Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Few Restful Days In Bosnia & Croatia

We enjoyed a relaxing, informative, fun day in Mostar, Bosnia i Herzegovina.

No matter where we went, kids gathered and became Elder Joe's instant best friends. It was fun just to see how long they'd hang around visiting us. We were suppose to be eating lunch, but our table became a beehive--surrounded by swarming teens. FUN!
What can I say. He attracts 'em like bees to honey.

No matter what country we're in, we find all teenagers to be alike. These girls were on a school field trip from Sarajevo and had fun teasing Elder Joe and trying to speak English with him.

Muslim girls find fun and interesting ways to blend traditional attire with modern styles. They dress in beautiful colors and tasteful fabric. These girls are wearing jeans under their dresses--a common style among Muslim/Islamic girls in Bosnia.

Mostar is a beautiful, quaint village with a strong touch of Turkish ambiance. The ancient bridge and many buildings had to be rebuilt--to scale--after the war.

Sister Dee in the ancient Turkish village of Mostar, Bosnia i Herzegovina.

Hello! from Elder Joe in Sarajevo, Bosnia i Herzegovina.

The Yugoslavian Army heavily attacked the ancient city of Mostar in 1993. This photo was taken from our hotel balcony on the opposite side of the river. Bridges and buildings have been reconstructed, bringing the city back to life. But, there is still a lot to do. The deepest wounds are in the hearts of the Bosnian people. They still speak of the fear and pain from the war that killed nearly 100,000 people throughout Yugoslavia--a country now known as Croatia, Bosnia i Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia and Kosovo.

Apartment building with bullet holes patched up...We like the exclamation mark. Coincidental?

In one canyon along our drive, we came across 32 homes within 1/2 mile that had been completely destroyed. It's hard to imagine the fear that must have existed for families. In some communities, the enemy actually lived among them.
Along the beautiful mountainous countrysides of Bosnia are blown up, shot up homes--a memory of the recent 1991-1999 war and revolution--started at the death of conservative communist leader Tito, and the onset of the aggressive communist regime of Slobodan Milosevic.
Some of our favorite photo moments are catching the common people living their common everyday lives. We caught this man shaving in his side yard.
After a few days of meetings in Sarajevo and Tuzla, and a wonderful wheelchair distribution,
we decided to take a couple of days to ourselves--at our own expense--and drive through the countryside of Bosnia i Herzegovina and along the Croatian coastline, before returning to our desk work in Frankfurt.

More Tuzla Wheelchair Photos

Transition meeting with the Tuzla Red Cross.
After a successful distribution, we turned the Tuzla & Sarajevo,
Bosnia i Herzogovina region over to the Elder & Sister Densley

Pres. of Tuzla Red Cross, Jedranka -local director,
Pres. & Sister Hill-Mission Pres. & wife,
Elder & Sister Densley

Elder Durrance with very happy father--father with son.

This standard outdoor wheelchair comes with high quality bicycle wheels. That makes the chairs easier to maintain in developing countries. The wheels can be repaired or replaced at almost any bicycle shop.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tuzla, Bosnia/Herz. Wheelchair Distribution

After five months and three visits to Tuzla, Bosnia i Herzegovina to develop and coordinate a wheelchair project, we finally had the blessing of seeing tears of joy on the faces of those who received wheelchairs--and their caregivers. We have often felt the Lord's direction as we've worked with Jedranka and Tanja, director and assistant of the Tuzla Red Cross, while developing this project. War, abandoned landmines, childhood diseases and poor health care have left many people in the region with wheelchair needs. Because of the faithful contributions of LDS members and nonmembers, 250 people received the blessing of better mobility, while their caregivers feel some of the daily burdens literally lifted from their shoulders.

With a new wheelchair, this father will be able to transport his 12 year old son more easily.

We know that we are only the organizers of this project. It could never come to fruition without the willing contributions of caring individuals. We thank you all for your love and service to those in need. We have learned to love the people of Bosnia i Herzegovina, and feel gratitude in our hearts for these wonderful children of God and the opportunity to serve them.

Pres. Hill of the Slovenis/Croatia Mission speak to media and guests.

Twin sisters receive twin wheelchairs. FUN!!!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Serbia -- November 2008

In the midst of an uprising in February 2008, a young man climbed through a window of the American Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia and started a fire. The attack, and street riots that ensued, were in protest to the United State’s support of Kosovo independence. Though the young man was the only person killed in the fire, the riots created a series of actions by the U.S. government and the LDS Church. Americans were not considered safe in Serbia, so the American Embassy closed and all missionaries were evacuated—including our humanitarian couple, Elder & Sister Morton.

It was a scary two weeks for the missionaries as two-by-two they were escorted by train and bus across the border into Croatia and Slovenia by a young Nikola Novic, the local Branch President. Some of the missionaries were assaulted as they tried to evacuate, and one, a young Canadian, had his passport torn to pieces in protest a week earlier. Though the missionaries were removed, most Church members managed to stay together. They prayed for peace in their country and the return of the missionaries and church leaders. Finally, on September 8th, eight of the ten young Elders who were evacuated, returned to Serbia—reestablishing the Mission. When we learned that the missionaries would be returning to Belgrade, we contacted President Hill, the Mission President, and asked if he was ready to have a humanitarian couple return. He asked for a month to evaluate the situation and the treatment of the young Elders by Serbian citizens. In October, we were encouraged to visit Belgrade with Elder & Sister Morton to evaluate for ourselves the attitude of Serbians toward Americans. We were impressed by the reception of the people and the general acceptance towards us as Americans and as members of the church.

Church entrance one block from Embassy

Just 2 blocks from the Embassy and the Church--still stands a reminders of NATO attacks in 1999—a successful attempt to halt Serbian attacks neighboring countries. It’s fascinating to see that this building could be so precisely hit by off-shore missiles, and yet the buildings connected to it, and the one across the street remained unharmed.

One of our favorite pictures of Belgrade was this charming couple, sitting quietly together in the center of town square. When we asked them if we could take their picture, she smiled. In broken English she said. “Oh. No. I’m not pretty.” We think they’re beautiful! And, full of charm.

For Elder & Sister Morton, our visit to Serbia was an opportunity to reminisce and recount their experiences in Belgrade. But, best of all, it was an opportunity to renew friendships. While in Serbia, they took us to visit their choice friends and NGOs.

One of their favorite people and organizations is Tasa, a Gypsy and the “mayor” of the local Gypsy (Roma) community. Tasa’s story is especially interesting . As a young man in his twenties, he was introduced to the LDS Church while living in Germany. He joined the church, went on a mission and decided to return to Belgrade to help his people. Though he is a counselor in the Branch Presidency, he never married, and has dedicated his life to help lead his people away from old traditions and convince the government that Gypsies are people who deserve rights like any other Serbian. There is an overwhelming dislike for Romas (Gypsies) throughout Eastern Europe. They are considered the lowest class of all races and cultures in many Eastern countries, including Serbia. Belgrade’s Roma story is a particularly heartbreaking story. This Roma community inhabits land that was donated by a closing convent nearly 200 years ago. They were overrun by the Nazis during WWII. Then overrun by the Communist government after the war. During the 1980s new Serbian government wanted the land away. Romas were not allowed to build any new buildings. So, weakened houses and makeshift shacks became the normal existence for most Roma. Tasa wouldn’t stand for the government’s treatment of his people. He created a committee of men to fight for Roma rights. Though the government planned to move Romas off their land and into barracks, away from society, Tasa fought for them to keep their land. During the last 18 years, he has convinced the city to not only allow them to stay, but to build a fenced soccer field and playground in the community.

Recently, Tasa also convinced the government to hire 25 Roma men to clean and maintain the ditches and streets of their own community.

Tasa has turned the downstairs of his home into a kindergarten for Roma children. This is another unique story. Children are not allowed to enter public school in Serbia without first going to kindergarten. But, Roma children are not accepted into public kindergartens until they can read and write Serbian. So the vicious cycle of illiteracy remains high in Roma communities. Tasa is working to get the government to legitimize his kindergarten. It’s a hard sale, since few certified Serbian teachers wants to teach these children, and no Roma is educated and certified. But Tasa refuses to give up. He is working to convince the city that he and his assistant can prepare these small children for public school. Tasa sees his little school as a place for “his” children to receive an education. Tasa had two requests from the Church’s humanitarian service. Winter clothes for his people and a project that would educate the young men of his community in woodworking skills. On our return to our Frankfurt office, we ordered a container of clothes, and hygiene and school kits for the Roma community. We are in the preliminary stages of a woodworking-carving project that will include training and equipment for a workshop. Tasa’s home will become the Roma community workshop/school for young boys to learn a new trade and hopefully, a new future.

A 13th Century Fort……overlooks the intersection of the Sava and Danube Rivers—making it an excellent defense position and an accessible location for invasions—and beautiful.
Serbia has experienced a lengthy history of warfare and hostility. Its earlier saga involves invasions from other countries: Roman, Turkish and eventually Nazi, and Communism. After the fall of Yugoslavia, Serbia fought to remain the central government, as one by one, countries declared their independence.

Serbia is ready for a new generation, a new century and modernization--as old Belgrade becomes New Belgrade. We enjoyed our visit and in this beautiful country. Though there are many issues left to overcome, we felt at peace. It is a country filled with beauty and charm, and very proud people--people who are learning to work and set goals for their own future.
We were excited to help approved a 250 wheelchair project for the Right for Work organization —an organization for disabled persons who need chairs to work. This project was in the developing stage, then cancelled after Elder and Sister Morton were evacuated February 2008.

Croatia & Bosnia-Herzegovina October 2008

In October, we met with our humanitarian couple, Elder & Sister Mills in Zagreb, Croatia before they left to go home from their mission. They’re from Battle Mountain, Nevada, and yes, they know our daughter and son-in-law, Coni Jo and Walter. Small world. Since the Mills’ replacement would not arrive for another month, they took us to meet the organizations they’ve worked with for the past two years. LDS Church/Charities is currently involved in two projects with the Red Cross: a 250 wheelchairs distribution and a clean water project. We had the opportunity to meet Marinko and Danimir, the Red Cross coordinators of the two projects. The water project is particularly troubling and disturbing. During the war with Serbia in the 1990s, 10,000 wells were contaminated with arsenic, discarded arsenal, fertilizers and the disposal of bodies. During the early part of October, the Red Cross was still discovering bodies in the wells. The Church Humanitarian service is helping to fund the cleanup of the last 1/3, or 3500 wells. Farming communities in eastern Croatia near the Serbian border are the wells most affected by contamination.

While shrapnel and bullet wounds mark many buildings in Croatia, the signs of war are gradually disappearing with new paint and stucco.
Croatia attracts about 10,000 tourists a year, mostly along the coastline. There are ancient Roman ruins and a long history. The average income is about $1200 a month with a registered unemployment 17%-35%, highest near the Serbian borders. And, though income is relatively low, prices are not. The price of clothes and shoes are comparable with well developed, Western Europe. The people of Croatia hope that their impending acceptance into the European Union will help their country and economy.

Like most of Europe, the heart of the Croatian culture is its marketplace. This is a typical Saturday Market.

LDS Branch members currently attend church in a turn-of-the-century building. They will soon relocate to a new building about 10 minutes outside of central Zagreb. The location is near train tracks and bus lines, making it easy for members to commute.

B O S N I A - H E R Z E G O V I N A

We were in Zagreb the same week as Missionary Zone Conference and had the opportunity to meet with President Hill, the Mission President. President Hills’ mission area covers the former Yugoslavia nations. They are all post-communist, post-war countries. And many are still declaring their independence. Among the countries he is responsible for are Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. At present, we have missionaries in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia—with a humanitarian couple in Croatia, and another couple returning soon to Serbia. Pres. Hill shared with us his impressions of Bosnia and suggested we visit there to evaluate the area for humanitarian service. A few days later, we rented a car and drove to Tuzla, Bosnia to check out the conditions there for future humanitarian work. As we crossed the border and passed the check-points, we experienced the lingering effects of war. Landmine signs lined the road side--reminders of war and dangerous work still ahead. In addition to the obvious problems mines create, the inability to farm the land and the fear experienced by refugees to return home, still plague the countryside. Clearing landmines is a slow, tedious process— involving the Red Cross and help from other nations.

More than 120,000 Bosnics died in the short war of the 1990s. Nearly half were Muslims—killed in an attempted ethnic cleansing.

Today, Christians and Muslims share the country 50/50. As we drove from one village to another, we could determine the religious population of the town by what stipple climbed into the sky. Seldom were both present in the same village.

We had planned to meet with the Red Cross in Tuzla, but soon learned that there are no telephone books in the whole city of 160,000 people. So we had to stop several times to get directions. Finally, we were led down a street, pass a round-about, turned to the left, drove into a parking lot, parked the car, and followed a kind man (humm) down another street until we saw the Red Cross sign. Eventually, we met Tanja and Jedranka, the local Red Cross manager and assistant. Tanja spoke to us in English, and Jedranka tried. Both women smiled a lot.

We quickly learned, however, that the scars of war are deep and personal. These women, like so many others, suffered the devastating sorrows of war— Tanja as a child. They are now dedicated to helping their country recover from its sad memories and wounds. We visited with Tanja and Jedrank for two hours, and felt a close bond of friendship develop with them both. We left the Red Cross with plans to return and a great desire to help the Church LDS Chairties partner a project with them. We’ll return, with or without another humanitarian couple, to partner a wheelchair project for the Tuzla area.