A Place to Play: Volunteering At A Summer Camp for Balkan Children

A Place to Play: Volunteering At A Summer Camp for Balkan Children

By Rebecca Kraus
Reprinted with permission from Abroad View Magazine.

Summer Camp
Summer Camp

As I swayed with little Amila on my shoulders, I could hear her singing Stari, or “The Mostar Song,” about raising the spirit of Bosnia. She was waving our homemade peace flag in victory and joy, her little voice merged with the masses of other kids and volunteers at this last sunset of summer camp.

Everyone was singing, hugging, taking pictures and declaring that love will prevail over hate. My heart was engulfed with emotion; a flood of tears rushed from my chest to my eyes and I smiled at the power of this moment and of the human spirit.

I was a volunteer at a summer camp on Badjia Island in Croatia for kids who have suffered in the war in the Balkans. GCO has held peace-building camps in this region for eight years, and I’ve heard much about them: about Bosnian Muslims sharing rooms with the Orthodox Serbs. Or the Christian Croats befriending the Bosnians.

Since I work with the Global Children’s Organization (GCO), the L.A.-based non-profit that organizes these “Island to Island” summer camps, I had expectations. But my expectations were intellectual; I knew that waging peace instead of war would take patience and understanding.

All I had to compare it to was GCO’s pilot program in Northern Ireland last year, where we brought together Catholics and Protestants; it was truly remarkable. While the kids from “the Troubles” of Northern Ireland are indeed troubled by a chronic condition of hatred and violence, the kids from the war in the Balkans have suffered in their hearts a much more acute, severe blow. They have suffered pain and horrors we can barely imagine.

Idyllic Island

None of this, of course, is apparent when you first see the boats full of kids arriving at this tiny idyllic island in the Adriatic. The kids are so gorgeous and sweet. They are from many different places: Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla, Banja Luka, Dubrovnik and other parts of the Balkans.

They wanted to carry their bags themselves, spend time decorating their nametags, chitchat and play, right away. I was lucky — I got the most precious bunch of girls in my “family group:” 15 of them, mostly nine-year-olds. It took a while for me to memorize their names, from A to Z, literally, but now they slip off my tongue.

There was Aykuna, the tempestuous, melancholy girl who seemed more like a woman than a child; Sanela, the fascinating and tortured gypsy orphan from the Dubrovnik orphanage, whose looks and loneliness made her ostracized at first.

There was Karmela, the precious, funny spirit from war-torn Mostar who said one of the highlights of camp was when I taught her how to “jump with her head,” or dive into the sea. There was Amila, the sweet angel who made me laugh every night at bedtime, and sang along to our “Laku Noc” (goodnight) ritual.

There was Ziyada who appeared to be an old soul full of wisdom, grace and compassion most of the time, but she was just another little girl who could not swim once we hit the beach.

Sharing Joy

The girls bonded, cried, sang, danced, swam, jumped with their heads, giggled and slept together. I took the utmost joy in teaching them some new games, singing with them and tossing them into the water at the count of “yeden, sva, tri!” I learned the different pronunciation of “c” from them and taught them how to say “ice cream.” I found myself obsessed with making these girls happy, sharing in their joy of “skolke,” or shell, hunting around the island.

I gave them cheers of “Bravo” when they served the volleyball over the net, tickled and played paddy cake. I acted as a kid with these kids. It makes me cry to think that simple joys like tag are lost on those whose lives have been shattered by war. Knowing I can help makes me smile. So, I connected in whatever way I could, from doing little routines with their dolls to commiserating with them over the bland meat and potatoes that dominated our meals. At least the view of the old cloisters was pleasant!

Fabulous Amenities

In fact, Badija and its facility were gorgeous, with fabulous amenities for a day camp and glorious nights of stars (wild bats, lizards and deer, too). For two weeks, we lived in a dorm-style hotel converted from a 17th century monastery.

The showers may not have been pristine, and those pink squares of rough toilet paper disappeared all too fast from the stalls. They did, however, offer some insight into the politics of the Balkans: their wrappers had several lines for the different words for “toilet paper,” one for each region of the former Yugoslavia.

Nevertheless, beyond the bathrooms and into Badija’s halls, the community that formed was astounding. The more than 80 volunteers became the closest of friends, and the kids grew to love one another with inspiring depth and innocence.

Drum Orchestra

We were lucky to have the Sarajevo Drum Orchestra, a group of compassionate young men, some of whom had seen incredible horror in concentration camps, teach rhythm and teamwork to the kids.

Drumming made them happy and allowed them to abandon their fear and self-doubt. The Sarajevo Drum Orchestra also blessed our summer by singing the song that became our camp anthem: “The Mostar Song.”

This song describes the famous Mostar bridge that had connected different ethnicities for centuries until it was bombed a few years ago. With lyrics about Bosnia’s spiritual rebuilding, it brings chills to me every time I hear it. No one on Badija will forget how passionately the kids sang this song, with more and more heart as camp neared its end.

Common Language

Actually, music was key, for our common language was not “Inglishki,” or the “local language.” It was music, eye contact, playing, games, affection, smiles and moments of silence. This wordless communication gave way to many instances of emotional honesty, like when Sanela finally got comfortable dancing with the others and pulled off a perfect break-dancing move only to rush to my side with embarrassment.

Or when Miranda curled up next to me on the shore and I wrapped her in my towel so we could sit and hug for half an hour without uttering a sound. When Seydefa cut her leg at the beach, her friend Ziyada and I held her hands as we walked back to the room. As Seydefa cried, we sat with her, stroking her hair just to let her know we cared. I could not help but think of Seydefa’s tears and how many must have been shed in moments of horror and tragedy.

I felt relief that this cry was for a minor cut, a pain all children endure. As we learned about each other by touch, sight and instinct, so many instances of tenderness and reflection surfaced, too many to count, but all containing fragments of poignancy and meaning forever etched in me.

There was, in fact, much contrast at camp — joy and melancholy, naiveté and maturity. I would picture the girls cowering at the sounds of bombs outside their window, wailing when they learned of their fathers’ deaths. They had probably seen their mothers buckle over in exhaustion from a day of running through trenches to get water or in grief when news of more massacres hit their homes.

A Safe Place

Then, here on Badija, I would see them obsessing about what nail color to put on their little fingers or frantically blowing up their water wings to wear at swim time. Sanela would surprise me with a touch on the shoulder, then feign ignorance with a look of “Sta,” or “What, I didn’t do it!”

She would also hustle for coins from the other volunteers and collect the extra jams at the breakfast tables to hoard them in case of some “emergency” up in her room. She did not realize, at first, that this was a safe place, and she would in fact be fed the next day and the next, in great abundance.

The histories of these kids ran deep, yet they affected each child differently. I would take note of the sadness in Asmira’s and Miranda’s eyes one minute, then I would be laughing with Amila the next. Amila was the girl who liked to chew on flavored dental floss and who dressed up in pretty dresses every night at disco. She was vibrant, smiley, kind and demure.

One night when the girls were crying for their mothers, Amila triumphantly announced: “I could stay here three months without my mommy. This is the best place there is!”

Dignity and Healing

That is what made this camp so incredibly powerful: knowing these kids just wanted to be kids, but had seen hell, had been abandoned, had suffered the violent deaths of their fathers or had been terrorized themselves. Those truths surfaced slowly to reveal a raw, pure camp full of love and pain, dignity and healing.

It was profoundly sad to say goodbye as the boats left the island for various towns, orphanages and refugee centers. But knowing that Sanela had gained a positive sense of self at camp, knowing she had become more comfortable with her own emotions and sense of affection and knowing that our love for her and all the kids was pure and real, made this experience the most emotional of my life.

As many GCO volunteers drove into Mostar and Sarajevo, I thought of what it might feel like to not have a father or to live in a home with remnants of hatred.

I was horrified: the shellings had tried to bludgeon the life out of these beautiful cities and their people. What effect might these sickly buildings, grief-stricken faces, cripples and cemeteries have on a human, let alone a child?

Then, I remembered what GCO was all about: sharing love, building peace and giving hope. As the experience drifts away, like the boats full of kids floating away from Badija Island, I feel a sense of importance, depth and compassion that I will always cherish.


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