the port

Names of the testimonials: Wilbert Helsloot

Sending Organization: VIA Netherlands

Years of the workcamps: 1993

Places of the workcamps: Zagreb, Croatia

Host organizations: Refugee centre

What was your motivation to join a workcamp?

In October 1992, I noticed a small advertisement in a Dutch national newspaper. VIA Netherlands, the Dutch branch of SCI, was looking for volunteers who could be deployed in refugee camps in Croatia. Work would be mainly organising activities for refugee children. I did not know VIA at that time – I was 24 years old – but a feeling strong inside me told me that I had to react.

Since July 1991 a war in Europe (former Yugoslavia) had been going on and I had been following the news. As many stated, it was the first war in Europe since World War II, neglecting the fact that a violent conflict had been going on in Northern Ireland. But admittedly, the war between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians was on a larger scale and dominated the news. A war was just nearby, and what could I do?

The one sentence advertisement meant a break-through. I felt it was the right time to act. Of course I felt a bit of two minds: could I handle myself in the situation as this would be my first time to be in a warzone?

What did you take from that experience?

Apart from violence of police during demonstrations, I was not familiar with violent conflicts, let alone wars. My intention to go to Croatia was being questioned many times by my family and by myself as well. Yet, I decided to go to an information night of VIA. I was nervous when I entered the VIA office. I was warmly welcomed though and besides practical information and introduction about the war and VIA, ex-volunteers told their stories. I remember well, that one volunteer said that she had a great time being a volunteer and I wondered how in heaven’s sake one can have a great time in a war-area!

After the information night however, I felt confident enough to apply and a personal interview followed. I was selected at the end and on the 2nd of January 1993 I took the bus to Zagreb, together with another Dutch volunteer. Four weeks later I returned home, hitch-hiking. The whole experience was a turning point in my life.

The period after having returned home was actually the most difficult one. My first reconnection with the Netherlands was a discussion on the radio, when I got a lift from a Dutch truck driver, about the demand of employees for increasing their wage in the industrial sector. As such, a usual debate, but I immediately thought: What are you talking about? But most weird and also depressing was actually walking in a crowded and luxury shopping street in Amsterdam. It was clear I was having difficulty to find a proper direction home.

I decided to go back to VIA and get in touch with activists there. It also helped to meet other ex-volunteers, who could understand my story with the same mind and emotions. Because I had to tell my story, I also told my story to family and friends, but I missed the real connection with what I had gone through. So I decided to help prepare and select future Balkan volunteers for VIA. We sent volunteers to refugee camps in Croatia through Suncokret (meaning sunflower) and to Pakrac, a rehabilitation and reconciliation project in a village divided between Croats and Serbs. I looked to the war now with even more interest, as it took place somehow in my own backyard. The news now had an enormous human dimension. I had refugee friends there. I got surprised how ‘cold’ the news actually was, in terms of war (shooting, bombing) activities and not much detail of human interest stories, let alone anti-war initiatives.

What do you still carry with you?

It was clearly useful work in a conflict and later post-conflict area. I personally learned a lot about war, conflicts, refugees, former Yugoslavia as region, about volunteering, group work and management, about pioneering for a more peaceful society. Now, writing this in 2015, SCI has developed strongly in the region, with regular branches in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo and groups in Macedonia and Albania. Due to marriage I moved to Indonesia in 2008. I am still active in SCI, but the region where I was active for such a long time retains a special place in my heart.

Children playing

 Children in a refugee camp in Croatia (1994), Photo: Suncokret