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Abandoned Elderly Pushed to the Fringes of Society

December 18, 1995

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Vicka Buntic is a senile, 82-year-old woman who lives like an animal in a lightless basement as dirty and dank as the dreariest of dungeons. She lives for the charity and chat of a young woman who is paid to bring cabbage and bread to keep her alive.

Buntic is living on the margins of Sarajevan society, an ashen bit of human flotsam on the debris of war. She is an elderly orphan, a fragile creature with no family.

There are thousands like her in this encircled town poking its head from the heap of a four-year siege by Serb fighters so intent on capturing the town that they wrecked it. They are old people who never married, lost their loved ones in the war or simply were abandoned by their children.

They live in nooks and back rooms and partitioned pieces of apartments so small and suffocating that they may as well be transitional coffins.

As a peace plan settles on Bosnia, the young and the strong are scrambling for stakes in a hobbled but hardened new society, one with a re-engineered ethnicity and fierce sense of survival. People now haggle over prices and forage reconstruction projects for firewood.

But the orphaned elderly float on the fringes, victims of the old days and the old ways and dependent on the kindness of strangers hired by humanitarian groups.

``Who are you? Who are you?″ Buntic screams from her bed in the darkness at the two young women who take turns visiting her every day. Then she stumbles to her feet and closes the door so they won’t leave.

``This one needs a lot of attention,″ says Alma Delic, a worker for the relief group CARE Canada. ``Before the war, she used to let students live in her apartment for free. But now the students have abandoned her.″

``I don’t have the strength for these cases,″ she mutters to a colleague as she leaves the suffocating basement.

CARE Canada is one of the relief groups that have tried to carve out their own niches in Sarajevo, and they have chosen old folks without family.

It has been caring for 2,000 of them largely confined to their homes, most of them prisoners of their minuscule flats, and is securing donations for another 3,000.

Six of those getting help from CARE Canada have committed suicide this year, most flinging themselves through the windows of high rises.

``This is a depressing period because many expected their relatives to contact them during the peace, but they didn’t,″ said Vukica Kurspahic, program manager for CARE Canada. ``A lot of programs are geared toward children. It’s hard to find someone to care for the elderly.″

Kurspahic said her group has opened an office in the Serb side of Sarajevo. Nationalist leaders there are threatening to pull their people out rather than let them live under the Muslim-Croat federation that the NATO peace accord says will control the whole city.

``Some people criticize us because we care for Serb parents who have children on the other side,″ said Delic, the CARE Canada worker.

Delic said she thought she could maintain a certain distance from her charges when she started her job earlier this year, but now finds herself crying at home after work.

``Sometimes they just want to talk, or show you an old photo album and pour you a cup of tea,″ she said.

Katica Golja, 82, lives in a tiny room shaped like a shoebox that looks like it was once a small hallway of the apartment house. It is a squalid place reeking of enclosed humanity and packed with debris and Roman Catholic icons.

During one period of the war, Golja said she didn’t set foot outside for two years.

``I prayed for peace every day,″ says the tiny women with huge eyes, clutching a rosary. ``The Red Cross gave me food. One man gave me bread every day.″

A piece of shrapnel took 60 percent of the vision in 74-year-old Katica Juric’s left eye when she ventured out of her small flat for food in 1993. She has two nieces in the town of Mostar. Sometimes, she said, they write letters delivered by the Red Cross.

She has relatives in Croatia but hasn’t heard from them. ``The whole street takes care of me,″ she said.

What is she expecting from the peace agreement? ``A walk in front of my door with my friends in the summer,″ she said.

Aleksa Ribakov lives in an immaculate apartment with a realistic model of a spider the size of an Alaskan crab crawling up one wall. Ribakov is an ethnic Russian who was a bugler in the Yugoslav National Army and has lived in Sarajevo since 1925.

Energetic and whimsical at 88, he looks 20 years younger. He has a granddaughter in town, but says she is busy with her own two children.

``They help me when they can,″ he said.

Ribakov said he jogs in his apartment to keep in shape.

``Nobody offered to bring me food from the Red Cross,″ he said. ``It was hard for me to get it. I fell once on the ice and broke my hand. I’m not so strong like before.″

One of the CARE workers, Jasminka Veldan, says she faces painful uncertainty on her rounds.

``Very often I think I will knock on the door and there will be no answer.″

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