Blood and Water in Sarajevo

In February, Jim Douglass traveled to Zagreb and Sarajevo to continue his work of building support for a peace pilgrimage of world religious leaders to Sarajevo (see "Between the Lines," April 1994). Douglass then traveled to Rome, where he met with Vatican officials; and, with Jim Forest, co- secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and longtime activist, to Belgrade and Serbia in March to meet with Orthodox Church officials. He plans to return to his home in Birmingham, Alabama, in early April. Douglass, a theologian and activist, sent us this reflection while he was in Rome, midway through his own pilgrimage for peace. —The Editors


I say the word to myself in the center of Piazza San Pietro. Our vigil line, composed mostly of Catholic sisters, stands in the midst of students clowning and snapping pictures of one another, with pigeons strutting about them in the sun.

Once in a while, I glance up at the window of Pope John Paul II, one of the religious leaders who we are praying will go on pilgrimage to Sarajevo. We who vigil, fast, and pray for that vision, standing in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, seem distant from Sarajevo.

But in the pocket next to my heart is a reminder, a rock I picked up at the crater made in the Sarajevo market by the mortar shell that struck there February 5. And on my feet are another reminder—the boots that stood there that afternoon of the massacre in a stream of blood and rain.

THIS IS WHAT I SAW in Sarajevo February 1-10, 1994:

It was total darkness the night of February 1 when the United Nations APC taxi from the airport shuddered to a halt, clanked its rear doors open, and dropped me off beside the Catholic cathedral in Sarajevo. Soldiers challenged me for a passport. Then I groped my way through the dark streets to Renata’s apartment, three blocks away.

On my first visit to Sarajevo last August, I had called up from the street in daylight, "Renata," and her brother-in-law, Jagger, had appeared. This time in darkness I called, "Jagger," and it was Renata who came down to open the door.

Jagger was gone. She said government soldiers had taken him with them two days ago. Jagger was a deserter from the Bosnian army. Sickened by the killing, he had left the front lines several times. The last time he was in hiding in the apartment. The soldiers who had come every few days knocking on the door finally refused to believe Renata’s "he’s not here" and burst in. They found Jagger in a back room and took him to the front lines. Renata feared for his life.

She rejoiced in the few gifts I had managed to bring with me on the U.N. cargo plane, especially money to buy "trees" (firewood). As we talked on in the freezing apartment, Renata’s 5-month-old son, Haris, lay bundled up like a little Eskimo. Enough deutschemarks to buy trees to warm the apartment the rest of the winter could mean life itself for Haris.

For the other Sarajevans whose homes I visited in the following days, it was the letters in my backpack from their families abroad that meant life. The 22-month-long siege of Sarajevo had blocked all mail in and out of the city. The only exceptions were the letters carried by an occasional visitor such as me.

Letters are the hope of Sarajevo. They contain precious family news, cash, and, often, information and documents to assist the escape of loved ones from the city.

As I walked the streets of Sarajevo, with sounds of sniper and artillery fire all around, I knew that almost everyone was trying to get out of there. Even those few committed to staying were trying to evacuate their children, parents—their most vulnerable loved ones. They must get them out before...the end.

But the obstacles are great, both from the surrounding siege forces and from Bosnian government policies discouraging emigration. One family hoped that my accompanying their eldest member before U.N. officials might help him get out of Sarajevo. He would then try out the new U.S. immigration documents in the letter I had brought from his son in St. Louis.

I agreed to go with him. But the security police refused to give him the permission needed to get as far as the U.N. building. What good is a document allowing entry to the United States when you can’t even take the first step out of your own country?

SARAJEVANS’ MOST pervasive problem—hunger—was personified in my friend Voyeur. When I first met Voyeur last August, his emaciated body had gone a deathly yellow. I feared Voyeur would be dead from starvation by February. But surprisingly he was alive, with slightly more weight on his body.

I understood why when I learned that Voyeur was able to evacuate his father to Belgrade last fall. Until then Voyeur had been starving himself by giving most of his already tiny UNHCR (U.N. High Commis-sion for Refugees) food allotments to his bed-ridden father. The mail Voyeur gave me this time to take out of Sarajevo was different from August’s. Instead of a stack of desperate appeals to friends abroad for food parcels (which could never get through to Sarajevo), Voyeur handed me instead a single letter to his father in Belgrade. For now, Voyeur and his father are survivors.

A Sarajevan has to survive on a food allotment that is less than 40 percent of what UNHCR estimates is necessary to keep an average person alive in a temperate climate. Those like Voyeur who share their allotments with weaker family members end up starving. Many malnourished people in Sarajevo are dying from simple illnesses because their body systems are exhausted. Hepatitis is a big killer.

Sarajevo’s Auxiliary Catholic Bishop Pero Sudar told me, "Sarajevo needs to be saved by food, not bombs." Bishop Sudar sees people fainting at Mass who haven’t eaten for several days. He said Caritas, Merhamet, and other relief organizations have large stocks of food in storage in Split, Croatia, which they are prepared to fly into Sarajevo. Yet the United Nations refused to allow an already available plane to supplement the present airlift. Sudar said U.N. authorities, like the surrounding Serb forces that block food convoys, are blackmailing the Bosnian government: "Sign the agreements we want [based on territories gained by ‘ethnic cleansing’], then you can have food."

JAGGER RETURNED safely to Renata’s apartment two days after my arrival. He had agreed to go back to the front lines three days later rather than undergo a two-to-10 year jail sentence for refusing. So in the meantime, like last August, Jagger and I walked the streets of Sarajevo together.

On Saturday, February 5, the day the market was bombed, Jagger and I were caught in downtown Sarajevo behind a fence between two open areas that were being hit by sniper fire. I shall always remember a small, hunched-over woman in her kerchief and winter coat, perhaps 80 years old, trying with all her might to run faster than the sniper’s bullets could find her. She made it, as did the others around us.

That day Jagger and I crossed many such sniper firings, with people scurrying and shots ringing out. We made it safely to the President’s Building. There I learned of the market massacre in a meeting with Mirko Pejanovic, one of the seven members of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzego-vina.

Later that afternoon, Jagger and I visited the market. The dead and wounded had been removed. Rain was falling in the dusk. Blood and water ran together under my boots, as the blood and water from Jesus’ side.

The meaning of the market bombing is evident from a knowledge of Sarajevo. One-half block from the market is the Croatian Catholic cathedral. Just up the street is the Serbian Orthodox church. A few meters away from it are a historic mosque and synagogue. Sarajevans from each of these religious and national backgrounds that constitute Bosnia gather regularly in the market. The underlying meaning of the market is the vision of Sarajevo: The commitment of Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews, and other Bosnians to live together as a single people—which is what they were doing when the bomb fell.

On the other hand, the separatist forces that bombed the market were saying, as they have through 22 months of sniper and artillery attacks on Sarajevo: We cannot and must not live together.

Those who died in the market are martyrs to a vision of living together. It is their blood I saw as the blood of Christ.

It is possible that their blood may have saved Bosnia. As I write this in early March, the Bosnian government has just signed an agreement with Croatian negotiators that would unite their war-torn territories under one flag in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This hopeful accord, brokered by the United States in the aftermath of the market massacre, is a beginning in reconstituting Bosnia.

But Sarajevo remains surrounded by separatist Serb forces and without resources, a besieged and starving city. Its future, as that of the rest of eastern Bosnia, is still controlled by the forces of "ethnic cleansing."

ON MY FEBRUARY 10 flight out of Sarajevo on a virtually empty U.N. cargo plane, my backpack was again stuffed with letters bearing the hopes of Sarajevans. Two of the letters I had been asked to deliver personally.

The first was from Jagger to his wife, Ljeela, "with something special in it," he said, for his 5-year-old son, Dado. Ljeela, who is of Serb descent (Jagger is Muslim), had at Jagger’s insistence gone with Dado to live with her father in Serbia. She and Dado had been safe in the enemy’s heartland, while its shells rained down on Sarajevo. Now I look forward to meeting them when I travel soon to Belgrade to fast, pray, and meet with Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church to urge him to join Pope John Paul II and other religious leaders on pilgrimage to Sarajevo.

While carrying this letter to Ljeela and Dado, I remembered Jagger’s departure to the front lines. Kneeling, he loosely stuffed the small pack he carried, the reluctant soldier of an ill-equipped army. Attached to the pack was the canteen I gave him last summer. He had with him also my father’s fishing knife, passed on to me after Dad’s death and now given to Jagger.

He stood up, looked me in the eye, then kissed me on both cheeks. "So long, Jimmy," he said. After goodbyes to members of his family, he edged his way through the apartment doorway and disappeared in the Sarajevan night. I pray that I shall some day see Jagger again, and more important, that Ljeela and Dado will.

The second letter I was asked to deliver was from Reis ul-ulema Mustafa Ceric, head of the Islamic community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to Pope John Paul II. In it the Reis ul-ulema asked the pope, "at this moment of desperate need for my people," to "join me in bringing together all the world’s faiths in Sarajevo, center of faith which has become a center of suffering and death. I believe God is calling us to this urgent task of transforming death to life, darkness to light, through the power of our praying together in Sarajevo."

Once again, letters bear the hopes of Sarajevans.

Jim Douglass is a Catholic peace activist, author, and theologian.

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