Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

The siege of Sarajevo and beyond [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 26 August, 2008

A wounded Bosnian refugee boy  IRC Photo
A wounded Bosnian refugee boy  Photo: The IRC
As we observe our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from our rich history each month.

Sarajevo. Winter 1993. The Bosnian capital is under siege by Serbian nationalist forces. Artillery pieces entrenched in the surrounding hills lob shells and mortars at hospitals, markets, and schools. From rooftops, snipers mow down civilians as they fill water buckets or line up for bread. All roads leading into the city are blocked, as are shipments of food and medicine. Water, electricity, and heat are cut off.In their offices in the heart of the beleaguered city, a small group of IRC aid workers hit upon an innovative plan: a seed distribution program to help the increasingly desperate Sarajevans grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards or apartment terraces. It is the first step in what will become the IRC’s most heroic relief effort—an effort that will continue for 14 years and involve lifesaving work throughout the Balkans.As one former IRC staff member in Sarajevo said at the time, “We were seeing an industrialized country descend into chaos. It was an environment for which none of us had any previous experience.”

In response, the IRC improvised and adopted unorthodox methods.

In order to cope with the logistics of moving tons of aid into battered Sarajevo, for example, the IRC contracted with local factories to produce as many supplies as possible inside the city. The IRC also provided seed grain to farmers to reduce the number of food convoys. In a city gripped by panic and starvation, this economic activity helped people to withstand some of the miseries and also helped them to resist fleeing their homes.

One project was deemed so risky few considered it feasible. Braving withering sniper fire, IRC engineers drew water from the Miljacka River, which winds through the center of Sarajevo, and piped it to safer areas of the city as drinking water. They hid the pumps and filter systems in tunnels to protect them from shelling. By August 1994, the daring project—which was funded by financier-philanthropist George Soros and enlisted the leadership of legendary disaster-relief engineer Fred Cuny—had succeeded in restoring water to Sarajevans’ taps. No longer would they have to dodge sniper fire while queuing up at dangerous central water taps.

Meanwhile, the engineers painstakingly repaired Sarajevo’s bombed out electrical and heating systems, projects that took two years to complete. Over 600 tons of supplies were transported over treacherous Mount Igman on a narrow, winding dirt track controlled by Serbian gunmen.

By the time the 1995 peace accords ended the siege of Sarajevo, the IRC had saved thousands of lives and brought food, water and light to the city’s populace.

We then shifted our focus to the victims of war and to destroyed communities in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans.

In 1998, when clashes between advancing Serbian forces and rebels in Kosovo ignited the last of the Balkan wars, the IRC launched one of its largest aid programs, providing extensive humanitarian aid and repairing thousands of homes, electrical facilities, roads, hospitals and schools. The IRC distributed food and medicine to tens of thousands of people in Croatia, lent assistance to Serbian refugees fleeing Croatia and Bosnia, and established emergency aid and reconstruction programs in Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro

As peace gradually returned to the Balkans, the IRC began closing its programs, having assisted millions displaced by conflict. The IRC’s program in Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo closed in 2004, followed by Croatia in 2005. The Bosnia program closed in April 2006.

The IRC’s years in the Balkans were without a doubt some of the finest in our history. 

And that story has continued in the United States.  Since 1993, the IRC has resettled 21,804 refugees from the Balkans here. Some have joined us as IRC staff members at our headquarters in New York and in many of our resettlement offices across the country. These cherished colleagues remind us every day of the IRC’s legacy in and from the Balkans.

Postscript: Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who oversaw the killing of thousands of people by sniping and shelling in the siege of Sarajevo and later directed the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 men and boys, was arrested last month on war crimes charges after 13 years as a fugitive.


Posted in Europe, history | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Join Us! World Refugee Day Events Next Week

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 12 June, 2008

Burundian drummers perform at IRC\'s World Refugee Day event in Atlanta in 2007.
Burundian drummers perform at IRC’s World Refugee Day event in Atlanta in 2007. Photo: The IRC
World Refugee Day — coming up Friday, June 20 — is a chance to pause and ponder the incredible courage it must take to start over in a new country when war has ripped apart your own.  It’s also a great time to celebrate the contributions refugees have made in their new communities, despite the odds.

Join the International Rescue Committee for World Refugee Day events next week in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Charlottesville, Phoenix, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose, Seattle, and Tucson. The line-up includes art exhibitions, dance performances, dine-out nights, film screenings, lectures, a picnic, a potluck, and even a baseball game. You can see the full list here.

In London on Monday (June 16), hear United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres speak about displacement in the 21st Century at the IRC-UK Annual Lecture. Event details and ticket information are here.

Posted in Europe, howtohelp, refugees, UnitedStates | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

1956: Fight for Freedom in Hungary [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 25 March, 2008

Following the brutal repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, nearly 2000,000 Hunagarians fled their country.
Following the brutal repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, nearly 200,000 Hunagarians fled their country. Most ended up in Austria where the IRC provided assistance. Photo: The IRC
As the International Rescue Committee observes our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from IRC’s rich history each month (you can find all of his posts here):

In the fall of 1956, a cable was sent from Vienna to IRC headquarters in New York:

Best we can do to demonstrate solidarity with hungarian liberation forces… is to rush at once massive quantities relief supplies … we are preparing  for tragic possibility soviet recapture control of hungary, when countless escapees will flood into austria and must be ready with resources.

It was signed by IRC chairman Leo Cherne and president Angier Biddle Duke.

A week earlier, on October 23, Hungarian workers, students, and intellectuals publicly proclaimed their desire to be free from domination by the Soviet Union. Staging a peaceful demonstration in Budapest, two thousand marchers made their way to Parliament Square, where the secret police fired upon them. The news spread quickly and disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital. The revolt spread across Hungary and the pro-Soviet government fell. The Red Army intervened but failed to crush the movement and withdrew from Budapest.

From Vienna, Cherne and the director of the IRC’s Vienna office, Marcel Faust, crossed the border into Hungary in a battered Chevrolet loaded with medicine – the first American relief workers to arrive on the scene.  Since the end of World War II and the division of Europe into rival Soviet and Western blocs, the IRC had been aiding stateless refugees and escapees from the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. Now, the IRC was at the vanguard of the Hungarian rescue mission: While Duke organized refugee assistance in Vienna, Cherne returned to the U.S. to raise funds.

Within 60 days, $2.5 million had collected from the American public – $357,000 of it raised after a passionate appearance by Cherne on the popular Ed Sullivan television show.

On November 4, the Red Army moved into Budapest and this time crushed the revolt. In the aftermath some 200,000 Hungarians fled into Austria. IRC volunteers were among the many that stood on the border to offer aid, encouragement, and support to the refugees.

The burden of so many refugees was more than Austria could handle.  So the IRC stepped up its activities in several European countries. We opened health and training centers and homes for children in Great Britain, Belgium, West Germany, and Sweden.

Cherne and the IRC brought several leaders of the revolution to the U.S to tell their stories to the American people, including the Mayor of Budapest. Many Hungarian refugees were resettled in this country. Long after the Hungarian revolt had been crushed and had faded from the headlines, the IRC continued working to integrate Hungarian refugees into their new environment.

Posted in Europe, history, refugees | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Congo’s Rape Epidemic: “Absolutely Terrifying” [This Week’s Voices]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 15 February, 2008

Women confide in Sarah Mosley (left) and Julie Gubanja (right), who assist survivors of sexual violence.Women confide in IRC’s Sarah Mosley (left) and Julie Gubanja (right), who assist survivors of sexual violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Bob Kitchen/the IRC

“It’s assaults with bottles and sticks, you name it. It’s brutal. It’s absolutely terrifying … They (rape survivors) won’t live with dignity.”   

– Sarah Mosely, who oversees IRC programs in eastern Congo for survivors of sexual violence, telling NBC News anchor Ann Curry about the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war in the region.

“There are things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe. Their ends are the enslavement and annihilation of the Jews . . . [and] after them, of all the non-German peoples of Europe, and if possible, the entire world”   

Varian Fry, writing in The New Republic in December 1942. Fry was sent on a secret mission to Europe by the Emergency Rescue Committee (now the International Rescue Committee) to rescue people on the Nazis’ “most wanted” list.

“The U.S. response to the Iraqi refugee crisis is best characterized as on-going willful denial.”   

– Michael Kocher, IRC acting vice president of international programs, interviewed for a Cox News Service story on Iraqi refugee resettlement in Sweden and the low number being resettled in the U.S.

“To me courage is like a chain. What is most rewarding about my job is to reach out to others and see them find the courage deep within themselves, discover their own voice and reach out to others.”   

– Gertrude Garway, IRC gender-based violence program manager in Liberia, talking about her work with survivors of sexual violence. A new IRC project is enabling women in Liberia and other conflict zones to make their voices heard and help create positive change in their communities.

Posted in Africa, Europe, refugees, UnitedStates, women | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

1940: The Courageous Exploits of Varian Fry [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 12 February, 2008

Varian Fry with fellow activists in Marseilles
As the International Rescue Committee observes our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp plans to blog about one moment from IRC’s rich history each month:

In 1940, shortly after the world watched the appalling spectacle of Nazi troops goose-stepping down the Champs-Élysées in Paris, a 32-year old American editor by the name of Varian Fry settled into a small hotel in Marseille, France. There he initiated a clandestine operation to rescue some of Europe’s most famous artists, writers, and intellectuals who had fled to France.  Among them were many whose names were on the Nazis’ most wanted list.

Fry had been sent on his mission by the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), which would combine in 1942 with the International Relief Association to form the International Rescue Committee. 

Fry arrived in Marseille with $3,000 strapped to one of his legs and a list of some 200 artists thought to be in particular danger.  But once Fry set up his operation, he recognized that the need was much greater.  Consequently, he expanded his mission to rescue many more in flight from the Nazis and their collaborators.

Over the next 13 months, Fry and a small team of Americans and French helped at least 1,500 refugees escape from France to Spain and provided aid to more than 2,000 others.  Among those spirited out of France were the painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and Nobel Prize winning medical researcher Otto Meyerhof.

Within a year, the collaborationist Vichy French government learned of Fry’s efforts.  In August 1941, he was expelled “for helping Jews and anti-Nazis.”  In 1942, the ERC office was raided and closed.

Back in New York, Fry loudly, but in the end futilely, tried to alert the world to what would come to be known as the Holocaust.  “There are things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe,” Fry wrote in The New Republic in December 1942.  He continued, “their ends are the enslavement and annihilation of the Jews . . . [and] after them, of all the non-German peoples of Europe, and if possible, the entire world.”

It was many years before Fry’s exploits won the recognition they deserved.  Five months before his death in 1967, France awarded him the French Legion of Honor.  In 1996, Israel honored him posthumously, when he became the first American to receive its “Righteous Among Nations” medal.

The conviction exemplified in the determination of Varian Fry, that every life has dignity and is worth saving, remains the foundation of the IRC.

Posted in Europe, history, war | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »