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Chris Bragdon of Friends of Bosnia talks about the projects accomplished in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, when government, volunteers from local nongovernmental organizations and businesses united to fix up parks and create jobs.

Chris Bragdon of Friends of Bosnia talks about the projects accomplished in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, when government, volunteers from local nongovernmental organizations and businesses united to fix up parks and create jobs. (Ivana Avramovic / S&S)

TUZLA, Bosnia and Herzegovina — When Chris Bragdon first came to this city in late 1996 he had stars in his eyes and wanted to give money to help people recovering from war.

But he soon learned that providing an opportunity to earn money is much more fruitful.

“Straight donations have created a horrible culture of dependence and relying on charity,” Bragdon said. “We want to attract foreign investment by sending a message that people here care about their city and are willing to work hard for it.”

A year ago, Friends of Bosnia, the American-based nongovernmental organization Bragdon works for, started a $135,000 project that brought together Bosnian government, businesses and NGOs. The goal was creating jobs and improving people’s lives.

About 300 volunteers put in 5,000 hours planting 129 trees, fixing and cleaning parks that became popular hangouts with many Tuzla residents.

The city government provided the trees, volunteers earned credit toward obtaining equipment for their organizations and local businesses received advertisement for donating money.

“We want to develop a lever to unite the government, nongovernment and business sectors,” said Tuzla’s mayor, Jasmin Imamovic. “If those energies unite, we have development.”

The first year of the project was completed this month with a party. Bragdon hopes to extend the initiative to the entire region in the coming year.

“I think six years ago we could see what would happen if we continued living [on] presents,” Bragdon said. “It is worth doing something and everything we can to bring peace to Bosnia.”

Various nongovernmental organizations taking part in the project earned some $61,000 for equipment they needed. Among them was a university student group.

“We had a desire to create something that will be available to people in dorms,” said Nihad Avdic, president of the group.

“We tried looking for donations, but we figured out that nothing will come out of that. We simply had to earn that with our work to survive as an organization.”

So association members, students living in dorms, cleaned parks and flowerpots along Tuzla’s Jala River.

They earned enough credits to receive 10 computers, some printers and scanners. Opening an Internet club, the group became self-sufficient, and also earned money to buy a hearing aid for a fellow student and to sponsor its own sports team.

While Friends of Bosnia has raised money in America and applied for grants, families of U.S. peacekeepers also are pitching in.

“It helps the families back home be a part of what we’re doing here,” said Capt. Wade Bastion of the 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit from Minnesota.

Families collected hundreds of boxes of clothing and blankets. But sorting and distributing the donations to many little communities would add another task to the troops already heavy workload.

“We have to use the NGOs,” said the 2nd Vattlaion’s 1st Lt. Rich Brummond. “That’s where Chris fits in. People actually have to work to get something. It actually improves the people.”

Through a Family Readiness Group in Minnesota, Nicole Ledoux, wife of Sgt. Mark Ledoux of the 2nd Battalion, collected $3,400 for Friends of Bosnia.

“We basically just do what soldiers want us to do [with that money],” Bragdon said. He then sent photos of what was accomplished to families.

U.S. troops also helped when a police chief would not allow a multi-ethnic project at a school in eastern Bosnia. A few phone calls from SFOR turned the police chief into a big enthusiast.

“It’s not this that is going to get this country where it needs to be,” said Maj. Peter Elstad of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 34th Infantry Division, referring to his military uniform. “It’s organizations like Chris’ that are going to do it.

“SFOR will set the stage.”

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