Spotlight on Sarajevo: An Epic Rescue from a City Under Siege

Spotlight on Sarajevo: An Epic Rescue from a City Under Siege

By: Ilana Stern - Editor and Historical Advisor

JDC is the global Jewish 9-1-1, putting Jewish values into action when the world needs it most. The 1992-95 Bosnian War was one of those times. The way JDC responded to the siege of Sarajevo is a story that needs retelling—to educate a new generation, and inspire us all.

Mortar shells blasted through rooftops, while sniper fire brought daily life to a standstill. It was April 5, 1992, and Sarajevo, the capital of the newly independent nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was suddenly besieged by Serb forces and the Yugoslav People’s Army. It was the start of the Bosnian War—a conflict that over the next three years would kill thousands of civilians and ravage a once tranquil city that had dazzled the world eight years earlier when it hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.

The city’s Jewish community turned to JDC for help – a call that put “rescue”, a core element of the organization’s mission since 1914, back at the forefront of its operations.

With barricades dividing its main thoroughfares, and street battles erupting between rival groups, Sarajevo became the setting for the latest stage in the disintegration of Yugoslavia that followed the demise of that nation’s communist regime.

Leveraging its professional expertise and neutral standing amid the region’s bitter ethnic and political divisions, JDC successfully evacuated Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the city, and brought desperately needed relief supplies to people who remained under siege.

Evacuations Begin by Air: Sarajevo to Belgrade

While JDC had already rushed emergency supplies to the city, the leaders of the Sarajevo Jewish community soon appealed to JDC to organize an immediate evacuation. Working in concert with other Jewish communities in Croatia and Serbia, JDC staff planned a series of civilian airlifts, gaining clearance for the operation from all of the military forces in the area.

On April 10th, three flights took off from the Sarajevo airport despite sporadic sniper fire, and 194 Jews and other city residents, including 54 children, were airlifted to safety in Belgrade. Two subsequent airlifts brought additional evacuees to Belgrade later that month, including Jews who arrived in time to attend two Passover Seders hosted by the Jewish community in Belgrade.

Bus Convoys Take Over: Sarajevo to Split

When safety concerns made further airlifts impossible, Sarajevo’s Jewish leaders negotiated a land route to Split, Croatia, a significant port and transportation hub. This harrowing bus journey on winding mountain roads took from 12 to 24 hours and brought evacuees past 38 checkpoints in territories controlled by the warring parties.

Despite the difficulties, between August and November 1992, six bus convoys brought 1,053 people from Sarajevo to Split, where many were housed at a former JDC-supported summer camp. This complicated and dangerous endeavor was spearheaded by a seasoned JDC professional, the late Eli Eliezri, alongside other colleagues.

Over the course of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, JDC organized, coordinated, and funded a total of 11 convoys, rescuing over 2,100 Muslims, Christians, and Jews from Sarajevo and helping them settle in safer locations in the former Yugoslavia and beyond.

Relief Convoys Provide Lifesaving Aid Beyond the Jewish Community

In addition to these dramatic rescue efforts, JDC soon turned to organizing food relief and medical supplies for the city’s besieged residents, working with a constellation of donors and partners that spanned religious and geographic divides. The supplies were sent into Sarajevo and shared by the Jewish community through La Benevolencija, its non-sectarian aid network, which maintained good relations with all of the groups in the area.

Over the course of the three-year conflict, over 1,000 tons of food and clothing were distributed by La Benevolencija; a free pharmacy provided as much as 50 percent of all medicines available in the city; a home care program was developed; and 300 hot meals a day were served at a food kitchen to needy residents of all backgrounds.

Later that decade, JDC would mount additional rescue and relief efforts in other parts of this troubled region, in keeping with its core mission to be there for Jews in danger or in need wherever they may live.  To learn more about JDC’s ongoing work rescuing Jews in danger and leading the Jewish response to crises, visit jdc.org/our-work.