'I feel guilty for the whole damn world'

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Images of death from Bosnia no longer fill our television screens and newspapers. The Dayton agreement has been signed and the Western politicians have gone home. But not everyone has abandoned Bosnia, and a remarkable aid effort is being led by an unlikely but inspiring woman. Reva Klein meets Lady Nott

The bombs have stopped falling, the snipers have long abandoned their vantage points, the roads are no longer teeming with frightened men, women and children fleeing for their lives. With the implementation of the Dayton peace accord a year ago, the most devastating conflict in Europe since the Second World War officially came to an end. But while Bosnia is no longer an issue for the Western media, for the people of that country the consequences of war are still very real. In the nightmarish world of the "ethnically cleansed" former Yugoslavia, nobody lives happily ever after.

In addition to the 2.1 million asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia scattered throughout Europe, 600,000 are still displaced in the Balkans, mainly in Bosnia, living in cramped, squa-lid refugee camps or with friends or relatives. Many are suffering from post-trauma stress (see opposite page); food and medicine are in short supply. But at least they are alive; 15,000 people are still unaccounted for in Bosnia.

On the other side of Europe - in Chelsea to be precise - Miloyska Nott is planning her next convoy of goods that will help relieve the refugees' suffering. Slovenian-born Lady Nott, wife of the former defence secretary, John Nott, is not your typical Tory lady. Since the spring of 1992, she has been organising relief convoys to Bosnia, and for the past two years she has joined them, driving with the vans and lorries, often in perilous circumstances.

From the beginning of the war, Lady Nott attempted to alert the British government and media to the atrocities that were taking place or were about to take place. After witnessing the scale of the conflict and hearing many corroborated first-hand accounts, she insisted to all who would listen that this was no localised civil war. To her increasing frustration, and to what should be Britain's - and Europe's - eternal shame, her words fell on deaf ears.

As it became clear that nothing would be done politically or militarily, she took the advice of Lady Thatcher and set up her own charity, with Thatcher as patron. She called it the Fund for Refugees in Slovenia because its initial task was to bring relief to the 84,000 Bosnian refugees who had fled to Slovenia in the north-west.

Since its birth in 1992 the charity has, according to the president of the Red Cross in Tuzla canton, contributed more medicine, medical equipment and food for refugees in the area than the International Red Cross and Unicef put together. In the early days of the war, Lady Nott also helped to bring children to Britain for vital medical treatment. And since the end of the fighting she has concentrated much of the charity's effort on repairing bomb-damaged schools in the Tuzla area.

For Lady Nott, giving education back to displaced children sheltering in Tuzla is a priority. "In Tuzla canton alone, there are 11,000 children over the age of ten who have not been to school for four and a half years since they left their own homes and villages," she says. Now, even where schools have been repaired by charities such as her own, a major problem is how to get the children from the refugee camps and surrounding villages into the schools when there is no money for bus fares, shoes, or warm clothing. The Fund for Refugees in Slovenia, which is now aimed at the displaced all over Bosnia, is addressing these problems. "My great passion is the belief that education is the most important thing we can give to these children. What do they have otherwise?" Lady Nott asks.

Most recently, her charity has been responsible for getting a school in Graycanica up and running again for nearly 1,400 children, mainly refugees from Zepa, Srebrenica and the surrounding area, the majority of them fatherless. She is about to start work on reactivating another school in the town. At the request of the teachers, some of the money raised has gone towards buying six computers. She denies that there are more pressing priorities. "You can't educate these children any differently to the children in the rest of Europe. How can we allow them to be educationally disadvantaged?" As well as getting these children back into schools, Lady Nott's and other charities are concerned to get basic aid back on the international agenda. On her last trip, in October, she found alarming levels of malnutrition among children and adults in the refugee camps in the Tuzla area. Fruit and vegetables are scarce and there are desperate shortages of medical supplies. And as a result of the poor living conditions and low resistance of refug-ees, tuberculosis is spreading at a worrying rate.

"Don't believe that because there is no more war, the ref-ugees' plight has improved," she says. "In some areas people are suffering more than they were during the war because most of the aid has gone. Every time I go there I feel guilty for the whole damn world."

* For donations tothe Fund for Refugees in Slovenia, the Barclays Bank account number, Regent Street branch, is 70132 551. Or you can send a cheque to the charity at 31 Walpole Street, London SW3 4QS.

* To support Children of the Storm, which helps asylum-seeking students at Hampstead School, the NatWest account number is 6676464 502, or cheques can be made payable to Children of the Storm, Hampstead School, Westbere Road, London NW2.


In the continuing story of ethnic conflict and oppression in the Balkans, Kosovo is currently centre stage. The largest number of young people from the former Yugoslavia coming to Britain on their own are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

Like all asylum seekers who have left their countries without documentation and proof of age, many are finding it impossible to receive benefits in this country and most local authorities are reluctant to help them by providing housing benefit. The situation, according to Terry Smith of the Refugee Council's Unaccompanied Minors Panel, has worsened since the introduction of legislation that denies asylum seekers the right to benefit while their appeals are being heard, and access to public housing.

One cause for optimism is a judicial review in the new year on the right of Kosovans to be granted refugee status.

Since 1990, when the Serbs overthrew the Kosovan government after it declared independence from Yugoslavia, Albanians have been denied access to Albanian-language schools, public-sector employment and freedom of speech. Despite the fact that they constitute about 90 per cent of the population compared with the Serbs' 10 per cent, many thousands of Albanians have lost their jobs, and widespread and systematic police repression has been documented over the years. The Albanian-language media has been shut down and all Kosovans are required to speak Serbo-Croat.

"Tony" is an 18-year-old Kosovan who came here as an unaccompanied minor last year. "My family has lived in Kosovo for many generations," he says. "Since 1990, all Albanian students have had to go to private houses to be secretly taught in our own language. Two years ago, there was a big demonstration to demand that our schools be reopened. The Serb police force chased and beat many people. A few months later, the police barged into our secret Albanian school and took away our teacher and all 33 of us, aged 16. Our teacher was beaten and we were all interrogated separately. When they asked me if I had been on the demonstration, I denied it. But they showed me a picture taken of me at the demonstration and I was sent to prison for two weeks, where I was beaten. I was only allowed to phone my parents after the first week.

"Last year, after getting a letter demanding that I report for army duty (in the Serb army), I had to leave the country and came here, where I have an uncle. Now I rent a flat with a friend and get Pounds 34 income support, but half of that goes on rent. Luckily, Hampstead School, where I'm studying GNVQ Business Studies, pays my fares through a charity for refugees called Children of the Storm. My dreams of studying medicine are gone, since my English holds me back. I don't know what is going to happen to me. But it would be better to be here in jail than to go back. If there was a resistance movement in Kosovo, I'd go back and fight to be free."


Natasha is a nine-year-old from Sarajevo who came to Britain nearly two years ago with her architect mother, Yesenka. Her father was killed in 1992 in a bomb blast, trying to help injured neighbours. For six months before they left, Natasha and 20 classmates attended "school" at a teacher's house nearby, as it was too dangerous to venture out of the immediate neighbourhood. She now attends a primary school in west London and is unusually articulate and insightful about her past and her present.

"It's all faded, my memories of when I first started school here. It's like there was a mist in the classroom, like I was dreaming. It was like being in space and not understanding what's going on around you. People would annoy me because they would hug me and smile at me but I couldn't understand what they were saying. I just wanted everyone to be normal and ask me to play at playtimes and then get on with their own things and leave me alone.

"No one ever asked me about my life in Sarajevo. When I did start talking, they would look bored. But anyway, I don't want to talk about it with anyone, because my father died in the war and then everything went bad. My country will never be the same. All the beautiful buildings are destroyed and will be built with new bricks that won't contain all the experiences of before. I don't want to forget my past life, but I want to build a new life here."


Lady Nott tells of one girl whose experience is typical of many. At the age of 12, she was taken with her Bosnian mother to a Serb detention camp, where, with many other women and girls, they were repeatedly raped. After some time, whether days or weeks no one knows, the mother's throat was slit in front of her daughter. The child "flipped", in Lady Nott's words, and has been severely disturbed ever since, only able to communicate by hugging people and not wanting to let go. She is currently being moved from one special institution to another.


Of the 13,000 former Yugoslavs who are officially here as refugees or asylum seekers, an unknown number of children have been brought in illegally and subsequently been "lost". They are among those who were brought over in humanitarian convoys in 1992 and 1993 by religious charities and secular community organisations moved to take action by the horrific images of suffering on their television screens.

As a Bosnian social worker dealing with young asylum seekers here puts it: "There are a great number of children unaccounted for. They were loaded onto buses and lorries and delivered to towns and cities around England and Scotland, and now nobody knows what has happened to them." Some will have been adopted or fostered, formally or otherwise. The International Social Service, which runs a project for young Bosnians, has traced 40 of these children but concedes that these searches are extremely difficult.

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