A Better Life Only in Pictures

Piše: Tijana Šašić

The spouses Oljača from Vukovar live on 960 kuna of welfare a month. They spend 400 kuna a month on medicine. Both being in poor health, this is still not enough for all the necessary medicine. “The biggest problem is Andol against blood clotting. I don’t have the money to buy it, so I sometimes borrow it from my husband, but then he skips his dose,” says Ivana Oljača

Foto: Tijana Šašić

This post is also available in: Hrvatski (Croatian)

When, exactly six years ago, in April 2016, we wrote about Milan Oljača from Vukovar as part of the research on the causes of poverty in Vukovar, there were numerous reactions to the text from readers. An older, affluent woman from Zagreb contacted our office and decided to donate money to Milan and his sick wife, Ivana Oljača, as a sign of solidarity.

We wanted to know how the spouses Oljača were doing six years after the text was published, what changed in their lives in that time and how much the donated money made their everyday life easier.

As a reminder, Milan Oljača is a self-taught painter, born 1952 in Podravska Slatina and raised in a large family in poverty, in conditions that offered no opportunity of advancement. He finished elementary school, where he showed a talent for painting, so he learned the house painting trade. He did mainly hard physical labor in life, which took a toll on his health. He first worked in brick production at the brickworks, then in city surveying at the geodetic institute, after which he did manual labor at Kamensko. Next, he painted houses and loaded and unloaded cargo at the tobacco factory. The war led him to flee as a refugee to neighboring Bosnia, where he spent the next 17 years. He lived in nine different strangers’ houses during the war and did all kinds of undeclared work, all just to survive. That is why he doesn’t have enough years of service to qualify for a pension, and neither does his wife, Ivana.

Warmth enters the house

The spouses Oljača still live at the same address, in the same house where we talked the first time. However, the house is now better maintained and warmer. They built a new porch and paved the yard with concrete.

“In winter, snow used to pile up against our front door, making it always cold inside, so we built a porch from wood and insulation boards. We had to put new blinds on the windows because the old ones were destroyed by ice. We also installed mosquito screens, which we didn’t have before. The material and work were paid for by relatives because we could never finance such an investment,” Milan Oljača says.

Although the furniture in the Oljača house was second-hand and appliances worn out the first time we visited, too, Milan never complained.

“All the furniture we have still serves us well. We got a new boiler in the bathroom, and the other appliances work well. We still don’t have a television because, over time, we got used to not having it,” continues Milan.

They used the money donated from Zagreb to buy a new woodstove, which they needed the most at the time.

“This stove saved us four cubic meters of wood. The one we had before was still in good condition but was smaller, so we used to burn 12 cubic meters of wood per season and could heat only one room in the house – the kitchen. With this new, bigger stove, we keep the kitchen door open and heat all the rooms in the house – two bedrooms, the hallway and bathroom, and we use eight cubic meters of wood. Our house and hearts are now warmer. Whenever we light the fire, we remember the woman who helped us buy the stove,” says Oljača.

Life on zero kuna of income

When we met Milan Oljača in April 2016, he had no income. He had help from his sister in Australia. He was in better health, so he was looking for a job through the employment bureau and privately. Today, his health does not allow him to do any work, especially not the hard physical labor he is used to. In the meantime, he has qualified for welfare in the amount of 960 kuna a month. He and his wife live on this amount. He used to pay 400 kuna for monthly utilities, and now he pays 400 kuna a month for medicine.

“Two years ago, I had two heart attacks and barely survived. I had a stent inserted, my kidneys are failing, I have diabetes and high blood pressure, I have difficulty walking and currently use ten different medications. But I can still manage on my own – go to the store, the doctor’s… I can do things around the house, slowly and carefully. I have to be careful with my health,” says Milan.

His 75-year-old wife Ivana also walks with difficulty using a crutch and suffers from osteoporosis. After surviving two strokes a few years ago, she got epilepsy.

“I have epileptic seizures at least twice a month. During one of them, I fell in the kitchen and hit my head on the floor. I have a weak heart and lost my appetite after the stroke. That’s why I only take food for special medical purposes. I am not able to take care of my personal hygiene, so a patronage nurse comes twice a week to bathe me and change my clothes. I also take several medications a day, and the biggest problem is Andol against blood clotting, which I take because of my poor circulation. I don’t have the money to buy it, so I sometimes borrow it from my husband, but then he skips his dose,” says Ivana, adding that health is what they need the most and that they do not lack anything else.

“We are used to the suffering, and after years of being refugees, I am happy we are finally in our own house.”

The house from the reconstruction program where the Oljača spouses live today was bought by Milan’s sister from Australia so that Milan and Ivana could finally have their own roof over their heads. The house had only walls, doors and windows, with no tiles, furniture or gas and sewer connections.

“My sister helped us fix up the house and move in. When we started our new life here, we lived on sour cabbage and soup for two years,” Milan said to P-portal six years ago.

Painting – a window onto a more beautiful world

Milan still paints every other day, as he says, when he is not at the doctor’s or has other obligations. It takes him two or three days to paint one painting, but some take up to ten days, depending on his motivation and mood. Painting offers him a brief respite from the harsh reality. He paints landscapes, horses, the Danube, boats, old Vukovar buildings… Recently, he has started painting icons of saints and Orthodox churches. He used to paint for pleasure and give away most of his paintings. He is wiser today, so he sells them.

“I accommodate people’s wishes. I paint by commission. Painting materials – easels, frame moldings, paints, brushes, wood glue – it has all gone up in price,” Milan complains.

He often paints for the welfare shop, of which he is still a user, and donates the paintings as a sign of gratitude for the packages he gets every month and without which, he says, he could not survive.

“Once a month, we get packages with food that contain rice, flour, pasta, canned food, oil, sugar and dairy products. Every other month, we get a package with hygiene products such as toiler paper and laundry detergent. We also got help around the house through the welfare shop. A woman used to come twice a week to check up on us and clean the house,” Milan adds.

The food that the spouses Oljača buy is bread, milk, coffee, polenta and some cheaper groceries, while they buy meat only at reduced prices and fruit almost never.

Milan has planted some vegetables in the garden this year as well – lettuce, onions, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes; that is all the space he has. This helps them get by and survive.

As a welfare user, Milan qualifies for housing benefits from the City of Vukovar, but they are not enough to ensure a peaceful, stress-free life.

“The subsidy for the water and garbage collection bill is up to 50 kuna. Anything above that I pay myself. I pay the entirety of the utility fee and the chimney sweep’s fee. I disconnected the television, phone and gas a log time ago, and I pay my electricity bill with a coupon I get from the Social Welfare Center as a vulnerable energy consumer. I have a right to free heating fuel in the amount of 1050 kuna, but I need 4000 kuna to cover the cost one heating season,” Milan concludes.

Due to all the increasing costs of life, he still gets help from his sister in Australia, who is now retired and has a smaller income than before. Milan makes some money by selling his paintings, but overall, his life is still hard and painful. He is far from being carefree, having grown older, sicker and feebler in the past six years. He is a burden to himself. Only modest living and frugality keep him afloat.

Can our state, county or city do more for people like these, who, like Milan Oljača, live alone, without the support of descendants, at the edge of the city, without the right to any kind of pension? Do people like these have the right to a dignified old age, or must they subsist on the crumbs of help from welfare for the rest of their lives?


Translation from Croatian: Jelena Šimparaga

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