Home, utility repair programs sustain lives
Drago, a Bosnian woodworker and farmer, displays a work-in-progress at his wood workshop. Drago and his family were able to return to their pre-war home in 2001 with the help of IOCC. They are among more than 2,100 families that IOCC has helped return to Bosnia after the 1992-1995 war. Photo: Dusko Vucic-IOCC
By Chrysanthe Loizos, IOCC Intern
Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina (IOCC) We turn onto a narrow, stony path, overgrown with shoulder-high brush and wild flowers. Eventually, we round a bend, and a small wooden gate appears ahead of us. This is how we know we have reached the house of Drago, a Bosnian woodworker and farmer.
We go on foot around the gate and down the path that leads to the hub of the property the family home and stone barns, with roosters and sheep wandering about in the yard. We haven’t told Drago we are coming, and the welcome is greater for it. After greetings and his admonishments for our not visiting more often, we tour his property.
In 1995, Drago was living here in this remote village of Skakavac in northwest Bosnia, on the same land that his family has lived on for six generations. He lists the livestock he had at that time: 117 sheep, 10 cows, two bulls, five calves, four horses, 15 pigs, and poultry. He had a tractor, a combine, tractor attachments and three hay mowers. On his ample land he grew corn and potatoes.
And the farm wasn’t even his only job. For 36 years he worked full time for a wood processing company, tending to his animals and land in
the evenings and on weekends.
‘There’s no greater feeling’ than coming home again
Bosnian farmer and woodworker Drago (front row, far right) and his family pose proudly outside their newly-rebuilt house with IOCC intern Chrysanthe Loizos (back row, far right). Drago’s family was able to move back into their pre-war home with IOCC's help after spending five years as refugees. Photo: Dusko Vucic-IOCC
On September 14, 1995, Drago’s family, like others in this region, met a stream of refugees coming from the west. The family knew this meant that Croatian forces were approaching and that they too would be expelled. Leaving behind nearly everything they had ever built or owned, the family left immediately. With Drago driving their horse cart and his son driving their tractor, the family of seven traveled 120 miles in eight days, to the town of Derventa. “It was raining as though heaven was crying for us,” Drago said.
In Derventa, they found shelter of sorts in an abandoned house one with no windows or doors, and without even a roof until Drago was able to collect enough tiles from the garbage to make one. To earn money, he cleaned toilets. “We did hard jobs, but we were used to it, so we could adapt,” he said.
He recalls how happy he was with the signing of the Dayton Agreement and particularly the provision that gave all people the right to return to their pre-war homes. He called it “a glimmer of light that shined through a huge piece of darkness.”
Drago visited his home and property in July 1996, though he knew that it was still too soon to return for good the war was still too fresh in people’s minds and enmities were too strong.
Nonetheless, he wanted to see his home. He traveled first by bus and then walked the last 15 miles through the mountains at night so that he wouldn’t be seen. When he finally arrived home, he found his house and barns in ruins. All that remained of his home were the exterior walls.
Over the next few years, Drago visited his property a number of times and finally returned to stay in early 2000, doing what he could to make repairs with what little he could find or afford to buy. The following year, IOCC rebuilt his home, as well as the homes of the five other returnee families in the hamlet.
In 2002, IOCC repaired the local electrical transformer station in Skakavac and the electricity transmission lines, bringing electricity to Drago’s home and to the five others.
Drago also received from IOCC a flock of laying hens and a supply of chicken feed, a hay mower and tools for planting crops and gardening. Slowly, he has acquired livestock again; he’s set up beehives and is also farming corn, wheat and potatoes. He’s able to earn cash by selling livestock and honey.
“When I returned, I was very happy. It was awful to be in exile. Now I am on my own land again. There’s no greater feeling,” he said. “I know who I’m working for on my property me, my sons and my grandchildren.”
As part of its larger return and reconstruction program, IOCC rebuilt more than 300 homes in the Bosanski Petrovac region, where Drago and his family live, through a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration. And through funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, IOCC reconnected more than 270 homes to electricity.
IOCC Intern Chrysanthe Loizos served at IOCC’s office in Banja Luka this summer. IOCC offers internships to college-age students in the areas of program management, communications, and administration.