Help the orphans of Sarajevo

Five years ago the abandoned children of Bosnia faced death and deprivation daily, until an ex-British Army colonel stepped in, writes James Ruddy
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The Independent Online

The first time I set eyes upon Sarajevo's Ljubice Ivezic orphanage my heart sank. Standing exposed and lonely on the summit of one of the besieged city's highest hills, its grim façade was riddled with shrapnel holes and, in places, torn apart by mortar bombs. Heaps of rotting rubbish were strewn across the shell-holed playground and, inside, stinking puddles were scattered along the icy, pitch-dark corridor.

The first time I set eyes upon Sarajevo's Ljubice Ivezic orphanage my heart sank. Standing exposed and lonely on the summit of one of the besieged city's highest hills, its grim façade was riddled with shrapnel holes and, in places, torn apart by mortar bombs. Heaps of rotting rubbish were strewn across the shell-holed playground and, inside, stinking puddles were scattered along the icy, pitch-dark corridor.

Then there were the children: 44 of them, aged from a few months to 18 years, the stay-behinds who had been rejected as too frail or too old when the evacuation coaches had headed off for Italy and Germany many months earlier.

One stiflingly hot room was filled with listless babies and fractious toddlers, who rocked back and forth in their cots, craving attention from the largely untrained and weary women in blue overalls.

Elsewhere, in freezing, dark rooms, older orphans huddled for warmth under damp blankets, some staring at the snow-laden sky through shredded windows and the gaping shellholes in their ceilings. Others carried the scars of old blast wounds and looked up only to ask about cigarettes and pop music.

That was the bitter winter of 1994 which, after 1,000 days of war, claimed more than 10,000 lives. For Sarajevans, the main aim was surviving another day as they sprinted across sniper-covered junctions and hoped to dodge the indiscriminate mortar bombs raining down at a UN-estimated rate of 400 per day.

Bosnian Serb gunners had already struck the home at least 11 times and seemed likely to do so again and again. Our hopes of rebuilding the shell-shattered building looked bleak.

I had flown in with Colonel Mark Cook, the former UN military commander in Croatia, who had ended his army career and committed himself to helping the most vulnerable victims of conflict: children. Mark's newly launched charity, Hope and Homes for Children, had chosen the Ivezic orphanage on Ljubice hill for a £200,000 reconstruction project.

In the days that followed, we managed to instruct an architect and organise builders, decorators, electricians, carpenters and labourers. After more than a year of hard and dangerous work, the job was completed. The children abandoned the crumbling and shattered older section to move into a heated, well-lit and beautifully decorated wing with their own dorms and bedrooms.

During one of those unpredictable ceasefire periods, Baroness Chalker, then the overseas development minister, flew in to perform the official opening ceremony and ITN filmed the children tucking into their first jelly and chocolate for years (in some cases, their first ever). It was a far cry from the horrors they had experienced in the preceding years, as can be seen tomorrow night when Channel 4 screens the award-winning film Welcome to Sarajevo, the story of how, in 1992, ITN correspondent Michael Nicholson smuggled one of the orphanage's children to his family home in England.

The true horror was even worse than the film indicates. Sheltering in a sewage-filled cellar from the raging war outside, the children spent nights screaming in cold and hunger, the darkness punctuated by explosions and streams of green and red tracer and cannon fire.

Back in the winter of 1992-93, the city had feared it would be overrun. For up to three days at a time, the children had been taken to the damp, stinking cellar for shelter. Doors in the home had been burned to keep the children from freezing to death. The staff had struggled to change the nappies of up to 50 babies without running water and in temperatures that reached -26C.

It was no accident that the orphanage was a target. Around the playground we found mortar pits, dug by the Bosnian defenders and used to target their own mortars on to the surrounding hills. Such action would be sure to draw return fire on to the home: an easy propaganda weapon.

As many as 250,000 people were killed and injured and hundreds of thousands forced out of their homes in the 43-month ethnic war which ended with the destruction and carving-up of their homeland. Four years on, the US-brokered Dayton peace agreement has largely stuck, against all the odds, bringing a kind of peace to Bosnia and Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serbs' "ethnically pure" motherland created by the deal.

Unlike Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians have taken bloody retribution against their former oppressors, there is little thirst for revenge in Bosnia. Even so, enormous world commitment is needed to keep the sides apart over the next decade. The original 60,000 Nato-led troops installed following the 1995 peace accord have been cut to 32,000 and their numbers are likely to fall further.

An average £3bn a year is being pumped in to restore roads, buildings and essential social and supply structures. Administratively, the new protectorate is a jumble of levels and bureaucracy. Corruption and cronyism, hangovers from Communist days, remain rife. The Serb republic remains Serb-dominated, while the Muslim-Croat Federation runs the other half of Bosnia, a land with huge economic and social problems. At the bottom of this dysfunctional mélange are the abandoned children such as the orphans of Sarajevo, whose great hope lies with charities.

Mark Cook has made regular visits and installed a series of volunteer experts from the UK to work with the home's local staff, adding a measure of outside training and providing independent monitoring of progress. Huge improvements have been made in the care and development of the more than 100 children, including 30 babies, now in the home.

"The conditions in the home now are completely different from before," he said. "The regimented way in which it was run has almost totally gone, creating a much freer environment. There are now toys everywhere. In the old days these were mostly out of reach. Now you can hardly walk anywhere without tripping over one. It's a lovely, lovely atmosphere."

Much of that progress is due to the British volunteers working so closely with the locals, creating care-and-development programmes, particularly for the older children.

Hope and Homes for Children has always aimed to take orphans full circle, first giving them a secure new home with hope for the future, and ultimately placing them with new foster or adoptive parents. In post-war Sarajevo, this has included placing some of the older children with specially chosen guardians. Some of the five- to 10-year-olds have already moved out into the city's SOS Children's Village, where they share intimate homes with just six residents - half-way houses to the future.

Even so, the teenagers in the orphanage have long been a worry because many have become institutionalised. The charity is giving them training in English, driving and other skills which will help them to get jobs and eventually their own homes.

In a city still waking up from such deep privation, the Ljubice Ivezic orphans are experiencing a degree of care that might never have been available without the generosity of people moved deeply by their plight.

James Ruddy is deputy editor of the "Eastern Daily Press" and author of "The Kindness of a Stranger", an account of aid missions in Bosnia (Erskine Press, £8.95)

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