One month prior to the peace settlement in 1999, 18 men and 1 woman were killed in Zahac, Kosovo. To this day, their bodies have not been found.
When San Felipe arrived in Zahac shortly after the peace settlement, they were met with a community immobilized by grief and anger. Without any bodies to put to rest, the mothers, fathers, wives, and children who had lost loved ones in the massacre lacked any sense of closure. “If only we had a grave,” said one woman tearfully.
Her comment sparked a solution in the mind of San Felipe’s Robert Del Conte – a way to turn something evil into something good. He promptly organized a community meeting to discuss his idea with the townspeople. His proposal to construct a monument to honor the dead was greeted with enthusiasm by all.
The construction process rallied everyone together for a common cause. An architect volunteered his services to design the monument. The mayor donated land at the site of the massacre on which the monument would be erected. Old women brought food for everyone working at the construction site. It was truly a group effort that brought the whole community together with a sense of purpose and empowerment.
The dedication ceremony for the monument – the first monument constructed in Kosovo to honor victims of the war – was attended by nearly 3,000 people from the surrounding region. Through the many tears in the crowd, it became clear the memorial service to honor Zahac’s young victims was, in fact, a cathartic memorial to all the victims of Kosovo’s tragic war.
The peace settlement brought the war to an end, and the monument in Zahac brought peace to all the people whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice in exchange for freedom.
This example is emblematic of San Felipe’s approach. Working side-by-side with people who need our assistance, we find innovative ways to help them overcome whatever obstacles stand in their way. The construction of the memorial in Zahac proved to be a monumental first step on the long road to recovery.
When millions of people poured into refugee camps, San Felipe Humanitarian Alliance was there to coordinate local and international relief organizations.
We began working primarily with the Zagreb-based Suncokret program, a grass-roots organization which was the only independent local program providing support throughout the region.
Among our first tasks was assisting them in the recruitment and training of local and international volunteers to work in refugee camps in Croatia and Bosnia.
To help organize volunteer efforts efficiently, San Felipe helped Suncokret develop a comprehensive training and policy manual. (Today, the manual is used as a model for community-initiated relief efforts worldwide.)
At the camps, San Felipe focused its work on addressing the immediate needs of the most vulnerable victims – the youngest and the oldest. Once the basic needs had been met, we quickly realized that helping families overcome the feelings of helplessness, magnified by the dependent environment of refugee camps, was vital to their well-being. To offset the emotional hardships of the camp environment, refugees were encouraged to plan ways to improve camp conditions, participate as a family in camp activities, develop plans from an eventual return to their homes, or realistically assess their future options when a return to their homeland wasn’t possible.
Among San Felipe’s proudest accomplishments was the establishment of a summer recreational program in Toposka, Croatia, which integrated Christian refugee children with local Moslem children. An abandoned Serbian military post, which San Felipe renovated with the help of local and international volunteers, served as the site for the program. While re-establishing a sense of childhood among children in the war-torn region, the program ultimately promoted cultural tolerance among youth of different religious and ethnic backgrounds who participated in the program.
Following the peace settlement, San Felipe Humanitarian Alliance was among the first organizations to begin operating inside Kosovo.
While other larger organizations were still doing research or finding quarters for staff, we immediately went to work helping refugees return to their homes safely and begin the long process of rebuilding their homes and their communities.
In response to the mass destruction of entire towns throughout Kosovo, San Felipe Humanitarian Alliance opened eight residential centers which housed nearly 3,000 returning refugees. The process of construction and rebuilding structures to provide temporary housing will continue until permanent homes are rebuilt and families are resettled into their communities.
While working alongside members of various communities, we discovered that the restoration of people’s lives was being held back by the lack of closure felt by families who had lost loved ones in the genocidal intent of the Serbian invasion.
Without any preconceived notions of what people needed, we talked and listed to the Kosovars to help them overcome the traumas that devastated their lives.