Invasion of the Soul Snatchers

Faith

They prefer to describe it as “a quiet revival,” but the army of evangelical Christian missionaries descending on New England more resemble a crusade. Self-styled Warriors for Christ, these spiritual carpetbaggers come North to plant churches and convert the “unchurched” and “gospel-parched” to fundamentalist Christianity. Wielding big smiles and inerrant Bibles, they claim to be willing to die while they “harvest souls” and “open the dead hearts of sinners.”

Like the knights in the Holy Land their mission is doomed to fail, but not without a valiant struggle.

Lyandon Warren came from North Carolina to pastor in rural Vermont. “To be a foot-soldier on that battleground is a joy and privilege,” he told the Baptist Press a few years ago. Bible-believing Christians like him are implored by scripture to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation,” but Warren and his colleagues picked New England, a region they otherwise decry as liberal, pagan, dead, and dry, because of all the “nones” who present a tempting target for hostile spiritual takeover.

“Where gospel fires once burned now looks burnt over,” declares the Gospel Coalition’s Jared Wilson in his sales pitch to potential church planters. Gallup and Pew surveys concur: religion is in decline nationwide, and New Englanders have the lowest religious adherence of all. The Pilgrims may have landed here seeking religious freedom, and this may be where 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards sparked the First Great Awakening, but in spite of the ubiquitous white church steeples religious apathy now afflicts us. The Catholic Church alone – still the largest denomination – has lost somewhere between a quarter and a third of its members since the turn of the millennium.

Sensing opportunity, The North American Mission Board, the church planting arm of the Southern Baptists, has spent over $5 million in the past decade to plant more than 130 churches in New England, using the model for overseas missionary outreach. Other evangelical umbrella organizations have followed suit, “equipping” idealistic young men (always men) with training and strategy manuals on outreach and fundraising.

Church planting is a well-oiled and well-funded franchise operation, seeking rapid expansion and establishment of ever more churches. It comes complete with branding and the proselytizer’s equivalent of sales quotas. Churches of God speak of “multiplication” while other denominations pray for “exponential” growth. And although they all like to talk about “grassroots,” “organic,” and “local” it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, church planting is the antithesis of the traditional New England congregational churches that grew from a community’s desire for fellowship.

Growth is so imperative that community outreach becomes duplicitous. “While it’s always good to love our neighbors and build relationships with them for a number of reasons, we love them best by sharing the good news with them,” says Jeff Cavanaugh of the 9Marks movement. But while setting up a soup kitchen because your faith compels you demonstrates empathy, doing it to help bring new customers to your faith smacks more of calculated compassion and ulterior motives intended to meet your own needs.

Once a pastor obtains seed funding and a calling, he can show up in town – uninvited – and establish his Bible shop. Some have taken over abandoned village churches, others meet in private homes.

Riverbank Church meets in Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction, Vermont, and makes excellent use of the venue’s professional stage lighting and large flat screen TVs to create what is called an “experience” rather than a mere service. Ushers in matching t-shirts hand out hugs and fliers, surveys are taken, and newcomers are welcomed profusely.

Riverbank is a typical non-affiliated church, led since its founding in 2010 by Chris Goeppner, an energetic young Floridian. His bald head and casual denim outfit gives Goeppner a charismatic and engaging stage presence. On a Sunday in March his sermon is, not surprisingly, about the mandate to evangelize – share the good news of Jesus with everybody all the time.

“It’s All about Jesus”

Goeppner makes it quite clear: “We are all about Jesus. He is the reason we do everything that we do. You will hear us talk about Jesus, teach about Jesus, and sing songs about Jesus because it really is all about Jesus.” The theme is reinforced to the congregation of roughly eighty through song and preaching all morning. It’s simple and uncomplicated. Black and white, dos and don’ts. Fundamental, if you like. Or fundamentalist, perhaps, if you rather don’t.

Because once you peel away the compelling veneer of hip pop culture references, colloquialisms, cool graphics and the intimate, welcoming atmosphere, Goeppner’s is at heart an old-school Christian message of fear and faith, sin and salvation, obedience and redemption. His sermon relies entirely on reading scripture “as is,” and comes complete with a “fill-in-the-blanks” handout to remind the faithful of their explicit obligations to the church and to Jesus. It leaves little on which to genuinely reflect, and renders the experience quite unlike, say, a Congregational or Unitarian service.

Evangelical fundamentalists hold four cardinal beliefs that set them apart from mainline churches, says John Green, author of Religion and the Culture Wars. First, the Bible is inerrant, without error in all of its claims about the nature of the world and the nature of God. Secondly, they believe that the only way to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ. Third is the idea that individuals must accept salvation for themselves. They must become converted. The fourth and cardinal belief of evangelicals is the need to proselytize, or in their case, to spread the evangel, to evangelize.

So, no matter the appealing bells and whistles, it really comes down to this: read the Bible as literal truth, find Jesus, be born again, then go tell the rest of the world. With the Bible as an infallible, timeless go-to document with answers to every question and doubt, scripture need never be reinterpreted or reconsidered, even as society evolves and values change. With faith the be-all and end-all, secular life is relegated to a supporting role; whatever you do, you do to further God’s Kingdom.

Some fundamentalist preachers go even further, praying for the day when society will again be ruled by Bible-based morals. The Christian equivalent of Sharia law would necessarily repeal civil rights and put an end to tolerance and compassion that we now take for granted. The same reactionary conservatism can be seen in right wing social policies, which helps explain the incestuous relationship between evangelical churches and congressional Republicans, and was perhaps also why evangelical Christians spearheaded the “Take Back Vermont” campaign to prevent legalized civil unions a decade ago. For fundamentalist Christians the end justifies the means. There is no separation of church and state, and it is perfectly reasonable to engage in politics “for Jesus.”

Bertrand Russell once noted, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Such unwavering and uncompromising notions of moral superiority lead to delusions of grandeur and arrogance.

That becomes apparent when fundamentalist Christians refuse to take part in ecumenical work with other congregations. They they see those who don’t share their exact beliefs as false believers, as flawed Christians. As far as they’re concerned, the Congregationalists, Episcopalians and the rest of the mainline denominations have all gone astray and to hell with their inclusiveness and focus on good works over pure faith. As one Unitarian Universalist pastor said, “The Evangelicals bemoan our embrace of all people.”

They see not only other faiths but modern secular society itself as morally corrupt, sinful and fallen. Frank Schaeffer, former evangelical Christian and author of “Crazy for God,” says that in the fundamentalist movement we have, “within our culture a sub-culture, which is literally a fifth column of insanity, a group of people who are resentful because they know they’ve been left behind by modernity, by science, by education, by art, by literature.”

His is hardly a ringing endorsement, as could be expected from someone who has left behind the fundamentalist movement. But in a marketplace of ideas people should be free to consider alternatives to mainline churches and a life without religion.

So, What’s There to Like?

One former evangelical pastor points out that firm moral guidelines and a promise of salvation may appeal to people whose lives are in turmoil and who are surrounded by rapid change in society and uneasy with significant shifts in core values and morals.

For example, the current heroin epidemic across Vermont is symptomatic of some serious social dysfunction, and recognition of gay marriage still doesn’t sit well with many in the otherwise liberal Northeast. The weak, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised have historically been susceptible to the easy fixes and simple solutions offered by silver tongued spiritual con artists and snake oil salesmen.

But while the assurance and certainty of traditional values and rigid rules may be what appeals to the at most three percent of New Englanders who regularly attend evangelical churches, it’s highly doubtful if it can attract more. And so, by its own measure of success – perpetual growth – the evangelical crusade appears doomed to fail.

Riverbank Church has reached an impressive 200 members after four years, and Pastor Goeppner audaciously talks about reaching all of Vermont for Jesus in less than 13 years. Yet, even the state’s most well-established Evangelical church plant, Christ Memorial Church in Burlington, remains a 200 member congregation after more than 20 years of trying, and that’s with significant outside funding.

Many new church plants fail and fold when the initial seed funding dries up, and even in the once fertile bible belt evangelists are seeing a drop in attendance. Presumably they’ve run out of people to pester with their preposterous platitudes, hence the feeding frenzy in a new, untapped market.

But fundamentalist Christians have drunk so deeply of their own Kool-Aid that they seem genuinely surprised to find precious few takers. Faced with disappointing results from his missionary work in Massachusetts, Joe Souza of the Southern Baptists declared, “It’s like, you found a cure for cancer and you want to give it away and nobody wants it.”

Except, of course, theirs is no cure, and we don’t have cancer. In an open letter addressed to “Christians Who Want to Convert Us,” Emily Heath, a Congregational pastor from Vermont, put it simply: “We’re good, thanks.”

But while they may be good, and certainly more inclusive, the mainline churches do have cause for concern: fundamentalist church plants primarily grow a congregation by “stealing sheep” from others, not by converting the “nones.” Liberal Christian pastors acknowledge the need to attract and keep members, but none think fundamentalism is the answer. And they strongly object to being dismissed and belittled by outsiders claiming to know what’s best for the communities they have been serving for generations.

Rather than lecturing their parishioners about their obligations as undeserving sinners, mainline pastors try to remain relevant by engaging their congregation in an ongoing quest for spiritual growth. One pastor said that he actively encourages members of his flock to question their faith, respects their doubts, and welcomes their critical questions, even if he doesn’t have an immediate answer from scripture.

Barnaby Feder, a Unitarian Universalist Reverend from Middlebury, Vermont, puts it this way: “The questions with which religion has always wrestled persist. And religion that doesn’t ask you to check your brain at the door will remain vital.”

The fundamentalist Christians will doubtlessly continue to evangelize, even as their efforts fail to deliver the results for which they pray. It’s an integral part of their creed, after all. But the chance of a religious revival in New England is about as likely as the second coming of Jesus.

© Lars Blackmore

Our Tracy Hall

“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” The famously harsh opinion as voiced by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist some years back. Tracy Hall may not fit in Grover’s bathtub, but it’s as small as government gets, and survey consistently show that Norwich residents are satisfied with our local government. As luck would have it, not only are we happy with them – they, apparently, like us, too.

“The best part of working in Norwich is the people,” declares Bonnie Munday when she’s done explaining the minutiae of fishing licenses to a customer. Bonnie has been our town clerk for close to twenty years, and is one of the faces and the institutional memory of our small town government. Sure, she says, there are days when she gets home and has had it with people and their issues, but she mostly enjoys the challenge of dealing with the needs of the 3,500 individuals who make up our community.

Of the People, by the People, for the People
Norwich resident Rob Gurwitt has observed and written about government in all its forms for decades. He explains that in bigger communities government tends to get professionalized, with a mayor, a city council and lots of staff. As a consequence the layers between citizenry and the government get quite thick.

Town Manager Neil Fulton can confirm that. He contrasts his current circumstances with his tenure at the State of Vermont, where he felt compelled to go out of his way to make himself more accessible to the public in a bureaucracy seemingly rigged to isolate itself from its constituents. Not so at Tracy Hall, where the list of departments and all staff can easily fit on a post-it note. If you want to talk to someone around here, you can pretty much just go right in and talk to them.

Even beyond the highly visible town clerk, our local government takes place through people dealing with people on both sides of the counter.

One of the unique and valuable things about local government, says Gurwitt, isn’t just that it’s so personable and accessible, it’s that the citizens in a town like Norwich really are the government by way of the committees and boards that deal with policy matters. Not so much ownership as a shared sense of responsibility for town governance.

Management by Committee can be Good?

Zoning Administrator and Planning Coordinator Phil Deckert is a 20-year veteran of Tracy Hall and involved with several community boards and committees. He likes that. “The boards are good. Board members bring different things to the table, different perspectives. But it’s unlike 10 years ago when it was contentious and highly politicized – ‘pro-growth vs. no-growth.’ Now it’s a question of: ‘we know there’s going to be growth, so let’s think about how and where it’s going to happen.’ It’s local and common sense,” he says.

There will of course always be storms in a tea-cup in Norwich (think band-stands and, most recently, license plate readers), but to Neil Fulton even those points of contention reflect a healthy sense of citizen involvement. The discussions, he points out, are largely civil and people feel it’s safe to participate.

If people can be said to make up a community, then the same can is definitely the case with government on our scale: not a leviathan, but rather a small handful of real people who care about our community and represent us well.

(This story was first published in the Summer 2012 Norwich Times)

Trail Magic

Four million steps from Georgia, Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Smooth Sailin’ is heading North to Katahdin in Maine, about 400 miles away. Behind him lies 1700 miles of simple needs: food, ­shelter, laundry, occasional ­showers.  Next stop is Hanover, an AT hiker favorite with its cheap restaurants, ample services, and a rich history of AT involvement.

{gallery}at_story{/gallery}But Norwich is right on the trail, too, and coming down Elm Street, a hiker may stumble across a cooler with free food and offers of help and support. It’s something Norwich – a newly designated ­“Appalachian Trailside Community” – has in abundance: Trail Magic. 

“You’re not exactly on the map,” says Mary from Massachussets as she and her hiking buddies head towards the Ledyard Bridge after a brief stop at Dan & Whit’s. It’s true: the Appalachian Trail  guides have lots of dots in ­Hanover, but only a token few in Norwich.

But on a hot August morning I meet 60-year old “­Strider” from New Jersey outside Dan & Whit’s, and he’s thrilled with Norwich all the same. He likes the atmosphere here. “It’s the kind of place on the trail I’d like to bring my wife back to see next year,” he says. After considering his options, he still heads to ­Hanover to spend the night, but our little town has made an impression.

Other than day-old sandwiches at Dan & Whit’s, what can we offer this motley crew of a few hundred young and old, who cross our path way each summer?

Nicole Hastings, the Dartmouth Outing Club coordinator responsible for the maintenance of “our” chunk of the trail says, “We in Norwich offer hikers what we can, as a friend does to another, only what you are able. […] We offer them the pleasure of visiting our little comunity. And the opportunity to get to know our character as a community, which extends beyond material things.”

Julie Jenkins from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy emphasizes that, “In the long run, in order to sustain the Trail and the community, the culture itself has to be valued and instilled into the belief system of those who call the AT home.”

So. just as the journey itself – not the destination – is the main purpose for the hikers, being a proud, aware and involved trail community is of real and greater value to the hikers than any particular service or commodity we might try to offer.

It is in that spirit that Norwich will celebrate our new status as an official “Appalachian Trailside Community” on September 18th with a kid-friendly family hike from Cossingham Road across the AT and down Elm Street to the Green.

For more details go to the rec section of nor­wich.vt.us, and visit appalachiantrail.org for more about the AT.

(This story first ran in the fall 2011 edition of The Norwich Times)

Retail With a Local Soul

Equal parts gingerbread cookies and painful reminders of our hectic and commercialized lives, there’s no getting around the Holiday season. For starters, it is a ritual that requires an intimidating amount of shopping. This is ‘the big one’: 20 percent of all retail sales happen over the Christmas season.

You can take on that particular challenge (although for many ‘ordeal’ is perhaps a more accurate term) in many ways. You can mindlessly procure the items on lists you’ve been given (complete with carefully researched prices and part numbers), or you can try to divine which bit of plastic blessed with artificial intelligence will be the hot ticket item desired by all this year. Good luck with that. You can also be more zen about it, and just try to find the right thing for everybody. Regardless, shopping is a must.

You can shop online, or you can head down to Route 12A in Lebanon. There are differences, of course: busy times on the road to Plainfield sets you up for the kind of retail therapy that could only be proscribed by a masochistic shrink, while shopping online provides much better parking, but comes with a lifetime of email spam and the odd ennui caused by dealing with disembodied salesmen. Perhaps you’re inclined to consider a different approach this year?

The Local First Alliance makes great arguments for keeping it local: a smaller carbon footprint, your money stays in the community, you’re supporting a neighbor, buying from a friend, and while doing so, you’re keeping your town vibrant. But equally important from a shopper’s perspective is the uniquely curated retail experience; your local merchants have done the hard lifting for you, weeding through all the chaff, and giving you a manageable number of great items from which to pick. And the retailers themselves are on hand with their infinite wisdom, patience, and insight into their products to help you choose.

Norwich obviously can’t deliver the semi-disposable electronic junk your nephew so desperately wants for his PlayStation, nor do our local retailers have a direct line to the bottomless pits of plastic and child labor in China. But for everyone on your list, they will have something. No, that’s not to say that you should give your loved ones galvanized screws and sushi from Dan & Whit’s. Instead, Dan Frasier suggests a basket of Vermont-made goods, like Lake Champlain chocolates; a pair of the fun, mismatched and cozy SolMate socks (made just up the road in Strafford), or a solid, handmade wooden wine stand that would go well with a bottle of Dan & Whit’s own label red or white.

Speaking of wine, Peter at Norwich Wines & Spirits is quick to point out that his prices are the same – or better – than what you’d find on 12A, even with the sales tax, but every bottle in his shop has been handpicked for its quality.  As a great gift for the wine lover, he suggests a magnum (the huge, double bottles) or two presented in a nice wooden box.

Not surprisingly, the Norwich Bookstore offers lots of interesting and carefully chosen reads for long winter nights.  Give them a few days’ notice, and they will order any book you could get from Amazon.com and have it wrapped and ready for you. Liza at the bookstore mentions their frequent author visits and the Book Angels project as other great reasons to support a local, independent bookstore (more about the Book Angels elsewhere in the issue).  They’re real people who live and breathe books, and if for some reason the one you’re after is out of stock, they will rise to the challenge of finding you an alternative. It’s the kind of passion and service you just can’t get from Amazon.

Hugs are another thing you usually don’t get when shopping online. But at the J-List it can be part of the retail experience. Jill Butler is less a storekeeper and more a force of nature. Her exuberant enthusiasm and incredible ability to cram interesting trinkets into every corner of her small, cozy corner of Main Street leaves me wondering why I would ever need to go anywhere else for all my gift shopping needs. From vegan handbags to silly stocking stuffers and great gift cards, it’s all beautiful, quirky and fun.  And it’s right here in Norwich. On the other side of the square, Zuzu’s offers an equally compelling treasure trove of gift ideas at very comfortable prices. Lots of striking Marimekko designs, as well as unique items made by Norwich-based VK Pottery.

A little further afield, you could swing by the open-during-renovations retail shop at King Arthur Flour for every­thing to please the baker and chef on your list. But clearly, rather than dread and endure your Christmas shopping, it is entirely possible to enjoy the experience and be inspired by keeping it local. Not just because that’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do. It allows you to show your love and compassion when you give as well as when you buy.

Jill Butler prepares yet another gift idea for display at the J-List

Liza Bernard (right) offers service with a smile at the Norwich Bookstore

Strafford-made Solmate socks at Dan & Whit’s

Zuzu’s offers Marimekko’s look on everything from trays to pillows

Magnum bottles of handpicked French wine at Norwich Wine & Spirits

 

(Story first ran in the Holiday 2011 Norwich Times)

Some Called it "The Beast"

Covering the entire Midwest and Northeast, the early February storm had the weather channel prophets airing doomsday predictions with headlines like ­“Colossal Winter Storm Takes Aim.”

{gallery}highway{/gallery}In fairness, schools in D.C. did shut down for almost a week.

 

But for Andy Hodgdon and his intrepid Norwich highway crew, it simply meant more business as usual. The main roads of Norwich would be kept passable, and less than a day after we received a foot and a half of snow, every paved road in town gleaming spotlessly in the sunshine.

Well before the storm arrived, Andy and his team got to work, salting the paved roads to ensure that the fresh snow wouldn’t pack down.

After a few hours of sleep, the team of six were back shortly after midnight to face down the storm itself, plowing over 400 miles of town roads repeatedly, while also finding time to clear the sidewalks and parking lots in the village.

As the snow tapered off, the task at hand was spreading gravel on dirt roads, which can’t be salted (salt+snow+dirt = mud).

Finally, the worst snow piles from the plowing were hauled away, and after working for almost 48 hours straight, the highway department could wrap up a textbook example of public service as yet another job well done.

(Captions: Clockwise: Neal waits to get his truck loaded with gravel 36 hours after work began; A highway department truck spreads gravel on newly plowed Pattrell Road the morning after the storm; While salting in Norwich, Sonny greets a colleague preparing for the brewing storm; Jay Van Armen helps plow the sidewalk on Turnpike Road; Andy Hodgdon gets ready to send off another truck with gravel; Justin plows in the village before daybreak.)

(This story first published in the Spring 2011 Norwich Times)

Beer Steins, Cadillacs and Guns

W. A. Smith Auction

No, that’s not the recipe for a Dartmouth College fraternity party, it’s auction time at Smith’s Auction Gallery in Plainfield, NH, an old school New England auction house where computer bidding is unheard of, but where a brisk business is being done in donuts and coffee as hundreds of potential buyers cram into the gallery to find their reserved seats. Eventually the crowd will spill out onto the back porch where a barbecue is set up to serve lunch later in the day. Many determined bidders are back after spending the previous day at the preview kicking the tires (sometimes literally) on the almost 700 lots that are up for sale. That is just one of the beauties of a “real” auction: unlike on eBay, you get to touch the upholstery, smell the varnish and examine closely the signatures on paintings and the dove tail joints on low boys.

The novelty value of eBay has worn off; people are no longer getting the same buzz they did ten years ago from an online bidding war for an exotic item offered by a faceless seller across the country. But entering a real auction gallery such as Smith’s is like stepping into Aladdin’s cave: treasures everywhere; sculptures, rifles, porcelain and old signs. Indeed, the catalog for this auction is a cornucopia of goods, from diamond rings to paintings and huge oriental rugs. And, yes, it is a mixed bag – some stuff will go for seventy five bucks, while the choice items that anchor the auction will make their way well into six figures. After evaluating the merchandise, the big question for everyone at an auction, is, of course: how much would I be willing to pay for this particular item and still consider it a good deal?

“There are no bargains here,” an art dealer from Windsor, VT, declares with a shrug, as he takes a break from exchanging trade gossip with a colleague while watching the unfolding auction out of the corner of his eye. “You get a lot of retail here,” quips another, “people with second homes that need filling.” For someone like him, the presence of well-heeled individual buyers is a setback, since they are likely willing to pay more than he can afford to bid with an eye for resale, and that pushes up the prices. But for the seller and for the auction house, that’s good news, of course. Retail or not, there are lots of dealers in the room, and while some may have come mainly to watch the action and get a sense of the market, many of them are also placing bids.

That leaves the the collectors – one bidder waits patiently on the back porch for hours, then nips in and successfully bids $250 on an old derringer – the second home owners, and other regular people who simply have “a thing” for antiques. That would be someone like Carl Franco from Connecticut, who is here looking for a couple of paintings and has a couple of things circled in the catalog. He’s makes a point to attend auctions at Smith’s gallery if he’s in the area. Another guy is here looking for presents – mostly jewelry, he figures – while a guy who normally comes to auctions looking for that kind of small stuff has decided that he’s going to bid on a couple of oriental rugs today.

Many of them have played this game for decades, and have the demeanor of hardened poker players, scrutinizing the competition, analyzing the bidding, noting down final bids in the margin of their dog-eared catalogs. They’re mostly older, and the overall impression of the crowd is an eclectic mix of slightly eccentric bohemians and honest, salt-of-the-earth penny pinchers. There’s not a tie in sight – indeed, apart from the auctioneer, nobody in the gallery appears to have dressed for the occasion. It’s not about us, it’s all about the stuff – we haven’t come to look at each other, we’ve come to look at what’s for sale. That’s quite refreshing, really, and surely makes it less intimidating for those unfamiliar with the rest of the protocols of the live auction format.

This, then, is the traditional New England country auction format that Smith’s knows to do so well and has perfected over almost fifty years: part bazaar, part show, part serious business. You start with this ungodly amount of items that may or may not be of value to someone else. The job of the auction house is to sort through it all and separate the wheat from the chaff, organize it, and present it well. In the case of an entire estate there may be a lot of mediocre things to unload in order to be able to showcase a few choice items.

Then comes the real auction action: a good auctioneer combines an incredible knowledge of styles and art history with the showmanship and charm required to entice reluctant buyers forward with a bid. “Provenance is key,” says gallery owner Bill Smith. “Having the story behind an item is one thing that can really make a huge difference in the price at a sale.” Knowing many of the buyers by name from decades in the business probably helps, too. Time and again during the auction, Bill will call out individual bidders and playfully entice them to bid with what appears to be a detailed memory of their buying history and preferences.

A stunning Cadillac from the 1930s is on the block now. Bill gives a quick history of the car, then starts taking bids. The eight hour marathon auction leaves less than a minute per lot, so even though the car is a fairly big ticket item, the gavel comes down about as fast as for the countless small framed portraits and pieces of silverware in the catalog. A flurry of back-and-forth bidding across the room, and the car is sold. The next item is brought forward by the army of gallery workers straining to keep up with the pace. It’s a beautifully choreographed display where the props can be yours at a price that you can help set.

At the end of the day a traditional auction is about carefully nurturing the a group of buyers to act on their inclination to pay top dollar for unique and hard-to-find items with character, history and cultural heritage. So, It is basically a match making service for antiques, and regardless of whether you’re a buyer, seller, dealer or simply a spectator on the sidelines, it’s an entertaining, thrilling, and entirely fascinating way to do business.

Way Beyond Books

After 10 years at the helm, Library director Lucinda Walker reflects on the place of the public library in Norwich.

The federal Institute of Museums and Library Services describes libraries as “community anchors.” The public/private joint venture that is the Norwich Public Library meets that definition perfectly.

Within a library, the librarian is the anchor. Lucinda Walker has been in charge of the Norwich Public Library for ten years, and she is as passionate as ever about the library and it’s role. “Libraries are about communities,” she concurs. “It’s about connecting people to ideas that benefit them as human beings and as members of a community. The library also connects people in a small town like ours with the greater world around them.”

Libraries are the great equalizers, she points out. You can be anybody. The library will always welcome you. Everyone gets the same service when they walk into a library, and they have the same opportunities to expand their knowledge – no matter who they are or how much money they have.

The Changing Role

More often than not, Lucinda explains, the community’s appreciation of “the library” may be more about the space itself than about what is contained within. It’s a place to reflect, research, relax, be inspired. It’s also a place to meet and attend events.

Library collections are increasingly becoming about more than merely printed matter on shelves: it’s now also DVDs, audiobooks, public computers and internet, as well as access to external resources in the virtual realm.

As always, the front desk staff is ready with recommendations and suggestions for books, but the librarians and volunteers are increasingly being asked to help with new technology: getting Kindles and Nooks, ipads and other gizmos loaded with e-books and other digital content.

So, it’s still about connecting people to ideas and resources, it’s just that they’re taking on different forms.

A Library Day

Even before the doors open, “customers” can be seen outside using the library’s free wireless internet to check e-mail before heading off for the day.

Local private schools use the library to supplement their own limited collections, and residents and staff from Valley Terrace visit regularly to stock up on music and movies.

Several times a week, there will be some variation on story time for the smaller kids. Except, those events aren’t just for the kids, explains Lucinda, they’re also social hours for busy parents, and one led to the formation of a dad’s group. After school, the library is the hub for group homework and socializing for older kids.

In addition to the casual out-of-town visitor, summertime brings AT hikers to the library to swap a book in the free book exchange, catch up on e-mail, and, laughs Lucinda, “asking if we can sell them just a little bit of toilet paper for the road.”

The Norwich Public Library is also one of the few remaining places where you can get paper versions of tax forms. (And this being Norwich, Lucinda has on occasion hand delivered tax forms to people in town — the kind of service way beyond that of a traditional librarian’s job description.)

Most people are loyal and committed to their community library and want it there just in case, but many don’t use it on a regular basis. “Some may not think they need the library,” says Lucinda, “but once they pay a visit they’ll realize that the library has something to offer almost everybody.” She gives the example of a first-time visitor, who was thrilled to discover that the library’s free online language program, Mango, enabled him to fulfill his dream of learning Italian.

Whether visitors come for the books, the internet, for a meeting or just to find a place to get away from things for a bit, the library is at heart of life in Norwich. And with Lucinda’s passion, it’s sure to remain that way for years to come, no matter how we as a community may change the way we seek out knowledge and resources.

(This story was first published in the Spring 2012 Norwich Times)

Down and out in Serbia

vucI meet Vuc over lunch. The 27 year old guy is picking his meal out of a dumpster in an alley in downtown Belgrade. Like half a million other Serbs from across the former Yugoslavia, he has come here to the capital on the run from the ethnic cleansing that has taken place in Croatia and Bosnia over the past five years.

They’re an anomaly, of course – Serbian refugees don’t fit with the picture we in the West have painted of the Serbs as the culprits and all the “others” as the victims.

According to the Dayton peace agreement signed almost two years ago, these “expellees,” as the refugees are known, will eventually be “repatriated.” In reality, that is not going to happen. The local players (the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosnians) have known this all along, and the refugees are beginning to realize it, too. A recent United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) survey showed that only a fraction of the Serbian refugees in Serbia hope or expect to go home again. The government across former Yugoslavia and most aid workers have reached the same conclusion. Unfortunately, the authorities in Belgrade appears unwilling or unable to allocate the resources required to care for the refugees, insisting that they are not their problem alone.

A handful of international relief organizations operate in Serbia, but their focus has been on emergency relief directly linked to the fighting. They are unlikely to stay and manage the long-term rehabilitation and re-integration now called for. This is in part because they are at the mercy of foreign donors (notably governments) reluctant to support the current Serbian leadership by taking over responsibility for its refugee problem. They insist that Serbia get its priorities straight and take the steps required to become an accepted international player.

But while the diplomats and politicians bicker, the question remains unanswered: how do you deal with half a million destitute people stuck in a country that’s hated, poorly run and basically bankrupt?

Loans, grants and motivation

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is doing its best in places like Kraljevo, a pretty town in south-central Serbia with 80,000 inhabitants and 8,000 refugees. I find a bunch of little old Serbian ladies knitting away happily in a social club on a Tuesday morning. Throughout Serbia and Montenegro DRC runs clubs like this one, which serve about 18,000 people. They are intended to keep Serbian refugees from Krajina and Bosnia active and motivated, offer them vocational training courses and help them get involved with UNHCR projects like income generation. IGPs, as those projects are known, consist of loans or grants extended to would-be entrepreneurs among the refugees who are able to put together a feasible business plan and present it to an agency like DRC. The funds allow them to generate income for themselves and their family, leaving them less dependent on aid from others. It is also a step towards establishing a new life in their new surroundings.

The IGP concept was initially developed by aid workers in Africa and Asia, and it has been a success elsewhere in the world. Today DRC has 3,000 beneficiaries across a few hundred such projects. DRC has chosen to focus on large projects where groups of 7-10 refugees get together and receive a grant or a loan of DEM 10,000 (approximately USD 6,000) or more. While the primary goal is the establishment of a successful business, DRC’s project director, Anette Christoffersen, points out that the psycho-social effect of just keeping the refugees busy is an equally important element.

But establishing successful projects is not easy. The refugees are not used to long term planning, explains Mrs. Christoffersen, and they find it hard to think about “the rest of their lives.” They tend to focus instead on the here and now, living as they do from hand to mouth. Some exaggerate their past experience when they put in a proposal, in some cases claiming to have worked in areas that in reality they’ve never actually tried before.

In some cases this means projects with lots of “learning by doing.” Once underway, DRC must teach the participating refugees about optimizing utilization of capacity and planning of production – basic business concepts that are unknown to many a would-be Yugoslav businessman.

So, a balance must necessarily be struck between working with the refugees on their terms, while at the same time teaching them fundamental skills that will help them get on with life. A popular theme for IGPs is greenhousing. DEM 8,500 (USD 5,000) is enough for a 180 m2 (1,700 sqft) greenhouse, which can be assembled in a matter of days. It then takes about one season to teach the refugees how to run it efficiently, but they need to be closely supervised, and often lack the means of survival while they wait for the income from the first crops.

Land, but not his own

Bosko works a small plot of land just outside Kraljevo. He had his own land in Croatia, land he spent nearly fifty years farming. But in 1992 he and his family of six escaped from a village near Sisak, south of Zagreb when the fighting started there. Their first stop was Nis, but they did not care for the city life and couldn’t make a living there. As is the case for many refugees, this is the second time Bosko is on the run. In 1941 he escaped to partisan-held territory as the Germans and the Ustashe Croats went after the Serbs in Croatia.

Together with three other families, Bosko’s family now run a small-scale greenhouse operation financed by DRC with UNHCR funds. Bosko still feels uprooted, however. He has heard that their house in Croatia is still in one piece, so if things should change for the better, he’d be eager to go back. “My kids can never feel content here,” he says. “There are no jobs for them, no assurance for the future.” Bosko and his family would love to work as much as they could, but there is not much for them to do in Kraljevo. They are worried, and Bosko says he has little hope for the future.

Sitting idle

Half of the DRC projects are in the hands of refugees who live in so-called collective centres – a bureaucratic euphemism for the barracks, run-down schools and other institutions that local authorities have been forced to offer as temporary housing. Adrani is one such center on the outskirts of Kraljevo, that houses 85 refugees. It is in poor condition and has just one toilet for all to share. “Still, that’s a lot better than the camp just across the street,” says the elected representative of the refugees. “They don’t even have one.” An old lady nods. At 79 she is the oldest of the refugees at Adrani. The youngest is a girl just two years old.

These refugees arrived from Krajina in May of 1995 and were first housed in the local sports center. A couple of families to a room, they now share the crummy, cramped center. As they are quick to point out, “even the animals on the local farms are better off than us.” It seems that after two years, the realization is slowly sinking in: we won’t be going back anytime soon.

On an old TV in a corner of the communal room of the Adrani collective center the confused images of MTV flicker by. A group of refugees have come in to explain what life is like in the center.

“We feel like prisoners. You should see what we left behind back in Croatia. Here, we are just guest, and we’ve overstayed our welcome,” says an aging man with a frown.

The local Red Cross provides them with clothes from deceased refugees at other camps, and the local municipality keeps them fed. The International Red Cross has provided them with mattresses, and the DRC has given them fabric to make bed sheets. But apart from that, they get no help to speak of, and basic necessities like running water and medicine are not available at Adrani.

Their chosen representative holds regular meetings with the local authorities, but to little avail. “We are always told that things will be improved, that something will happen, but nothing ever does. Usually the excuse we are given has to do with lack of funds from Belgrade. Then, when we finally do get something, it’s often so little that it leads to internal bickering about sharing it fairly.”

In 1996 DRC’s local social worker managed to get the refugees at Adrani involved in some activities; they played games, started growing vegetables on a plot behind the center, and socialized with refugees from other centers. But on this day in April it seems as if they’ve lost all the initiative and returned to the apathy of waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Some of them have had temporary jobs, doing hard physical labor for around 60 dinars (around DEM 15 or USD 9) a day, but even those jobs are gone now as the Serbian economy has slumped further towards a collapse. Working the 3.000 m2 (27.000 sqft) of farmland they have rented nearby is not enough to keep them all busy, but only three of them have applied for income generation projects, and all were rejected. The rest of the group at Adrani seem to have given up hope. They complain obsessively about the food, the milk, the cold, the kids, the humanitarian organizations, and “the system.” Over and over they repeat the same laments: “What can we do?Where can we go? Who can help us?”

They are mostly peasants, whose simple lives for generations revolved around the land and their family. Before the war they didn’t have much; now, they have lost even that. They were never expected to show much initiative, and the notion of “starting a new life” is clearly quite incomprehensible to most of them.

“Yes,” they admit, “we would have liked to have been part of a Greater Serbia, but not like this.” Fear has come with them from Croatia. fear of someone pointing a finger at them, sending them back to Croatia to stand trial as war criminals. Of course, none of them will own up to having committed war crimes, but most of them are old age pensioners and women anyway, hardly Chetniks on-the-run.

Could they ever consider Serbia home and grow comfortable in their new surroundings?”Yes,” says an old woman, “but it would be so much easier if things changed for the better.”

Twice is twice too often

A sweet old guy with a quivering voice and a mild stutter steps forward and quietly shows me a picture of a house; it’s his house back in Krajina, it turns out.

Milorad’s sad, tired eyes reflect what is in his photo. The house is a large, good-looking home, and in front of it a family is posing around an aging Opel sedan. He then hands me six other pictures taken by a neighbor who fled to Germany, and who recently went back to visit the village in Krajina. It looks as if someone stepped on the house with big, heavy boots; the outer walls have collapsed, and rubble lies strewn all around it. It takes a second to appreciate what the reality of these pictures must mean to him.

Milorad’s story is doubly tragic. As a three year-old he was expelled with his family from their home just south of Zagreb in Croatia. That was in 1941. They fled to Serbia, and by chance they ended up in Matarusjka Banja, the camp just across the street from Adrani. Milorad still remembers the family’s trip back to Croatia in 1948, where they proceeded to rebuild their home and their life.

Then, in 1995, he and his wife had to leave again. The journey to Serbia took them almost two weeks. He had a good relationship with his neighbors and never imagined that it would happen again. But almost 50 years later, he’s ended up in Kraljevo again.

Perhaps we can go back after all…

An old resort south of Kraljevo currently houses 320 refugees, 55 of them kids. On the walls of the social club are children’s drawings and posters with irregular English verbs. Here, I meet an old Serbian couple – they prefered to stay anonymous, so let’s call them Tomislav and Dragana – who escaped from the Croatian town of Nova Gradica in 1991. According to the woman in charge of the center, they may well have been some of the very first Serbian refugees.

In their dismal little room, Dragana complains of back pain, depressions and a plethora of other ailments. The frail old Serbian woman has one hand on her back and the other pressed against her stomach as she speaks. She moans and explains that she can’t take the food any longer, that she has to be fed small portions several times a day and should be on a special diet, but that they can’t afford to buy anything. She is convinced that the sanitary conditions in the kitchen are disgusting and wishes the state would do something. She needs medicine to stabilize her mental condition, she says, but they can’t afford that, either. She has missed her last couple of doctor’s appointments because they can’t afford the bus ticket, and while she thinks she should be admitted to the hospital, she’s also worried about what might happen to her there.

“How is anyone supposed to live under these conditions?” Dragana asks, and raises her arms in resignation. Two beds, a small table, a radiator, a cupboard and a couple of hot plates. That’s all they have in what passes for a home. That’s all they have had for the past six years. She pulls out an old, brown sweater and holds it up in disgust. “I got this four years ago from the Red Cross,” she says, “and haven’t gotten anything since.” While the couple is very apologetic on behalf of the local authorities and the rule in Belgrade (“oh, that’s just the system here…”) they are very quick to point out the lack of foreign aid and what consider broken promises made by various relief organizations over the years.

Tomislav and Dragana did not believe anyone would actually go to war in what was then Yugoslavia back in 1991, but all hell broke loose while they were visiting a relative in Bosnia. Fearing that their son might be drafted into the Croatian army to fight the Serbs if they went back, they chose instead to stay in Bosnia. Like so many others, they were later forced to leave Bosnia and move on to Serbia proper. Their son now lives in Belgrade, where we works and studies at the university.

As a former civil servant in Croatia, Tomislav was eligble for a DEM 1,500 (USD 900) annual pension. But while he was able to take his pension with him anywhere he went in the old federal Yugoslavia, he has, of course, not received any money from what is now independent Croatia since fleeing in 1991. “If only I could get back to Croatia and settle things with the pension,” he grumbles. He has heard from a few people back home and claims not be worried about his security if he went back. His neighbors were nice enough, he says, and he has never caused anyone any trouble.

When I ask him why they don’t try to go back as part of the UNHCR repatriation program, Tomislav claims that his wife is just too sick to travel. But it quickly becomes clear that they actually know surprisingly little about the options that are open to them. They haven’t taken part in any of the information meetings about repatriation and visitation programs that have been conducted at the center. He says it’s because they’re ashamed to discuss their problems and anxieties in front of other refugees.

While Tomislav has heard of the “Going Home” projects run by the Red Cross and UNHCR, he has also heard of people returning home only to discover that their homes have been destroyed – something he does not wish to experience. He’s also concerned about whether they would be able to come back to Serbia if things were to prove too difficult or dangerous in Croatia. And what about their safety on the trip – can UNHCR guarantee that? Tomislav is skeptical.

The figures vary considerably depending on the source, but probably no more than a few thousand Serbs have returned to Croatia. Some claim that the only people the Croats have allowed to return are old people who have returned to die in their home village. In Franjo Tjudman’s republic a law was recently passed giving Croats legal rights to property seized from refugees, including their homes. These days, only people currently residing in Croatia are issued with proof of citizenship and other means of identification, effectively rendering the refugees in Serbia stateless.

Meanwhile, tension between Serbs and Muslims is building in Eastern Slavonia, threatening to restart the war and possibly send a new wave of refugees scrambling out of the self-proclaimed Republica Srpska in Bosnia towards Serbia proper. National Serbian elections are slated for September of this year, and may bring a change in government. Some relief organizations have found the Zajedno opposition party people more dynamic and easier to work with on a local level compared to those from the old guard of Milosevic, but it would remain to be seen what a Zajedno leadership could accomplish for Serbia as a country. The economy and infrastructure is on the verge of collapse, and sticky issues including the status of Kosova and Vojvodina will need to be addressed before the world will lend a hand with rebuilding the Serbia. And as the nation seems to have almost given up collectively, even the potential of some foreign aid may not be enough to get Serbia back on its feet.

It is hard to contemplate what will happen with the approximately half a million refugees in Serbia. They will still be stuck in limbo when next winter comes, but there may not be enough relief supplies to help them through it. And as is the case for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, the dream of returning lives on in the minds of these Serbs. But as the years go by, the reality of the situation will permeate the dream, turning it into a nostalgic myth of better times that may well never come.

Baby Detectives

Prishtina Hostpital is a dodgy place to be, especially if you´re sick. But for Kosova´s prematurely born babies a regular checkups at the hospital after discharge may well be the singlemost important factor for increased chances of survival.

Prishtina hospital is the biggest in the rural region known as Kosova to the Albanians and Kosovo to the Serbs. The two ethnic groups lead an uneasy coexistence. While 90% of the population is ethnically Albanian, the administrators and heads of public institutions like the hospital are Serbian. Rumours circulate about Albanian patients being mistreated at the hands of Serbian doctors and nurses. While they are most likely all unfounded, they nevertheless add to the mutual distrust and suspiciousness permeating local society. The Albanians have created their own parallel health and social services system called “Mother Theresa,” but the clinics are poorly funded and cannot offer much in the way of eg. nenonatal care.
Together with a general boycott of the hosptails by the Albanians, the fear of the Serbian medical proessionals keeps the Albanian mothers away, though a quick look at the hospital itself would be reason enough. The most basic facilities at the run-down facility are lacking (parts of the hospital are regularly without water or electricity), medical supplies are inadequate, the sanitation disgusting and the temperature in most wards not above 55 degrees. “Equal opportunity neglect,” as one American midwife aptly describes it.
The infant mortality rate in Kosova is the highest in Europe, and so is the birth rate. Children are born either at home, at the Mother Theresa birth centres or at the region´s state-run clinics. Once born, the children are whisked away to their village, and that may be the last any doctor see of the baby. For the frail premature and SGA (small for gestational age) children this lack of doctor´s care can lead to the tragic neglect of otherwise curable medical conditions. “This is the single largest problem facing us: they don´t show up for the scheduled check-ups, so we don´t know how the baby is doing,” explains neo-natologist Dr. Besa. “We can´t force the parents to bring the kids in for controls, only pursuade them and teach them the value of follow-up after birth.”

Dr. Agim, who is in charge of neonatal care at Prishtina hospital, is quick to point out that people in the villages er intelligent enough. The problem is that the parents just don´t know the right things to do. “If we had these control visists, we wouldn´t be seing as many cases of anemia, poor growth etc,” he points out. “I have seen the most incredible things. A perfectly healthy baby left this clinic; after two weeks, he came back, skinny and weak, in terrible condition. Two days later, he died. It turns out the mother had only fed him water skimmed from boiled fruit, nothing else. As she herself put it, ‘well, he didn´t seem to care much for milk.´ Other mothers will wash their children with eggs, because it allegedly ‘gives them such smooth and soft skin,´” Dr. Agim says with a shrug and sighs.
“A lot of the mothers make the strangest mistakes with the best of intentions, and it is very hard to convince them to do things differently. If you question their methods of child rearing they will respond with a sense of hurt pride: ‘well, that´s how my mother taught me to do it.´” We have to get out there, into their houses, so we can see what the family setting is like, he concludes.

To boldly go where no nurse has gone before

This year, maternity and neonatal wards from both the Albanian and state-run Serbian institutions are taking part in an irc project providing comprehensive follow-up for those particularly vulnerable newborns after they are discharged from the clinics. The main goal of the IRC program is three-fold: 1) to watch the health of the babies as they return to their new home, 2) to encourage the mother to take her newborn to see the doctor for regular check-ups and vaccinations, and 3) to monitor the mother´s state of health when and if she becomes pregnant again, for her own sake as well as for the sake of the next child.
The work of providing the on-site follow-up will be done by a team of hand-picked, experienced nurses. All but one them were fired from the medical system in the ´91 purge of Albanians; the exception is the one Serbian nurse attached to the project in order to make it “politically correct” in the current Kosova setting and thus acceptable to the powers that be. These nurses will head off to the villages throughout Kosova and pay home visits to the families whose babies are part of the program target group.

Preventative measures

It is important, the nurses are told during the first of their three preparatory lessons, not only to watch the health of the new-born that has recently come home, but also to check on the health of the mother. She will most likely be having another baby, and it is the nurse´s job to make sure that the next one doesn´t become a “problem baby.” Although the first baby may suffer from a medical condition, there´s a good chance of preventing that from happening with the next one.

The nurses should take notice of the hygiene conditions they encounter on their visits to the homes in the villages. They have the opportunity to observe the circumstances under which the newborn is growing up and the mother is living, and this may also be the setting for the birth of her next baby. They should make the parents aware of nutritional requirements , not only for her baby, but also for her as an expectant mother. This includes the taking of vitamines to prevent ao. spina bifida, avoiding drugs during pregnancy and so on.
As they gain the trust of the parents it is hoped that the family will confide in the nurses and listen to the advice they give. If so, the nurses can offer some pre-conceptual information, including the suggestion that the family space the children by at least two years. “So, the next time a mother tells you that she´s expecting, you should be the one to tell her how happy you are for her, but also that she should go see the doctor to avoid, for example, having a big baby or small baby or premature baby due to complications from diabetes or other medical conditions,” explains one of the American doctors who are training the nurses in preparation for the project.

The nurses are urged to give the mothers an explanation for the things that are happening to them, ie. explain to them why it is vitally important for them and their baby to go see a doctor at the hospital, even though they may be quite reluctant to do so.

Dr. Besa explains that it is hard for the parents to find the time to take proper care of the newborn once they get him or her home because there are so many other kids to look after, and so much that needs to be done in the daily life of a villager. Besides, she points out, they lack almost everything required to give their offspring a decent start in life ­ water, electricity, decent roads and phones that work.

At the clinics themselves the project will provide the means to collect and store the data from the follow-up. It is hoped that statistically significant results may be achieved through the completion of the project, showing the true value of this kind of follow-up care.

Income Generation: A Fresh Start

The images went around the world. In August 1995 convoys of civilians ­ mostly elderly people and children, walking along the roads of Yugoslavia under the scorching sun.

By then, Balkan fatigue had made most western observers oblivious to the real meaning of yet another mass exodus of refugees in the Balkans, and few seemed to take much notice of this latest turn of events in Europe.
Those people on the roads were the Krajina Serbs, escaping a swift Croatian offensive that swept through the self-proclaimed republic of Krajina Srpska in Croatia. Two weeks later the escaping masses reached Serbia and other ethnic Serbs who had come from Bosnia and Northern Croatia. They had fled nationalistic expansionism in the early years of the the outbreak of hostilities in 1991.

In theory, the Dayton accord signed in 1995 provides for the repatriation of the refugees, or “expellees” as they are technically known. Most international observers agree, however, that these people are very unlikely to be able to go back home to Croatia or Bosnia & Hercegovina, despite the efforts of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR ) and others to make the civilian parts of Dayton, including repatriation, come into effect. The homes and in some instances entire villages of the Serbian refugees have been burnt down or taken over by Croats or Muslims, and should they choose to go back, the former Serbian inhabitants of these ethnically cleansed areas can expect to be met with strong hostility by the new occupants.
A number of refugees have attempted to go back assisted by UNHCR and have subsequently been beaten and forced back to Serbia. And so, we can expect to see half a million refugees stuck in rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) for quite a while yet, if not permanently.

A relatively small group of refugees (about 10 percent) live under poor conditions in so-called “collective centres” in groups of 50-300 refugees. But the vast majority of the Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia & Hercegovina live in private accomodations throughout Serbia and Montenegro. A dew have taken up residence on abandoned, isolated homesteads (salash’es, as they are known in Hungarian) scattered across the vast, fertile farmlands of Vojvodina in the norternmost part of Serbia. Some still receive occasional food or hygiene parcels from the Yugoslav Red Cross, UNHCR and the few foreign donors who acknowledge the plight of the Seriban refugees in Serbia. But this is all short term emergency relief that does not address the need to find viable solutions to their needs in the longer term.

Some of the refugees have been passively waiting around for up to five years, and they have lost any motivation or energy to do anything. Some still engulfed by bitterness and depression, others seemingly overwhelmed by the embarrasment of suddenly being dependent on others for your most basic needs. For many it appears that the memory of what they had and have now lost forever is almost harder to bear than the daily struggle to survive. When they tell of their hardships they do so with a shrug of the shoulders, but when they describe the home they left behind in Krajina their voice trembles and they can no longer hold back the tears.

Better than staring at the walls

One approach to getting the refugees back into active life is through so-called Intcome Generation Projects. irc is a UNHCR implementing partner. so UNHCR puts up the money, while irc does the “doing.” The idea has been adapted by UNHCR from similar hugely successful programs in Africa and Asia. An interest free, short-term loan is given to a refugee intent on starting a business venture on his own or as part of a group, but who lacks the necessary initial capital to buy machinery or rent a shop or some land. The refugee is requested to submit a formal application with a business plan and an estimate of the required loan. By the spring of 1997 irc had started about 50 such projects in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina.

An important aspect of IGP project is to try and to help refugees get a sense of purpose in their otherwise miserable lives. Which is why project managers behind several IGP programs throughout Serbia are quick to point out that while they would love to see the projects become financially succesful, and thereby helping the refugee’s family towards financial independence, the primary aim is psycho-social. Participating in an income generation project is hoped to lead to a sense of purpose and to build confidence. If successful, it can encourage dispondent refugees to think more about future possibilities for themselves and their family than about the loesses they have suffered and the happy life they used to have.

Local field operatives associated with the irc program undertake the day-to-day contact with the refugees. They are responsible for encouraging refugees to apply for loans and help evaluate the applications, and they stay in touch with them once the project is up and running to give whatever help is needed along the way. They also collect the monthly installments on the loan. The irc loans are quite modest, and DEM 1.000 (approx. USD 670) isn’t much when you’re starting a whole new life.

Three cases in point

The following three case stories from Vojvodina should give an idea of the range of projects that may be funded through irc’s IGP programme.

1. Welding together a new future

A decrepit red Yugo sits in front of the big, modern house. Next to it an ancient tractor is rusting away;that is the ride that brought Samac Dusan and his family from Prizlitse in Croatia to the town of Bracka Topola in Vojvodina, a couple of hours north of Belgrade, just south of the Hungarian border. When he and his family fled the Croatian offensive in August of ’95 they came here because Samac has relatives in town.

Initially, the family of four relied on assistance from the Yugoslav Red Cross, but lately they’ve managed on their own. Samac’s wife worked as a teacher, and he taught at a vocational school back in Krajina. They would both like to go back to teaching if it were possible, but for now they live off the income from Samac’s blacksmith shop which is set up in the garage under the house.

He had already started the enterprise with his father when he applied for a loan through irc’s IGP programme. The DEM 1.000 (USD 670) loan he was eventually granted, constitutes 20 percent of his total investment capital. While he rents most of the equipment in the shop, the loan allowed him to buy a spot welder and other heavy duty equipment for the shop. Samac proudly shows off one of several hundred bent metal rods with welded nuts that he’s produced for a local builder. He only does commissioned work and charges half the payment up front. That covers materials, the other half is his income. Most of his customers are local entrepreneurs and a couple of state-owned factories in the area. But with the current state of the Serbian economy, they have almost no money to spend. Things are going reasonable well, Samac says, but it is still difficult to make ends meet. The loan was a help, but he had hoped for a bigger loan which would have enabled him to buy bigger, better and more modern machinery.

He is confident that spring will bring in more work, and he is quite optimistic about the future possibilities for his shop. Samac hopes to one day be in a position to hire some outside labour, and the driveway is already full of the building materials that will be used to construct a new workshop in the back yard of the family house. It should be ready by the end of summer. Samac no longer harbours dreams of going back to Krajina. He has put a lot of hard work into establishing this operation, he explains, and no matter what changes may occour over the coming years, he intends to stay here in Bracka Topola. While it’s a hard life, they’re at least making headway. “The past is history,” he maintains. “I’m fortunate enough to be young and able, and blessed with a good set of hands.”

2. A cow and a half

There’s a wonderful twinkle in Savo Lubobratovic’s eye, and a couple of teeth missing from his upper gums. He looks at least 60 years old, but as he leads me to the stables he points out that he has in fact only just turned 50. His wife is 47, and the two live in a small farmhouse in Vojvodina.

In 1994 their old house in Croatia was burnt down while Savo was away on business. The following day their Croatian neighbors showed up and offered his terrified wife a miserable price for their remaining livestock and the land. She accepted this offer ­ she couldn’t really refuse it ­ and took off to meet her husband in Serbia. Listening to their discription of what they remember, they had everything: a lovely farmhouse, fertile land, he had a steady job as a carpenter and kept cows, pigs and sheep as well. They ended up in Vojvodina because her brother lived in the region.

In december of 1996 Savo was given a loan of DEM 1.250 (approx. USD 840) from the irc IGP programme. He used the money to buy a cow and a half ­ he payed for the other half of the cow with the meager proceeds from the sale of the livestock and land back in Krajina. He’s been very rational in his choice of how to spend the money. “Goats are no good, because people in Serbia aren’t particularly fond of goat’s milk, and pigs require special feed which is expensive. I would have liked a different breed of cow that yields more milk, but these are just fine, “he says with a smile of satisfaction. One of the cows is pregnant. If the calf is a bull he’ll eventually sell it for slaughter; if it’s a cow he’ll keep her.

Savo is a tough old guy who a lot of self confidence and a belief that it pays off to make an effort, in spite of every one else claiming that it’s impossible to make any headway in present day Serbia. “Some of the other applicants thought the 1.000 Deutschmarks offered was too little, and they complained bitterly. “That tiny sum won’t do us any good at all,’ they lamented. I, on the other hand, was happy to accept the loan, considering a means to an end and a new beginning.” But things are tough for Savo and his wife. I ask them if they can live off the proceeds from the two cows, and they hesitate before answering. Barely, they confess. While they sell the milk to the local plant, he still has to work as a menial worker at a local shop and as a gravedigger for the church. He’s payed in feed for the animals. Before getting the loan from IRC he did odd jobs around town and they recieved some help from UNHCR and the Red Cross.

Savo’s dream is to one day have some pigs in the back yard, but his big dream is to one day have some land of his own. If he could take out a new loan it would be to buy a tractor so he could run the farm more efficiently. But first he wants to pay back his current loan, and he’s well on his way to doing so, as a matter of fact, he’s ahead on his payments.

The couple opens the door to their home, and it immediately becomes apparent how poor they really are. There is nothing in the combined kitchen and living room, exept for the old stove that the wife is using to keep the chill out, continuously stoking it with corn cobs. It smells nice, but it doesn’t give much in the way of heat. In one of the two small bedrooms, half hidden behind a pile of empty old Red Cross food parcels, the mother-in-law is wasting away. “I just want to die,” she says, and by the look of things she soon will. It’s less than 15 degrees Celcius in the room, the floor is stamped earth. Savo’s wife is very worried. “How will we afford the funeral,” she asks? She’s sick, too, and should be going for treatment at the local hospital once a week. But the Serbian government has recently done away with the free transport offered to refugees, and they can’t afford the ticket. They have even heard rumours that the authorities will be cancelling their free electricity and demanding back pay for past supply.

As she tells of their home in Croatia, Savo’s wife can’t help shedding a tear, and it’s hard for her to tell about her escape three years ago.
The whole village was burned down, so the couple have nothing to go back to in Croatia. Their children live a couple of hundred miles away, but the couple cannot afford to visit them. They are not in touch with old friends or neighbors, and they don’t know any of the refugees in the new community. They’re not very keen on associating with the other refugees, because “refugees are desperate people, you can’t trust them,” as Savo points out. “Now a days,” he contiues, “you can only trust yourself.”

3. What to bring in an emergency

“Not many people here in Vojvodina can afford to buy new clothes these days. It almost only happens for special occasions.”

These words are Bogdanka Pavlica’s. In July of 1993 she fled with her family from Ogulin in Croatia. They ended up here in Bracka Topola because her husband’s friend ­ the best man at their wedding, no less­ lives here. She worked briefly as a secretary at the local army barracks, then found herself without a job. But she had had the presence of mind to bring her sewing machine with her when she escaped, as a contingency plan if all else failed. And soon she established herself as a seamstress, offering alterations and repairs, working out of her home.
In november of ’96 she applied for and was granted a DEM 800 (USD 540) loan through the irc IGP programme, and with the money she bought raw materials and sewing supplies to enable her to taylor new clothes for her customers. Her mother had taught her the skills, the designs are her own. Judging by the suit in progress, she is good at her job. It was not difficult for Bogdanka to muster the courage to ask for the loan. “After all, it’s not like begging,” she is quick to point out. She was confident that she would be able to pay the loan back, so she was willing to run the risk of putting herself into debt in order to get on with life.

When she isn’t busy working with needle and thread, Bogdanka looks after the family home and her two boys. She has ample time for that, unfortunately, because business is slow. For the month of February she only had two orders to fill, and it only takes her a day to complete a set of dress clothes. She charges DEM 120 for an outfit, 90 of which cover the cost of materials. It’s not bad when keeping in mind that the average Serbian worker makes about DEM 200 a month.

Bogdanka does not belive she and her family will ever return to Croatia. She just hopes they will be able to sell their old house in Ogulin. “We all have hopes,” she says, “but we really need the money badly. We barely have enough now to cover the basic needs for us and the kids.” Her husband works at a local, state owned furniture plant that is failing. The factory has provided Bogdanka’s family with the apartment and all the furniture in it.
She would be happy to see the business grow larger,, and she intends to focus on her tailoring work in the future. “I definitely feel a lot better now that I am doing something at long last,” she says. “Anything is better than sitting around staring at your own four walls all day,” she says with the conviction of someone who knows too well what that is like.