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Helping the Balkans Survive a Decade of War

Children push water on cart
Children hauled water from one of the few remaining wells in besieged Sarajevo in 1993, exposing themselves to sniper and mortar fire from Serb forces. © Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos

To commemorate 20 years of activities in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the Open Society Foundations have released a report, Building Open Society in the Western Balkans, which contains a historical overview, foundation highlights, and essays on critical issues, including the following by the Foundations’ president.

The Open Society Foundations have never made humanitarian assistance a major part of our mission.  Even so, we have sometimes decided that the best way to promote our mission of developing open societies is to provide such assistance.  That was the case in the western Balkans in the early 1990s.

In 1992, George Soros committed $50 million for humanitarian assistance to victims of the war then underway in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He had two purposes: first, he wanted to help those who had suffered from the crimes that were being committed in the name of “ethnic cleansing.”  Second, he thought providing the funds would bring nongovernmental humanitarian assistance organizations into Bosnia and their personnel would thereby bear witness to the crimes taking place and inform the world.  Under the guidance of a five member committee of individuals connected to the Open Society Foundations, $36 million was given to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to redistribute to nongovernmental humanitarian organizations; $2 million went to the International Committee of the Red Cross; $2 million went to Human Rights Watch to redistribute to human rights organizations reporting on the conflict; and $10 million was spent through our foundations in the region, mainly for the provision of medicine and medical equipment.

A substantial part of the funding donated through UNHCR went to projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina devised and managed by an extraordinary American, Fred Cuny, operating under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee, and implemented by our foundation there.  Seeing that many of those killed by sniper fire in the besieged city of Sarajevo were hauling water from a couple of wells in the city, Cuny created a new water system for the city.  He designed a 200-meter-long filtration system to purify river water and had it constructed in an old road tunnel under a hill next to the river.  The hill over the tunnel protected the system against shelling by the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Radovan Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić who were besieging the city.  The filtration system was built in long narrow segments by a company in Texas, Cuny’s home state, and flown into Sarajevo on UNHCR relief flights.

Another project was designed to keep the residents of Sarajevo warm during the bitter Bosnian winter and also allow them to cook their food.  Sarajevo had access to natural gas that was piped into the city (from Russia, through Ukraine, Hungary, and Serbia), but before the war only about 10 percent of the residents were connected to gas in their homes.  Cuny brought plastic pipes into Sarajevo on relief planes and he and the foundation enlisted 15,000 of the city’s residents to dig trenches for the pipes.  Eventually, the project connected about 60 percent of the residents to gas. Cuny designed a small portable heater that could be manufactured in Sarajevo to use the gas to heat a room.  When turned on its side, the device could be used for cooking.

The Open Society foundation in Bosnia and Herzegovina also distributed seeds to Sarajevo residents so that they could grow vegetables on terraces, in backyards, and in parks. Another project increased the city’s supply of electricity by about 30 percent.

Tragically, Fred Cuny was killed in 1995 while undertaking a mission on humanitarian assistance for the Open Society Foundations in Chechnya.  A number of reports have been published on how he died and who killed him, but all of these have speculative components. We cannot say with certainty how he died but we can say that, using the humanitarian assistance funds provided by George Soros, he helped keep the city of Sarajevo and most of its residents alive during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Open Society Foundations also committed substantial funds for humanitarian assistance in Serbia.  During the war in Bosnia, Serbia was subjected to international sanctions.  Unfortunately, one consequence was a severe shortage of pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies.  The Foundations organized a program to determine what shortages were causing particular harm and then purchased those supplies that were needed, mainly in the United States, for shipment to Serbia.  This program required extensive negotiations with the U.S. Department of the Treasury in order to secure permission for the shipment of supplies that were not supposed to be subject to the sanctions.  We also organized extensive humanitarian assistance in Serbia for Serbs from the Krajina region in Croatia who were driven out of the territory by Croatian forces in the summer of 1995.  Also, the foundation in Serbia organized summer camps for children of refugees and the internally displaced.

During the war in Bosnia, the Open Society Foundations organized humanitarian assistance projects in Macedonia and Croatia, including medical supplies, equipment, and ambulances, support for trauma centers, and educational services for refugee children.  We also supported humanitarian assistance programs for Bosnian refugees in Slovenia.

The Open Society Foundations initiated a new round of humanitarian assistance projects in the region when President Slobodan Milošević launched a war in Kosovo in 1998 and when NATO intervened in that war in 1999.  In that period, Serb forces drove more than a million people out of Kosovo, mostly into Macedonia to the east and Albania to the west.  In addition to helping the refugees, we provided assistance when they returned to Kosovo following the war.

At other times, the Open Society Foundations have provided humanitarian assistance in many countries following natural disasters or man-made disasters.  Up to the present, however, the largest amount of such assistance, and the place where the assistance made the greatest difference, has been in the countries of the former Yugoslavia during the wars of the 1990s.

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