Delivering aid to the people freezing in the Balkans

From Martin currently delivering aid to refugees in Serbia.

I really feel the need to tell all the Re-Act supporters just what a huge difference you have all made to those refugees stranded all across Europe. Re-Act have financially supported so many of my trips to deliver aid and in most cases have quite literally DOUBLED the amount of help I have been able to provide to those who are most in need.

I am no stranger to the Balkans and previously I have managed to operate with some considerable success. This trip is entirely different though. Serbia is a very difficult place in which to operate as an aid volunteer. In fact, it’s the one place where being ‘independent’ is so much more effective than being tied into an NGO or large aid group and being expected to play ‘within the rules’.

The Serb authorities, like most other European governments, want every refugee in an official reception centre or camp. The problem with this is that the Serbs have a very bad track record of illegally deporting them and because of this many refugees would rather take their chances on the streets – even in the bitterly cold Balkan winter weather.

A week ago the weather in Serbia was terrible. Huge snowfall and a temperature of -20 degrees made surviving on the streets incredibly hard for the refugees stuck there. I won’t mince my words – temperatures like this for people living in such poor conditions is a very real threat to life.

I came home from work after thinking about nothing but the refugee situation in Serbia all day and, within 20 minutes had decided I was going down there again, I had recruited a pal into coming down there with me – and then I told him that we couldn’t do it without his Landrover!

After starting a very panicked fundraiser to purchase food stuffs for distribution while I was down there, Re-Act stepped up to the plate yet again! With the donation from Re-Act I was able to purchase even more ex-military arctic grade sleeping bags and a large quantity of thermal hats, scarves and gloves. I had seen photos in the media of refugees queuing for a daily hot meal in some areas of Belgrade wrapped in just a blanket – these sleeping bags are of the type used by Royal Marines in Norway on their winter deployments – these are a seriously good piece of kit and probably the one single thing, in the case of a lack of fire for warmth, that could stop someone from dying in their sleep (if, of course, they were able to sleep in those temperatures!).

So, with the items we already had to take with us, the additional stuff purchased thanks to the Re-Act donation and the generosity of your supporters, – and donations I had received to buy food for distribution when we got here, we set off on a 1,300 mile drive which would see us travel through 7 countries and be intimidated by some very large trucks driven by some very aggressive Romanian drivers as we travelled through the tunnels of the Alps!

Now we’re here. We met up again with a very nice family who assisted us on one of our previous trips. They have been tirelessly doing what they can for refugees since the ‘Balkan route’ first became a bottleneck and with very limited funds and resources at their disposal.

We are in the North of the country – trying to ‘work’ an area between Šid and Subotica. We decided against Belgrade due to the fact that there is already aid being given there – albeit severely limited. There is also help being given in Subotica but it is patchy.

Our ‘host’ family took us to an abandoned school building where there are a group of about 40 refugees. Mostly teenagers/young men but including 6 women and 3 children under 11. The youngest of these is 7.

They have nothing but the ragged clothes they are wearing, a couple of UNHCR type blankets each and a few bits & bobs.

We gave out most of our sleeping bags to them and ensured that they each have a thermal hat and gloves. The blankets they had were as good as useless and the only benefit they were giving, if any, was one of psychological value with the idea that if they were wrapped up in them then they could ‘think’ that they were warmer. The school has been stripped of anything even remotely useful and anything that could burn has already been used on their makeshift fires which, crazily, they had lit in the centre of the room that most of them are occupying.

We’ve done a fair bit in the short time we have been here. We have helped to tidy the place up a bit, we’ve managed to lay our hands on some pallets which are being broken up and used as fire fuel, and we’ve managed to fashion some stoves/heaters using old car wheels.

We initially provided food parcels containing tinned fish, loaves of bread, fresh fruit, vegetables, fruit juice and water – but now we have the fires/stoves sorted out we knew we had to ensure a way for the refugees to cook not only their own meals but the meals that they actually like!

So, late this afternoon I put out a shout on facebook for a little bit more help. We want to buy some pots/pans to be used on the new fires/stoves. On the open fires that they have been using they have been trying to boil water in old tin cans – many of which originally held chemicals of one description or another and pose unbelievable risks to their health – not to mention the burns that they have inflicted upon themselves by trying to pick up a very thin tin full of scolding water with fingers they can barely feel and that are very close to getting frost-bitten!

Re-Act responded to that shout out for help almost within minutes! We are now in a position to ‘go shopping’ tomorrow for large saucepans and cooking pots which will drastically change the quality of life for these people. We are also planning to purchase some hot water bottles if we can find some.

Typically, the weather has got marginally better down here since I decided to drop everything, annoy my boss, upset my wife and disappoint my kids (joking! – about the wife and kids anyway!) with news of my last minute trip. But the temperatures are still very low. Overnight this week it is hitting about -5 degrees and it is forecast to go down to -8 toward the end of the week. -8 degrees is bloody cold by our standards (although maybe not to you Scots!) so I know for a fact that these sleeping bags are going to be the difference between life and death as the Balkan winter progresses. With the provision of decent cooking pots with bottoms thick enough to withstand the extreme heat of these stoves, and hot water bottles to tuck inside their new ‘Gucci’ sleeping bags – I am certain we are providing a better chance of survival than any other form of aid which they are likely to be given this winter.

This is all down to Re-Act and the generosity of your supporters. No matter what they do, how small their donation, no matter how insignificant they think what they are doing is in the big picture of things, it’s important that they know that it’s because of them that I am down here doing what I am doing right now. The refugees receiving these life saving gifts are incredibly grateful, but at this point they only know that some people, somewhere in the UK (I will try to explain about that funny place at the top called ‘Scotland’! ) cares enough about them to try and make a difference! That in itself is amazing!

I will provide more of an update, hopefully with the use of a PC, an edit button and a spell checker upon my return. In the meantime I want to thank you all so much. Thank you for your ongoing support, thank you for your love, your messages of support and most of all, for allowing me to be here doing this on your behalf!

Photos ©AFP/CNN