On Friday afternoon, we were in a refugee camp that nestles in the hills outside of Belgrade. The surroundings are beautiful and many tourists drive past the turning that leads to the former psychiatric hospital without knowing about the refugees who shelter here eleven years after they fled their homes in the wake of the NATO campaign.
Hailing from the same district, many former neighbours now cramp into small “rooms” – actually “cells” for psychiatric patients.
Despite Western government promises that the unintended consequences of the NATO campaign would be mitigated through aid and reconstruction projects, these refugees remain forgotten.
Some of the children don’t remember “home”. Their lives have only been in this building yet they hear many stories of the farms and space their families used to enjoy.
Yet it was wonderful to hear some of the children speak of the highlight of their year: a camp organised especially for them by Darko and Lidija – graduates of the Bible School. A week in the countryside with planned activities, great company and refreshing Bible teaching…
We’ve given out much aid here: each packet carefully into the hands of the families who use it, and signed for by a representative of each family. Despite torrential rain, it has been a bright afternoon of friendship shared…
As with every place we go, we share again the message of God who loves, each person, whatever nation they are from – a God who has gone so far as to send Jesus Christ to die to bring us into relationship with Him…
Thank you for continuing to “travel” and pray with us as you follow this blog… some of these most recent posts have arrived with a bit of a delay due to the challenge of connecting to the internet…
Next we leave Belgrade and head for Nis in Southern Serbia, from where we will travel almost to the border of Macedonia to deliver aid to more refugee camps like this one.
Starcevo is a small town on the edge of Pancevo which itself is a large industrial satelite town of Belgrade. On the edge of Starcevo, in the shadow of an oil refinery are the “barracks” where tens of families live in very poor conditions…
This morning we played football, told stories, painted faces, played with balloons, and made music with these families. It has been a precious time as these friendships stretch back over 13 years.
Even today, people still speak of the bombing of 1999 that brought this area to its knees – thick black clouds billowing up from the oil refinery and chemical factories: spilling pollutants, searing the air and leaving a legacy of broken ecology and ill health that will linger for generations. As well as struggling with their poverty, the families of Starcevo have to cope with these health challenges.
Yet you could not meet a more vibrant, generous and welcoming group of people – the “barracks” have been filled with laughter and great conversation through the morning…
Today, after packing camp in the sunshine, we continued reading through Mark’s Gospel together. This morning in the first chapter we see that Jesus Christ is the culmination of the history and the prophecy of the Old Testament as the Sovereign God works out His purposes throughout history…
Many goodbyes and then a journey that lasted the whole day towards Belgrade…
Now in Belgrade we have received an enormous welcome from HUB – the Bible College here. And tonight we sleep indoors!
Here in Banja Luka, the highlight has been to spend time with Sinisa.
Sinisa has been in this city since 1997 where he has been involved with humanitarian work and church planting.
Tonight Sinisa told all of us his story – the horror of civil war: parents arrested due to their ethnicity, his girlfriend one side of the lines, while he was separated on the other… friends were killed and with death seemingly inevitable he cried out to an unknown God, “If you are there…”
Then, a miraculous change of situation that released him to return to his family. He received humanitarian aid and heard a message of God’s Love shown through Jesus Christ. Questions, seeking… and finally a decision to bow before the One who is the King of Kings – Sinisa trusted his life to Jesus Christ.
After a time of being a part of a local church, Sinisa – now married to Olja – decided they should return to Bosnia to tell others about Jesus Christ who is the Prince of Peace. They studied at the Bible School and then left for Banja Luka.
We pray on for this key family.
In the morning we leave for Serbia.
Tonight Serbia play in the Worldcup and the Oak Hall group have discovered some culturally appropriate attire for the occasion…
The highlight of this more relaxed day is going to be meeting with Sinisa, Olja and the local church here in Banja Luka this afternoon.
This morning we emerged from our tents to watch rain clouds billow away over the surrounding Bosnian hills and the sun begin to break through.
After 36 hours of journeying, this will be a day of getting to know more about the Bosnian Serb capital and culture…
We have travelled through five countries today to finally reach the Bosnian Serb capital – Banja Luka. This is a vibrant city full of tree-lined boulevards and buzzing cafes.
We were warmly received on the border by officials who were delighted that such a large and enthusiastic delegation were coming to Banja Luka. They were fascinated by everyone’s insistence that they also receive a stamp in their passport – something locals try to avoid to save using up precious space in their documents. “My arm is killing me” exclaimed the border guard as he returned to the office where I was speaking with his colleague. “I can’t believe that all 76 of them made me stamp their papers.”
The journey from Otford to Bosnia took 36 hours including stops and our arrival has been met with warm hospitality and torrential rain.
Our camp is now set and the tents bravely hold off the water. Even this great soaking is not dampening the spirits of a n incredible group who are ready for anything.
After a hot meal and a song we read from Psalm 29:11 “The Lord gives strength to His people. The Lord blesses His people with peace.” May this be your experience too, wherever you read this.
As I close, the city is plunged into darkness as another of the frequent powercuts hit. Thank you for “travelling” with us as you follow this blog.
This afternoon, after traversing Austria and Slovenia, we crossed the border into Croatia. We drove directly to the capital Zagreb where we are now exploring ancient alleyways and open squares. It’s a bank holiday in the city today giving it an air of relaxed festivity.
The central monument in the city’s central square is to Ban Josip Jelcic – the leader of the country’s uprising against the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Here we all are in front of the monument.
It’s been a great day of getting to know each other as we have travelled across Europe. A coach filled with conversation, laughter and music punctuated by the famous Oak Hall hot chocolates…
Here are three of those on the coach:
This is Jillian who today begins her tenth journey with us to Serbia:
“For me, my trips to the Balkans with Oak Hall have truly transformed my life and drawn me closer to God. It’s difficult not to return bringing others so they too can have this experience!”
At the bottom of the coach stairs, Paul & Sara practice introducing each other in Serbian,
“Zdravo, ovo je moja supruga, Sara” – “Hello, this is my wife Sara”
“Ja sam iz juzne Amerike iz Peru-a” – “I am from South America, from Peru.”
Their accents sound excellent!
Paul: “This is something different. Not just ‘a holiday’. We pray that we will be a blessing to those we meet here. We want to return to let others know about the things we will see.”
The lights are off in the coach now. It’s surprising how well you can sleep on one of these massive Oak Hall machines!
Good night from us all!
This morning, with team coming from all over the UK, and Eire and as far afield as New Zealand and South Korea, the Oak Hall coach is on her way towards the Balkans.
79 of us are aboard our 18m long “home” for the next ten days.
Already there is a wonderful atmosphere as we pray for a time of God working in our own lives, His using us, an insight into the situation of the Church in this region and a time of God preparing us to serve Him more effectively when we return to our homes.
We are all very pleased that you, as you follow this blog, are a part of this journey too.