Offering help and hope to the elderly: The 'Independent' Bosnia appeal raised more than pounds 300,000. Joanna Gibbon sees how some of that money is being used

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The Independent Culture
'SHE is going to cry, do you want to make her cry?' asks Livia Mimica, Help Age International's regional co-ordinator in Croatia, who is interpreting my conversation with Amida Satic, a 68-year-old Bosnian Muslim refugee living with her disabled 35-year-old son in a tiny caravan at Stobrec collective camp, near Split.

For everyone, tears are always just below a thin veneer of normality. For the last two years the Satics have been living in one of the camp's brown tents - the caravan is a step up. Before the war Stobrec was a pleasant holiday camp with palm trees beside the sea and discos; now it and its resident refugees looked flat and bereft. Mrs Satic had just told us proudly that she spent the morning scrubbing the lavatories and sweeping rubbish, a filthy job which no one wants to do; but as soon as we mentioned her family - five sons and one daughter and her grandchildren, all living in Sarajevo - her face crumpled and the tears flowed.

She last saw them two years ago, although she has had Red Cross messages, and she fears she will no longer recognise them. Does she feel lonely? The question sounded trite, and the tears continued. 'Yes, of course, if I could only see my children just once more then I don't care if I died right on the spot, or if someone killed me,' she says. We are all silent until her son shouts something unintelligible and hands us a packet of sweets.

Two years ago, with no warning, Mrs Satic and her son, both Muslims, were herded out of her smallholding in south-east Bosnia one morning: within minutes she was homeless, walking south, supporting her disabled son with a few belongings. 'The Chetniks could have killed us but they didn't,' she says simply. Fifty sheep, two oxen, four cows and a full active life were left behind. Now time hangs and she tries to busy herself by caring for her son and watching other people. She hates visiting nelghbours because all they do is gossip, she says, but she likes it when young girls visit for a chat.

It comes as a surprise to discover that not all refugees and displaced people are hungry, ill, tired and drifting: here at Stobrec, where 250 of the total 470 Bosnian refugees have been living for two years, the biggest problem is boredom, depression and a blank and hopeless future, upon which nothing can be based. They cannot work so they turn in on themselves; they fight, viciously and bitterly, or they withdraw. 'The refugees would say themselves that they are not lacking anything materially and yet they lack everything. They desperately want their homes back,' says Ljiljana Kosovic, the camp manager. In fact, Ms Kosovic often turns aid vans away because they have more than enough clothes and food. 'Physically they are fine - we have visiting doctors - but we have nothing for their psychological well-being,' she explains.

Help Age International will address this problem soon by starting its fourth programme in Croatia of counselling and visiting for the 150 resident elderly people at Stobrec - using money raised by the Independent Bosnia Appeal. Ms Kosovic is almost frantic to get the project started. Having eased the accommodation problem and given the elderly more room, she is now grappling with tempestuous and difficult younger families with children who are bored stiff, angry and stifled. She simply does not have the time to help the elderly personally.

For the purposes of this war, the elderly are classfied as people over the age of 50, which seems young to us, but here the war trauma, the shock and subsequent hatred has taken its toll on a people who age early anyway. They account for 30 per cent of the refugee and displaced people from Bosnia and Croatia, and have been identified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as a highly vulnerable group in great need. Amazingly, fewer than five of the 187 humanitarian agencies working in all the war-torn countries focus on them.

Ms Kosovic is exasperated. 'There are hundreds of humanitarian programmes for children, everyone focuses on them. It is ridiculous not to care for the rest of the family, what about elderly people?' They are in the worst position, she says. They are frequently on their own and they easily lose hope - their families are still in Bosnia or have gone to countries in Western Europe, where older people are not welcome. 'Some hope they will be reconnected with their families but basically they want to stay here or return home,' she says. Another fear is that they feel too old and worry that the war will never end in time for them to return home. She says when she started working here seven months ago she was horrified by the hold of deep-rooted depression; the truama these people went through two years ago has now taken a harder but less obvious grip.

Compounding the problem is inactivity: the few old men shuffle about the camp gates, resting on sticks, occasionally talking; waiting and waiting. Some portable huts, which were promised for Christmas but have not yet arrived, could relieve the space problem and provide a meeting place for activities.

The long-term depression manifests itself in lethargy: some of the old people will not get up in the mornings, look after themselves, keep their cramped quarters clean; or they just sit in their caravans alone all day. One man won't even feed himself - he needs someone to spoon-feed him and surprisingly Ms Kosovic thinks he is one of the better cases because he still demonstrates some spirit.

Based on another programme at Varazdin collective camp, north of Zagreb, Help Age International will train younger camp refugees - chosen for their maturity and stability - to become counsellors, in effect befrienders and listeners, to the elderly. The therapy will be either in groups, or in individual visits, to talk, reminisce and discuss hopes and fears. It gives the elderly something to focus upon instead of simply waiting for the next humanitarian aid package and it will uncover any hidden psychological problems that need specialist help.

Ms Kosovic is convinced that the scheme will give some sense and structure to their lives. 'Knowing someone is coming to see them regularly or having to go to a group gives meaning to their daily existence.' The idea of refugee counsellors also works well because people prefer to talk to those who are in the same plight as themselves and who speak the same language.

There are benefits for the counsellors, too: they gain employment and a sense of purpose. At Varazdin, all those on the course have begun to take more interest in their appearances; their work had slightly alleviated some of their own personal pains. But they will have to cope with questions such as one posed by Mrs Satic, as she grabbed our hands when we got up to leave. 'Do you think I will go back to Sarajevo?' Ms Mimica, who organises the projects, says gently: 'I hope so. We need to hope because otherwise what is left?'

(Photograph omitted)