Memories of Sarajevo

Memories of Sarajevo prompted Yechiel B., now JDC Country Director for the Czech Republic, Tunisia, and Algeria, then JDC Country Director for the Former Yugoslavia, to reflect on his work during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina:

The opening of Sarajevo’s new Central Station made the news because, after 18 years, the train route from Sarajevo to Belgrade has finally been reinstated.

When war stopped those trains back in 1992, the Jewish Community of Sarajevo had been caught in the middle. JDC quickly chartered three planes from the Yugoslav Air Force (part of the same army that was besieging the city) to transport more than 400 innocent civilians—Jews and non-Jews—to Belgrade in the very first rescue operation of the war. In the following weeks JDC organized two more air evacuations (nicknamed Haggada Beit by the Jews of Sarajevo) before the airport was shut down. With JDC support, the Community then sent out from the city a series of bus convoys taking evacuees of all faiths and origins to the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, along the Adriatic.

What was exceptional was that JDC and its partners were able to negotiate with all sides a temporary halt in the hostilities so that convoys could exit Sarajevo and leave the war zone safely.

At the same time, JDC and the Jewish Community of Sarajevo set up a special humanitarian aid channel based in Croatia to transport supplies into the besieged capital. Our white truck with the giant blue menorah on its side (the symbol of La Benevolencija, the local Jewish humanitarian aid organization) became a familiar sight, passing through the numerous checkpoints even when other organizations could not get their trucks in. At one point, this JDC-La Benevolencija supply line became the most important source of humanitarian aid to Sarajevo after the UN itself. The key to such success was being able to build relations of trust on all sides of the conflict.

While the war raged on until 1995, JDC worked steadily with its partners in the region to evacuate, house, feed, and provide medical care where necessary for as many as 3,600 persons, half Jews and half Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.

The reinstatement of the Sarajevo-Belgrade train route so many years later is now being embraced by all national and ethnic groups in the region as a hopeful sign for the future. For us at JDC, it is also fitting reminder of a wartime struggle to keep open such possibilities for renewed multi-ethnic cooperation.

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