The Lutheran Church in Bratislava wants to help Yugoslav children.
photo: Sharon Otterman
In the northern Yugoslav region of Vojvodina, for example, some 64,000 people of Slovak heritage are struggling to deal with the war's affects. In some towns, the air is heavy with pollution from bombed chemical and gas factories. Many children have ceased going to school. And though calls from Slovaks in Yugoslavia have flooded into Slovakia since the bombing began, those interested in providing aid say little can be done due to a strict economic embargo on Yugoslavia.
"Church organizations and humanitarian organizations here don't have a way to help," said Mária Gasperová, the theological director of the Evanjelická Diakonia, an arm of the Slovak Lutheran church. "Medical and food support can't be to send in, we can't help that way."
But the difficult situation brought a brainstorm to the Lutheran Church: Why not try to get the children out and let them live with Slovak families in Slovakia until the worst of the conflict passes?
From a simple idea hatched at a meeting of the Lutheran Church April 26, the Lutheran Church relief effort has grown into a massive undertaking involving hundreds of Slovak families here and dozens of church pastors and other community leaders in Yugoslavia, Gasperová said.
With telephones lines, television, and radio not reliable in the war zone, just getting information from Yugoslavia is extremely difficult. Organising visas for the expected children is a bureaucratic nightmare, as each child needs individual paperwork and the offices in Belgrade are not open. And with the conflict worsening, just getting the children out of the county has become a frightening prospect.
"Every hour the situation there develops new complications," she said. "We are very worried. About a week and a half ago, we were not worried, but the latest news [of intensifying bombing campaigns] makes it more dangerous. The situation may worsen to the point where we may not be able to transport them at all," Gasperová said.
Already the group is more than two weeks behind its intended schedule. While the Red Cross, the Slovak Lutheran Church in Yugoslavia, and the Matica Slovenska organization of Yugoslavia have been charged with choosing the children for the transport, the Lutheran Church can't get its transport list into Bratislava because of failures in communication lines. An exploratory group of a few Slovak Lutherans left for Novi Sad on Monday to explore the situation further, she said.
Unique about this rescue effort, said Lutheran Church director Ondrej Buzala, is that these children will have permission to stay in the country long-term with families throughout the country. Officially, their status will be as tourists, not refugees, Buzala said.
While the rescue effort will center around helping Slovak children from age 4 to 15 from the Yugoslav towns of Pančevo of Vojvodina, which are near Belgrade, and from Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina, it is not for them exclusively. Serbian and Hungarian children will hopefully also be brought to Slovakia, where they will stay in a home with a Slovak child who can translate for them, while Hungarian children can stay will Hungarian-Slovak families.
"This effort is not targeted towards any ethnic group," Buzala said. "I would say we are trying to help the people no one else is helping."
While permission has not yet been granted, the Church is also hoping to move some Yugoslav mothers to Slovakia with the children, where they can serve as comforts and witnesses for the other families back in Vojvodina of the children's condition. They are also hoping to get some children from orphanages in the region out, as "they have no parent to help calm them down when the air-raid sirens start," Gasperová said.
The Lutheran Church and some private individuals are at this point the sole sponsors of the effort. Host families are volunteering their time, although the church hopes to provide them with some sort of financial assistance to support the children. But all of these details are as of yet theoretical, until word comes that the first of the expected 500 children has stepped onto a transport bus.
Till then, the Lutherans will continue to make phone calls and hope that they will get the proper permissions for their effort. "Much of the world is underestimating the effects these bombs are having," Gasperová said. "But for us this is not some far away conflict we can forget about. It is our conflict."