Life below the poverty line: I only went to vacation once with the help of a donation

According to the United Nations, every sixth household in Bosnia and Herzegovina is poor, 15 percent of citizens are in absolute poverty, while half of the population is on the brink of poverty. There are no official and precise statistics about the hungry, and citizens are forced to go to the soup kitchen for a free meal. For 25 years, BiH has been violating the right of citizens to an adequate standard of living, i.e., the right to live above the poverty line, which should be ensured by the state.

By: Melanie Isović

Miljan Zurovac (39) from Banja Luka says that he was at vacation (to the seaside) only once. That vacation was a donation, otherwise he could never afford it.

I have never bought anything luxurious. For me, it is a luxury to be able to dress nicely, buy yourself a tracksuit, sneakers that I like and similar. I don’t have money for that, to afford to go to a boutique and choose a wardrobe for myself”, said Zurovac.

His fellow citizen Ratko Škobić (64) explains that he bought a new wardrobe while he had a job, but now he is not able to work.

“It is a luxury to have a car, to buy fuel when only one person is driving, it is a luxury to walk around pubs. I don’t remember when I was at seaside, before the war. I don’t receive a pension, I can’t even work anymore, all of this made me wait for a free meal“, Škobić tells us as he stands in line in front of the soup kitchen run by the “Mosaic of Friendship” association.

Among those gathered, we also meet Nada Lakić (57), who tells us that it is a luxury for her to consume coffee and cigarettes every day.

I am a person who has been living without any income in this country since the war, and I could not afford to buy clothes in boutiques. Thank God, now we have second-hand shops, where I can buy what I like for a decent price that I can afford,” Lukić points out.

Although she lives modestly, she tries to pay the bills every month.

“I clean houses, if I find someone who needs house cleaning services, then I pay all bills that the state imposes on me, and it does not give me the conditions to be able to pay that. The state is not interested in this category of population that has no income. According to the legal system in a state governed by the rule of law, the state should give those people who have lost their jobs, people without income social benefits so that they can live, but we do not have that,” Lukić explains.

The coronavirus showed the true state of society

The president of the Mosaic of Friendship association from Banja Luka, Miroslav Subašić, says that before the coronavirus, they had about a hundred users a day, while today that number is between four to six hundred people.

“The Mosaic of Friendship, before the coronavirus, had 1175 users. They all get our help, only the help is different. We give food packages to some people and they make food at home. Some people come here to get food, a lot of citizens come here to eat, and there is a population of people to whom we bring ready-made meals. The Mosaic of Friendship has had a soup kitchen open every day for a year. Before the coronavirus, we had up to a hundred people coming for food, and today we have four to six hundred people daily who receive help every day. The worst thing is that we share three hundred loaves of bread a day“, says Subašić in an interview for eTrafika.

Miroslav Subašić

In addition to the coronavirus, the number of people is increasing for another reason, and that is due to the empathy of fellow citizens who want to help people who do not have enough funds for a normal and dignified life.

“The story is spreading about people who want to help and gives a larger population the freedom to come to us. There are people who are ashamed, who live very hard, who can’t accept to stand here in line for a meal. People who stand in line do not know that we give food to many on the other side so that others do not see them. In my opinion, the coronavirus showed the real situation on the ground and that many people live really hard“, explains Subašić.

They strictly follow one rule – they never refuse anyone, and everyone gets food, even when they have no donations.

“It happened a lot of times that we went to a store or a bakery to buy them if we had nothing to give, because it’s difficult for us to see that someone didn’t get help. We are talking about the most important things, food. Once people were thinking about vacations, going to the seaside, buying, and today it has come down to mere survival. It is terrible when you see that society has not grown, on the contrary,“ he emphasizes.

In the Red Cross of Banja Luka, the number of users is fixed because it is defined by the contract with the City Administration. Currently, 440 people are fed in their soup kitchen, says the Secretary Željkica Ilić.

“Meals are prepared every day except Sunday, but on Saturdays they get bread for Sunday and if there is a donation of canned or other food, it is distributed with the bread. The number of beneficiaries has not changed, as it was defined by the contract. The Red Cross does not determine the users, the Center for Social Work does that. If someone calls us during the day that he/she is hungry, and he/she does not have a kitchen card, we always react, that is, we feed all those who are hungry”, states Ilić.

The Association from Sarajevo has about a thousand regular users of its “Meal for All” services, says spokeswoman Maja Arslanagić.

“These are users for whom we prepare meals every day. Some users come to our Restaurants of Good Will in Bihać and Travnik, while we deliver meals to a certain number of users the their home address, because they are elderly, sick, exhausted and immobile people”, explains Arslanagić.

Maja Arslanagić

In addition to the “Meal for All” project, they are conducting numerous other activities to help vulnerable people throughout BiH. Since the Association was founded until today, the Association provided help to more than 700,000 people.

“Last month, we delivered about 21,000 food packages in BiH, provided food aid for the people of Yemen and Palestine, constantly helped the seriously ill who needed money for treatment, and provided support to those who needed it in various ways. Due to that, it is difficult to define the exact number of our total users, but we can say that we have helped more than 700,000 people since the Association was founded”, states Arslanagić.

In addition to Sarajevo, Travnik and Bihać, they plan to open another Restaurant of Good Will.

The number of users is constantly increasing. There is an increasing number of requests for help, and we have accordingly increased the number of people to whom we provide meals every day. There are certainly a large number of those who cannot afford a quality or any meal, but do not seek our help or the help of some other organization. It is difficult to know and estimate how many such cases there are,” says Arslanagić.

Determine the minimum poverty rate

An activist and lawyer of international human rights, Gorana Mlinarević, says that we first need a functional state free from ethnokleptocratic corrupt power structures, and then the reform of the neoliberal system.

“The realization of social and economic rights in BiH is at the entity level in RS, i.e. at the cantonal level in FBiH. But all we see are dysfunctional attempts that were only made because someone from some international organization gave some money, so the obligation seemed to be fulfilled. Therefore, this approach should be completely abandoned. In order to achieve something real in the interest of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we need radical and structural political and economic changes. We can now adopt some laws and strategies, but even those that have been adopted so far are not being implemented. I know that what I am saying at the moment sounds utopian, but considering 20 or more years of agreeing to unsuccessful pragmatic solutions to do something within this system, which is the only thing that nurtures inequalities, I really don’t see a way out,” Mlinarević said.

Gorana Mlinarević, foto: Imrana Kapetanović /

As she points out, we need an analysis of attitudes about what makes an adequate standard of living for the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but above all we need people who really want change and who really want to ensure equality for all, not their personal interests.

“If we had that, then we would have to take a serious approach to making a social and economic map of the population. To be honest, the 2013 census was an opportunity for this, but we weren’t interested in it even then. We would also need an analysis of the attitudes of people living in BiH, which in their opinion and in the context of our social, political and economic reality makes an adequate standard of living,” she said.

It is also necessary to determine the minimum poverty rate. International human rights law has provided a broad response, stating that it is about education, health, adequate housing, access to quality nutrition and the like, but the local context must also be taken into account.

“And our context still carries with it the consequences of the war, so an adequate standard of living should reflect that reality as well. Based on these estimates, we would be able to see what we need, what we have and what we do not have. Then economic projections would have to be made, the minimum poverty rate determined (not necessarily only monetaryly but also to consider various aspects of the enjoyment of economic and social rights). It is continuously monitored and continuously harmonized with interventions in the field of social protection, but not only there, but also in the fields of education, health, housing, labor rights and the like. It is easy to create a legislative framework in such a serious approach“, explains Mlinarević.

It should be emphasized that ensuring an adequate standard of living is not a matter of choice of government but an obligation arising from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. BiH has been violating this obligation for 25 years.

“With this situation and the lack of a serious approach to dealing with all these problems, we are in fact closing the door on the possibility of the current population, but also future generations to hope for anything at all. This state has long since lost its reproductive functions, in terms of securing and guaranteeing economic and social rights, justice in general. It relies more and more on repression of emaciated and exploited workers, on local communities fighting for their right to water (also an essential element of an adequate standard of living), on women human rights activists, on parents seeking the right to education for their children with disabilities, parents seeking justice for their murdered children, activists who show solidarity with people on the move. We can continue this indefinitely”, says Mlinarević.

If the state does not start taking care of its citizens, the situation will be even worse. As she points out, the current and only goal of the people in power is to defend their standard of living, so that the consequences of not ensuring an adequate standard of living have been lived for many years and we are sinking deeper and deeper into poverty.

“And that on the one hand causes increasing poverty, people leaving the country, deteriorating health of the population, decreasing average age, increasing violence (especially against women and marginalized groups), increasing slave exploitation, even greater air pollution, even greater destruction of the environment. The state is currently dysfunctional, and we already have feudal relations, and we can only sink deeper into dictatorship and autocracy,” she warns.

Citizens without income or a dignified life have no one to turn to for help. There are centers for social work, which are overloaded, under capacitated and without real possibilities to do anything but one-time interventions.

“The second option is to awaken political awareness and educate oneself politically and slowly begin to influence the distribution of budget funds by actively participating in public debates. Of course, protests are always an option, solidarity political action, an attempt to restore the importance and real influence of the trade union“, says Milinarević.

An obligation to people on the move

Bosnia and Herzegovina is obliged to ensure an adequate standard of living for its citizens, but also for people on the move – refugees and migrants who are on its territory. However, the current situation is far from that.

“In the Law on Asylum of BiH, the state is obliged to provide all asylum seekers with adequate accommodation and food or to provide them with adequate financial compensation if they find accommodation. Unfortunately, as we do not have a certain minimum poverty threshold, this compensation, like other social benefits in the state in general, is ridiculous because I cannot say that it is even minimal. Also, it is mandatory to provide access to education for minors, the right to work (after nine months from the application), access to health care etc. However, our state is currently denying the right to apply for asylum, leaving people completely disenfranchised. Of course, in addition to the Law on Asylum, we also have international obligations, but since we ignore our own laws, it is difficult to invoke other rights. Currently, people on the move have been deprived of their right to freedom of movement, by a decision of the Council of Ministers brought on April 16, 2020. So, many people are currently stuck in overcrowded camps without adequate nutrition, hygienic conditions and exposed to increasing violence,” Milinarević emphasized at the end of our conversation.

The text was created in cooperation with the Association Oštra nula, with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.