Saving Bosnians and Serbs

  • Overseas
  • 1993

In 1992, Serbian forces encircled the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia. Their siege lasted until 1995 and killed more than 10,000 people, most of them unarmed civilians out on the street to find food and water. Aware of the city’s desperate condition thanks to the foundations he had set up across Eastern Europe to encourage the transformation of societies away from communism (see 1984 entry), philanthropist George Soros put up $50 million of emergency aid at a time when almost no other agency or person was helping, and asked his foundation staff to determine the most effective ways to save lives and alleviate suffering with the money. They consulted with nonprofits like Refugees International and the International Rescue Committee and brought into the tortured city Fred Cuny, an engineer who had founded his own charitable agency called Intertect Relief and Reconstruction. The fearless 240-pound Texan had deep experience in humanitarian disasters, and was famous for his view that no crisis was too overwhelming to handle.

Cuny decided the best way to help residents survive would be to restore water, gas, and electric service. After arranging that his transport planes would be on the ground only for minutes, to avoid being machine gunned, he flew in iron piping to restore the main gas lines. But only about 10 percent of households were connected to gas at that time, so Cuny bought miles of small plastic piping and Soros’s foundation enlisted 15,000 city residents to dig trenches to connect homes to the gas mains. Soon 60 percent of families had service. Cuny then designed a small gas-burning room heater that could be manufactured in Sarajevo and could be turned on its side to cook meals. These efforts rescued thousands of people from freezing and starving in the bitter Bosnian winters.

Because a large portion of the people killed by Serbian snipers were standing at wells drawing water, Cuny simultaneously used Soros money to restore municipal water service. He designed a 200-meter-long filtration system and had it manufactured in Texas, then flown into the city in pieces. He assembled it in an old road tunnel leading to the Miljacka River, where it was protected from shelling by the siege forces, and created a whole new piped water supply for the city. The Soros donation also increased local electric supplies by 30 percent, provided seeds with which residents could create gardens to feed themselves, and otherwise saved lives and reduced misery. Author Anna Porter concludes that the money Soros gifted to Bosnia “may have saved more lives than the combined efforts of the world leaders and United Nations.”

Soros’s Open Society Foundations also provided humanitarian assistance to Serbians on the other side of the civil war with Bosnia. International sanctions were clapped on Serbia’s government during the conflict, which had the undesirable side effect of preventing everyday Serbs from having access to lifesaving drugs and other medical supplies. Negotiating a humanitarian waiver with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Open Society Foundations purchased millions of dollars of U.S. pharmaceutical supplies and distributed them across Serbia.