Life in rural Croatia is not easy. It can also be incredibly lonely, with many old people living alone and in isolation without friends or family. TCN meets a wonderful organisation with Dutch sponsors on November 27, 2017, which is not only highlighting the issue, but making a huge difference in the lives of some of Croatia’s isolated elderly population.
Croatia is a wonderful, wonderful country to visit on holiday. It is also an amazing place to live, if you have money, friends, family and a good job. Sadly, there are many who are struggling, and life is a battle for survival for many in Croatia today. Many young people are leaving for economic opportunity in Germany, Ireland and other countries.
Life in rural Croatia is particularly tough for those who remain. Many young families have left, and in many cases, only the elderly remain. Too old or too set in their ways to relocate to a new way of life. And many of those old people live in complete isolation and loneliness, with an occasional visit from the postman delivering a bill often the only form of human contact. Heartbreaking.
From heartbreaking to heartwarming.
We recently started a series on TCN on Croatia’s foreign entrepreneurs, an idea by Tash and Robyn to inject a little positivity. While so many people emigrating, focusing on those coming the other way and making a success of life in Croatia might provide inspiration for some. The response so far has been overwhelming, and we have more great stories from all over Croatia in the works. Last week, we featured Rene, a Dutchman living with his family in a small village near Karlovac. Read his story here.
What Rene did not mention in that interview is another initiative that he is heavily involved with – helping some of those elderly, lonely and isolated people the world has completely forgotten about. Rene tells us more about the Proplan Foundation, which is supported by Dutch sponsors via its parent foundation in Holland. Here is what he has to say:
Due to the ever-decreasing number of inhabitants in Croatia’s rural areas. this country faces another challenge that we need to face. Depopulation brings isolation and loneliness.
Our aim with the Proplan Foundation is not to battle poverty. That is a battle we will never win, and it is a problem that will probably be tackled by just giving material solutions. Breaking the circle of poverty requires a very specific approach. The simple lifestyle of many of the old people that we visit should not be mistaken for poverty.
(Milena helping people with sorting their bills.)
We have noticed that., especially in the rural areas of Croatia, there is an ever-decreasing number of people living there. Young families leave and old people stay. That often means a life of exclusion and loneliness and an overall sense of not being part of a community/society anymore.
(Zivko used the sail the oceans of the world and lived in Australia. He can hardly walk. He lives 10 kilometres from Glina in very bad conditions.)
In the wider area around the city of Karlovac, me and my team go to a specific area for a field trip one day a week to visit about 8-10 people a day. Altogether we visit around 80 people in 9 different municipalities. We work together with the mayors and the Red Cross in those areas. Most of the contacts have been given via their offices.
The problem is not poverty!
The problem is loneliness: One can get used to poverty if one perceives that as a shortage of material needs. But the person who feels lonely suffers more from this emotional state of mind. We visit people in very remote areas. Sometimes we need to drive 10 kilometres on a dirt road through dense forests. You can still see the traces of how life was in those areas 30-40 years ago. To witness that decline and to stay there all by yourself, with only a few people left, can be very depressing at times. The people that we visit are either diehards, those with an optimistic survivor mentality, or those who are just waiting until they die. Some have survived two wars. To hear the atrocities they went through, often in both wars, is heartbreaking. We listen to there stories over and over. We tell them somebody cares, they are not alone. Loneliness means that nobody wants to spend time with you, nobody wants to listen to your stories anymore, nobody takes an interest in you. Individualism hurts the other but it also hurts you!
(Road conditions are tough in winter. So at times we have to walk the last leg of the journey.)
We bring some bags of goodies and fruit for the old people, and we drink something together with them. We have about 15 sponsors from Holland who donate these items. The travel expenses we pay ourselves. Last year we helped an old man living all by himself high up in the Zumberak with a small battery and solar panel. Now he can read again in the long winter evenings and the company of his books does not make him feel so lonely anymore. Often we are the only people who come to their house, apart from the postman. The war in Croatia brought so much misery and distress to our beautiful Croatia and in the lives of many individuals. But the aftermath of war still has a great impact in many parts of Croatia. When your children leave in hope of a better future and never visit you, that is very painful. The war left a big mark on many individuals. But it also had a great impact on society. One should ask the honest question if we can build a society with so many open wounds and so many untold stories and so many lonely people in cut-off parts on the edge of Europe.
(A very old couple living in Primislje. Their waterwell was damaged by the Nato forces in 2015. Now they have to walk 4 kilometers for the nearest water well.)
The problem of transport and low income: The people that we visit mostly live on a monthly income or pension between 600 and 1100 kunas. But they manage to get by with that money as they never had many financial resources. It is just the big costs once they have to go to a doctor or a hospital. Then somebody has to drive them. They easily spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on that single ride. Very often they choose just not to go and see the doctor (with all the consequences). In some places, the Red Cross or the local municipality offers great and personal help. But in other places, there is a lot that leaves to be desired. In fact, it is very shameful to see the government tracks some of these people living without water and electricity deep into the forest.
(This lady got another bill from HRT while she doesn’t even have electricity or any kind of radio or tv.)
The only device they have is an old Yugoslav radio to cheer up those very long winters. HRT not just tracks these people but chases them and forces them to pay the 80 kunas per month for the ownership of the 40-year-old radio. I know of two cases (one lady is not even able to read or write) where the fines to HRT have never been paid as these people simply do not have the means to do it. It ended up in a court hearing and huge fines and debts of over 50.000 kunas. Then the government puts a claim on the land and the house of those people. They have the right to do that according to the law. But is it ethically right to do so? In my view, it is insane that our government puts so much effort into chasing and tracking those people without even noticing their deep personal needs and lack of money. That is in my view senseless.
(Milena is cutting wood for one of our grannies.)
Our work is not a drop in the ocean. It is something we like to do. Me, my family and our volunteers enhance a life of thankfulness. There is so much to be thankful about that makes you want to share it with others. There is a lot of complaining in Croatia. But when you see how these people live you either forget to complain of feel ashamed to complain. We see it as a great privilege to share some of our time with lonely people. The ones Paul Mc Cartney sings about in his famous Eleanor Rigby song; Old and lonely people where do they all belong. Our hearts can be big enough to host a few of them, without any doubt.
(Time for a little talk near Slunj.)
Maybe for me and my wife living here as “foreigners” those steps into long forgotten areas and former war zones are easier to make. We do not have any religious or political burdens or prejudices. We love people no matter what their background is. We love and cherish the old traditional village lifestyle. Even though we have at times a language and culture barrier to deal with, there are always more things in common than the things that divide us. Division starts in the head and cripples a society. When we find the way to our heart and pay more attention to it, things will change. We carry this dream in our heart that many of the old people we visit will one day soon live in society again. Maybe not in the classic old people’s home, a kind of life they are not familiar with. But among their chickens, their little garden, their little wooden houses with just a little more comfort, and with the care of some professionals and national and international volunteers. We can create and make a better world. The journey starts in our own heart. Yes, it is good to visit our forefathers’ graves and burn candles. But it is equally important to visit those who are alive and who have no friends. We then notice within ourselves that something starts burning in our hearts we have maybe never even noticed before. It is the everlasting fire of thankfulness. And that will have its great effect on you and others.
(Daniel and Aleksandra from Argentina work as fieldworkers in Knin and surrounding area.)
The Proplan Foundation in Croatia consists of:
René and Helga Pronk (Ozalj)
Nenad and Zorica Jambrovic (Samobor)
Milena Buncic (Karlovac)
Daniel and Alexandra Fiorivanti (Knin).
Administrator: Slavena Jankovic.
(Sime near Vrginmost and his two friends.)
If you would like to support us, do know first that that we appreciate any kind of prayers for our work in Croatia. The nature of the countryside is very nice in the areas we visit, and the spiritual climate is not to the contrary. If you would like to go on a field trip with us, please contact us at least two weeks in advance.
*All of the financial support for our work comes from the Netherlands.
*The cars we drive are private, and we cover their operation costs ourselves.
*Sometimes we pay for people’s wood supply if they run out of wood too fast.
(This is Stefo in Donji Lapac. He still thinks the war is going on when he hears hunters near his place. He lives without any income, water or electricity.)
SUPPORTING OUR WORK WITH DONATIONS
Donations of food are appreciated. Any kind of long-shelf-life foods are welcome. It is very hard for us to pick up fresh foods since they can spoil fast. An average food package has a value of about 20 euros (150 Kuna). These are the items we need most:
Dried fruits or fruit snacks
(A group of donors from Holland helping with the distribution of clothing and food.)
We try to minimize litter and the pressure on the environment, therefore we only deliver in packages that can be burned. Canned food or food in glass we can not accept because waste is not picked up in many rural areas of Croatia, and eventually ends up in streams and rivers.
You can also transfer a gift to our bank account. Please see “contact” for details.
Thanks for helping and supporting us!
If you would like to support, contribute, get involved, or just learn more about the work of Udruga Proplan, visit and contact them via their Facebook page.