Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Heroic Bosnian Orphanages

Lacking resources, care homes somehow accommodated thousands of children orphaned during the war.
By Mirna Mekic

The Vojo Peric orphanage stands next to a row of neat family homes on the outskirts of Tuzla, in north-east Bosnia.


The word orphanage often conjures up images of deprivation, abandonment and even cruelty. But at Vojo Peric, such impressions are belied by the sound of children's cheerful laughter.


Mirela Selimovic, whose mother died and whose father perished in the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina, was taken there aged 12, along with her brother and sister.


"It was difficult at first but the teachers helped us a great deal," she recalled. "It's only now that I realise how much they did for us."


Selimovic was one of 35,000 children orphaned by the bloody conflict that raged in the former Yugoslav republic from 1992-95.


Most observers - and the former inmates - say Bosnia's orphanages, lacking resources, did remarkably well in accommodating these abandoned children, thanks mainly to their dedicated staff.


Vojo Peric, for example, took in 700 children at the height of the war in 1993, though it only had capacity for 110.


"We really wanted to help children left without one or both parents and who were going through the horrors of war," Advija Hercegovac, director of Vojo Peric, recalled.


Today, those wartime orphans have moved on. Only about 3,500 children remain in Bosnian orphanages, most supported by the ministry for social welfare and labour.


Foreign donors, such as SOS Kinderdorf, the Rudolph Walter Foundation and the Norwegian National Aid organisation have made it possible to construct new facilities.


So-called "children's villages” have been built to accommodate the offspring of parents who have no means to support them, and to house children who are awaiting adoption.


Apart from providing basic physical comfort, staff at Bosnia's children's homes say they invest a lot of effort into giving their charges emotional support, too.


"Older children take care of younger ones, which is how they develop a sense of being part of a family," said Hercegovac.


Jasmina, a nine-year-old resident at Vojo Peric, is one of a new generation of children who are not technically orphans, as her parents are alive but are unable to care for her and her siblings.


"My mother has no means to support me, my brother or my sister, but we are fine here," she said.


Saban, aged 11, was another new arrival. He grieved when he first got to the home, he said, but had adapted to life well since then. "I've made so many friends in the home," he said.


Amir Zelic, director of the Bjelave home for children in Sarajevo, said he was proud of the progress of the children in his care. Thanks to aid from foreign donors, he added, his children could go on picnics and got pocket money.


Zelic said that while authorities provided the basic financial support, enabling them to maintain a decent standard of living, the foreign aid contributed to the extras and had improved their overall lifestyle.


"We keep in touch with our children for as long as they want it," Zelic went on. "We always want to see how they are doing after they've left."


Mirsada Poturkovic, director of the Sarajevo-based Centre for Children Without Family Care, said orphanages still laboured under a poor reputation that had little to do with reality.


"They are much better than most people think," he said. "Most of the staff go out of their way to help these children and give them love and protection."


"I am more than happy with how the Bjelave staff looked after us," recalled Ognjen, who is now 18 and out in the world.


"I am trying to complete trade school," he added. "I've already completed courses in English and I also work voluntarily as a part-time cameraman."


Mirela had enrolled in a teacher training college after leaving her children's home, aged 18. "I don't know what would have become of me if I hadn't been taken in," she said.


As the staff of the homes admit, not everyone who leaves their care ends up getting a job right away. "Bearing in mind Bosnia's high unemployment rate, it would be unrealistic to expect them all to get jobs instantly," said Poturkovic.


He said the homes did what they could for their leavers. Even after turning 18, when they legally became adults, they could still keep their accommodation and get some pocket money until the local job centre found them work.


Those who stayed on took part in caring for the younger ones. "They develop strong bonds between each other and the young ones feel bad when they eventually leave," one teacher from Vojo Peric said.


Mirela still misses her old home. "We had a good time and I've stayed in touch with all my friends there," she said.


She still returns to visit the younger children who remained behind.


"I take some cookies with me and sometimes I take them for a walk," she said. "I miss them so much."


Mirna Mekic produced this article as part of the IWPR primary journalism course.


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