The man who had taken me to visit her was Oliver Burch of the charity Feed the Children. The old lady was one of his "beneficiaries"; one of 19 Croats left in the Muslim enclave. He provides her with food and blankets and warm clothes. And visits. This one brought a smile to her toothless old face.
"Why can't you move her?" I asked. "Not our job," Oliver said. "Housing is down to the local social services, and they're amiable, lazy, well- meaning, and totally overwhelmed." Seeing my newly arrived and still shockable face, he added kindly, "You haven't seen anything yet."
The town of Gorazde, in eastern Bosnia, was one of six UN-declared safe enclaves for Muslims in Bosnia. But the town suffered terribly from four years of Serb shelling. It is now part of the "pocket" assigned to the Muslims in Serb-held territory under the Dayton peace accord made in December last year. Under the accord Gorazde remains under the control of the the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo.
I'd had time to get used to one thing before coming to Gorazde - ruined buildings. After a week, it was the undamaged ones that looked strange. I could soon tell the difference between war damage, and homes deliberately brought down with dynamite, or burnt out. These were somehow worse than the shell-holed ones because to destroy homes on purpose seemed so vindictive and senseless.
Oliver came to Bosnia from Britain four years ago as a volunteer. With his Muslim wife, Nerma, he now runs the charity's Gorazde operation. He worked in a bakery in Mostar when he first arrived, and this is where he met Nerma. They made bread together through some of the worst of the war, and now live with their baby daughter, Medina, in a tiny flat in a private house which smells very strongly of cabbage and unflushable loos.
They have a private generator for lights only; all water has to be fetched, and "showers" are of the bucket-and-scoop variety. A wood-stove serves for cooking and heating. I slept in the house next door, in a bedroom so cold my landlady used it as a fridge for butter and milk, and wrote my log by candlelight.
I had no complaints, especially after being taken to "The Balkans", one of a number of "collection centres" in Gorazde for Muslim refugees who were chased from their homes by the Serbs. The centres are ex-hotels, schools and blocks of flats, broken-down and shell-damaged warrens of little rooms leading off filthy, unlit corridors. Each room houses a family. One family had two rooms, but there were 16 of them, four generations, including the oldest daughter, her husband and one-year-old twins, who'd moved back for the winter because it was too cold where they were living. She was not able to breast-feed her babies - something the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation are so keen on that they are discouraging aid agencies from bringing in milk substitutes. Luckily, the twins' grandmother had enough breast milk for them as well as for her own tenth child.
These rooms, not to mention the communal toilets on each floor, are, for the most part, almost indescribably squalid. Wood-burning stoves make the walls black; the floors are uncleanable (one woman told me that more than anything she wanted a broom); river-washed clothes are strung on indoor lines. Around the walls are heaps of pitiful possessions housed in makeshift shelving or boxes. Sometimes the boxes in which aid is delivered turn out as useful as the contents - to make tables, stools, storage units, and for carrying water or bathing babies.
I felt awkward in my role as observer before these poor women who have been living like this, some of them, for four years. But they welcomed us with smiles, strong, freshly ground coffee, and something to eat; they posed willingly for photographs and children crawled into Nerma's lap.
Feed The Children is their lifeline. Oliver is not only their immediate source of food; they trust him to ensure that their food parcels reach them intact. But there are hiccups. Oliver can't deliver every item himself; he has to delegate, and those to whom this honour falls sometimes prove fallible. He finds this out by doing frequent spot-checks. When he finds "irregularities" (a tin of meat mysteriously missing from each parcel, lists containing names of families no longer there) he simply closes the programme.
Next day, someone will approach Oliver in the street. "Do you have to close our programme?" "Not at all," he replies blandly. "You just need to choose a new delegate, one you can trust to keep our rules." A new rep is chosen and things get under way again.
Running a relief operation.is not only a matter of making an unheralded mercy dash over potholed roads with a truckload of wardrobe-scrapings in black plastic sacks. And it's not only misguided individuals who are being less than helpful. Recently a well-known charity rolled up to Feed The Children's Gorazde warehouse.
"We have 5,000 children's jackets! Will you store and distribute them for us?"
" 'Fraid not. You see, we have 7,000 children's jackets and that's all this town needs."
"But what shall we do with ours?"
"Why not take them to Visegrad, up the road? They're getting refugees now from Sarajevo, and we haven't got a set-up there yet."
"Visegrad! Isn't that Serb?"
"Well yes, but there are children in need there."
"Oh, no, we couldn't give it to the Serbs!"
So it gets dumped. Not literally. It's dished out off the back of the lorry, and winds up on the market. But at least that brings prices down. There are rich and poor in Gorazde, but the poor aren't all refugees.
We did get to Visegrad - it's not far, just over the mountain, but now, in Serb held Bosnia, it's a different "nation". We had to remember to call Nerma - our invaluable interpreter - Nina, lest the Serbs guess she was Muslim. (What would have happened? "Unpleasantness," said Oliver laconically, and after testing the waters of still-simmering hostility, I believed it.) We found some indignant Serbian refugees newly arrived from Muslim- controlled Sarajevo.
"Why don't we get aid? Conditions are terrible here!" said one well-dressed woman, living in reduced but not unbearable circumstances in a worker's chalet. "Just imagine! Till this week we had to heat water to wash with on a wood-stove! We had no electricity!"
"Must've been awful," said Oliver with a straight face.
The Dayton peace agreement glibly announced that all refugees could go home. But people who were ethnically cleansed from - or have left - areas now given to one of the other communities are unlikely to return. Refugee families I met in "The Balkans" are never going home. What may happen is that they drift away to Sarajevo.
When Dayton brought the fighting to an end (no one knows for how long) there were about 50,000 people in the Gorazde pocket. The accord meant to uphold the town as an example of a Muslim community in Serb territory. Now the population is officially down to 42,000, and still falling. The Muslim authorities originally forbade anyone to leave, especially men of military age, presumably because their claim on the area would weaken if the population fell. But now these restrictions have been lifted and people are leaving all the time, including young men.
Every week three convoys of buses make round trips to Sarajevo, escorted through Serb territory by troops from the I-For (implementation force). Officially, these are shopping or visiting trips. But every week some people leave Gorazde and never come back.
Lynne Reid Banks 1996. Feed The Children, 82 Caversham Road, Reading, Berkshire RG1 8AR (01734 584000).Reuse content