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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.