Bosnia stories

We were driving just outside of Sarajevo when the voice of Rudolf Reitz, director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), came over our two-way radio, warning that snipers were shooting from the hills up ahead.

It was February 1996 and the war was technically over, but there was still sporadic violence in Bosnia.

I was working as a freelance journalist in Eastern Europe, and had volunteered to go with Reitz’s Czech humanitarian aid group to deliver 30,000 pounds of food, clothes and supplies to the ravaged country. Two other journalists, a filmmaker and I were recording the event.

Reitz, who was riding in a van ahead of us, had been to Sarajevo on similar missions during the war, and apparently wasn’t fazed by the message he had just delivered, which someone translated for me. I exchanged nervous looks with the Czech journalist sitting beside me. Reitz wished us luck and we drove on, making it through unscathed.

It wasn’t my first time dabbling in a dangerous area of the globe, but Sarajevo had a lot to teach me. In 1991, given a choice of where to study abroad, I chose Northern Ireland. Nobody else had applied for that slot. I was fascinated by these extremes of the human experience. Call me a lunatic.

War Geography 101

In many ways, it’s impossible to be prepared when going to a war-torn country. Before going to Bosnia, the humanitarian group told us to bring food, water and warm clothes.

When we got there, stores sold film and food, but no maps. Not that maps would have made a difference – many of the streets were unmarked, with buildings either leveled or bombed beyond recognition.

It is useful to be aware that political boundaries can affect travel. In Northern Ireland, one knew the politics of some neighborhoods by the colors painted on the sidewalks. Blue, red and white indicated Protestant areas. Catholic neighborhoods had white, green and gold. People worried about being targeted by terrorism knew to stay out of the wrong neighborhoods, bars, even taxis, depending on which side they identified with.

In Mostar, a Bosnian city of about 60,000 people, the Neretva River marked the boundary between the Muslims and Croats. On the day our convoy was to leave for Sarajevo, I became separated from my travel partners on the Muslim side of the city, and needed to get back to the Croat side by the time the crew was to leave.

It was pouring rain and I had no idea where I was going. Neither did Denan Bosnjic, an English-speaking Muslim I had met that day, but he agreed to help me.

On foot, getting drenched and cold, we looked everywhere – including a police station – for a phone book, but without luck.

Bosnjic said not to worry, he knew the best shortcuts through the city from back during the war. But when we got to the United Nations footbridge across the river, he stopped abruptly, saying it would be too dangerous for him to accompany me to the Croat side.

I was terrified of being alone, not knowing my way and not knowing the language. As we stood there, some United Nations workers came along, speaking English. I followed them over the bridge, and they pointed me in the right direction.

Inconvenience as a way of life

The population of Sarajevo was about 650,000 before the war decreased it by half – the result of a mass exodus and thousands upon thousands of deaths. Residents said it wasn’t safe to walk the streets until the arrival of the multinational Implementation Force (IFOR) in December 1995.

It was a night in late February 1996 when we arrived at a Serbian home in Sarajevo, where we stayed for five nights. Bullets had cracked spiderweb patterns in the glass panes at the entrance. We took off our snow boots and dumped our belongings to the cadence of gunfire in the distance.

We had running water only twice a week. One morning Czech humanitarian aid worker Marta Lipusova and I washed our hair in a bucket of water and reused the water to flush the toilet. I grimaced, thinking about the amount of water I wasted on a regular basis at home.

It wasn’t long before I met Pavle Stanic, a 48-year-old Serb. He said he found God on March 18, 1993, when a rocket-propelled grenade smashed through the roof of his apartment while he was reading a Bible borrowed from a neighbor. Saying it was God’s will, he agreed to be my interpreter.

Transportation was scarce because many of the cars once used for transit had been overturned as barricades. One morning, as Stanic and I were on our way to a tram stop, he asked, "Why did you not come to Sarajevo before? A lot of people come now, after the war, and they want to go back and say ‘I’ve been to Sarajevo and I know everything.’ They don’t know anything."

I admitted that it hadn’t occurred to me to come during the war. Truthfully, I probably would’ve been too afraid. I told him I couldn’t possibly know "everything" about the war, but hoped I could learn something and that my stories, published in American papers, would be helpful.

Throughout our trip, my travel partners and I were in awe of the Bosnian people. Many had lost relatives, homes, schools and businesses to the war. They just kept on going and tried to make the best of what was left.

Marta Lipusova said something I’ve kept with me ever since: "I want to bring my children to Sarajevo, so they can see the difference between a big problem and a small problem."

I have to keep reminding myself of that here in the United States.

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