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Helsloot Wilbert

Wilbert Helsloot has been active for SCI in the Balkans between 1993 and 2006.

Deeply impressed by his work camp experience in a refugee camp in Croatia 1993 during the war in Yugoslavia he started a long time commitment for conflict resolution in the Balkans.

We find footprints of Wilbert's volunteering in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Kosova, Macedonia and Albania in the last two decades. Besides he was active in the international working groups and supported intiatives to settle volunteer initiatives in Balkan countries.

Wilbert lives currently with his family in Indonesia. He still involved in volunteer activities for SCI.

Read also Refugee-camp Gasinci, The consequences of a civil war portrayed (1993)


Wilbert Helsloot

First contact to VIA

In October 1992, I noticed a small advertisement in a Dutch national newspaper. VIA Netherlands, the Dutch branch of SCI, was looking for volunteers who could be deployed in refugee camps in Croatia. Work would be mainly organizing activities for refugee children. I did not know VIA at that time - I was 24 years old - but a feeling strong inside me told me that I had to react.

Since July 1991 a war in Europe (former Yugoslavia) had been going on and I had been following the news. As many stated, it was the first war in Europe since World War II, neglecting the fact that a violent conflict had been going on in Northern Ireland. But admittedly, the war between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians was on a larger scale and dominated the news. A war was just nearby, and what could I do? The one sentence advertisement meant a break-through. I felt it was the right time to act. Of course I felt a bit of two minds: could I handle myself in the situation as this would be my first time to be in a war-zone?

I grew up in a safe environment, within a large family in a village near Amsterdam. Politics was not particularly my interest, until the moment when I started to study educational sciences at the University of Amsterdam. Almost immediately I became an active member of the student union, who fought against the cuts in expenses in education at national level and for better education at university (and national) level on the other side. Student politics also crossed borders, it was the time of the student uprising in China and the severe repression by Chinese authorities at the Tienanmen square in Beijing. Together with the board of the Amsterdam students union I organized a solidarity protest for the Chinese students.

1993 - Volunteer in a refugee centre in Croatia

Apart from violence of police during demonstrations, I was not familiar with violent conflicts, let alone wars. My intention to go to Croatia was being questioned many times by my family and by myself as well. Yet, I decided to go to an information night of VIA. I was nervous when I entered the VIA office. I was warmly welcomed though and besides practical information and introduction about the war and VIA, ex-volunteers told their stories. I remember well, that one volunteer said that she had a great time being a volunteer and I wondered how in heaven’s sake one can have a great time in a war-area!

After the information night however, I felt confident enough to apply and a personal interview followed. I was selected at the end and on the 2nd of January 1993 I took the bus to Zagreb, together with another Dutch volunteer. Four weeks later I returned home, hitch-hiking. The whole experience was a turning point in my life.

Children in refugee camp in Croatia (1994), Photo: Suncroket

I describe my detailed experiences here, a translation of an article written for the faculty magazine of educational sciences: Refugee-camp Gasinci, The consequences of a civil war portrayed (1993)

The period after having returned home was actually the most difficult one. My first re-connection with the Netherlands was a discussion on the radio, when I got a lift from a Dutch truck driver, about the demand of employees for increasing their wage in the industrial sector. As such, a usual debate, but I immediately thought: What are you talking about? But most weird and also depressing was actually walking in a crowded and luxury shopping street in Amsterdam. It was clear I was having difficulty to find a proper direction home.

I decided to go back to VIA and get in touch with activists there. It also helped to meet other ex-volunteers, who could understand my story with the same mind and emotions. Because I had to tell my story, I also told my story to family and friends, but I missed the real connection with what I had gone through. So I decided to help prepare and select future Balkan volunteers for VIA. We sent volunteers to refugee camps in Croatia through Suncokret (meaning sunflower) and to Pakrac, a rehabilitation and reconciliation project in a village divided between Croats and Serbs.

I looked to the war now with even more interest, as it took somehow place in my own backyard. The news now had an enormous human dimension. I had refugee friends there. I got surprised how ‘cold’ the news actually was, in terms of war (shooting, bombing) activities and not much detail of human interest stories, let alone anti-war initiatives.

1995 - Mid-term volunteer for 'hi Neighbour' in Serbia

While informing, selecting and preparing volunteers at the end of 1993 and in 1994, I got more and more interested in the work of ‘hi Neighbour’ in Serbia. I felt that I also had to go back myself, to experience another side of the war. Media focused on the aggressor role of Serbia and was quite biased in my opinion. It was time to support Serbian refugees, who had to flee from Croatian and Bosnian aggression. Moreover the concept of 'hi Neighbour' went beyond just activities for children, they bedded their activities in a framework of psycho-social support.

From April 1995 till beginning of June 1995, I served as mid-term volunteer for 'hi Neighbour'. It accidentally coincided with a large counter attack of Croatia against Serbia, causing sadness and intense insecurity about family members in the Serbian refugee camps in which I was working. Compared with the camp in Croatia, I did not work in a team now, but alone, which was not so easy at the end. Nevertheless, I managed to organize activities for children as follow-up of weekly workshops run by the psychologists and teachers of 'hi Neighbour'. I did not aim to work strictly with psycho-social methods as my Serbian language skills were not sufficient. So the activities which I organized gave the children avenues for creative expression such as drawing and theatre.

I admired the work of 'hi Neighbour'. Although they visited refugee camps once a week, they gained the trust of the children, not easy in such circumstances. They structured the workshops quite well and the children were enthusiastic. I wondered why such initiatives are apparently not interesting for media? Why do media always focus on the death toll and developments on the battlefield? I have to admit that there was interest in refugees, but portrayed as poor people, subjects of the war. The way that 'hi Neighbour' dealt with refugees, a human approach where refugees, including children, were treated as human beings) opened my eyes and my heart.

One of the workshops for children in which I participated in as adult, started with a couple of circles on a sheet of paper. Children had to draw themselves (their faces) in the middle circle and as kind of mind-mapping exercise, the faces of people close to them at that moment, in the other circles. It struck me that I had to think hard to recollect the faces of the people who are important in my life.

I still have enormous respect for the way 'hi Neighbour' worked to support the social identity of the children.

In June 1995 I returned to the Netherlands. The war meanwhile arrived at its final phase and in November 1995 the Dayton peace agreements were signed. The war ended, but the situation was of course far, far away from peace. I stayed involved in the Balkans and came active on an international level in SCI, an international Working Group arose called SAVA. One of its activities was training in conflict-transformation in Croatia and Bosnia. Meanwhile a volunteer organization arose from the original organizations Suncokret and Anti-War Campaign: Volunteer Centre Zagreb which later became a group and then a branch of SCI.

1998 - Reconciliation project in Bosnia

In 1998 I decided to participate in a reconciliation project set up by former volunteers from Suncokret in Bosnia. Bosnia was meanwhile a divided country. One part was the so-called Bosnian-Croatian federation, where Bosnian and Croatian citizens supposed to live together in harmony. The other part was Republika Srpska, where Bosnian Serbs ruled. The project took place in a small village in the Bosnian-Croatian federation, not far from Foca, a city in Republika Srpska.

The project had the ambitious aim to bring children and youth of the two groups together by way of common activities. The common activities included ceramics and photography and my initial task was to set up a common newspaper, following the example of my first camp in Croatia 1993. First stage was to set up activities separately in Ustikolina and Foca, and then bring the children together. I arrived in Ustikolina, when the second phase had just started. It was quite a challenge. The border was just a pole beside the road, but the psychological barrier to cross the border was enormous, fear mainly. Nevertheless we succeeded partly in our aim to reconcile youth. The children and their parents, who had to give permission, learned that the children ‘from the other side’ were just children, like themselves and their children. One time however, radical Serb youngsters entered our youth centre in Foca and pointed to us. It was a dangerous gesture and we left almost immediately, and returned with the children to Ustikolina.

Pathfinder mission in Kosova, Macedonia and Albania

The balance was all the time fragile and when funding also became more difficult, together with the unwillingness of the mayor of Ustikolina to continue, there was hardly any other choice than to stop the project. At the same time another conflict arose, in Kosovo, on a large scale again. Former prominent figures from the anti-war and volunteer movement in Croatia gathered in Germany, and I decided to join the meeting as an SCI representative. We decided to send so-called ‘pathfinders’ to the neighbouring countries of Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania. After consultation with SCI, I became a pathfinder too and with another Dutch activist and journalist I travelled to Skopje to explore and assess the situation, especially related to the large numbers of Kosovo-Albanian refugees who entered Macedonia. The journey was remarkable. We travelled at the last moment with a rented car to Ljubljana, just in time to catch our flight to Skopje. This would usually take 1h 15min, but our plane could not enter the airspace above Serbia, which was bombed by NATO, so we went all the way round via Romania and Bulgaria to Macedonia.

The pathfinders mission was one of the most intensive periods of my life. We had two weeks and we spoke with almost all stakeholders involved: UNHCR, Care, Oxfam, UNICEF, local organizations, activists, journalist and refugees. We arranged a temporary office in an apartment and managed to set up two possible volunteer opportunities, one in a refugee camp and one in a Roma-community in Skopje (Shutka).

1999 - Country Coordinator for Balkan Sunflowers in Macedonia

After the mission we applied for funding and so it happened that I became country coordinator in summer 1999 for Balkan Sunflowers Macedonia, indeed managing the two project areas which we as pathfinders had identified. Balkan Sunflowers developed with some ups and downs along the way, but steadily became a respected NGO. Once it was safe, BSF entered Kosovo, but did not withdraw from Macedonia and Albania (as many other NGOs did).

2006 - Back to 'Hi Neighbour' in Serbia

My last longer involvement in the Balkans was in 2006, when I returned to 'hi Neighbour' in Belgrade for six months, working with Serbian refugees and related coordination and office work.

Looking back to the period, SCI can be proud what they achieved. It was clearly useful work in a conflict and later post-conflict area. I personally learned a lot about war, conflicts, refugees, former Yugoslavia as region, about volunteering, group work and management, about pioneering for a more peaceful society. Now, writing this in 2015, SCI has developed strongly in the region, with regular branches in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo and groups in Macedonia and Albania. Due to marriage I moved to Indonesia in 2008. I am still active in SCI, but the region where I was active for such a long time retains a special place in my heart.

Wilbert Helsloot,

January 2015, Jakarta

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