First published in Student World Traveler as “Refugee Work in Croatia”, March/April 1999

Rubble Kids: the youngest boy, the one in the middle, was mostly blind but somehow surviving even living in the midst of rubble and live electrical wires strong enough to kill him with a single touch.

A bomb went off at 4am, and I didn’t even notice.

After 6 months of living in war-time Croatia, it no longer registered on my list of “duck, it’s dangerous.”

In fact, I would never have remembered it, except that an American visitor asked me about it the next morning.  And that’s when I realized that war affects everyone in a pretty standard format: it’s continually alarming at first, and gradually melts into a constant, subconscious vigilance through which you live a seemingly normal life.

I went to Croatia for several reasons.

It started because I wanted to live and work abroad in a different culture and become fluent in the language.  I had studied Russian during college, and was looking at several different teaching programs in the former Soviet Union.  While networking, I discovered that a Croatian/Serbian/Bosnian relief organization needed someone to do English language communications for them.  It sounded challenging, and I believe in practical social activism.  So, a month and a half later I was in Osijek, Croatia, a half mile from the Serb-held border.

Actually, I first arrived in Budapest, Hungary with about 13 missionaries bringing supplies and construction labor to the same organization I was going to work with.  We were supposed to be met at the airport by two vans which would drive us to Osijek (say O-see-yek).  After a few hours of conspicuously waiting curbside, we called headquarters and delicately mentioned we were stranded in a country where none of us knew the language and with a huge amount of luggage.  The airport was a bare bones type: you could arrive, you could leave, and occasionally you could eat broth and drink coffee.  Several hours after the phone call, one van showed up.  Eight hours after our initial arrival, the second van pulled alongside, we rearranged all the packages so that the people could cram in, and we headed off into pea soup fog.  Somewhere in the wee hours of the morning and several days after leaving home, we unscrambled ourselves and tumbled into the courtyard of our new world.

Refugees and displaced people waiting in line at an AGAPE hot food kitchen

Amazingly, we accomplished great things,

taking a relief organization that had started in a basement and turning it into a $15 million organization that is still running today.  It took 18-hour days, often 7 days a week, but it was a joy to do.  I woke up every morning glad to be there, motivated, and looking forward to the challenges.  Part of the reason I liked it was that there was a huge variety of things to do.  I co-wrote and marketed grant proposals, and negotiated relief deliveries from international donors to Croatia and Bosnia in conjunction with the US State Department and relief organizations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and USAID.  I was constantly on the computer and phone, writing press releases, convincing people to come visit, answering questions, explaining what was really happening and giving the latest information. We hosted international visitors including foreign dignitaries and the media.  I read news articles my family faxed to me almost daily from the States so that I would understand what information other people were being exposed to.  When we had TV reception, I watched local and international news.  I listened to the BBC all the time.  Every few days I interviewed different refugees, and traveled around Croatia and on rare occasion into Bosnia to photograph and report on the work our organization was doing and the people we were helping, and to gather information on what we needed to do next.

The work in and of itself was fun and thoroughly fulfilling.  Seeing what people were doing to survive, hearing what they had lived through to get where they were was shocking, eye-opening, and highly motivated me to bring them everything I could marshal from around the world in the way of food, clothing, blankets, vegetable seeds, medical equipment, medicine, medical care, and political support to end the war.

The hardest part of my job was learning to distinguish between cultural differences and personal differences.

The Balkan culture at first glance looks just like the American culture. But it is at times macho, tribal, passionate, treacherously cruel, and less prone to exacting logic in decision-making. On the other hand, once you crack the safety seal, people are also incredibly generous, warm, kind, inventive, hospitable, industrious, and proud.

The Balkan people are a mix

of Europeans, Slavs, and Turks. Most Balkans are part Turk because the Ottoman Empire employed the same rape-as-war system that the Serbs have used more recently. The Turks brutalized the Balkan region for hundreds of years. It seems like much of the cruelty and treachery that is now a daily part of Balkan life is a well-worn hand-me-down from that era.

Even the Croatian word for foreigner depicts distrust and dislike: “stranatz” sounds harsh when spoken and means “stranger.” Subtle, but when you are one, it stings. Based on centuries of torturous enemy occupation, however, one can understand the etymology. While I was there, the Serbo-Croatian language officially parted ways and the two dialects became more and more distinct. It was one of the tools developed to tell who belonged where, since most people look pretty similar. Many of the words stayed the same, but were pronounced differently, like “stop” and “shtop.” I had a hard time getting language instruction,

Statue I call "Tristesse" (French for sadness). She sat at the gate to the largest cemetery in Split, Croatia, which was full to the brim and practically overflowing with the recently-buried. The cemetery was permeated with a sense of grief, despair, and not knowing what else to do. It was overwhelming and visual. The majority of graves had recently-laid flowers. Many people were visiting their departed loved ones, talking to them, yelling, sobbing, praying. Someone artfully graced Tristesse with a flower, and she embodies the utter waste and futility of war, in my eyes. Of feeling mostly dead, but holding on to Life, which somehow still manages to exist in all Her vibrancy.

partly because there weren’t any instruction books being published, nor any tapes, and partly because “you had to learn it by either blood or marriage” — either you were born into it, or you married it. One of the hallmarks of an oppressed people is a closed language, and the Croatians held their language close. I did eventually learn enough to be functionally fluent, and it was a joy to communicate with people directly, to get to know their stories and a small bit of their lives.

An invaluable friend and partner

was Zvezdana, a Serbo-Croat woman attending the bible college connected with our relief organization. She was my translator, and her patience, self-control, and persistence are what let me get the great pictures and stories that motivated people around the world to be involved. She’s a passionate person, and her family had been severely wronged by the Croatians, so it was often hard for her to hear the people we interviewed speak bitterly about the Serbs. She, her mother, and her sister had built their own home with their own hands and then were forced out of it by Croatians. She couldn’t even get her clothes back. She went several times to the people living in her house to beg them for small things of just sentimental value, but they refused to return anything. It was infuriating and heartbreaking, and wounded her soul. But watching her as she translated other people’s experiences, I saw a compassion build and a deepening, widening appreciation of the enormous complexities, the wrongs on all sides.

Doorway Faces, copyright Heather Cate | Peacock & Paisley

Waiting for food, waiting for Life, for Peace

Regardless of national origin, life for refugees and displaced persons is tremendously difficult.

Everything is on hold, and waiting is the predominant activity, no matter how hard you try to be productive. Waiting in line to get identification papers, waiting to hear from loved ones to see if they are alive, waiting in line to get food, waiting for the world to care and help, waiting in line for clothing, for medical help, for personal hygiene items, for a place to stay out of the elements, for a chance to work for money, for the world to regain its sanity.

copyright Heather Cate | Peacock & Paisley

Official Papers, granting the right to receive

Things are so warped that you are nothing without your papers. You don’t exist. You don’t deserve food, you can never go back to where you were from, you have no rights.

Most refugees have no papers.

Waiting, wondering, terror, profound loss, grieving, confusion, despair, hunger, cold in the winter, hot in the summer, never being clean enough, untended medical and dental problems, eating grasshoppers and bark because there is no other food, losing everything that you and all your extended family members have built by hand over the centuries, remembering your sisters and mother being brutally raped and your father being marched away with all the other men, your grandmother dying as you hiked through snow-covered mountains with only a light-weight jacket to a country that didn’t want you, having nothing to start over with and no place to go back to, no way to go forward.

copyright Heather Cate


A refugee and a displaced person are both made homeless by war, but there are some significant differences in status.

A refugee has been forced from their country, but a displaced person is still in their own country and as such has greater rights. In Croatia, refugees received a very small stipend from the government and could not work for money, but a displaced person could hold a job if they could find one of the few available. Displaced people often broke into houses that were left unguarded for more than a few hours. The rightful owners or previous squatters were simply out of luck, unless they had military or police connections. As stressful as it is to maintain a combative and constant vigil, at least those with a house had access to plumbing and kitchen facilities. Refugees were generally housed in camps. It is very frustrating for people to sit around in an 8′ x 10′ hut with 9 other people and have no effect on their destiny. Many refugees were housed in run-down summer campgrounds. In summer this was bearable, although the tiny huts had no insulation, plumbing, electricity, or heating. In the winter however, people had to trudge through the snow to group outhouses with no doors. The human waste froze solid and overflowed onto the floors.

refugee children in Croatia, copyright Heather Cate, Peacock and Paisley

more refugee children in camp outside Split, Croatia

Amazingly, some children could still play and laugh. It’s a testament to the human drive to survive.

To combat depression, frustration, and a sense of isolation, some refugees initiated their own relief projects. Women went to the clothing distribution centers and picked up clothes and sweaters, took them home, disassembled them, and knit or sewed new clothing that their families could wear or trade for other necessities. They carefully unraveled the yarn from worn-out sweaters to make socks, slippers, mittens, and hats. They painstakingly removed the stitching from old clothes and resewed the good pieces of material to make skirts, blouses, pants, etc.

copyright Heather Cate | Peacock & Paisley

horse pulling cart in Zenica, Bosnia

In parts of Bosnia, there were very few cars. People who were lucky enough to have cars that hadn’t been blown up often couldn’t find parts for basic maintenance or fuel to run them. It amazed me that the horses pulling their carts could even keep moving, they were so emaciated. This symbolizes the city of Zenica for me. You’ll notice that the people are also thin, but still smoking. Even when they were low on food, people would buy cigarettes and coffee because the psychological comfort, the reference to normality, was as important as food.

Everywhere I went, in the best and the worst of circumstances, people welcomed me lavishly,

always with coffee or juice, sometimes with cookies, and occasionally with a multi-course meal. It amazed me that people who had so little would share so generously. In their eyes, they were simply being hospitable. They knew there was no direct benefit to them from opening their lives to me, but that there was a possibility it could help many people down the road. I’m grateful to them. For sharing their experiences, for revealing their vulnerabilities and the ways they were surviving, and for the kindness and warmth they gave me when I was tired, homesick, hungry, and frustrated.

The wars in the former Yugoslavia are not about ethnicity or religion, but about money.

Money in the form of natural resources such as farmland, minerals, and tourist areas. All of which Serbia proper is short on. Territory issues are really about who will control and financially profit from the natural resources. It’s not about history, it’s about finances. The reason that so many of the former Yugoslavian territories seceded is that Serbia took a large percentage of taxes from them but gave very little back. The reason Serbia fights their secession is because it will have trouble surviving without the resources it used to access through the former federation.

UN tanks in Croatia waiting for ferry, copyright Heather Cate | Peacock & Paisley

UN tanks waiting in line for the ferry to the southern tip of Croatia and Bosnia. The ferry was necessary because the bridge had been blown up. It was a risky bottleneck, sitting in a traffic jam for hours and hours on end, with no way out -- mountains on one side and the sea on the other. Tension was palpable, and the UN's presence was part of the problem.

The eternal reasons for war are territory, resources, money, and power. In that order. To get power, you need money; to get money, you need resources; to get resources, you need territory. They are inseparable.

The constitution of the former Yugoslavia allowed its “states” to secede. Those that had the resources and international backing did: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia. Serbia is doing a great job of destabilizing Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania right now by sending thousands and potentially millions of Kosovo citizens in as refugees. This is exactly the same thing that happened in Croatia. It’s an extremely effective way of cleaning out Kosovo and maneuvering to potentially regain some of the seceded territories. It is an act of war because it has direct ramifications on civilians and the ability of their countries to feed and protect them.

The current UN/NATO issue is delicate. On the one hand, many Croats and Bosnians had expected political and military support from the democratic super-powers and were disappointed that it did not arrive in a timely fashion. On the other hand, they resented deeply what they saw as interference rather than help once the UN did get involved. Shipments of weapons were officially cut off, preventing the Croats and Bosnians from defending themselves. Although Serbians had signed peace accords stating that they would return specific territories taken from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, they did not return them, and the UN prevented Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina from militarily retaking the territories. At one point, 30% of Croatia was held by Serbs and the UN.

How can the average person-next-door be convinced to slaughter their neighbors?

It’s the Dilbert principle in action. After living in cubes long enough, and being punished for using logic and creativity, people will give up and give in. They lose confidence in their own abilities, and forget that there is a world outside which runs differently. This doesn’t have anything to do with culture, national character, religion or ethnicity. It’s simple psychology. Almost everyone is wired the same way. Even flies raised in a bottle with a cover eventually stop trying to get out, and most don’t even notice when the cover is removed. Given enough time, most people can be manipulated into thinking and behaving the same way. If, like Milosevic, you gradually remove basic daily needs like security, food, shelter, and more importantly, the freedom to think for oneself, people will drastically alter their perspectives and acceptable behaviors. They stop looking to see if the jar is open. Suggest that their neighbor is the cause of their problems, and the killing starts. It’s very simple.

What can we do about it?

Remain creative capitalists and strive to un-Dilbert our own lives. Stay mentally nimble. Get information from a wide variety of news sources, preferably those with independent views. Try The Economist magazine and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. On average there are 45 wars going on in the world at the same time. Always. It’s impossible for any one person to keep up with all of them. But it’s mind-opening to learn about one or two.

One of the most successful means of combating disaster currently is micro-enterprise,

or really small creative capitalism. People receive loans of money and/or equipment to start businesses that they run and operate themselves, as a means of supporting their own families and building economy in their own neighborhoods. Often these businesses grow to be extremely successful. Micro-enterprise loans have one of the highest rates of repayment in the world. They are doing very well in India, and are helping to restabilize Croatia and Bosnia. Find out if any of your local organizations are involved in supporting similar enterprises and if they need any help gathering equipment and materials.

The following book and movies do an excellent job of communicating complexities and realities of the contemporary Balkans. The cinematography builds on incredible scenery. But be prepared, the content is powerful.

Suggested reading:

  • Balkan Ghosts, by Robert D. Kaplan


  • Welcome to Sarajevo (American in Bosnia)
  • Lamerica (Albanian)
  • After the Rain (Macedonian)
  • Tito and Me (Serbian)



Where to find an international relief job:

  • Red Cross
  • CARE
  • WorldVision
  • Doctors Without Borders, etc.
  • Local civic and religious organizations that sponsor international projects.
  • There are also support jobs located in tamer spots like the US, France, etc.
  • Check web sites, but most importantly, network, network, network.

Experience they’re looking for:

  • Standard business skills
  • teaching/training
  • community organizing
  • language ability

Personal qualities they’re looking for:

  • resourceful
  • adventurous
  • strong work ethic
  • personable
  • not easily intimidated
  • adaptable
  • cool-headed in crisis situations

What to expect:

  • long hours
  • exposure to disease and violence
  • inner growth
  • new friends
  • new skills
  • new ideas
  • off-the-beaten-path travel

What to do:

Get involved: Go for it!!

Text Copyright 1999 – 2012 Heather Cate. All rights reserved.
Photos Copyright 1992 – 2012 Heather Cate. All rights reserved.

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