Hidden heroes

Jenny Hyatt and Miljenko Dereta on a peace network shattered by the Kosovo 

The Guardian, London
Wednesday April 14, 1999

A short plane journey from here, a young girl is playing Monopoly in a bomb
shelter. A few weeks ago she hit her dad with a doll and laughed: "You are 
Belgrade and I am the bombarders." Martina (not her real name) is not 
laughing any more. She had believed that the West came as friends, invited 
by her parents to aid their efforts to build democratic practices. Now 
these "friends" seem to be angry with her mum and dad. What went wrong?

Martina did not have a normal childhood. In her nine years she experienced 
two wars and could not see her grandparents. Her only contact with "
normality" was through her parents and others who struggled to provide an 
alternative to Milosevic through non-gov ernmental organisations (NGOs).

In her lifetime, more than 700 NGOs developed in the Federal Republic of 
Yugoslavia (FRY), comprised of Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro. They were, to
quote a recent paper by Belgrade-based Civic Initiatives, "independent of 
state influence" and "are spreading throughout the country with a new 
energy and creativity". Their methods were sometimes ill-defined but their 
aim was clear - the creation of civil society in FRY. They worked across 
borders, both geographical and national, with the diverse mix of the 20-odd
ethnic groups that make up the country.

The NGOs organised the monitoring of human rights abuses; they set up 
income-generation projects with refugees; they held public meetings in town
halls across the country to address issues such as unemployment; they were 
active in the civil protests of 1996/97; they ran non-violent conflict- 
resolution classes with schoolteachers and they taught children about 
tolerance and mutual respect. Moreover, they were the last meeting point of
Kosovo Albanians and Serbs.

These NGOs have carried out hundreds of such democratising activities with 
very limited material resources and with the ever-present danger of 
retribution from the prevailing regime which, rightly, perceived them as a 
danger to itself. These are the only people who can bring about the 
much-needed changes in FRY - its citizens. Their vision and hard-won 
achievements were destroyed with the first bomb. Before that the potential 
for using a combination of internal dissent, international law and economic
stringency was not fully exploited.

Did anyone actually listen to NGO leaders who predicted the consequences of
air strikes? Did anyone note the damage that NGOs had already inflicted on 
Milosevic's position? Did anyone think of a long-term strategy - which 
could have begun five years ago - of wide-ranging support for NGOs that 
were building democratic practices?

So what impact has Nato's (illegal) action had? Well, there is Milosevic 
riding high on a sea of nationalism. Then there are thousands of Kosovars 
fleeing actions that have dramatically escalated under Nato fire. And then 
there is an NGO community that will find it difficult to rebuild trust with
the West. One NGO activist comments: "The problem is that if we ever have 
the chance to continue our work, who will believe us that in the West there
is democracy, respect of human rights, participation of citizens and justice
? What will we give as an example of a democratic open civil society? We 
were already called the mercenaries of the West - what will they call us 

The actions in the past weeks have destroyed years of courage and hard work.
They have seriously undermined those who could have made a difference to 
Serbia. These are the hidden refugees of this conflict - hostages of 
Milosevic's regime - forced to plan in bomb shelters and on street corners.
They should be at the forefront of politicians' minds, as they will be the 
ones to pick up the pieces when the destruction is over. And when they 
speak again, it will require the finest language of diplomacy to disguise 
the word "betrayal".

* Jenny Hyatt is an NGO development specialist who has worked with the NGO 
community in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) since 1994. This 
article was written with Miljenko Dereta and other colleagues in the NGO 
sector in FRY, most of whom must remain anonymous.