Memories of Balkans war compel many to help current refugees

Many Croatians have rallied around the refugees from war-torn countries including Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. 'We went through this 25 years ago,' says a worker at a migrant center.

Marko Djurica/Reuters/File
Migrant children walk as they wait to cross the border with Croatia near the village of Berkasovo, Serbia, in October 2015.

Every time Croatian aid worker Gordana Vucinic meets migrants who have fled poverty, war and oppression, the 42-year-old is thankful she is no longer a refugee and can help others as frightened as she once was.

As part of her work for CARE International, Vucinic regularly crosses into Serbia from Croatia to inspect conditions in state-run migrant centers.

It is a journey that would have been impossible two decades ago when Yugoslavia's violent breakup ignited Europe's bloodiest war since World War II, killing more than 100,000 people and displacing up to four million more.

"I find it extremely important as a refugee to be able to help refugees right now in the Balkans because I believe I have a clear understanding of what they're going through, how they feel, and what their fears and hopes are," Vucinic said.

"Being able to help is really satisfying, but at the same time it brings back some emotions," said Vucinic, who fled to the city of Banja Luka in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 as Croatian forces battled Belgrade-backed Serb rebels.

At the height of Europe's most recent refugee crisis in 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrants passed through the Balkans towards western Europe. But the route was largely shut down last March following border closures amid a popular backlash against the influx.

Despite suspicion and hostility towards the asylum seekers, many Croatians have rallied around the migrants from war-torn countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

"We went through this 25 years ago. (The migrants) were walking on the same streets that we were," said Vanja Grundmann, who runs a volunteer program at a center that houses 90 migrants in Osijek, eastern Croatia.

"Here, they can come to us and open their hearts and talk. We don't tell them everything will be ok, but we can give them some hope and that's important," she said.

The largely uncontrolled arrival of more than 1 million people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa in the past two years has triggered bitter rows in the European Union (EU), with disputes over how countries far from the main migration routes should help "frontline" peers like Greece and Italy.

Some eastern EU states have resisted the burden of caring for asylum seekers, arguing that admitting Muslims would distort the makeup of their societies.

Vucinic said she clearly remembers the resentment against asylum seekers like herself during the 1990s and often sees parallels between today's migrants and her own refugee experience – from the despair caused by an asylum claim rejection to the hostile reception of some host communities.

The United Nations refugee agency estimates that around 7,700 migrants now live in Serbia with some 6,500 staying in government-run centers. In Croatia, there are 950 asylum seekers.

Marina Mesic, a 26-year-old Croatian who was barely born when war broke out in the region, said she felt compelled to befriend migrants in her country to counter what she feels is rising anti-refugee sentiment in the eastern bloc.

"People forget what it's like to be a refugee," she said inside a children's playroom at the Osijek migrant center where she began volunteering a year and a half ago.

Having grown up with older relatives scarred by the war, Mesic believes most young people in the Balkans are accepting of refugees and able to empathize with migrants.

"Everyone was affected. Any country that has had recent wars should relate because they know how bad it was for them," she said.

"And things like which country you're from and what religion you have (are not things) you should discriminate people over."

Reporting by Lin Taylor, editing by Katie Nguyen. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, climate change, and resilience. Visit

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