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God has not forgotten Sarajevo

Two decades after Bosnian war, humanitarian reflects on ADRA relief work during siege

Tihomir Kukolja

Note: The Huffington Post originally published this article. 

The international community is this month remembering the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which started on April 6, 1992. During the 1,425 days of the siege 11,541 people were killed, of whom 1,500 were children. Early in 1993 I had the privilege of spending one month in Sarajevo as a guest of the humanitarian agency Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), and to share a taste of what it meant to live in an open concentration camp. Moreover, I witnessed the hard and sacrificial work of 120 ADRA volunteers that made a major difference in the lives of the people who fought daily for their survival under the longest siege of the 20th century.

Now, 20 years later, ADRA's relief work in Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-1995 war should not be forgotten. Apart from the relief work of the U.N. agencies, ADRA was by far the most powerful and respected relief presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina thanks to its strict ethnic and religious impartiality. This is why I am gladly giving my contribution to its remembrance by revisiting the memories of my visit to Sarajevo in early 1993.

A sudden burst of sunshine heralds the arrival of a new day. "Who would say this is war?!" says Detlef Riemarzik, a photo journalist from Germany. The two of us are sharing a room in the home of Radomir and Mira Nikolic. Radomir is an Adventist pastor and the director ADRA in Sarajevo.

Through the window of our room our eyes scan the authentic mixture of European and Asian buildings and roofs around us. The last patches of snow are visibly melting, revealing the ugly nakedness of the wounded city. The surrounding hills gripping Sarajevo in a deadly embrace appear cunningly still.

It is 8 a.m., March 1993 -- only a few days ahead of Easter. The rooms and corridors of ADRA's offices in Sarajevo resemble a beehive. The chief coordinating team is meeting to discuss the priorities of the day. Today 120 volunteers will be busy distributing humanitarian packages, preparing an additional warehouse for the arrival of 30,000 food packages from a number of European countries, and distributing hundreds of letters that have arrived into the city with the latest convoy. In the first year of the Sarajevo siege ADRA provided the city's only efficient postal service, delivering close to 50,000 letters to its citizens cut off from the rest of the world.

Detlef checks his cameras, lenses, film. Stepping out of the sheltered ADRA residence into the open is a hazardous adventure. A group of people at the street gate asks us for a handful of any kind of food. "Just a potato or two, please," pleads one of them. Then, suddenly a sharp, metallic, thunder-like sound splits the air. Mortars -- one, two, three -- hit the nearby houses. Heavy machine guns rattle. Sniper bullets shriek through the air. Metal fences and gates ring. Heavy dust rains upon the gardens, houses, streets. Detlef and I hide behind a wall. There, together with another 50 people, we wait for another round of deadly blasts to pass.

An hour later we find ourselves visiting Kosevo Hospital -- overcrowded with the wounded and dying. Mufita Lazovic, a doctor, takes us around. People who have been disabled for life are telling us their stories. Hasan and Hana Camdszic, husband and wife, were wounded by an air missile while sleeping in their bedroom. Hasan has lost both, and Hana one of her legs. A tank missile has permanently disabled Elizabeta Krasni. Wounded Munira Milanovic describes with the tears in her eyes how she survived the blast that instantly killed her husband.

"Children suffer the most," explains the doctor while escorting us out of the hospital. "Not long ago we had to amputate both legs from a 6-year-old boy. After the surgery he begged his parents to give him back his legs."

Only a few minutes' walk from the hospital lies Bare Cemetery with no more room to receive the daily increase in the number of the dead. Kosevo Football Stadium has been turned into its extension. In reverence we stoop down and observe the thousands of orderly aligned graves. Detlef reluctantly decides that he must take a few pictures -- for the record. Next to one grave, three men support a collapsing woman. She is sobbing, screaming, cursing. There lies the dead body of her 19-year-old daughter, buried only a few days earlier.

A couple of hours later we arrive at the main ADRA warehouse in the city. Hundreds of people slide patiently toward the entrance that leads to four huge storage rooms packed with thousands of recently arrived humanitarian parcels. It seems as if the endless hours of queuing do not bother people doomed to waiting.

Through the eyes of his cameras, Detlef captures every moment worth remembering: an elderly woman with shaky hands placing her food parcel into something that used to be a stroller for babies; two young men loading their received goods onto their bicycles; a man totally immersed into reading the only paper published daily in Sarajevo; two women in tears embracing each other; a cat with a broken tail gliding through a jungle of human legs; and a man in a long queue slowly drifting forward and shouting, "Thank you ADRA!"

In Sarajevo every moment, every movement and every picture tells another story.

We then join Senad Vranic, one of the 50 ADRA postmen in Sarajevo. Not long ago one of their postmen was killed on duty while delivering letters to the homes of people not far from where we are. Although a volunteer, like any professional postman, Senad brings the letters right to the doorsteps of involuntarily separated mothers, fathers, children, grandparents and friends.

"There are hazardous days, too! Sudden blasts, mortars, bombs, snipers! Not a safe place to be! Still, I go because I know how much hope these letters bring to people separated from those they love the most," explains Senad as we reach the gates of a small oriental-looking house occupied by a young couple. As we enter their home we hear an exciting welcome: "Our ADRA, our friends have come to us!"

It is getting dark and we are back at the ADRA offices in Tepebasina 7. Hedviga Jirota, a cheerful 82-year-old lady of whom none would ever guess her age, has prepared a delicious supper composed of various humanitarian ingredients: blended cheese from Czechoslovakia; macaroni from Italy; rice and tinned corned beef from England; hot powdered milk, enriched with white coffee powder from Germany. She invites Radomir, Mira, Detlef, myself and a few others to take our places around the table. Could we ever expect a more beautiful feast in the undernourished Sarajevo?

"It is not easy. Many eyes are upon us. They think that ADRA can do what others can't," reflects pastor Nikolic at the dinner table. "In fact, we could do more if we would only have more trucks, diesel, better international support," he adds.

By now it is almost midnight. Detlef and I are staring again through the window of our room. The engines of the U.N. planes shake the dark sky above the city. Tonight they are bound for eastern Bosnia where they will parachute several tons of food into the night. A sudden burst of machine guns echoes through the streets somewhere close by. We hear angry shouts, screams and more firing. A couple of distant explosions break in the night. And then everything is quiet.

The moonlit houses look strange with all the lights out. The city, which appears to have fallen into a deep sleep, with only a few distant and dimmed lights creeping through the blankets stretched over the darkened windows, remind me of the romanticized pictures of Bethlehem the night when Jesus was born.

I wonder if in 1993, in more than a metaphorical way, Jesus walks the streets of an imprisoned and wounded Sarajevo? I cannot help but love those 120 dedicated volunteers of ADRA, Muslims and Christians together, who against all odds feed the hungry, distribute humanitarian aid, deliver the letters and give medicines to the sick. No doubt they are fulfilling Jesus' commission: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Through them God is sending His message that He has not forgotten Sarajevo.

Click here for a photo essay of Sarajevo. 

-- Tihomir Kukolja is executive director of the Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation and director of Renewing Our Minds. He was born in Pozega, Croatia and studied Theology and Communication at Adventist-run Newbold College in England. He has worked as a pastor, journalist, radio producer, humanitarian and leadership development and reconciliation activist. 

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