An unexpected meeting with Angelina Jolie brings joy a year later

News Stories, 15 November 2011

© UNHCR
Lena stands outside her new home, holding the photo of her and Mara with Angelina Jolie.

ROGATICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina, November 15 (UNHCR) In April last year, Lena Babic had her photograph taken with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie in the dilapidated building where she had lived in exile for years.

Thanks to the generosity of donors who saw this moving image in the world's press, the 78-year-old and her sister Mara, aged 73, were able to move into a modern apartment in a new housing block earlier this month.

"It feels like a dream," said the petite Lena, smiling and clutching the precious photographic souvenir of the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador's visit outside the building, which was constructed with funds from the United States.

"We were surprised to have any visitors that Easter. For years, we've spent all holidays alone like it was just another day," she recalled. "Who would have known that day that moment would change the rest of our lives?"

This was a welcome change from the upheaval that Lena, Mara and tens of thousands of other innocent civilians had suffered during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Two sisters fled from their village in Gorazde municipality in 1992 and made their way to Serbia. They came to Rogatica in 1996 and eventually ended up living in the collective centre. Most of the inhabitants of the old building a former school-turned-library were elderly and unable to return to their pre-war homes.

Eleven other people moved into the new apartment block at the same time as Lena and Mara. Their furnished apartments have all the things that were missing in their old home warmth, regular electricity and running water as well as ovens, fridges and washing machines.

The new residents were clearly delighted, and grateful to Jolie for putting a spotlight on their plight when she visited last year with her partner, actor Brad Pitt. They have tenure for life, but the municipality owns the building.

The US State Department donated US$500,000 to construct the new home and allow for the closure of the collective centre, one of around 150 still being used to house the displaced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the government seeks solutions for some 113,000 uprooted Bosnians and 7,000 refugees from Croatia. Some 8,600 of the Bosnians remain in collective centres.

Last year, the Bosnian authorities launched a strategy to end the country's displacement chapter. The opening of the new building will help achieve that goal.

"We must stay focused on the urgent needs of this vulnerable group and work together to find pragmatic solutions, like this one, to give people a future that is long overdue," said Andrew Mayne, UNHCR's acting representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

US Ambassador Patrick Moon led the opening ceremony on a chilly late Autumn day along with representatives of other organizations that supported the venture, including Rogatica Municipality, the Republika Srpska Ministry for Refugees and Displaced Persons, and Hilfswerk Austria.

After receiving the keys to her new home, Lena concluded, "It's like a fairy tale."

By Mina Jasarevic and Scott Pohl in Rogatica, Bosnia and Herzegovina