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Update No.99/01 on ICRC activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia

26-07-1999 Operational Update No 99/01


Almost four years have elapsed since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in Paris, a period which has seen a halt in the fighting and, with international support, progress towards eventual reconciliation and recovery. Despite numerous difficulties and setbacks, momentum is continuing towards a positive resolution to the situation. 

However, recent shock waves from the crisis in Kosovo have spread throughout the Balkans region and Bosnia and Herzegovina has been affected both politically and economically. The country is also hard-pressed to meet the ever-growing needs of its 80,000 internally displaced people, together with the additional burden of having to accommodate some 74,600 refugees and internally displaced people from Kosovo/FRY (UNHCR estimations). Certain humanitarian responses are clearly needed as part of the general resumption of political dialogue and economic recovery in the country.

The ICRC continues to support communities living in both entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) to deal with the lasting consequences of the conflict and contribute to maintaining key operational medical and social structures during the present transitional phase. The institution continues to operate in close partnership with local Red Cross structures throughout the country, strengthening their ability to respond to each community's immediate needs.

ICRC priority activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina centre on the question of missing persons, the danger of mines, the vulnerability of isolated com munities, the health sector, and operational support to Red Cross structures.

 Missing persons  

Since 1992, the ICRC and local Red Cross branches have received requests to trace a total of 20,211 persons who disappeared in the course of the conflict. To date, some 1,814 tracing requests have now been closed and a total of 275 people have been found alive. Certain progress was made during 1998/9, when for the first time former warring parties were able to recover their dead from the territories of'the other entity' thanks to the exhumation process led by the Office of the High Representative (OHR). Up to June 1999 more than 2,329 bodies were exhumed, of which 1,716 were identified.

Following the Peace Agreement, a " Working Group on Tracing Persons Unaccounted For " was set up, in which the different parties'representatives are presented with the tracing requests and other information on missing persons gathered by the ICRC and the local Red Cross. The relevant parties are also called upon to provide all available information which might clarify the fate of missing persons. At the present stage, the main challenge remains to create favourable conditions and to facilitate discussions that will encourage all parties to contribute relevant information helping resolve   tracing requests and the cases of more than 300 detainees who were visited by or notified to the ICRC during the war and whose whereabouts remain unknown.

ICRC delegates, in collaboration with colleagues from the local Red Cross from both entities, continue to strive to solve tracing requests by means of: interviews of witnesses and relatives who might help trace missing persons; analysis of the information contained in approximately 18,000 files still open; provision of assistance to family associations offering services to relatives who have lost a next-of-kin. The ICRC also support local Red Cross branches to enhance their professional capacity in handling families of missing persons (e.g. tracing requests and support during the exhumation identification process).

The ICRC is also continuing to work towards setting up a permanent national structure to serve the families of missing persons in the long-term. To this end, the four main organizations involved in the issue of missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, namely the ICRC, OHR, the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) have agreed on the humanitarian nature of the institution and its overall purpose.

 The danger of mines  

Mines continue to target the most vulnerable and those least prepared, such as internally displaced persons and to a greater extent, returning refugees. Mines have also been one of the main causes of injury for foreign troops under the IFOR/SFOR banner.

Effective community-based Red Cross mine awareness programmes place the accent firmly on the prevention of mine accidents and activities include:

- Mine awareness training. Some 129 mine awareness instructors who carry out the work in their own communities have so far been trained.

- Data-gathering of mine accidents. Information on mine accidents is regularly transmitted to local authorities and international organizations involved in de-mining activities. An average of 4 -7   mine accidents per month occur throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a majority of victims being civilians and persons who knowingly take risks for economic reasons.

- School curricula which highlight the danger of mines to children. These are being implemented with the approval of the Minis try of Education in both entities.

- A media-based campaign for local communities to draw attention to the serious threat from land mines.

 Vulnerable people  

The country's economy is still far below pre-war levels. Growth has slowed substantially and it is anticipated that such levels will not be reached again before 2003-2005. Political and economic improvements will not come soon enough to solve the problems faced by the most vulnerable groups of society, and support is required for reform and provision of a financial safety net. The social security sector lacks financial resources and to a large extent depends on external support. The ICRC therefore continues to work to bridge the gap between emergency and development, with a view to facilitating the reform process.

The 1998-99 winter programme, carried out together with the local Red Cross Society supported some 22,000 households throughout the country, who were mainly recipients of the home care programme. An assessment of this programme has revealed that 64% of the recipients have an income of less than 50DM per month or no income at all. This compares with 45% in the 1997-98 programme. This shows that the local branches have either managed to improve the targeting of vulnerable groups or that the economic situation has not improved, but declined.

In 1999, food aid (13,000 food parcels per month) was provided by the ICRC for recipients of the local Red Cross home care programme (financed by the International Federation). An assessment of this programme is currently being carried out, however, initial findings show that unless the social sector is able to replace such humanitarian assistance the programme will probably continue into the year 2000.

 The health sector  

The ICRC is currently providing basic surgical material in decreasing quantities to 27 hospitals, three emergency centres and one health centre (Srebrenica) on a monthly basis, according to the needs which are continuously assessed. In addition, 23 transfusiology centres are supplied on a monthly basis with the necessary medical items to ensure that safe blood is available.

The surgical assistance programme has continued into 1999 because health insurance funds are not able to cover the basic needs of the population. Revenues coming from the contributions of the few people who are economically-active are too low. The cost of a basic health package is 450 DM per person per year, while the actual available resources in 1999 are 130 DM per person per year. The basic health package could be reduced to an absolute minimum of 300DM per person per year, but cannot be reduced any further without a detrimental effect on primary and emergency care and on groups at risk, such as women and children. Hospitals do not have sufficient resources to purchase the items which the ICRC provides. However, a gradual decrease in the number of items supplied with a clear end strategy has been designed and worked out with the Ministries of Health in both entities, in order that the health structures become accustomed purchasing an increased number of items in the course of 1999. The ICRC surgical distribution programmes will therefore stop at the end of September 1999.

The World Bank and other health financing working groups in both Ministries of Health have finalized the components to make up the basic health package, i.e. what every individual should be entitled to free of charge. The basic package has been costed and it is quite clear that the Ministries will not be in a position to cover these costs. PHARE meanwhile has launched development programmes in the areas of primary health care, health financing and pharmaceuticals. A centralised purchasing system en ables the health structures to support themselves with basic supplies - similar to those provided by ICRC - and thus allow the ICRC to disengage itself from the substantial distribution programme, without which the hospital and transfusiology services would have all but collapsed.

Building community self-reliance around health and mobilizing existing community resources is vital in a country where government funds for the provision of health services are expected to be limited in the foreseeable future. Because established links were created through the distribution programme, the ICRC now plays a preparatory role employing health care professionals in the difficult transition process within the health sector. Peer groups are being set up by doctors to exchange expertise and work, as a step towards the implementation of family medicine. At least one nurse in every region/canton is now trained to teach the LEMON course - modern nursing techniques. The project also enables communities to start to influence health-related decision-making. To this end, the ICRC, in cooperation with the local Red Cross, has launched a " Healthy Communities " programme in eight different communities across four municipalities. This programme complements the public health care strategy currently being implemented by the Ministry of Health and the Movement to improve the public's general standard of health.

During the war the ICRC was active in implementing major projects to repair water supply systems. In post-war times large engineering companies have stepped in to take over such activities and the ICRC now concentrates on testing water quality, providing chemicals and equipment to 11 public health institutions. In addition, through the local Red Cross it supports small village water networks by providing materials (taps, pipes etc.) to returnees.

 Operational support to Red Cross structures  

In the post-war reconstruction phase, the local Red Cross needs support for its own reconstruction and capacity-building. The ICRC has therefore been active not only as a partner in the implementation of relief and assistance programmes, but has also promoted and strengthened the capacity of the local Red Cross to develop civil society. Two entity-level Red Cross organizations, the Red Cross of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (RCFBiH) and the Red Cross of Republika Sprska (RCRS) now exist, with a strong network of cantonal/regional Red Cross offices and municipal level structures. These organizational structures present an effective way of offering services to needy social cases and an important sector for community initiatives. The ICRC, in close collaboration with the International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies, actively promotes such initiatives. A contact group has been established between both entity Red Cross groups aiming to foster close cooperation and dialogue towards the eventual formation of a National Society for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The central statutes are currently being drafted.

National Red Cross Societies, including the American Red Cross, the Austrian Red Cross, the Swiss Red Cross, the Norwegian Red Cross, the Red Crescent Society for United Arab Emirates and the Iranian Red Crescent have also been active in supporting the work of the local Red Cross, running programmes such as: feeding programmes for the elderly in both entities; public kitchens; repairs to the homes of mine victims; support for psycho-social and geriatric institutions and medical services.


 General situation  

Having gained sovereignty and independence over the whole of its territory in January 1998, Croatia, often pressured by the international community, has sought to modernize its institutions, such as the judicial and legislative systems, the media and state industries. Progress is slow and often attained at the expense of major internal political turmoil. However, Croatia seems to be clearly leaning towards the western international organisations and increasingly away from the Balkans region.

A downside is that such an opening up is likely to hide the fact that Croatia has far from recovered from the effects of the war. Whole regions, such as former sectors North and South, and Eastern and Western Slavonia stand economically depressed. The town of Vukovar continues to look like a deserted battle field. The issue surrounding tens of thousands of displaced or refugee families in Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or in Bosnia Herzegovina remains unresolved, and it is likely that they will never go back without a firm committment from the Croatian authorities and support from the international community to rebuild community infrastructure and private houses. Without such an undertaking, the return of Serbian refugees will doubtless remain an impossibility.

In 1998, the ICRC closed several offices in Croatia and this year has further reduced the number of staff in the country, maintaining one office in Zagreb. It is concentrating on the issue of missing persons and on assistance to detainees, and, together with the Croatian Red Cross, addresses the problem of land mines.

 Missing persons  

In the former sectors North and South and in Eastern Slavonia, the process of reconciliation between Croatians and Serbians has become i ncreasingly complex due to the failure to resolve the cases of some 3,000 people who have been reported as missing between 1991 and 1995. Pressure by the international community on all parties concerned remains crucial to try to overcome the political obstacles to this difficult humanitarian question. The ICRC, in close cooperation with the Croatian Red Cross, Croatian and Yugoslavian governmental commissions for missing persons and the ICMP, continues to monitor individual cases and urges the relevant parties to transfer information at their disposal to help clarify the fate of those reported missing. The publication of a " Book of the Missing in Croatia " is the latest initiative proposed by the ICRC to the various associations for the families of those missing as a way of ensuring that this issue remains at the top of the political agenda.


The ICRC continues to visit 74 detainees linked to the conflict and provides material assistance. The ICRC also organises visits to enable family members living in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to see their detained relatives.

 Mine Awareness  

The return of displaced persons and refugees has been made all the more difficult because these same regions, which cover 6,000 sq. km, are still affected by the presence of land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). In 1998 only 15 sq. km were de-mined. At this rate Croatia will need twenty years to rid itself of the menace which causes more victims in peace time than during wartime. According to the Croatian Mine Action Centre (CROMAC) some 140 civilian mine victims were reported between 1991 and 1995 and more than 300 since 1996. To reduce the risks, a huge mine awareness programme has been implemented by the ICRC and the Croatian Red Cross for the local population. To date, a total of 6,785 mine awar eness presentations, fully supported by the Croatian Government, have been given to 145,000 people, mainly children.