War and Poverty: Looking Back at the Balkans’ History


MUSKEGO, Wisconsin —The cyclical process of war and poverty and whether poverty creates war more than war creates poverty is open for debate, where the devastation of either is not. War creates poverty by destroying buildings worth billions of dollars as well as homes, businesses and schools. People lose work and flee their countries looking for safety and leave with nothing. It can take countries more than 14 years to recover from the devastating effects of war. Roughly 1.5 billion people around the world experience cycles of war and poverty. The ratio of impact on countries who have seen war or major conflict is that for every three years of conflict occurring, the country is set back more than 2.7% on improving poverty. Countries that have seen conflict in the past 40 years had poverty rates more than 21% higher than non-violent countries.

A History of Conflict and Violence

After World War II the country then known as Yugoslavia was extraordinarily diverse in nationality and religious background. Serbians, Muslims and Croatians resided in the once German-occupied country in peace under the dictator President Tito until his death in 1980. It was not until 1991 that the tensions between the groups led to war as each group attempted to break away from the once united country.

Religious and political tensions led to war and poverty in the Balkans during the 1990s. The Balkans region has had a history of war dating back to World War I. It was at that time that Yugoslavia separated from the Hungarian empire. In 1991, war broke out between Serbian and Croatian forces in the Balkans region attempting to divide Yugoslavia. In 1992, Serbian armies attacked Muslim communities in Bosnia. The conflict killed 200,000 people and displaced nearly one million people.

The Story of Zoran Saric

The Borgen Project spoke with Zoran Saric, a Serbian refugee whose family was residing in Croatia at the time the conflicts began in the Balkans in 1991. Saric and his family fled Croatia to reside in Bosnia when he was 10 years old. Saric recalls staying in multiple refugee camps after leaving his home. As violence spread into Bosnia, Saric’s family had to leave again to Serbia. At the refugee camps, Saric would share one room with his mother, father and older brother. He recalls aid sent from UNICEF —  bags of food and clothes for the refugees. Each person at the camp would get a token for meals. The token is turned in for the meal and is returned when the plate is returned. People without tokens cannot access a meal. The food portions were small and Saric recalls that sometimes there was insufficient food for the number of people.

As refugees, Saric’s parents found it difficult to find work. He recalls at times, farmers would show up at the camps and recruit residents there for work in the fields. He remembers that his parents would go to pick cherries, corn or other crops from morning until night. Their pay was the equivalent of $10 per day. This work was infrequent and they did not make enough money to sustain themselves and were dependent on aid at the refugee camps. Saric also would partake in any work he could. When he was 13, he remembers unloading semi-trucks full of bags of concrete for a small amount of money.

Hope on the Horizon

When traveling to Belgrade, Serbia, Saric’s older brother received word of a refugee program helping refugees in Serbia migrate to the United States. The program offered relocation to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The chances of acceptance to the program were higher if the family knew somebody already located in the U.S. Saric’s family was acquainted with another refugee who left for the Milwaukee area, however, they lost contact with him. Despite seemingly small odds of acceptance, Saric’s brother applied to the program and the family was chosen to relocate to the United States.

When the Borgen Project asked Saric if there was anything he would like to add to help others understand the relationship between war and poverty and the devastating effects on innocent people, he replied that he would not wish it on anyone. “You lose everything and sometimes you lose hope,” Saric states. “You lose your property, you lose your childhood, you wonder when you can go home or if you even have a home to go home to.”

The Link Between War and Poverty

Roughly 70 million people face similar hardships, resulting in worldwide displacements. More than 25 million people worldwide are refugees and more than 3.5 million others seek asylum due to conditions such as violence.

Countries involved in wars suffer great economic hardships leaving people in poverty for years thereafter. As a result of war and conflict, inflation occurs and jobs become scarce. Healthcare becomes inadequate and taxes increase as national debts increase due to the costs of war. Civil war can be especially damaging to countries. The traumatic impacts of war on the citizens make a difficult economic situation even more devastating when people are left to try to piece their lives back together after experiencing violence, deaths and displacement.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is an organization that assists refugees like Saric in the Balkans region. In 2019 alone, the IRC helped more than 7,000 refugees find new homes in the United States. At the end of 2019, almost 80 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced from their homes. Fortunately, a significant portion of U.S. citizens believes that taking in refugees is the right thing to do. Organizations such as the IRC hope that under the Biden administration improved refugee resettlement programs and policies will better the lives of these vulnerable groups.

Carolyn Lancour
Photo: Flickr


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