Good intentions on the road to hell: Individuals out to help former Yugoslavia can harm official aid efforts, write Rhys Williams and Emma Daly

LARGE aid organisations are increasingly questioning the wisdom of many of the individual relief missions undertaken in the former Yugoslavia. Few doubt the good intentions of the host of individuals who have passed round the collecting tins, bought up supplies and driven down to war zones, but both the effectiveness and security of the trips are in doubt.

Two British aid workers sacked by Feed the Children in June are under house arrest in Travnik on suspicion of arms- smuggling. Stephen Pinnock, 29, from Braintree, Essex, and Lawrence Foster, from Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, said yesterday that they want to 'stay on and help' after they are freed.

According to David Grubb, director of the charity: 'Their compassion or commitment turned into something else and they had got in way over their heads.'

Sally Becker, 33, a British artist, has proved more successful after travelling to Bosnia with an aid convoy from Britain and deciding to stay. She and a colleague, Lynne Gillett, have used their Renault 4 to deliver aid packages to the Croat-held sector of Mostar.

She responds fiercely to those who wonder what she is doing. 'How can it not concern me, when there are people dying here? The thought of leaving before I know they are safe is just not possible. My conscience would not let me. Their faces haunt me even when I'm with them.'

No one can doubt Ms Becker's compassion or her courage; on Thursday she braved sniper fire to drive an ambulance across the city's front line to evacuate five wounded children trapped on the Muslim side, and she plans to go back today or tomorrow for more children. But aid agencies are still wary of people of her ilk, and the result of her actions last week goes some way to explaining why.

Those five children were saved by Ms Becker, and Ms Becker alone; but once out of Mostar, what will become of them? Neither the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) nor the International Red Cross took part in the evacuation, but they may be left to see it through to its conclusion. Ms Becker got the children to a UN base in Medjugorje. Someone else will have to organise hospitals for them; put up their mothers and sort out their papers; find their medical records and arrange for convalescence.

The UNHCR will get involved because it has to; it cannot leave the children to fend for themselves. But it prefers to do it the official way, first assessing all cases, collecting their documents, finding hospitals and the money for treatment and expenses. Of course, some patients have died by the time all the papers are ready.

Charities are happy to take volunteers, as long as they work to the official agenda. Loose cannon can hamper the work of aid agencies in the mistaken belief that by ignoring red tape they are helping. Trouble comes when the red tape is there for a reason.

The two men working for Feed the Children had begun ferrying civilians out of the war zone in the charity's Land Rover. Peter Annereau, the charity's procurement manager, says: 'If you come to a Croat checkpoint and you have six Muslims in the back you are not seen to be impartial.' Such perceived bias could be fatal.

For some, compassion has cost more than their liberty. Christine Witcutt, a worker with Edinburgh Direct Aid, was killed last month as she drove down 'Snipers' Alley' in Sarajevo. Her death prompted the UNHCR to urge small organisations to stay away.

When Edinburgh Direct was criticised in May for putting volunteers at risk, Denis Rutowitz, the chairman of the charity, said: 'Our charter states that we will 'deliver in person' so as to express 'our oneness' with the recipients.' Mr Rutowitz recruits up to 20 volunteers for each trip and urges them to treat it as a venture that will 'widen their experience'.

There are upwards of 60 charities registered with the UNHCR as working in former Yugoslavia, and countless more operating informally. 'Drive aid' is peculiar to European trouble spots, mainly because, according to Geoffrey Dennis, director of the British Red Cross's international division, it is not as easy to jump in a van, catch the ferry and fetch up in Mogadishu or Kabul.

Tim Winter, a trustee of the Bosnia Aid Committee of Oxford, which has taken more than 200 tons of aid to Bosnia since last September, says: 'Doing something, however modest, is better than taking a grandstand seat and watching the horrors unfold on TV.'

While the lead agencies praise the undoubted courage of their smaller counterparts, they fear the safety of their own aid efforts will be jeopardised. 'If you get small organisations racing round Sarajevo down Snipers' Alley and someone starts taking potshots at them, then it's more likely that they will start to snipe at our vehicles,' says Mr Dennis.

For him the 'Fairground' in Zagreb illustrates how the best intentions can be woefully misguided. The last time he was there, this vast tract of land was packed with lorries full of aid. 'The drivers come and say 'We can't get into Serb-held territory, can you take this?' We then have to go through each load to check whether the goods are appropriate and that there are no arms on board. People turn up with all sorts of ridiculous things.

'One group set out from Britain with apples; by the time they arrived they had all gone bad. It was autumn and the one thing that was freely available at the time was apples.'

Out-of-date medicine, which rolls up by the lorry load, is not only useless but dangerous. Second-hand medical equipment seems a sensible offering, but serviceable spare parts are tricky enough to track down anywhere in the world, let alone in central Bosnia.

'The vast majority are all very well-meaning,' says Mr Dennis. 'They have seen pictures on television and they gather all these things that they think are useful. But the situation changes there by the day and they don't have people on the ground to say where is safe and to assess what is needed. A few, I think, see it all as a big adventure.'

Anyone moved enough to help would be better off donating money. 'We can get seven vehicles containing the right aid into former Yugoslavia for every one of theirs with possibly the wrong stuff on board,' he says.

Mr Winter accepts that collecting and donating to a big agency such as Oxfam is probably a more efficient way of targeting help, but says: 'We do find it much easier to solicit donations for aid if we tell them we take it ourselves. We find it much more emotionally satisfying than making donations to some big, faceless, international organisation.'

But for all the lorries standing idle on the Fairground, some help does get through. Harry Orde-Powlett, from North Yorkshire, first set out for Croatia with two horse- boxes full of clothes and medicine last July. As the crisis moved to Bosnia, he quickly realised that the problem was not aid, but transport. With 15 lorries, an armoured personnel carrier and 25 volunteers, Mr Orde-Powlett now runs a distribution network throughout Bosnia for the International Rescue Committee, a leading American charity.

Mr Winter's Bosnia Aid Committee has concentrated its efforts on a hospital in Travnik. On each trip, the charity takes a detailed list of what will be required for the next visit.

'But working in Bosnia is intensely disheartening,' he says. 'Unlike, say, flood relief in Bangladesh, where there is a solution in sight, in Bosnia it is so obvious that the people we are taking aid to will die.'

(Photograph omitted)

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