A crew of riders traveled to the former Yugoslavian republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia to ride with children at the Raccoon Snowboard Peace Camps. They discovered a country rebuilding itself and very promising European-style big-mountain riding.
I didn’t know much about Bosnia and Croatia before this trip, but I did know about the war, and I was definitely unsure about my safety and a little freaked out. Ivo, the Raccoon camp director, told me all about the war ruins that still remain everywhere and the special guides we’d need not only for avalanche safety but for the live land-mines, too. I kept asking him if it was safe-but he assured me that we were traveling with locals and that there’d be nothing to worry about.
We arrived in Zagreb and had to drive six hours into the mountains. They looked amazing, and the countryside was so beautiful-I couldn’t wait to go snowboarding! Driving through the cities, it became immediately clear that this country is still very much being rebuilt and getting back on its feet from the war ten years ago. It was almost like you could still smell the smoke. There were bombed-out buildings everywhere, blackened and ripped apart with bullet holes. Families were still living in parts of their houses that had a few walls standing. It was really eerie having the devastation of war right there in front of me-a very empty feeling. I thought a lot about September 11 and how human nature is so unpredictable.
I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like for the children to live through. And that’s why I was here, to help give a group of underprivileged kids a day of fun with snowboarding-a day to forget all of their burdens. And the kids were amazing! They were from eight to sixteen years old, a mix of girls and boys, many of whom had never snowboarded before-and they were so excited to be up in the mountains. We each took a few kids on up the lifts and spent the day taking runs with them.
My first run was with a little girl named Melina-all she did was smile at me the whole way up the lift. She was so adorable. I thought I better take it slow to see how she did, but I was so impressed-she was flying down the hill carving and jumping off rollers way out in front of me. I learned from her mother that she’d been riding for four years and wanted more than anything to get sponsored and travel for snowboarding.
The whole day with the kids was amazing. They shared a little about themselves with us, and we finished it off with a massive snowball fight, dinner, and more hang-out time. Everyone had a blast, and I cared about all of them instantly. I’m not sure you can describe it with words, but being a part of what might be the best day of someone’s life is a very powerful thing.
About The Camps
In June of 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. The following eight years were filled with bloodshed, “ethnic cleansing,” and terror as ethnic groups fought against each other for control in what’s known as the Balkan Wars. The Raccoon Camps are organized by Codirector Ivo Skorik and Wings Of Hope for kids suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of losing their families or having been in other ways impacted by the war. According to Ivo, “The idea behind the programs is that by helping the kids master a skill, we’re helping increase their self-esteem and improve their behavior and school success.”
Beyond this, the camp is dedicated to erasing the ethnic divides that these kids have grown up with. Ivo says, “We’re looking to mix groups from various ethnicities: children of refugees from Bosnia, children of Croatian veterans, children of Croatian Serbs who returned to Croatia, children of all ethnic groups. It’s our hope that as they master the new skills together, they also make friends and learn how to live together in peace. It’s our dedication to teach them the values of teamwork and a healthy lifestyle in harmony wiith nature, as well as to enable them to experience genuine camaraderie with their peers-those they would otherwise be taught to avoid as ‘the enemy.'”
The term “Balkan” means “mountain” in Turkish, fitting because the area is overrun with huge mountains, in fact, winter sports were a huge part of pre-war Yugoslavia (Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics). The one-week winter snowboarding camps are currently based at Mt. Igman near Sarajevo in Bosnia and Mt. Sljeme near Zagreb, Croatia. Ivo hopes that in the future they’ll be able to expand the camps to Montenegro and Macedonia. Online donations can be made through balkansnet.org/donate.html or mailed payable to: Raccoon Inc., P.O. Box 20554, New York, NY 10021