Families from Ukraine arrive in Varaždin, North Croatia, on a bus organized by Dobra volja, a local NGO. Credit: Dobra volja

Nearly 30 years after the Balkan wars, Ukraine is experiencing similar horrors. Many communities across Southeastern Europe are reacting empathetically, after collectively recalling their own traumatic experiences with war. People have driven their cars  to the Ukrainian borders to pick up refugees, opening their homes up to host them; others are collecting medical equipment and sending it to those still in Ukraine. Some are even acting as liaisons, connecting people in need to service providers who can help them. 

They are all demonstrating the collective power of solidarity—showcasing our ability to shield and protect one another, especially in dark times. 

I worked in the field of crisis management and when I retired it seems it is just one crisis after another”, says Radovan Žepec from Dobro dobrim, (an NGO from Croatia) explaining his involvement in managing help for Ukraine. As soon as they heard news of the war breaking out, Dobro dobrim went to the Ukrainian embassy and offered help. 

When a strong earthquake hit the poor rural region of Banija in Croatia last year, Dobro dobrim  was created as  a small community response initiative. Since the state was slow to help the region (mostly inhabited by an older population) activists sprang into action to fill in the gap where governmental support was lacking.

Activists from Dobro dobrim NGO hold an event collecting necessities and organizing their transport to Ukraine. Credit: Dobro dobrim

To date, Dobro dobrim has built 13 houses and 7 stables for animals, evolving into a fully-functional NGO. While continuing their work in Banija, they are also organizing the collection of basic necessities across Croatia and shipping them to the Ukrainian borders for people in need. Schools, faculties, local authorities and other NGOs regularly contact them and collect medicines, sanitary material, warm clothes and more within their area.

“It has been 22 days and almost no day has passed that we didn’t send some vehicle to [either] the Polish, Hungarian or Romanian borders with [aid for] Ukraine. Many things are going to be needed. We are talking about millions of people and this is by far the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the 2nd World War”, says Žepec.

Vehicles with equipment and necessities are also crossing the Ukrainian border headed in the direction of Odessa or Lviv. They are often driven by people experienced in crisis situations—most are survivors of the 1990s war in Croatia.  

The parallels between the two conflicts have caused some regional survivors (who were children at the time) to revisit their own pain and lived experiences. 

People here know how it is when you have to leave your home and become a refugee. Ukrainians are often surprised how much understanding there is here for them, but people went through this themselves.—Radovan Žepec, of Croatian-based NGO Dobro dobrim

While Dobro dobrim sends humanitarian help on the borders, NGO Dobra volja organizes transport for people from Ukrainian borders to Croatia.

An inside view of one of the buses used to transport refugees from Ukraine. Trips are organized by the NGO Dobra volja and paid for by voluntary contributions from the people of Croatia. Credit: Dobra volja

Marijana Matešić, president of the NGO from the Croatian capital of Zagreb, has driven to the Ukrainian border by herself, bringing  people to safety. 

“We cried together while travelling back to Croatia. They need comfort, they need hugs. Who can stay untouched when they see women carrying only plastic bags or children hugging their one toy in search of some security?” asked Matešić. She hosted one family, (a grandmother, her daughter and grandson) in her house after they were picked up by one volunteer who had driven over  2000 kilometres and even entered Ukrainian territory to help them.

Marijana Matešić, herself a mother of 4, cradles a sleeping Ukranian child while travelling back to Croatia. Credit: Dobra volja

Now Dobra volja organizes buses that go to the border and bring bigger groups of women and children to safety. As she was interviewed for this story, Matešić continued organizing transport for another 20 people who were waiting at the border. 

“Finances are a problem, but every saved life is precious”, she says.

While Croatian authorities organized temporary shelters, the citizens are self organizing as well. In the Facebook group SOS Ukrajina, hundreds of people offered their homes or apartments to refugees. 

“We started the group because we wanted to help friends and family living in Ukraine. But the group exploded”, says Nika Bijelić from Zagreb. Bijelić started the group with Nina Mia Čikeš, Kristina Jelčić and Ganna Kamendrovska—who is Ukrainian by origin.

The group now has nearly  30,000 members, with every possible kind of help being either searched for or offered up on the lively forum. Posts range from housing requests, to job searches. You can even find organizers volunteering to send  dog food to Ukraine.

“The situation is changing all the time so this creates problems, but we are very well organized. When people [do] manage to come here they don’t know anything. For example, [they don’t know] that they have to register with the police, where the police station is, how to enroll children to school, etc. We do everything to connect them with people who can help them”, says Bijelić.  Though he says he didn’t originally plan to get so involved in the situation, Bijelić (like many others), felt a personal connection with what Ukrainians are currently going through.

“30 years ago my mother gave birth to me in the shelter of a hospital in Šibenik during the war in Croatia. This is now happening 500 kilometers away as the crow flies from us. I would like to ask all people to engage in any way they can. Every help is welcomed”, Bijelić concluded.

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Marina Kelava


Marina Kelava

Marina Kelava is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Zagreb, Croatia. She is focused on environmental topics, climate change, development, common goods, nature, migrations, and more.