Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - Priceless trash

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1994

Thirteen-year-old Sarajevo resident Filip Andronik has a collection that records the life-saving aid delivered to the city by UNHCR.

By Ursula Meissner

Like many 13-year-old boys, Filip Andronik enjoys collecting things. But Filip's collection does not contain the usual postage stamps, coins or coloured rocks. Filip prefers to collect humanitarian trash.

Since the beginning of the war in Sarajevo in the spring of 1992, Filip has saved hundreds of empty boxes, jars, cartons, bags, sacks, tubes, bottles and wrappers received by his family as humanitarian aid from UNHCR, various non-governmental organizations and even a few relatives abroad.

Filip lives with his mother and brother on the third floor of a shell-scarred apartment block in the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja, the scene of very heavy fighting for much of the war. Plastic sheeting bearing the imprint of UNHCR covers the bomb-damaged windows of his family's flat.

When the first UNHCR convoy rolled into Sarajevo in the early days of the war, Filip, then 11, decided to start his collection. Today, it provides a colourful record of the tens of thousands of tons of aid items ranging from woolen socks to wheat flour provided by the international community through UNHCR and its partners.

Filip has high hopes for his unique collection.

"I'm going to get into the Guinness Book of Records by collecting packaging left over from humanitarian aid," Filip said. "And I'll show people how much we've received and what we had to live on."

Filip, who with his friends also collects spent bullets and shell fragments, worked hard to build and maintain his prized collection. He would often sneak out of the apartment while his mother was away to get water from a community well to clean the plastic, metal and paper wrappers.

He stores his collection in UNHCR cartons and flour bags. Each large cardboard carton is stamped with big red hearts. Filip makes the heart design out of raw potatoes. Anyone who knows how much potatoes cost in Sarajevo will at once understand how sincerely he believes in what he has written on the cartons next to the hearts: "I love humanitarian aid."

The collection is tangible proof for Filip and his family that they have not been forgotten by the world. And it gave Filip something to do during many long days and nights filled with the terrifying sound of shelling and gunfire. Filip's school has been destroyed. Now and then a teacher gives lessons in a private house, but most of the past two years have been spent at home.

Filip often spreads out his beloved collection on the floor of the small room which he shares with his older brother. At last count he had collected 51 cans and 484 bags and boxes. He also has some toothpaste tubes. He only collects wrappers from aid received by his family.

Filip said that during the first three months of the war, everybody spent all their time in the cellar. Beans, home-baked bread and noodles were all they had to eat. Then, once the aid began rolling in, they got cheese, tuna fish, corned beef and sometimes even chocolate.

For much of the war, no one knew when another convoy with humanitarian aid would arrive in their neighbourhood, or when a package for them had come in. They had to keep going to the distribution centre to find out even when there was shooting. Neighbours would pass along any information they could gather.

Since the recent cease-fire, it has been different. Families are told by telephone when they can come to the distribution centre to collect their next aid package.

Most of the aid was brought in by the humanitarian airlift coordinated by UNHCR and the U.N. Protection Force, and by UNHCR convoys.

Filip doesn't know of anyone else in Sarajevo who has a similar collection. But he knows that humanitarian aid has become a focus in the lives of nearly all of Sarajevo's 380,000 residents. Without such help they couldn't have survived, Filip said.

And how long will Filip continue collecting? "Until the war's over," he replies. And when will that be? "When there is no more need for humanitarian aid."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (1994)