Columbia woman hopes to ease the pain of war 26-year-old returns to Croatia today

August 23, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Columbia resident Paula Joan Storch worries about returning to the Croatian war zone today. But not for obvious reasons.

"Should I be going abroad when there is so much to be done here? So many people don't see what is going on around them and what they can do to help. There is so much we don't know about the rest of the world," she said.

Until she went to work for a financial consulting firm in New York, she was one of those people, Ms. Storch believes.

"I became disillusioned," she said, "seeing the amount of homelessness and poverty in the streets. I promised myself I would do some volunteer work."

She saved her money, quit her New York job and took a trip around the world -- not as a tourist, but to offer help wherever she felt needed.

Croatia seemed to need her most.

Ms. Storch, 26, worked as a volunteer in a refugee camp there for 2 1/2 months last winter, before returning home to Columbia to visit her parents. Today, she returns to Croatia for a stay of at least seven months and perhaps as long as two years.

She will be stationed in Metkovic, a town about 50 miles from the battle zone but in "an area of Croatia that should be quite safe," she said. "There has been only one incident of fighting" in Metkovic since the fighting began in Bosnia.

Nonetheless, "atrocities have occurred and are occurring," Ms. Storch said.

She told of a man of one ethnic group who demanded sex from a woman of another group as she lay in bed with her twins at a refugee camp.

When the woman refused, the man slit the throat of one of the twins. The woman had sex with the man to save her other child.

In another camp, a woman killed her brother-in-law because he was of a different race.

"For some people, it doesn't matter whether they're related or not; what matters is their ethnic background," Ms. Storch said.

"Refugees expect to return to their homes, but there is no chance," she said. "They are going to need lots of help in the future, both psychologically and materially. But when the war stops, communities sending aid stop thinking about the problems. If the war does end, there will be an even greater need because food and supplies can reach pockets that are isolated now."

Before going to Croatia last November, Ms. Storch had spent three months in Eastern Europe as a volunteer dealing with women's rights issues and two months in Prague, where she taught financial English.

"It was a most difficult task conveying to women that they had equal rights with men," Ms. Storch said. "Rape and physical abuse are very prevalent in Eastern Europe, where women have no outlet to help them and no rights if they are married. What we did was mostly educational -- setting up a library and letting women know [rape and physical abuse are] not normal."

While Ms. Storch was in Prague, a Bosnian friend told her of a newly formed grass-roots organization called Suncokret that had started a refugee camp for children.

The organization chose the name Suncokret, which means sunflower, because during the bombing, sunflowers began growing from sandbags. It was taken as a sign that the country could grow and prosper.

Ms. Storch became a volunteer the next week.

"I was definitely afraid, and I told him I don't think I want to go to a Croatian war zone," she said, "I didn't want to hear shelling every day. He told me there were refugee camps in safe areas and that I would not have to go to a camp within 15 miles of the front."

Ms. Storch went to Pula, where she served in a camp called Dugauvala, which means long bay. Before the fighting, it had been a resort.

She lived in a Boy Scout camp under the same conditions as refugees, four to 17 people in a room. She lived with 13 other men and women, ages 18 to 65.

"They always tried to have one Croatian among the volunteers," she said. "The rest were from all over Europe."

Working with the children was no problem, Ms. Storch said, because they were very good at pantomime or drawing pictures. If it got too difficult, someone would translate, she said.

Adults were more timid, she said, but after awhile, she would be invited to share coffee with them. By the end of her stay, she was spending more time with the women than the children. "There were no psychologists or social workers to help them," she said.

When Ms. Storch takes up residence in Metkovic, she will be working as an accountant, monitoring a $2 million grant Church World Services has received from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"I'll be doing anything and everything," Ms. Storch said. "We're a very small office. There is only one other American there, and we'll be helping out in any effort that's needed."

The grant runs through March 31, so she will be staying in Croatia at least that long, Ms. Storch said, and perhaps longer. Church World Services will apply for another grant if all goes well, she said.

"I'd like to stay as long as it's safe and my efforts are being utilized. . . . The longer you're there, the more helpful you are."

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