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The Women of Lastavica
By Karen Louise Boothe
March 24, 1999
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With the world focused on the crisis in Kosovo, attention has turned away from the continuing plight of Bosnian and Croation Serb refugees left homeless by an earlier conflict. This week, the New York Times reported that an international war-crimes tribunal in the Hague, was preparing indictments against three Croation generals for alleged crimes against civilians in Bosnia and Croatia.

There are more than 600,000 refugees - mostly women and children - in what remains of Yugoslavia since its break-up. Many were driven from their homes during an extensive military campaign in a croation region populated mostly by Serbians.

Minnesota Public Radio's Karen-Louise Boothe recently returned from the region. While there, she met a group of ethnic-Serbian women who were left homeless by the war in Bosnia and Croatia that began in 1992. Today, the women still live as refugees without a country they can officially claim as home.

THE STORY OF THE WAR in Bosnia is one of deep betrayals. Betrayal at the political , ethnic and family levels. Today, many refugees who fled Bosnia or Croatia find themselves still living in Yugoslavia. They've lost their homes, their ties to their land and - in many cases - their families. And due to a lack of political agreements between Bosnia and Yugoslavia, they live without citizenship to either country. They live, as 62-year-old Anna Sestovic puts it, "somewhere between the ground and the sky."
Sestovic: So she said that she plans to stay here some time. She can't go back to her home and to her place of birth because her house is burning and she haven't her house anymore. Now she's in Yugoslavia and she's like most of the the others. She will wait to see what the future brings.
Anna lives in a housing program for women refugees called, "Lastavica." The name means "swallow." It symbolizes their present migratory status. It houses eight women in Pancevo, a small town near Belgrade. Pancevo has 11,000 refugees in all; nearly one-fourth of it's total population.

All of the women, in this program, come from the Croation region of Krajina - an area where more than 200,000 people were expelled in August of 1995 by a Croation military campaign aimed at Serbs. Most trekked the 300 miles to Yugoslavia. They didn't know what lay ahead; facing only the hollowness that exile presents.

The road they travelled was the late Communist president, Joseph Tito's "Brotherhood and Unity" highway. The name is itself a bitter reminder of all that has been lost since the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Sanja Stanisic is program coordinator. She says unlike a couple of years ago, many of the women have now accepted they will likely never return home.
Stanisic: They just know the situation is different there and they can't wait for a similar situation to what they had so they'd have to start from the beginning.
But for Anna, who only recently took up residence at Lastavica, acceptance of her situation is only beginning to take root. She sits at a kitchen table. She's wearing a black dress and a matching scarf ties her hair back. Her small hands twist a hankerchief as she begins to open up.
Stestovic: And it's not easy for her to start from the beginning. Because if she goes back to Croatia, she'd have to start over. She does not feel she could do it. She said "I am alone, I haven't a husband. I have a daughter but my daughter has to own family and it's not easy for me to start from the beginning to build my life and house and everything so I accept that I will stay here."
But Stanisic says accepting Yugoslavia as their new home is only the first step toward taking root in the new land and applying for citizenship. Because most of the women still hang on to the hope of returning, they are not ready to relinquish their legal ties to Bosnia or Croatia. But any lingering thread of hope is wearing thin as stories from those who did take the risk to return make their way back to Lastavica. Those who went back found they had no way to assert a claim on their property. Many homes had been seized by the Bosnian or Croatian Armies. Others returned only to find their property burned to the ground, or smashed and looted.

Because the countries have yet to work out dual citizenship, the women must remain as refugees. Stanisic says this puts them at an economic disadvantage.
Stanisic: And in this situation when they try to find a job, someone who is a citizen will find a job easier. So most of them, for example, are of a high education but they work in some market or try to sell something on the black market and I don't they feel good in this situation.
Miletza Perovic is 52 years old. In Croatia, she was a well-paid physical-education teacher. But in Yugoslavia, she's been unable to find a job in schools. Her brawny stature made her the perfect candidate to drive the program's shuttle bus over the country's rutted roads. Perovic says shortly after the war ended, there was a lot of economic assistance from non-governmental organizations. Today, she says she feels abandoned. Support has dwindled in the wake of the Kosovo conflict and because of donor countries' frustration toward the Serbian government.
Perovic: And she said in the beginning after the first few years of the war, there were a lot of foreign humanitarian organizations and their aim was to save our lives. But what do we have to do with our lives now?
Help from international relief organizations turned sporadic after the end of the war in Bosnia. Some soup kitchens have had to close for lack of supplies. Other kitchens serve up little more than broth or pasta with a few drops of oil. Red Cross officials in the region say the need for humanitarian aid is high, but interest among donors is not. As a result, the Red Cross - and other aid organizations - have been faced with cutting back support on programs; including economic development.

But the women of Lastavica are attempting to take control of their own financial destiny. They're doing this by marketing crafts like tablecloths, weavings and potholders to peace groups and other organizations in the U.S.

Lastavica's residents are also gaining a reputation for excellent cooking. Their new catering business is getting the attention of social organizations and officials in Belgrade responsible for providing food at meetings. Stanisic says the women's confidence goes up when they feel they can be self-sufficient.
Stanisic: And the next level of support to a refugee group is if you help them to sell their products or to buy something if you really need this. Whenever someone wants to help us sell something in a market, it's nice. Because of the economic situation in the country, it's not easy.
Laurence Goldman is a native New Yorker who helps refugee women become thriving entrepreneurs in Yugoslavia. She says the catering business is just one of many examples.
Goldman: The foundation of any economy is going to be small businesses so at least it's a start to make women feel strong there is a way for them to move.
Goldman says more and more women are beginning to open up small business ventures. Many recognize that the black market is not the only way to make money. But the remaining obstacles are many. Starting a small business is a huge financial risk when the nation's economy is continuing its downward spiral.

It's never easy being a refugee but it's worse in a region that continues to generate new waves of refugees.