Soil Stained Survivors: how gardening is helping those caught up in the Balkan wars

For over a decade, a pioneering project in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been transforming war torn lives through the power of plants. But now their money has run out. Helen Babbs meets the gardeners facing up to an insecure future

Jovica lives in a safe house in Doboj. It was established after the civil war of the mid 90s as a refuge for people discharged from hospital with nowhere else to go. Until recently Jovica spent his days alone in his room, unable to talk to anyone and enveloped in the noise of over 50 radios all playing at once. 

Encouraged by the Community Gardens Association [CGA], who were hoping to establish healing outside spaces across Bosnia, the safe house’s doctor decided that residents might benefit from a therapeutic garden. And so building began. Jovica would watch progress from afar, gradually being tempted out of his radio filled room to watch, but never speaking or joining in. He sat in the garden throughout the first growing season and silently watched others get their hands dirty.

The next season arrived and the CGA announced they were going to construct a greenhouse in the safe house garden.Something clicked in Jovica. Suddenly he was excited and the day the greenhouse arrived he found his voice, something that had been lost for a long time. When CGA staff visited a few months later, they found Jovica in charge of the greenhouse. ‘He’s been completely transformed’, says Vesna Malenica from the CGA. ‘The greenhouse is his escape and plants have replaced radios. He’s even started cooking for other residents.’ That he has is in no small part down to the garden. And Jovica isn’t the only one whose soul bears the scars of war.  ‘I think the psychological effects of the war are actually stronger now than they were immediately after it ended,’ comments Vesna.  ‘Then people had to think about getting bread onto their table and repairing their homes. Now psychological problems have room to surface.’ The public nature of the healing garden is an important way of challenging out-dated beliefs about mental illness according to Vesna. ‘Projects that are dealing with this are really important in Bosnia because traditionally such things are kept secret.  You’re not supposed to see a therapist or admit you have mental problems. People are ashamed, it’s not considered normal. In rural areas it’s seen as a punishment from God. Stigma and discrimination are things we have to fight.’ 

Vesna speaks about her work with a mixture of pleasure and steely determination. The CGA was established in the wake of the 90s war by one of the many international organisations that flooded into the region to offer aid. Set up by the American Friends Service Committee [AFSC], the plan was to encourage people to help themselves, rather than relying on handouts. Not just focused on creating healing gardens, they’ve also established a network of community growing projects in a region where food poverty is a problem.

The idea of growing crops in urban areas wasn’t new but the language used was. While the CGA’s gardens were intended to help people restart their lives, the concept of urban gardening had some uncomfortable connotations. ‘During the war my family participated in community gardening in Sarajevo but we didn’t know it could be defined as that. It was just a spontaneous act because we needed food,’ says Vesna.  ‘When the war was over the authorities didn’t want people to garden in the city anymore. People here believe that work related to the soil belongs in the countryside. They think that what you should have in the city is manicured parks with fenced off lawns.’

Bosnia remains a divided country and Vesna argues that the political structure imposed by the Dayton Accords supports ethnic separation.  The Federation, western and southern Herzegovina is predominantly Croat, Sarajevo and central Bosnia is Bosniak and the Republika Srpska is Serb. Neighbourhoods and workplaces remain segregated, and the administrative structure of the country has institutionalised division to a degree. In the face of this, the CGA creates multi-ethnic gardens, with each garden split into 50 metre plots distributed randomly. 

Vesna works in the Stup Community Garden in central Sarajevo. Here a Croat will have a Bosniak Muslim neighbour on one side and a Serb on the other. In the beginning people were unhappy but now nobody is anything but a gardener. Last year they grew two tonnes of cucumbers in their greenhouse. Understandably Vesna’s pretty proud. 

‘It’s because people commit a lot of time and energy. The project isn’t just about food - reconciliation and the regaining of trust are equally important. We’re working with people who suffered a lot during the war and our main goal is to bring conflicting sides together. We’ve tried to make a secure space where thoughts and opinions can be exchanged freely; somewhere people can be useful to both the community and their families.’

Nazif Smajić is from Rogatica, which was ethnically cleansed during the war. He was forced off his 100-acre farm and finally settled in Sarajevo in 1995. Known as grandpa, he’s one of Stup’s oldest growers and a mean chess player.  ‘Originally I joined because of food,’ explains Nazif.  ‘The garden means I don’t need to go to the market and buy vegetables. It’s the only income my wife and I have. I grow everything - carrot, okra, beet, tomato, cucumber, pepper, spinach, garlic, herbs, all kinds of greens, and even flowers like marigolds because the petals make good tea.  Potato, onion and cabbage are important because we live on them during winter. The garden is proof that I can still provide for us, and it gives us the feeling that we do, after all, belong somewhere. Over the years I’ve made friends and I find fellow chess-playerS here. As well as offering me food security, the garden is a place for relaxation and learning.’

Fellow gardener Nikola Korać says money persuaded him here but other things make him stay. ‘I really needed the produce to support my family. The reason I’m still participating is the same but over time I’ve come to understand that I eat food that’s organic and free from chemicals. My grandchildren love to visit and spend an entire day in nature. They’re in contact with the soil and the environment is safe.  We live in the city and so this is very important to us.’ Dobrila Čolaković runs the garden’s kitchen and is known to make Sarajevo’s best cup of coffee.  ‘The garden is a source of joy and happiness. Unfortunately, the CGA is left without funding and I’m afraid it will be a very tough start to the season. I just hope that they find a way to keep the garden open, as many people depend on it.’

Thanks to the recession, AFSC budgets have been slashed and the CGA has been left with no money whatsoever. Recently established as an NGO independent of their American founders, they must find some cash soon if they’re going to survive.  Vesna’s work is now all about fundraising. ‘At the moment we don’t have any support from government, local authorities or international organisations.  It’s difficult to work without any resources and hard explaining to people that things are going to have to change. I’m currently trying to find people internationally who might support the therapeutic work we do. I can’t stop our programme - we have 500 people depending on it. I’ll work voluntarily, I can earn money with translation but for most of them the only income they have is the harvest. They just can’t accept that they won’t have that possibility anymore. I’m still positive but I’ve had a lot of rejections. But I won’t give up, I have no option.’

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