Our Early Work with Balkan Refugees, Part 2

… Continued from Part 1

Bosnia was a conglomerate of everything that made up Yugoslavia; a melting pot of religions, ethnicities, and nationalities. Under the reign of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the mix was stirred up through cross-marriage and migration, but during the break-up of Yugoslavia, all the individual elements began to separate like oil and water as fighting broke out against each other, resulting in some of the bloodiest house-to-house fighting in Europe since WW2. We had seen many villages in both Bosnia and Croatia where the houses were all shot up, walls pock-marked with bullet holes or worse, and mine tape marking off houses that had been booby-trapped, or fields that had been mined, warning passers-by that these places had not yet been de-mined. But when we reached Sarajevo, it was the first time for us to see a major European city with half-demolished buildings, still occupied by the residents because they had nowhere else to go.

The mother of one of our Bosnian volunteers was living in one such building, and we stayed overnight with her during our visit. She told us tales of how during the shelling people would move from their apartments into the stair well for more protection, and how when she needed water she would have to walk down the 12 flights of stairs because there was no electricity for the elevator. Even if there was, she would not want to risk being in the elevator during a power cut. There were very few water sources, and she would have to run across the open spaces and hide alongside the buildings to avoid being shot at by a sniper, while working her way to the water spigot. Getting back with the full jerrycan was even more difficult, especially when climaxed with the climb back up the 12 flights of stairs. Looking down from her window, we could see the once grassy area that was meant for children to play, now neatly cordoned off into little garden patches where the residents had been growing their own vegetables. People survived by whatever means they could.

On our trips into central Bosnia, we found a large Croat enclave that encompassed 12 villages. One evening in December we were driving in the Muslim area and as we came up through a valley and came to the entrance of the next town, lo-and-behold, it was suddenly Christmas! We had come into the Catholic Croat area, and it was all lit up in the Christmas tradition. We met the principal of the main school in that town, and he invited us to stage our program for his children on our next visit. In addition, he gave us a list of all the towns and villages in that enclave, and the names of both the schools and their principals. This was where we were to move next, a quiet, Christian area that we could use as a base to then reach out to Sarajevo and the rest of Bosnia!

In Dubrovnik we had met a Croat man who had the key to the warehouse where they stored all the aid and survival needs that had come down to them during the time of fighting. He took us there and said we were free to take as much as our van could hold to distribute to the people in Bosnia. Among the many things we took were a stack of large army-green tins of high protein survival biscuits weighing 5 lbs each. These biscuits were left over from WW2 and had been hermetically sealed so they would pretty much last forever. When we got them they were about 50 years old and in perfect condition.

We found out that there were also many refugee centers in Bosnia itself, and we began to visit them one by one. It was in one of those lonely centers outside Sarajevo that we first met Mustafa and Lydia, who were refugees from Kosovo. No matter how much assistance we may have been in helping Mustafa and Lydia to rebuild their lives, we weren’t really comfortable when they likened us to the true modern-day saint, Mother Teresa. At the same time, since Mother Teresa was of Albanian origins, it was understandable that this ethnic-Albanian couple would compare us to this lover and champion of the poor. (For the story of Mustafa & Lydia, see our essay “You Are Our Mother Theresa”.)