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     As I hug and kiss my only child goodbye, my fourteen-year-old son, Matthew, at Tampa International Airport, I don’t realize this is the first of many goodbyes we will say in the next five years. It is June 22, 1993, and I am on my way to Italy to join an international peace group headed for Sarajevo.
     In early April 1992, nationalist Bosnian Serbs supported by Serbian leadership from Belgrade and Serb soldiers of the Yugoslav National Army dug tanks and weapons into the mountains circling Sarajevo and began firing into the city in an attempt to destroy its tradition of diversity.
     Since that April, pictures of men and women of Sarajevo dressed in business clothes, sprinting across downtown intersections in an attempt to avoid sniper fire have filled the morning papers and the nightly television news programs. The scenes of dead and wounded civilians, children included, scattered on the streets of Sarajevo have haunted me. A young mother of two, interviewed on National Public Radio in Sarajevo, moved me to realize how much we had in common. She said before the war she and her husband both worked, had two cars, two kids, an apartment, a weekend cottage. A normal life.
     I remember Sarajevo from the television coverage of the 1984 Winter Olympics: a snow-covered valley and mountain slopes dotted with lights sparkling like tiny diamonds. In the tradition of Bosnian hospitality, Sarajevo’s residents accommodated Olympic visitors in their homes because there were not enough commercial accommodations. Now seeing civilians targeted daily and hearing rumors of concentration camps in this European country, my heart sinks. After Hitler’s reign of terror in World War II, the international community vowed never again; now history is repeating itself. If genocide is happening in Bosnia, it can happen anywhere. We all are at risk.
     During this time, my thoughts returned to my childhood friend Doris, who was Jewish and my best friend in the sixth grade. Although I am not Jewish, I often joined her on Saturday mornings for the children’s service at her synagogue. Nazis killed many of her relatives in Germany during the Holocaust. As a child, I promised myself if it ever happened again, I’d “do something.” Now I feel a responsibility to be an example for my son, to teach him by my actions, to stand against discrimination and injustice. In the early weeks of 1993, I decide to do whatever it takes to go to the former Yugoslavia and help in whatever way I am able.
     Now five months after making that decision I board a plane to New York, connecting to an overnight flight to Rome. At the airport in Rome I join Anne Montgomery, a New York-based Roman Catholic nun and peace activist, who is also joining the peace initiative in Sarajevo. Anne has spent many of her sixty-six years as an advocate for peace and justice, even doing prison time for participating in anti-war demonstrations.
     I have just turned fifty and am divorced. I often attend the St. Petersburg Friends (Quaker) Meeting and consider myself a pacifist. I do not have a profession or a career. I began my adult life as a ballet/jazz dancer in New York City. For many years since returning to Florida, I have earned a living cleaning houses. I have no college degree, do not know how to use a computer, and have no confidence in my writing skills. I know little about Bosnia. But I do know an inner voice compels me to go there.
     Several months ago, I learned an Italian peace organization; Beati i Costruttori di Pace (Blessed are the Peacemakers) is organizing a project called We Share one Peace to establish peace camps this summer in and around Sarajevo. Soon, Beati will join with other international groups in forming the international civilian peace initiative Mir Sada! (Peace Now!). Throughout this summer of 1993, delegations of sixty to eighty people from around the world plan to stay one or two weeks in or around Sarajevo to offer moral support, urge a non-violent solution to the conflict, and seek the restoration of full human rights to all citizens. The Beati organization believes according to International Law of Human Rights, the search for peace is not an exclusive function of governments but is the right and responsibility of all people. More than 2,000 civilians from all over the world will soon arrive in Split, Croatia, to prepare to descend on Sarajevo during the first week in August, in an attempt to halt the fighting — at least for a few days. Anne and I have volunteered to spend the summer in Sarajevo as part of the organizing team.
     In the days before our departure from the United States, the war in Bosnia escalated. The Serbs on the mountains circling Sarajevo hold the city in a stranglehold. No one can get in or out except on U.N. planes — if the airport in Sarajevo is even open.
     When we arrive in Rome, Anne and I call the Beati headquarters in Padova, the city of St. Anthony, located about 35 minutes by train from Venice. The news is disturbing: Intense fighting continues to block all roads to Sarajevo. We are to go to Padova to wait until transportation is possible.
     Late that afternoon our train pulls into Padova. The first thing I notice as we arrive at our host’s apartment is the adjacent cornfield. Deep green and knee high, I come to measure my time in Padova by the growth of the cornstalks. My biggest fear is I will still be here when the corn is harvested — that I will never get to Sarajevo.
     As the days get longer and the corn grows taller, Beati organizers continue to struggle with the logistical problem of getting the organizing team into Sarajevo. My determination to get to Sarajevo grows with the corn. Every breath becomes an affirmation: “I am willing and able to go to Sarajevo! I am strong and able to do what I need to do to get to Sarajevo. I am going to Sarajevo soon!” I can think of nothing else.
     One day someone says to me, “What’s your hurry? Enjoy where you are; you may not have it much longer.” This stops me in my tracks. I begin to focus on the present, a lesson I will continue to practice in Sarajevo. (This outlook brings me inner peace on many occasions in the coming years as I wait days at a time in Ancona, Italy, for space on the airlift or for the airport to open in Sarajevo so the airlift can operate.)
     Just as it looks as though Beati might abandon the whole project due to lack of entry into the war zone, someone suggests we all apply for U.N. press cards. The team consists of Anne and me — the only Americans — a young man from Spain, and a number of Italians. Immediately Anne and I contact friends in the media back home to ask whether we can represent them as correspondents in Bosnia. With media credentials, we will then apply to the U.N. press office in Split, Croatia, for a U. N. Protection Force International press card. The United Nations permits journalists to fly on planes transporting humanitarian aid from Ancona to Sarajevo; planes also fly from Split.
     I contact friends at WMNF, a non-profit, listener-sponsored FM radio station in Tampa, Florida. Immediately, staff members confirm they will fax the required letter to the U.N. press office in Split. The next day, Anne receives a “yes” from a magazine in New York. Because many legitimate Italian journalists are already working in Bosnia, the Italians in our group have a more difficult time finding media representation. It will be more than a week before they begin their journey, trickling in one and two at a time. Days earlier, Anne and I agree we are willing to go to Sarajevo without the other members of the group if we are the first to receive press cards.
     The reality of our departure becomes more concrete when Beati staff members take us to a warehouse containing food donated for the peace project. We painstakingly choose items we feel will sustain us in the days and weeks ahead — until the contents of the warehouse can be transported into Sarajevo along with the 2,000 people who will participate in the peace camps.
     That night, we scramble to pack and repack, ditching clothes to make space for cheese, bread, dried fruit and nuts, canned tuna, chocolate, instant cereal, and soup mix. Bosnian Serbs have held the city hostage for fifteen months, cutting off the water, electricity, gas, and phone lines. Mail service, garbage pick-up, public transportation, and a consistent food supply no longer exist. At this point, I am naïve. I have no idea what it means to walk several miles to fetch a few liters of water. I am unaware of how heavy water is when carried such a distance, and I have never known how it feels to be hungry day after day.
     On the morning of July 12, 1993, we stuff the last piece of cheese and bread into our luggage and board the train to Ancona. That night we cross the Adriatic Sea by ferry. We dock in Split early in the morning and grab a taxi, hurrying off to the U.N. press office, located on the second floor of the Split airport.
     I hold my breath as the press officer searches his folder for the fax from my radio station. He finds it and begins to type my name and information on a blank press card. I hand him two passport-size pictures. He pastes one on the card and places the other in my file. Then he signs the card and hands it to me to sign. My heart is pounding. I’m an impostor, a feeling I will never overcome within the international community in Bosnia. Posing as a journalist intimidates me. My confidence in my ability to write is so poor, I freeze when asked to write even a short note.
     On my first day in war, a young woman says to me, “Sometimes people find themselves when deprived of the familiar.” She was right. Living in war forces me to confront my fear of dying — and living. In fulfilling my commitment as a witness in Bosnia, I also confront my fear of writing. (Two years later, the Tampa Tribune in Florida actually pays me for an article, and eight years later I graduate from college.)
     But now, this unsuspecting U.N. official feeds my press card into a laminating machine. Intimidated or not, I am now officially a journalist, at least in the former Yugoslavia. I begin to breathe again and am ecstatic. My chances of getting into the besieged city of Sarajevo have just increased about 100 percent.
     Three hours later, wearing our press cards clipped to our flimsy borrowed flak jackets (U.N. regulations require all passengers flying the airlift to wear bulletproof vests), Anne and I wrestle our luggage across the hot tarmac. All passengers are responsible for handling their own luggage. We climb through the tail of the cargo plane, buckle ourselves into web seats and plug our ears with yellow sponge earplugs, compliments of the English crew. We are the only passengers. Three pallets of flour roll into the plane. Second only to July 16, 1978, the day my son was born, this is the most amazing day of my life.
     As the engines roar, I stare at the pallets in front of me. I don’t yet understand how much Sarajevans need this flour or how difficult it will be for them to transform it into bread without access to water, electricity, or gas.
     During the thirty-five minute flight, the noise from the engines prevents Anne and me from talking. It doesn’t matter. We are both lost in our own thoughts and emotions. For the sake of impressing a member of the crew sitting opposite us, I try to look nonchalant — like I have done this before, but I wear a silly, nervous grin and pinch myself several times to make sure I’m not dreaming.
     It seems we are barely airborne when the crewmember gets up and puts on his flak jacket. He shouts, “We are entering Bosnian Serb-held territory!” In the many flights I eventually take on these planes, I never understand the logic of wearing the flak jacket. It seems better to sit on it. But it isn’t a joke; an Italian plane was shot down early in the airlift operation. Soon, we begin our approach into Sarajevo, a city so close to civilization, yet now so removed.
     The plane descends quickly, almost falling out of the sky. I later learn from a U.N. newsletter, that before the war, commercial planes approached Sarajevo slowly, flying low over the city. Now, because of the threat of Bosnian Serb gunfire, pilots fly high over the mountains and don’t begin their descent until they see the runway.
     The plane touches down, and then races along the runway. I stretch over my shoulder to peek through the small window behind me and see a panoramic view of war.
     Bordering the airport are the ruins of what was once a subdivision of modern townhouses. Some of the fiercest fighting in the war took place on this front line. Machine-gun fire and shrapnel have pockmarked every inch of standing concrete. Remnants of burnt roofing beams silhouette the sky like large charred arms reaching up to God. Broken terra cotta tiles, shattered glass, burned furniture, and chunks of concrete litter the ground. Shreds of dingy, gray lace curtains dance like ghosts in paneless windows, moving me to consider the fate of the families who once lived there.
     The plane comes to an abrupt stop, but the engines do not. The U.N. turnaround goal for the plane is fewer than ten minutes. The openness of the runway leaves the plane and everyone on the tarmac vulnerable. Quickly the tail opens and U.N. personnel roll off the pallets of flour. It is mid-afternoon and overcast. I see no color except for blue U.N. helmets and flags. Anne and I follow the flour off the plane. In turn, we each grab the extended hand of a U.N. soldier and jump down from the tailgate. Quickly, U.N. personnel load the empty pallets from a previous delivery and board departing passengers. The tail closes and the plane takes off.
     We quickly leave the tarmac and enter a maze of sandbags, chain-link fencing, barbed wire, and small portable cubicles. If I had not just arrived on a plane, I would not believe this is an airport. I have no idea where I am going, no idea Sarajevo is about to grab me and not let go for the next five years.

© 2001 by Linda F. Beekman. All Rights Reserved. No portion may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author. Web site design by: Lejla Fazlic-Omerovic
For Information on how to purchase the book, please contact Linda F. Beekman via email at