will see what the youth group needs and see if we can continue to support them in this phase of their work.
Then I went to see a well established NGO with a reputation for doing economic development work, CRP. I had heard that they would be distributing some international aid to flood affected families in nine affected communities. I met with Amir, who is leading CRP’s flood relief efforts. I found out that they are doing several things–offering cash relief in the amount of 360 KM (approximately $250) to families who have lost their homes. This funding comes from a Jewish organization. With the Centers for Social Work in each municipality, they are doing triage of all those who have lost homes–giving the grants to those whose houses have been damaged, who have no income, who have disabilities and who have no means of income. Through their current funding, 164 families will get this relief. It’s a fraction of the families with needs, and $250 will only provide food. But at least right now, it’s something. And I was impressed with the systems for getting lists of families, checking to verify their needs, distributing the money via wire transfers–or in cases where the family could not provide accurate bank information (in some cases due to mental disabilities) then the agency hand delivers cash.
Starting this week, CRP is also distributing money from the European Union ($1.2million Euros), giving 1100 families 2000 KM each. When I asked what a family could do with this, Amir explained that it would buy a used stove, refrigerator and bed. With those things, the hope is that families will be able to make one room of their homes “liveable” until further assistance comes –either from humanitarian aid or from the family’s own resources.
We talked about other money coming in–some for economic development grants of $500-$1000 for small businesses in a few targeted neighborhoods. If the businesses were not totally destroyed, then these grants might help the business get going again–replacing lost equipment, plants or livestock. These grants will be available to only those in concentrated neighborhoods because if the whole neighborhood begins to get back to business at the same time, there is more chance that they will start to sell products and get their micro-economies going again–providing goods and services to other flood affected families in their area.
While I’m dismayed at how little it is, and how many people are completely left out of this triage process, I also felt renewed hope that there is at least a community based project, linked up with international aid organizations (including US AID) that is working in great haste to get some money out to the families who need it most. Next week in Brussells, there will be a conference of all the international relief organizations who will decide how much more they can send to Bosnia. CRP will be there (with 8 other invited NGOs) to help figure out how to get the money out to the flood affected families.
Amir assured me that the neighborhood where I met the man and his wife is part of the service area. Since I don’t know their names or actual address, he couldn’t check the lists for me. But he assured me that if their neighborhood will be getting some relief.
So I am making plans to make more donations this week. I think I will try and follow the Jewish organization’s model and offer a few more cash grants to people didn’t get anything in the first round of relief grants. We can give another fifteen families 360 KM. And I am sure that these families are among the most desparate.
Then I’ll bring food to the soup kitchen and the displaced person’s center. I’ll make a donation to the youth center. And I”ll call World Vision and see how their project to set up more “Child Friendly Spaces” is going. Our donations are going a long way. But it is so little and the needs are so great. Still I weep, as Jesus wept. Keep these families in your prayers.
Here are some more photos of the area around Doboj. If you look closely at the houses you’ll see the mud line–up at the top of the first floor windows. That’s where the water was. The families are now living in the second floor rooms, trying to figure out if they’ll ever be able to dry out the first floor and clean it enough to live there again.
I find myself tired. It’s hard to hold this pain, look for signs of hope, laugh and enjoy good times. And then catch my tears and those of the people I meet again.
(If you would like to make a donation, send it to me: The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding, Discretionary Fund, Episcopal Church of the Nativity, 333 Ellen Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903.