"Between June 1992 and July 1994 we distributed supplies worth $9,300,000 among the medical institutions in the FRY ; we are currently in the process of distributing supplies worth another $5,000,000," says the coordinator of the Soros Foundation Yugoslavia medical team, Dr Vuk Stambolic. "Supplies include medications, equipment and material; the aforementioned sum doesn't include our education programs, organization of seminars, support for participation of our physicians at conferences abroad and health care seminars for teachers and educators."
The extent of medical activities of the Soros Foundation Yugoslavia have, apparently, come to attention "Where It Matters"; consequently, on 2/24/95, "Revija 92" published an article under title "Gives publicly but rules from the shade" in which the author didn't hide the fact that the Foundation is "officially the largest benefactor of the Serbian health care system"; however, in the following paragraph, under title "Narco-foundation", he stated (writing about Soros):
"Maybe that is the reason for the fear of the money he [Soros] frantically gives away, since it resembles a well tried techniques of drug dealers - drugs are free for a first few times, but the user pays dearly later. Sometimes with his life."
DELIVERIES: The most recent delivery of the Soros Foundation medical assistance consists of special powdered milk for children and baby food. One of the members of the medical team, Dr Predrag Zivotic, explains:
"The delivery consists of 15 tons of special powdered milk and baby food, whose value is $112,837. It has been distributed among 38 medical institutions from practically all regions of the FRY. We gave out seven kinds of concentrate: powdered milk for babies and infants, enriched with iron and vitamins; milk based baby food in six different flavors: wheat, rice, banana and three other kinds of fruit; special milk for premature babies; lactose free powdered milk for children with metabolism disfunctions and milk for children suffering from feniketonutria."
In this delivery, the most important component is the last item, milk without which children with disturbed metabolism (actually inability to break up an important amino-acid) cannot survive. Head of the department for metabolism and clinical genetics of the Institute for Mother and a Child in Belgrade, Dr Ljubomir Stojanov, explains for Vreme:
"Feniketonutria is a hereditary inability to decompose fenilalanin. This amino-acid accumulates in that case within the body, is toxic and adversely affects development of the nervous system. Without treatment, children with this defect develop the most severe variety of mental retardation known today. In addition they also develop untreatable epilepsy. The treatment must begin in the first month after the birth of the child and consequently, within our screening program (which is unfortunately confined to the territory of "Serbia proper"), we perform tests 4 days after birth. If the test is positive, we immediately start treatment which consists of a special diet, low in fenilalanin. The full treatment takes 16 years and women who were treated as children must repeat the treatment during a pregnancy."
The most important ingredient of the aforementioned diet is powdered milk which is extremely expensive - the price of one can, which is on average enough for 5 to 6 days - is approximately DM230. A child with a hereditary defect must drink this milk every single day, at first 6-7 meals a day and later only in the morning and evening. Since family expenses, for the milk only, amount to DM1300 per month any comment is unnecessary. Before the sanctions the milk was distributed by the state, for free.
"After the imposition of sanctions in the Spring of 1992, the state was not capable of providing the special milk," says Dr Stojanov. "We have been receiving help from benefactors but that wasn't enough, so that the parents were forced to use other means, usually friends and relatives living abroad. Two years ago we had one larger delivery through the Red Cross of Yugoslavia. The second large delivery arrived through the Soros Foundation Yugoslavia. We received 900 cans, which should provide nutrition for our 27 patients for, approximately, three months. After that, we'll see."
We talked to a mother, who because of understandable reasons wishes to remain anonymous, in order to find out the "logistics" of obtaining the special milk. She is a mother of a five-year-old A-student who is also active in sports. The child's development has been completely normal, but that depends on its special diet. Otherwise...
"My child has been on a diet since ten days after birth," said our colocutor. "The state has, until the sanctions, provided the milk for free through the Institute for a Mother and a Child, but we had to buy special flour, rice, biscuits... My child mustn't eat meat, eggs, fish, wheat and various kinds of beans and peas and allowed only in very small amounts. Besides fruit and vegetables everything else has to be bought in pharmacies and prepared separately. These kids are always hungry. My child has recently admitted that he dreams about eating chicken meat and he is capable of registering if someone in the building prepares fish which he likes a lot, but..."
Troubles for this family started after the imposition of the sanctions:
MEDICATIONS: "We were told in the Institute that we'll have to provide the milk ourselves and they gave us the address of Walter Petrik, the owner of the Austrian company which distributes the milk in this part of Europe. I sent them a letter, but after a reply in which it was explained that the smallest possible order was DM15,000, I had to give up. We tried to form a group of the parents with the same problem, but it turned out that even together we couldn't do anything. We were not able to register because we are to few in number - this deficiency is rare. We contacted the Red Cross of Yugoslavia and they helped three times, once with a large donation which lasted for a whole month. Dr Manojlovic from "Intereksport" helped twice in a critical situation with smaller amounts of the milk ("Intereksport" had been preparing to import the milk, so he had some left-over samples). I have been writing to humanitarian organizations all over the world, foreign media, Red Cross organizations in Denmark, Norway, Finland, to UNICEF, Synod of Serbian Orthodox Church, every single state and federal ministry and - nothing. Help coming from abroad, from mothers with the same problem, was precious: two women from Vienna, one from Germany, one from Italy... They would order more than they needed for their children and then would send me a can or two. We, as well as our extended family, gave up everything. The company for which I work also helped as well as relatives and friends, but all together I had many more unsuccessful than successful attempts to get help."
Problems remain even when the money is there:" the special milk is produced by only a handful of companies, two-three in the Western Europe and one in America. All other countries order according to their needs. The milk is not available on the free market, so that even when there is money one has to improvise and use unofficial contacts. Recently a delivery, the largest one since the imposition of the trade embargo, donated by the Soros Foundation has arrived. I received 12 cans, which means three to four peaceful months at home," said this woman while putting away her documentation: four folders overflowing with letters, replies, tables for calculation of the amount of fenilalanin in certain types of food, fliers...
The special milk for children suffering from feniketonutria is certainly (financially) the most valuable item in the latest Soros Foundation delivery, although one shouldn't forget to mention lactose free milk, without which children with genetic inability to decompose this sugar develop slowly and die, or milk for premature babies (after Albania the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has the largest infant mortality in Europe).
Besides, the Foundation has recently donated psychiatric medications worth $460,000 to Yugoslav neuropsychiatric institutions; in this delivery probably the most important item was a donation of drugs which are essential for hospitals with patients with chronic diseases (for example, neuropsychiatric Hospital in Topionica near Nis, which at a time became famous because of the terrifying photographs published in Borba).
Judging from a randomly selected list of the thank you notes (fifty or so directors and heads of medical institutions from all over the country) shown by the people from the Soros Foundation medical team, the opinions of our physicians about this organization differ from those of the "patriotic media". In this situation our health care institutions with gratitude receive any help since, as one doctor said during the distribution of neuropsychiatric medications, "one doesn't say no to a present." Even in the absence of a proverb which says that "one does not say thank you for a cure", only an optimist could expect any expression of gratitude from local authorities. Benefactors, who donated so much of essential medications have a right to at least distribute these medications without harassment, since they are willing and able.
Conversation with Sonja Liht began with her reminiscing about the start of the work of the Soros Foundation medical team:
"Immediately after the introduction of the economic sanctions, every medical institution in Yugoslavia requested assistance from us. With Mr. Soros' approval, we formed a medical team and gave priority to essential medications, drugs needed for treatment of psychiatric cases and children drugs. We made a list of institutions with intention of, at first, providing help to those hospitals with the largest number of patients in critical condition. Later we expanded the network and by now, I think, we cover everyone; because of fairness, besides the number of patients we also introduced geographic criteria. In the meantime we moved into preventive health care and now we also support community health centers, factory health centers and institutions which care for the elderly... We also started helping smaller health care institutions since the current situation will last and the problems aren't "acute" but "chronic". We've started health care seminars in order to mitigate fatal interruption of the flow of information in health care. The first seminar, dedicated to the children suffering from cerebral palsy (organized in cooperation with the center for cerebral palsy and developmental neurology) was expected to attract about 40 participants. Instead, there were 120 medical workers! Lecturers, top experts from the U.S.A. and Russia, later said that they had never encountered people so thirsty for knowledge as in Belgrade. This is a sign that we are on the right track, and the next seminar about child neurology will be held at the end of March."
VREME: Are you satisfied with the cooperation with medical institutions?
LIHT: The cooperation is good; from the start we insisted on helping end-users and on collecting information on what they needed the most and in what amounts. We cannot promise to fulfill all of these needs, nor we want to order drugs using only our database and the data provided by some central institution: the most important information is that coming from "the field." We have a lot of documentation and we enter every donated medication. We also demand that the recipient institutions publicly display lists of all donated drugs so that the patients know what is available and the risk of misuse and theft is reduced. Some institutions fulfill this demand while other ignore it. In some instances we have heard of people taking off our stickers; this makes us sad but it is not a reason to stop the deliveries of aid. We don't help the institutions but their patients.
VREME: State controlled media have been persistent in their attacks. How do you rate the Foundation's relations with the authorities?
LIHT: This medical program cannot be implemented without the cooperation with the authorities, without import permits for medications or permits for work in refugee centers. Our problems start across the border, because the official position that the humanitarian aid is not under embargo is a sham. First, we have to wait for a permit from the U.S. government (our headquarters are located there), then permit from the Sanction Committee, then everything goes back to Washington... This procedure sometimes takes several months; then begin problems with our [Yugoslav] authorities: we need permits from the Red Cross, the federal Health Ministry, customs... We haven't had bigger problems with the authorities and there's no reason why we should. At a time I said, and I repeat it with full responsibility, that whoever closes down the Soros Foundation Yugoslavia will endanger lives of 50,000 persons. Anyway, we had occasional contacts with the departments in the Ministry of Health, but they haven't shown a lot of interest in our work, although they should have in my opinion. For example, within projects "Friendly toward children" and "Friendly toward women", we provided funding for the renovation and buying of new equipment for the maternity hospital in Zrenjanin. The director of the maternity hospital said that everyone offered verbal support but that we were the only organization to help with funding. This year we plan to include four more maternity hospitals in the program and to try to identify other sources of funding. Besides "white plague" [negative population growth] in some parts of our country we are facing a growth in infant mortality. Let others verbally address these problems; we'll try to do something practical.
VREME: Do you recall cases in which people who were publicly critical of the Foundation, privately tried to take part in one of the Foundation's more attractive programs (for example, scholarships for graduate studies abroad)?
LIHT: I can't vouch that these are the same people, but they certainly come from the same institutions. Pure hypocrisy: people who attack us do not themselves believe in what they are saying, except for the small number of those under the influence of false informations. I am certain that all those who in this state follow the work of public institutions know the truth. They know well that the exchange program used to be under auspices of the Institute for international scientific, technical and cultural cooperation and that its activities were interrupted because of the sanctions. There was no criticism of the Institute. No one has a problem with those who charge thousands of Deutch Marks and Dollars to send children abroad on exchange programs. Instead they attack the Soros Foundation which organizes those programs for free and tries to make sure that the children return [to Yugoslavia] after completing a program. It is a fact that we live in the atmosphere of limited possibilities and that we suffer from a lack of everything including perspective. People approach us asking for assistance, many are responsible, but there are those who prefer to forget the origin of help as soon as they receive it. This Foundation, as in the past, will base its assistance only on the need (when medical and humanitarian assistance is concerned) and quality of proposed cultural and educational projects.