by John Ost

Life on a Refugee Train

They call it "Wagonowski" or the wagon camp--a refugee settlement near where the town of Caplijina used to be. The town is no more, reduced to rubble about two years ago. Instead, people live in an old railway yard, specifically inside about seventy train cars latched together in long, parallel lines. Most of the 200 or so people in the camp have been there for at least two years. One family lives in each car--usually four or five people--without hot water, showers, stoves or flush toilets. Yet now that they can begin to think about returning to their old lives, many aren't sure they want to leave the makeshift village of rail cars.

"It's a tough life, but in the camp, they're secure. They have refugee status," says Carol Georgeson, one of the camp's relief workers. "Once they leave, they're on their own. They may not have a home any more and there are no jobs to return to."

Holding bowls and buckets, the camp's residents, which include about seventy children, line up for their meals outside a single wagon in the middle of the camp. Their food comes from United Nations supply trucks. Moira Kelly, a relief worker who has labored with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, nurtured crack babies in the Bronx and treated abandoned children in Romania, is in charge of the camp.

"Life is hard and everyone is suffering," says Kelly. "But they don't ask for themselves. When a women's rights group came into the camp offering counseling to the women who had been raped, they declined. The women said, 'Don't come to me. I'm alive. I survived. We're worried about the men who were taken to the concentration camps.'"

In recent weeks the camp's staff has considered celebrating the peace accord. But, in truth, no one knows what it means. "The people have heard about peace so many times. They're very cynical about it," says Georgeson. They're equally cynical about the promise that they'll be able to move back home. "They've been told that if someone is living in their house, they can move them out and that if their house has been destroyed, a new one will be built," says Georgeson. "That sounds good on paper. But people don't believe it."

The staff intends to go ahead with the renovation of an old railway building on the edge of the camp. Some of its rooms will be converted for storage, but others will be used for family activities. One may become a TV room. "Maybe things are winding down, but who knows for sure," says Kelly. "I can't get these people back into their homes, but I can build them a room here so they can walk out of their box cars at night. Inside the cars, there is no privacy, except on the toilet."

Copyright © 1995 Discovery Communications, Inc Photos: Courtesy of Nobody's Children