By the spring of 1992, the conflicts that had fractured Yugoslavia created what became Europe's largest population of refugees since World War II. Over four million people were uprooted by the conflict, nearly three-quarters of whom were from Bosnia. A large number of these refugees sought safety along the Croatian coast. However, the war followed them. From the mountain range only a couple miles inland, artillery targeted coastal towns. Refugees were crowded into collective centers and other shelters with little prospect of relief from the shooting and the shelling. Under these conditions tensions within the multi-ethnic refugee population became a serious concern—as each group blamed the other for their situation.
I sent Jim Nuttall to Croatia to establish a presence for Save the Children. His task was to determine how we could best assist the many families affected by the war. At the time, there was little public awareness of the conflict's brutality and the need to support relief assistance. With little available in Save's own budget for mounting a major relief operation, it was important not only to determine critical needs but also to find essential donor support.
From a base in Split, Jim developed relationships with NGOs, UN organizations and local government. By meeting with refugees, a dual problem was observed: tensions and wartime trauma among adult refugees living in crowded conditions and the psychological impact that these conditions created for the children. Through individual discussions and community meetings, an idea for addressing both sets of issues began to develop—creating playgroups and community kindergartens. Addressing the well-being of their children appeared to be one of the few issues that each mother—Croat, Bosniac or Serb—felt transcended their differences and mutual distrust.
With initial support from the UN, Jim and his staff began working with the refugees to find and prepare spaces for playgroups. A prime consideration was that children should not have to cross open areas that might be subject to gunfire. As refugees already occupyed the available rooms in each collective center, ways needed to be found to open up space within each center for safe playrooms. Areas previously overlooked such as storage spaces were cleaned out and rehabilitated. With community effort, spaces that had been filled with junk were soon transformed into bright and cheerful nurseries. Volunteers were trained in child care and early childhood education. And in a relatively short time, a new programming idea for emergency education began to take shape.
One of the Community Preschools
Developed by Save the Children
The emergency education model that we pioneered in the Former Yugoslavia, not only offered young children three hours of supportive, supervised group activities daily but also provided their caregivers with the same amount of time each day to deal with life's necessities without having to be worried about their children's well-being. The daily routine created by the playgroups and preschools brought a degree of normalcy to the lives of refugees. The need for finding ways to maintain these children's groups brought refugees, previously at odds with one another, together—something that none would have believed possible before the project got underway.
Over the years, this project garnered growing support from both donors and from local government. Through our work, we demonstrated how centers of stability within refugee communities could be created by focusing on meeting basic needs for children. In time, the emergency preschool model would come to be implemented not only in Croatia but throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. Before the end of 1996, nearly 500 sites had been created and more than 18,000 children had participated in the program.
While many of the original playgroups eventually dissolved as refugees returned home following the Dayton Accords, within Bosnia-Herzegovina community support for these groups ensured that a large number continued to operate after the war. Over the years, by involving the Ministry of Education in this approach, appreciation within the government grew concerning the value of supporting low-cost community preschools and playgroups, particularly in rural areas.
Jim and his team did pioneering work on what was initially considered an emergency solution for providing education under conflict conditions. Much of the work they did, however, has evolved into what today is considered more mainstream development activities in child protection by creating safe play areas. My involvement in supporting and encouraging the staff behind this program was very rewarding.