God Has Not Forgotten Sarajevo

Exactly 30 years ago, in February and March 1993, Tihomir Kukolja paid a month long visit to the besieged city of Sarajevo in a war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. Spending the unintended four weeks in a city subjected to a continuing shelling and sniper fire from the surrounding hills had a transformative impact on him. The original version of this article was released first in April 1993.

A sudden burst of sunshine heralds the arrival of a new day. “Who would say this is war?!” says Detlef Riemarzik, a photojournalist from Germany. The two of us are sharing a room in the home of Radomir and Mira Nikolic. Radomir is the director of ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) in Sarajevo. 

Through the window of our room our eyes scan over the authentic mixture of European and Ottoman buildings, and roofs around us. The last patches of snow are melting, revealing the ugly nakedness of the wounded city. The surrounding hills that hold Sarajevo in a deadly embrace appear cunningly still. It is 8 o’clock in the morning, March 1993 — only a few days before 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 aid, preparing an additional warehouse for the arrival of 30,000 food packages from several European countries. They will also distribute hundreds of letters that have arrived in the city with the latest ADRA 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, films. Stepping out of the sheltered ADRA residence into the open is a hazardous adventure. A group of people at the street gate ask 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 are visiting Kosevo Hospital — overcrowded with the wounded and dying. Mufita Lazovic, a doctor, takes us around. People who have been disabled are telling us their stories. Hasan and Hana Camdzic were wounded by an air missile while asleep in their bedroom. Hasan has lost both, and Hana one of her legs. 

A tank missile badly wounded Elizabeta Krasni. She may never walk again. “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 space to receive the dead. Kosevo Football Stadium has been turned into its extension. In reverence we stand still 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 bitterly. 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 trembling hands placing her food parcel into something that used to be a baby stroller; two young men loading their received goods onto bicycles; a man immersed in reading the only newspaper 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 slowly drifting forward through the long queue, saying “Thank you ADRA!”

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

Later in the day I joined Senad Vranic, one of 50 ADRA postmen in Sarajevo. Not long ago one of his colleagues was killed 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, friends.

“There are hazardous days, too! Sudden blasts, 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 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 lady in her 80s, prepared a delicious supper using various donated ingredients: blended cheese from Czechoslovakia; macaroni from Italy; rice and tinned corned beef from England; hot powder milk, enriched with white coffee powder from Germany. She invites Radomir, Mira, Detlef, me and a few others to take our places around the table. Could we ever expect a more delightful feast in an 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 only had more trucks,” he adds.

Soon 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. 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 fed the hungry, distributed humanitarian aid, delivered the letters and gave medicines to the sick. In their own way 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 to the besieged people of Sarajevo: “I have not forgotten you.”

All photos taken by Tihomir Kukolja

About Tihomir Kukolja

Tihomir Kukolja, born in Pozega, Croatia. Studied, lived and worked in Yugoslavia, Croatia, United Kingdom, Australia and the US. Educated in theology, communications, and radio journalism. Worked as a church pastor, media professional, radio producer and presenter, journalist, religious liberty activist, and reconciliation and leadership development activist. Lives in Houston TX, USA. Until recently served as the Executive Director, Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation (Forum), and Director of Renewing Our Minds (ROM) initiative. Loves photography, blogging and social media.
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