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How Nato destroyed the work of Yugoslav NGOs

Diary of an NGO activist

Hidden heroes

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

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 tomorrow?"

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.

Guardian Unlimited c Guardian Newspapers Limited 1999,3605,42137,00.html

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