PODGORICA, Montengro - The city of Podgorica looks much like any other European city; modern architecture has slowly replaced the buildings that were mostly destroyed during WWII. Skyscrapers dot the city skyline, but the rich history of the Turkish and Ottoman Empire still exists in the brick monasteries and stone churches. Outside the city, a camp of shacks, trash and burning barrels houses thousands of refugees.
On July 24, 2012, a major fire broke out in the camp leaving 150 families homeless. More than 800 people lost everything they had that day, many for the second time.
The refugee camp, known as Konik One, houses more than two thousand displaced Bosniaks and Roma that escaped from Kosovo during the civil wars in 1998 and 1999. For the last 13 years, they have made their home here, living in makeshift wooden huts, tents and old abandoned housing containers recently obtained through foreign aid. They use scraps of wood, tin, aluminum and other materials to shield themselves the best they can from the elements. There is little to no electricity or running water in the camp. Shoddy wiring and the use of open stoves for heating during the winter frequently causes fires.
Capt. Thomas Hineman, bilateral affairs officer in Montenegro said that war scattered the Roma people throughout the Balkans region.
“They have been here for a very long time, and have settled,” said Hineman. “The war in Kosovo, it was a very difficult time for them. They are neither Serbian descent nor Albanian descent, but an outside class. They found it was in their best interest to leave Kosovo, and they have been here ever since.”
Hineman points to the filthy conditions of the camp.
“They are living in structures they could build from scratch. They do not provide any sort of real shelter from any weather conditions. Something like that shouldn’t happen in this day and age, but it does.”
Working with foreign aid partners, such as the United Nations High Council for Refugees, the Refugee Agency, United Nations Development Program, the Red Cross, and the United States, the Montenegrin government is hoping to fix the current problem, and prevent similar situations in the future. One potential solution to the current housing issue is through coordination with the closest U.S. military base, Camp Bondsteel.
Camp Bondsteel’s day-to-day operations and continued long term projects are overseen by the Area Support Team- Balkans. AST-Balkans Director Della Hodges works closely with the U.S. embassies in her area, including Montenegro, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Kosovo, to build relationships among the U.S. partners. Together they develop mutually beneficial relationships.
The containerized housing units that the Montenegrins hope to get from Camp Bondsteel are actual housing units, with plumbing and heating systems. They are made for people to live in and have been well-maintained over the years. The improving situation in Kosovo has led to a reduction of troops at Camp Bondsteel over the years. As the number of troops fell, the need for housing fell with it. That led to efforts to “right –size” facilities at the installation.
“Rightsizing, like cleaning out your closet, figure out what you really need and donate what you don’t need anymore,” said Hodges. “Figuring out what we still need to be able to take care of the troops, to accomplish the mission, and send the rest where they can use it.”
As Camp Bondsteel continues to operate more effectively with less people, they have been able to consolidate living quarters. That left them with 226 housing units that are nearly 10 years old and no longer needed.
Hodges has worked closely with Hineman and his partners to help them get all of the information they need to obtain foreign military donations for the Konik Camp. They are also trying to get more aid and assistance to prevent the same problem from happening at Konik Camp Two. Hineman said that the relationship with AST made it easy to get the information necessary to start the process.
“When we asked AST for the information on those housing units, they provided it immediately, within one hour,” said Hineman. “We were able to get our request in to the humanitarian assistance program.”
Hodges said that by working together, two needs are met.
“No one is living in them anymore, and they are past their value here on Bondsteel,” said Hodges. “It helps us dispose of them now, rather than wait for Bondsteel to close and try to get rid of them then. And it’s a win-win because now Montenegro will be able to use them for a great purpose. “
Hineman believes that these housing units will greatly improve the quality of life for the people living in the camps.
“They will provide the Roma with real shelter,” said Hineman. “It provides them with the opportunity to get their kids, themselves, their elderly out of the rain, the wind and the cold.”
Montenegro qualifies for the Humanitarian Assistance program, so they are able get these units for free, rather than paying a minimal amount. The transportation from Camp Bondsteel to Montenegro is also included at no cost. According to Hineman, the only real costs will be the actual removal from the flat bed trailer truck, and placing the units where they need to go. So there is little to no cost to the local authorities.
Hodges works directly with Hineman and the U.S. Embassy. The embassy works with the Office of Defense Cooperation, who works with the towns and cities to set up these projects.
For her, the key to successful cooperation and helping the people who need it most, is communication. All of the coordination relies on people keeping each other informed of what the needs are, and what resources are available.
“They will ask me, ‘do you think you will have any of x, y or z?’ and I’ll say no, or yes,” said Hodges. “Or we will call them and say we have two generators available, do you need them?”
Many of the war-stricken countries of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are continuing to make progress. Unfortunately, it seems like whenever they really start to make progress, natural disasters occur. This past summer it was wild fires. Last winter massive snowstorms forced helicopters to be brought in to Bosnia and Montenegro to help bring in supplies where conditions made it impossible to travel by road.
“It’s hard to make progress, when things hold you back,” said Hodges.
Hodges continued, saying that the relationship between the U.S. , AST-Balkans, Camp Bondsteel and Montenegro is strong. The Montenegrins are passionate about promoting the relationship with the U.S. and working together cooperatively to better themselves. Hodges is happy to be able to get more use out of resources that Camp Bondsteel no longer needs.
“We want to be able to give our items to people, to harvest in another way, so that they aren’t just going to waste.”
She says the key is working with Hineman and the embassies to help make educated decisions about what can be resourced to improve Montenegro. It is important to both agencies that they fully utilize the resources available at Camp Bondsteel, and not waste them.
Hodges said, “It’s a pretty good feeling, being a good steward of resources, not wasting the money and improving the lives of someone else.”
The important thing is to maintain the working relationship so that the government and humanitarian aid programs can give countries like Montenegro the tools to help them grow.
“We don’t just give them a handout,” said Hodges. “We include them in the whole process. They are helping themselves move forward. It’s teamwork really.”
For the people who live in Konik One, it looks like it may be a long winter. But there is help on the way. While the government works to ease the situation there, Hineman, Hodges and their teams are working on getting solutions for another refugee camp, before they are faced with the same crisis.
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This work, Working Together for a Solution, by SSG Angela Parady, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.