Our Early Work with Balkan Refugees, Part 1

Along with the changes in people’s personal freedoms following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, came big changes in the political structure of the former East Bloc countries. The Soviet Union broke up into its former republics, Czechoslovakia was divided in two, and war was raging in Yugoslavia. One day while watching the news on CNN, we saw a report of a mortar attack that had killed many innocent people in the central market of Sarajevo in Bosnia, and the Spirit spoke to us clearly: “You have to go there and help those people”. Our hearts’ desire for a long time had been to not just visit these former Communist countries, but to actually live there long-term, really investing our lives to help the people there. We had heard that a couple we knew had gone down to Slovenia, the western-most republic of the former Yugoslavia, for a month-long exploratory visit, who were so overwhelmed by the suffering and need of the refugees there, that they wanted to set up a permanent outpost and were looking for volunteers to help them. We were quick to reply. My father had recently passed away, and I had a small inheritance that would help with the cost of getting things set up.

Slovenia had been able to secede from Yugoslavia and was spared from serious fighting thanks to the quick recognition of neighboring Italy, Austria, and big brother Germany. Therefore it became a safe-haven for refugees from the other Yugoslav republics that were suffering more in their struggle for independence, mostly Bosnia and Croatia. The newly formed Slovenian government did its best to manage the increasing refugee problem, and quickly set up centers in hotels, school dormitories, and wooden barracks constructed specifically for the emergency. We contacted the ministry responsible for refugees and obtained a list of the 30 or so refugee centers that had been set up all over the country. At the same time we took trips into areas of Croatia that were bordering Slovenia including the Istria peninsula near the Italian border, where many refugees had also fled. We put together a children’s program with music, clowns, and meaningful skits, and would systematically visit every refugee center on our list. These families had been uprooted overnight and had their lives torn apart, and the children did not understand what had happened and were often traumatized. So we wanted to make them smile, laugh, and feel like things are OK — things will get better soon, and to also know that Jesus loves them. It didn’t matter that many of these refugees were Muslims from Bosnia, they were so thankful for the love we shared and to know that someone cared, they readily received us and our message.

Although our ministry with the refugee centers was extremely satisfying and fruitful, our ultimate goal was to go into central Bosnia where the worst of the civil war had been fought. In Slovenia we had met a young Bosnian woman whose family had migrated to the capital Ljubljana when she was young. She was volunteering as translator for us when we would visit the camps, and we became very close. Her grandparents lived in the very northwest corner of Bosnia, in the countryside near Bihać, a city that had been very badly affected by the fighting. She had not seen them since before the conflict began, so we planned a trip together so we could see things first-hand and assess the situation, whether or not it would now be safe for us to start making trips regularly into the heart of Bosnia. That trip was very eye-opening, and revealed the true amount of devastation that had been leveled on that area. At the same time we were also making trips further into the south of Croatia, and felt that until the situation in Bosnia had stabilized more, it would be better for us to make our next move into Croatia.

The Dalmatian coast of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea (yes, it is where the dog gets its name) was the summer playground of the former Yugoslavia. People from all over Europe would flock to the coast to enjoy the crystal clear aquamarine water, the pebble beaches, and the excellent wine and cuisine of the region. To the far south was the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, which dates back to the 8th century and reached its height in the 15th and 16th centuries when its thalassocracy rivaled that of the Republic of Venice. In 1979, the city of Dubrovnik joined the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, but sadly, in 1991 during the height of the civil war, Dubrovnik and all the surrounding region endured serious shelling from the hills overlooking the coast and had suffered much damage. One day while driving in Ljubljana we saw a billboard advertising Dubrovnik. Obviously Croatia was trying to re-establish its tourist trade. We saw it as a “sign” from Heaven, and felt called to go minister to the poor people there, and then use that location as a stepping-stone into central Bosnia.

Continued in Part 2 …