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Springtime In Sniper Alley

Despite the warm winds of spring in war-torn Bosnia, chilly relations between the locals and Western relief groups and NATO soldiers may be making an already difficult situation worse

Sarajevo--Signs of spring are rising up in old Sarajevo much like local mountain flowers resurrected from a winter's sleep. Closed until last December, traffic now fills Sarajevo's main street, nicknamed "Sniper Alley" during the four-year war. A handful of high-priced hotels and restaurants have reopened; trams are running, except where burned-out cars block the tracks. And on a sunny Saturday, pedestrians fill the central streets where they window shop and talk, over the noise of carpenters and painters attending to repairs without number.

Enver and Stana Reddic are perched high above, watching the city spring forth new life. Both are Christians who attend Sarajevo's only evangelical/Pentecostal church. Both remained in their fifth-floor Sniper Alley flat through the four years of fighting-that is, when they weren't ducking into a bomb shelter nearby.

Now, from her sun-bathed kitchen balcony, Stana, of Croat descent, points excitedly across the Miljacka River to a nearby pedestrian bridge. Someone actually is walking across it! It is the first time in three years she has witnessed such a sight.

Suddenly Stana's voice changes tone. "There are still snipers in those buildings," she warns, pointing to ghostly towers a block away, across the river's demarcation line. Still further away is another all-too-frequent sight: Smoke is rising from two Sarajevan neighborhoods where Serb troops are making their final withdrawal, burning the neighborhoods and stealing furniture and valuables as they flee.

Yet in Sarajevo today, there is too much work waiting to waste time on Serb smokestacks and stolen heirlooms. Enver, of Muslim descent, directs the Sarajevo relief effort of Agape Ministries, a humanitarian arm of the Evangelical Church for Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. He counsels outside relief groups on the needs of his city. Today, 16 Germans are eating lunch in Enver and Stana's flat, before unloading a new shipment of food and clothing into an Agape warehouse that is already jam-packed.

U.S. troops are also in Bosnia and may stay longer than the year promised by President Clinton. A New York Times article last week reported military authorities in Bosnia are pressing for "at least a reduced NATO force ... beyond the currently scheduled departure at the end of this year."

Relief groups are preparing for the long haul. Some determined indigenous evangelicals are effectively ministering to Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats alike. But some locals say that Western relief groups aren't listening to their concerns and that NATO troops at times create more resentment than peace.

The disconnect between well-intentioned Westerners and the Bosnian people they've come to help is too readily apparent, as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officers in their white Land Rovers whiz by farmers in horse-drawn carts and Bosnian women gleaning firewood from a defunct railbed; it is like one world traveling through another. "They've just added another layer of bureaucracy here," laments Mercy Corps' Terry


In Tuzla, located 100 winding miles from Sarajevo, there are nearly 20,000 refugees housed in 55 "collective centers," sites through which relief agencies are supposed to route their aid. Among the most tragic refugees are those who fled the Serb massacre at Srebrenica last July and now have no homes to which to return.

About 150 of these refugees still inhabit one small, local school. In one section, 21 adults and 12 children reside in two classrooms filled with bunkbeds and wet laundry. They receive water for one hour in the early morning and must gather their own wood to fill a small stove that provides their only heat.

Just blocks away from these desolate women and children, 50 humanitarian groups reside in Tuzla alongside UNHCR in a five-story complex. Yet despite their proximity, some of the refugee women told WORLD they have not seen a doctor or any type of health worker since they first arrived here last fall. Dika Halilovic, one refugee mother, complained that the government-run pharmacy has no medicine for her two young children, and she is told to buy even aspirin from a private pharmacy. "I came with nothing," says Mrs. Halilovic, "and I have nowhere to go."

UNHCR field assistant Drazun Hadic acknowledges that real glitches are complicating the relief efforts. For instance, he says, "Too often, the medicine donated is for malaria and tropical diseases when what these people need is basic things like aspirin and antibiotics for their children."

And because most relief groups work through local authorities, their imported medicine isn't directly administered to those who need it, but is directed through local authorities and often "lost." "History will show," asserts Mr. Hadic, "that these people have been used-by everybody."

But there are stranger problems in Bosnia today than just misrouted help and aid; local relief officials complain that, in some cases, there is suddenly too much of the wrong kind of help. Branko Lovrec is the director of the Christian Resource Center, a Baptist organization based in Zagreb that has provided food and medical relief to Tuzla and Sarajevo throughout the war; he complains that Western organizations want to use his indigenous group as a service center, rather than on a partnership basis.

"We don't want to be the errand boy," he told WORLD.

Mr. Lovrec is not alone. Mostar pastor Nikola Skrinjaric opened a recent conference with Western humanitarian groups by praying, "Lord, help those who come from the West to lay their agendas down."

Mr. Lovrec singles out for criticism Operation Christmas Child, a program sponsored during the last four years of war by United States-based Samaritan's Purse. In the program American children filled shoeboxes with toothpaste, brushes, notepaper, pens, toys, and other small necessities for children in war-torn areas.

Mr. Lovrec's group, which during the war carried Samaritan Purse shoeboxes to Sarajevo and fed refugees elsewhere, is in the process of calculating the cost of warehousing and transporting the 400,000 shoeboxes packed by American school children and sent for distribution in Bosnia. That arrangement now is under renegotiation, Mr. Lovrec said, because Samaritan's Purse wants to open its own organization in Bosnia.

"The shoeboxes are not a problem because they do establish some kind of link," said Mr. Lovrec, "but we have to calculate how much it costs to deliver them." In the past, according to Mr. Lovrec, Samaritan's Purse has covered most, but not all, of the transportation expense.

Ken Isaacs, who coordinated the international distribution of the shoeboxes for Samaritan's Purse, said Samaritan's Purse was withholding 10 percent of the costs of administration and distribution of the program until final accounting reports had been received from the Christian Resource Center. Mr. Isaacs said one of the problems with Operation Christmas Child was that the program grew fourfold in one year. He said, "We appreciate their work and their intention is good. I think they're swamped. But we're going to continue to support them." He said the two groups were discussing future work on small-scale economic development projects.

Mr. Lovrec also complained that too many Americans accompanied the shoeboxes just to take pictures.

Samaritan's Purse brought four American teams of 18-20 people each to deliver the boxes in Bosnia last December. According to Mr. Isaacs reporters followed the group only for a few days. "It's a vital necessity to report back to our donors visually," he said of the cameras. "It's part of our culture."

And even when money and supplies are properly routed, Serbian renegades still can foul things up. World Concern representative Peter Sant and his Croatian driver were stopped recently and ordered from their car at gunpoint. Two armed men, believed to be Serbs, took off with the car and over $20,000 in World Concern cash intended for relief projects throughout Bosnia. NATO soldiers chased the hijacked vehicle but lost it in the winding mountain roads.

U.S. Army Major Tom O'Sullivan's problem is less with discharging orders than with the limitations of the orders themselves. It's Day 89 for him at Tuzla Air Base and Major O'Sullivan's turn to man Command Central. As battle captain, he sits center stage beneath a large white tent. Maps and close advisors are all around him. In the tent's back corners reside liaison officers for the 31 countries who make up IFOR, the NATO acronym for implementation force. Everyone is connected to everyone else by laptops and cellular phones; they can know instantly if a British soldier steps on a landmine outside Sarajevo or if a Humvee slips into the river bed up at the Croatian border.

They are well-connected, yes, but in other ways really not connected at all. The U.S. military in Bosnia is operating almost completely detached from Bosnia's post-war reality, under high-tech canvas offering little contact with the real war-torn refugees.

The main camp for U.S. troops is located 15 miles up a winding country lane shared by horsedrawn carts, Yugos, buses, pedestrians, and U.S. Army convoys. From the local perspective the convoys represent only a few lung-fulls of dust and little involvement in their day-to-day problems.

The hard fact for this peacekeeping delegation is that the one-year limit on NATO troop deployment, however the U.S. Congress might deem the order, has created a reputation among Bosnian citizens of elite Westerners simply passing through without long-term concern for, or commitment to, the country's future well-being.

IFOR efforts to protect its troops have created still more psychological distance with locals. For instance, the U.S. army's pontoon bridges across the Sava River are off-limits to civilians, as is all of the IFOR base and all worship services or cultural events there. Residents in Tuzla with their rationed water and firewood no doubt are aware that the NATO soldiers have plentiful supplies of water and imported fuel.

U.S. troops are required to be in their "hard skin" at all times when outdoors. That means wearing helmets, secured by chin straps, flak vests, ammunition belts, and carrying weapons at all times even when walking from tents to the mess hall.

Army officers regret the discrepancies and unnatural barriers that exist. "Every soldier wrestles with this issue," says 1st Armored Division chaplain and lieutenant colonel Scott McChrystal. "In other missions we've been able to do a lot on the humanitarian side, but because of the three factions [now existing in the former Yugoslavia]-intentionally, in order to help all three factions-we have by design shied away from that kind of [humanitarian] mission. It's confusing even for an insider."

Like its elder sister, Sarajevo, the city of Tuzla has severe problems. Weary and frustrated refugees demonstrate in Tuzla's streets to protest their treatment by military and relief groups. They say it's not what the Dayton accords promised. The 120-page Dayton peace accord guarantees the right of all refugees to return to their homes. It pledges free national elections within nine months and commits the international community to economic rebuilding. Just four paragraphs are devoted to the military mission of IFOR; most of the document describes the job of a civilian coordinator (former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt) who oversees the provision for refugees and economic assistance. Most of the language is ambiguous, calling for compensation of refugees who can't be returned to their homes, for instance, but failing to say compensation by whom.

Balconies of Soviet-issue apartment buildings sit full of firewood, the only source of heat in town. Smoke from a thousand stoves swathes the morning sky with a dense haze that mingles with pollution from nearby chemical plants. Many buildings sit empty and sandbagged, still too damaged by three years of war to be inhabitable. Roofs everywhere need repair and the city has a further problem: Its center is sinking after years of salt mining hauled deposits from under buildings.

"Tuzla literally is going down," says Pentecostal pastor Nenad Jambrovic, who is fighting to help maintain local morale.

The combat in Tuzla reached its height last May when 72 children were killed and 150 people were wounded in one grenade attack in the center of the city.

Yet even amid the fighting, Mr. Jambrovic's church has made a breakthrough in the city. Prior to the war, no written record existed of a Protestant church in the Tuzla region, which is dominated by Franciscans and Muslims. Now Mr. Jambrovic's Evangelical Church in Tuzla fills line No. 1 in a municipal registry of churches.

The war-birthed church began in October 1994 with 10 believers. Regular Sunday attendance is now at 50. Mr. Jambrovic says that the church is in the springtime of what he calls a "four-seasons strategy." Presently he's trying to strengthen the church internally, in expectation of a "summer of city-wide ministry" to come.

A Croatian who has worked with Campus Crusade and Teen Challenge, Mr. Jambrovic combines a contemporary American bent toward worship that includes Keith Green praise songs with solid Bible teaching and frequent two-hour services that are well attended. The church is poised this summer to give out 20,000 New Testaments to children, to work with the many wounded and handicapped veterans who are returning to Tuzla, and to continue its work of reconciling ethnic groups.

And beyond providing relief outreach, the church can offer solace for the spirit that IFOR troops and most humanitarian groups never could-or would.

One new church member, Mirjana, typifies Mr. Jambrovic's strategy. After three months of eating corn bread and beans three times a day during the Serb siege, Mirjana came to the church because she heard they were offering free meals. Mirjana, raised nominally Catholic, came to know Christ in the evangelical church. She is now a member and regular attender. Her only son, who deserted the Serbian army to avoid fighting the Bosnian Croats with whom he'd grown up, also has become a Christian through the church, as has his girlfriend, a Muslim.

Indigenous Christians like Mr. Jambrovic represent real hope in their devastated land. While they appreciate outside aid, they know the challenge ultimately remains theirs to rebuild not only their country's infrastructure but also its heart.

Back in Sarajevo, Enver Reddic is trying to decide what he will do with the glut of fresh supplies the 16 Germans are unloading at the Agape warehouse. He will probably pass many of the new supplies on to the Red Cross, he says; it is the largest humanitarian presence in the city.


The reason is simple: Agape Ministries wants to minister directly from the church to its people. Members make contact with those in need and bring bring them aid. The approach, used throughout Agape's network of relief centers, has allowed Agape workers to expose numerous unbelievers to the gospel; and Agape's work has a growing track record for promoting ethnic reconciliation.

Enver's deflated congregation (church attendance is near 30: two members were killed in the war, and others fled the city) is struggling to meet others' needs, while still attending to their own day-to-day survival. It's a large task made even harder since Enver isn't the sort to tell anyone no.

But with spring coming to Bosnia, Enver knows things will be different. The snow atop Tuzla's Majevica Mountains is melting, and the bare countryside is showing forth new life. Men are sanding smooth their shovel handles to turn long rows of rich soil by hand. Women burn brush from front-yard vegetable plots, and the few village hardware stores have moved their lawn mowers out front, hoping people will buy.

This is unprecedented activity. For the last four years spring has marked a return to combat, as warriors across the former Yugoslavia dug themselves from frosty shelters to resume shelling one another. Though Bosnia's people have far to go, everyone believes this spring will be different. Relief efforts may be somewhat jumbled, and military enforcement at times jaded, but hope seems stronger still. As one Tuzla resident, Vukica Zunic, said, "Nothing is impossible." She added that now, at least one thing is certain: "No Serbs, Croats, or Muslims want more war. It's been enough."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.