One brick at a time: The reconstruction of damaged villages in the former Yugoslavia involves people as much as buildings. Isabel Hilton visited a training centre for those who are trying to put the pieces back together

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The village of Stadt Schlaining, in southern Austria, looks as though it was designed by the Austrian tourist board: the peaceful medieval streets are all but free of cars; the bells from both Protestant and Catholic churches call the population uncompromisingly to worship, and elderly peasant figures watch the progress of strangers with impassive curiosity. The picturesque fortress of the castle sits on its own rocky outcrop, its carefully restored battlements towering over the tree-covered ravine below. It is a relic of past wars, now converted into the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution. Elsewhere in the village, the former synagogue has been restored as the centre's library. Ethnic cleansing, as the bien-pensant academic staff is uncomfortably aware, was not invented by Serbs.

They are equally aware, sitting as they do a few miles from the former Cold War frontier - the Hungarian border - and only a few hundred miles from the hot war in former Yugoslavia, that Austria sits on the right side of a lucky historical break. The population of Stadt Schlaining and its surrounding villages is the same kind of ethnic patchwork, minus the Jews, as many villages in former Yugoslavia, a mix of peoples transposed to populate the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the castle, they are working on theories of conflict resolution. A few hours to the south, the consequences of the failure to resolve conflicts are painfully apparent.

Conflict resolution, peacekeeping and peace building are growth industries of the Nineties as civilian volunteers flood into areas devastated by civil war: the problem, says Arno Truger of the Stadt Schlaining Centre, is that there is a rapidly growing demand for civilian peacekeepers but little is done to train them. Military peacekeeping, he argues - keeping warring sides separated, without any accompanying social and physical re-construction - is expensive, protracted and sterile. 'Nobody is very sure what is required,' he admits. 'But we are trying to find out.'

Mr Truger runs short training courses for civilian peacekeepers, the people who go into conflict zones under the UN flag. 'We give a basic grounding and some mediation training,' he says. 'We also teach people which UN organisations do what.'

At the end of the three-week course, the Stadt Schlaining staff recommends volunteers for assignment. 'Some of them are just not suitable,' he says. 'There is a problem with volunteers: many of them have no idea why they are going, beyond wanting to be loved by the people they are going to. They end up doing things to please the local

people.' Such an approach, in a place raw with ethnic tensions, can be


It is only a three-hour drive from Stadt Schlaining to the war zone of former Yugoslavia. The journey begins in the sunlit hills of the Burgenland, past

houses with red tiled roofs, little farms in which chickens still peck in courtyards and rows of currant bushes heavy with blossom. Then comes the landscape of Slovenia - same hills, same houses, slightly shabbier but modestly prospering. From there, it is only an hour or so to the military checkpoint that marks the beginning of the United Nations zone.

Once inside the zone, the road to the front line passes through a land of ghosts. The red-tiled houses that gleam in the sunshine in Slovenia are buckled in on themselves here. Some have holes blown in the sides, others are heaps of rubble. There are entire villages like that: they used to be Serb villages and the people who lived there are now mostly refugees in Krajina, the Serb enclave in Croatia. Their houses were not destroyed in the fighting - they were blown up afterwards by gangs of youths on weekend jaunts from Zagreb, young men on a spree, looking for a patriotic gesture. The magnolia trees in the gardens of those houses are bright with blossom. Weeds are growing in the fields behind.

Pakrac is the front line. On the edge of what used to be a small town of mixed population, just beyond the Orthodox church, is the checkpoint that leads to no man's land, then to Krajina. In 1991, according to the local authorities, some 8,000 people lived in Pakrac, roughly 3,000 Croats, 3,500 Serbs and 1,500 other nationalities. Nearly half the marriages in the town were ethnically mixed. During the fighting in 1991 Pakrac changed hands three times. It lost three-quarters of its buildings and more than half its population in the process.

A photograph hangs over the bar in one of Pakrac's few surviving cafes: it show the defenders of Pakrac - some 17 people who stayed to fight for their town. There are 13 nationalities in the photograph. Only one of them is Croat. Now people talk about only two nationalities. The Serbs from some 70 surrounding villages and from Pakrac itself have either fled or are crammed into the villages on the Krajina side of the line. On the Pakrac side live the Croats.

There is a third ethnic category that counts in town: that of foreigner. The wreckage of Pakrac is dominated by foreigners: by the miltary forces of Unprofor, by the personnel of the UN civilian administration and by successive waves of young civilian volunteers.

It is these last that come into Stadt Schlaining's area of concern. Three of Pakrac's motley crowd of volunteers have passed through the Stadt Schlaining course. They are young conscientious objectors who have opted to do their

alternative to military service here. Others come through a wide range of non-governmental organisations, some for as little as three weeks, others for more than a year.

Wam Kat, a tense Dutchman, is the co-ordinator of this motley crowd of volunteers, mediating constantly between the myriad local authorities, the Unprofor commanders, the rival ethnic groups and the UN bureaucracy in Vienna, on whom he depends for his status, protection and some funds.

There is no shortage of problems: there are disturbed and disruptive children, widowed mothers, elderly people who have lost their families and support networks, adolescents with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Many of the fields around the villages have been sewn with mines for which there are no maps, there is virtually no productive employment on either side of the ceasefire line, taxes have been increased sharply as central governments try to pay for the war and, at the same time, civil servants such as teachers have not been paid for three months. At present, there is almost no contact across the ceasefire line. How, in circumstances like this, can a group of inexperienced foreigners, however well-meaning, do any good?

'In the first place,' says Mr Kat, 'because we work on both sides of the line, which people eventually accepted. We are sometimes the only contact people have with relatives on the other side, so even if we are just a post-box we do some good.' The process of building trust between the two communities is vulnerable to political forces that operate far beyond the control of a grassroots volunteer programme. But within each part of the two communities there are any number of social projects that owe their existence to the volunteers: they have set up women's groups, a kindergarten, support groups for the elderly and youth clubs. 'They are all small projects,' says one volunteer. 'But remember that there is nothing here. Nothing.'

The fighting has all but stopped on this front line, but the social effects of the war continue to break surface. In one of the perverse signs of normalisation, as the military violence subsided, there was a sharp increase in domestic violence in Pakrac. 'It is partly because people had time to start thinking about the future and worrying about the lack of work and so on,' says Mr Kat. 'When there's a war, people have no time to think about things like that.' It is only outsiders, he believes, who can begin to rebuild the shattered social structures.

In the UN office in Vienna, Michael Platzer is a staunch, if slightly weary, defender of the initiative. 'There have been lots of criticisms,' he says, 'and sometimes it's hard to see what effect arranging football matches or table tennis or planting flowers has. But I think it has a psychological effect. You can't make a systematic programme in places like Pakrac. Conditions are completely different a few miles away. You have to leave it to people on the ground.'

'To do proper training,' says Mr Truger, 'you have to know what happens on the ground. It's easy to find out what the volunteers think. It's harder to find out what the populations who are the objects of their efforts think.' At present, he is trying to arrange a meeting with Serbs and Croats from Pakrac to evaluate the programme. They live only a few miles apart. But the only place they can meet is in Stadt Schlaining.

(Photograph omitted)