Lukare Calling

July 25, 2002

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    Lukare is a remote mountain village of less than 2,500 people in southwestern SerbiaÕs beautiful, but poor and isolated, Sandzak region. Suljo and his community development peers are fighting to link Lukare to the rest of Serbia and the world by installing a telephone network, which government promised seven years ago. Photo: Layton Croft for Mercy Corps Photo:

There are no telephones, landline or mobile, in Lukare. But there should be.

In 1995, Suljo and 50 other community activists from more than 20 neighboring villages in this remote and poor southwestern Serbian region known as the Sandzak, built a new post office in Lukare. With their own money, and their own hands. They did it because the national and local government officials had promised a brand new telephone network, and phone numbers for the region, if there was a modern post and communications facility.

Suljo, who was born and raised in Lukare, led the charge at the grassroots. He organized all fundraising and manual labor efforts. Before long, Lukare had a new post office, and a cluster of mountain communities had done their part in laying the groundwork for finally connecting to the rest of Serbia, and the world.

Devastating war, international sanctions, and a persistently destructive communist regime, led by Slobodan Milosevic, had forced many local villagers to flee to cities and other countries, and had wrecked the local economy. So, the ability to make a phone call from Lukare had virtually come to mean the difference between indefinite social isolation and economic stagnation, or the chance to make a better life.

But after Suljo and company had fulfilled their end of the bargain, the government officials were nowhere to be found. Their promises had proven to be lies, and seven years later, Lukare still has no phones.

"We have written countless letters to government officials - to Belgrade - to get the telephones," Suljo said. "But they always tell us that our villages are not in the national plan for a phone network. ...Republic and Municipal governments have no care for our problems. Instead of facilitating bureaucratic procedures for expediting decisions, our government does something else. ... They always have excuses; we can't do anything about government."

He might be right about that, but Suljo and others involved in Mercy Corps's new community development councils are proving that they can do a lot despite government inaction.

In July 2001, Mercy Corps launched a new, USAID-funded Community Revitalization through Democratic Action program in 18 southern Serbian municipalities, which were especially devastated by events of the past decade. And Suljo is a natural leader in Mercy Corps' participatory prioritization and decision-making process, in which community development interests are articulated and responded to, in the form of small infrastructure projects.

But he is also quick to point out that Mercy Corps' assistance is an additive, and not the whole recipe. When, asked how he participates in Mercy Corps activities, Suljo coyly quips, "You mean, how does Mercy Corps participate in our activities?"

This self-awareness and confidence is critical, especially since Lukare has a long way to go. But the community possesses vast development potential, thanks largely to a wealth of human capital and a cadre of social entrepreneurs, like Suljo.

"Our community is not developed in terms of satisfying people's basic human needs...but we are trying to do something for the futures of our children," he said. "Now might not be the same as in the past, but we are doing everything we can to make things better for the future."

Suljo only has a secondary school education, but he is more equipped than most to make positive, lasting change, with his seemingly infinite drive, heart and gumption.

"There is a saying around here, that 'The best place to be is where you were born.' I have always been homesick when I am not here," he said.

Despite all the poverty, lies and obstacles to progress, Suljo and his community development peers have no intentions of leaving. In fact, adversity seems to only strengthen their resolve, and solidarity, to make Lukare a place worth coming back to, or at least calling.

[Editor's Note: Suljo is a pseudonym.]