Simon Cole talks to an Irish nun serving in a refugee camp ust 20 minutes rom the famous Bosnian town
This Christmas, 69-yearold Sister Josephine Walsh once again left Britain on a journey to the celebrated location in the former Yugoslavia where locals say Our Lady appeared in 1981. Following the religious tourist trail from Dubrovnik, her coach will cross the border from Croatia into the Federation of BosniaHercegovina (BiH), arriving at the busy strip of Irish-themed bars and cafes that is Medjugorje. But unlike the other pilgrims, her journey will continue beyond this prospering town, to the nearby village of Čapljina and the refugee camp she has been visiting for 15 years.
Originally from Limerick, and 50 years with the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, Sister Josephine started coming to Medjugorje in 1984. She brought bigger and bigger tour groups to the hill where the teenagers allegedly saw their vision and was preparing to bring her largest-ever in 1991. But the vicious civil war meant it was four years before she could return. Chasing down a lost woman from the 1995 tour party led to a chance encounter – and the start of a long relationship with the refugees of Tasovcici Camp.
“She was with some soldiers and a taxi driver,” remembers Sister Josephine. “We had a drink with them and chatted, then the taxi driver grew more serious and asked if I would help him bring food to a camp 20 minutes down the road. He said people were living in wagons and train carriages and they were starving. I asked my group if anyone wanted to come, and in the end about seven of us went the next day. I bought four huge boxes of bananas. On the way he told us his wife and two children were there.” She was shocked when she arrived. “There was a crowd of people gathered all around and they dived on these bananas, they were so hungry. It was a terrible experience.” The camp held about 300 men, women and children, she says; displaced from places further north. A woman invited her inside a carriage. “There was nothing but army beds – no furniture, no toilets.” But it was the children that really affected her. “There was a carriage with ‘Nobody’s Children’ written on it [a US-based charity]. I said: ‘That’s a terrible crime, Lord, I’m going to adopt these children from now on and look after this camp.’ And I’ve been doing that for 15 years.” A local man says he thinks he remembers these Bosnian Croat (Catholic) refugees arriving by truck as far back as 1993. When the railways were being rebuilt in 2000 they needed the carriages back and the refugees were relocated to the ex-army camp where they are today. Sister Josephine had brought presents when she discovered the move. “I asked my interpreter to take me to the mayor because I wanted to know what he was doing for these people. He said he was doing his best, but the country was poor. How could they go from one camp to another? There was just no future in it.” So Sister Josephine founded the Housing Aid Bosnia charity, the mayor sold them cheap land and they started to build houses. “The houses were made in Holland and we used builders from Medjugorje. It was extraordinary because we had no idea how to do it, but it was the only way forward for these people. Sister Helen and I prayed – we begged God for houses for these poor families – and within two weeks somebody sent us a large donation anonymously.” She remembers the reaction of the first families to move. “One woman was shaking so much she couldn’t believe it. She had to put a thumbprint for her signature. The first house was up within 20 days and we moved four families with children.” To date, the charity has built over 60 houses there, complete with a church. “Now we’ve got the know-how, we just need the money,” says Sister Josephine. “We’ve got 92 tin huts still being occupied, and there are no toilets. Some 90 or so families live in 16ft x 12ft Nissan huts with asbestos roofs. It’s not healthy for them.” There are also 40 children, down from a high of 159. “People might say ‘why don’t they help themselves’? But 40 per cent of them have no jobs and without jobs, you can’t get moving. It used to be a farming area, but the Serb farmers all left. When they do get paid, they might get €20 (£18) for working from 6am till midnight.” Sister Josephine wants more Medjugorje pilgrims to visit the camp. “It’s only 20 minutes away, and it’s such a privilege to visit the refugees – they can teach you so much. You get back more than you give.” Some churches, schools and even individuals across Britain and Ireland have raised funds to build houses and she is keen for more to get involved: “It’d be great if people could sponsor a kitchen or a cooker, or even a family.” Some children are sponsored already, as are five students at university. Donors can form a relationship, visiting the refugees to see the results of their gift.
Sister Josephine feels Medjugorje should also play its part. “It’d be a different kettle of fish if it helped them. It’s a very rich village, they get a lot of money from the Irish.” The Tasovcici residents, displaced from places like the Bosniak (Muslim)dominated Konjic, are indeed an unlucky minority among Bosnian Croats. The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR confirms they make up only 12 per cent of the 50,500 “internally displaced persons” in the Federation of BiH; an overwhelming 85 per cent are Bosniak. Next door in Republika Srpska, the other main “entity” which comprises Bosnia, 66,000 Serbs are in the same boat.
Some of the displaced Bosniaks would have come from Mostar. 40 minutes away, Bosnia’s most divided city. In 1993 the Bosnian Croat army (HVO) famously destroyed the 427-year-old bridge that symbolically united the city, turning on their former Muslim allies after they had repulsed the Serbs together. The Dayton Agreement ended the war in 1995, but the enmity lingers and an unofficial “front line” is still in effect. Mirroring Medjugorje’s success, the Bosnian Croat side of town is noticeably more affluent.
But at a school run by a British headmaster right on the dividing line, Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs study together. This is the only place in the country where this happens. Teenagers from 32 countries are taking the International Baccalaureate at the Mostar branch of United World Colleges (UWC). As well as conflict resolution, a key part of this NGO’s philosophy is community service. Laura Milchmeyer, an 18-year-old pupil from Germany, works with the Tasovcici children once a fortnight.
“I see them as an ‘in-between’ generation,” she says, “directly influenced by the war, yet they have never experienced the conflict and perhaps do not even understand why they live excluded and isolated from society. We are trying to give them a picture of the world outside their camp.” The UWC students work on the children’s self-confidence, but “sometimes all they need is a hug, love and some hope”.
The UNHCR says 7,500 refugees still live in “temporary” communal accommodation across Bosnia. It urges the quarrelling government to end this “unfinished business” in line with the Dayton accords. At Christmas, Sister Josephine watched as the children of Tasovcici deliver the gifts she and other volunteers had brought. Each adult got a sack, filled not with luxuries but the most basic foodstuffs like bread and flour. The UN calls this sort of existence “undignified”. Housing Aid Bosnia’s new houses, says Sister Josephine, restore exactly this dignity – one that eludes those still waiting in huts, too scared to return “home”. She recalls the words of an Irish visitor from Gweedore: “She said: ‘Our cattle in County Donegal have better homes than these.’ Nobody should live like this.” You can donate Housing Aid Bosnia (Charity no SC030136) via Barclays Bank, Sort 20 05 74 Acc 10917567