Aiding Our Family of Believers in Bosnia
JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES take no part in political conflicts. (John 17:16) However, following Paul’s counsel to do good “especially to our family of believers,” they readily come to the aid of their fellow Christians in war-torn areas. (Galatians 6:10, Beck) As the winter of 1993-94 approached, Witnesses from Austria and Croatia risked their lives to aid their family of believers in Bosnia. The following is their report.
From March to October 1993, there was no chance to send relief shipments to Bosnia. At the beginning of October, however, the authorities indicated that it might be possible to transport goods. This would still be a dangerous undertaking, as there was heavy fighting on all Bosnian fronts.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday, October 26, 1993, our trucks left Vienna carrying 16 tons of food and firewood for fellow Christians in Bosnia. We wore our district convention lapel cards for identification.
Upon arriving at the border of Croatia and Bosnia, we were escorted to a military base where our trucks were thoroughly searched. Our request to travel through Serbian territory was denied. Passage would be permitted only via central Bosnia—right through the combat zone!
As military escorts led us from one checkpoint to another, we heard earsplitting detonations from tanks and guns. During the night, we traveled through the woods escorted by two tanks and a jeep. Our trucks crept slowly through the front line of battle! All went well until morning when shots were fired over our heads and we had to take cover behind a hill. After a while the shooting stopped, and we continued our journey.
When we arrived at a camp, the commanding officer asked us who we were and what we wanted. “Your undertaking is doomed to failure,” he said after we stated our purpose. “You have no chance of getting out of the camp, even to go a few yards. There is so much famine in the country that people will attack you and steal your goods.” He urged us to turn around and go back.
Were our efforts “doomed to failure”? Was it futile to expect that we could travel through war-torn and famine-stricken areas and yet preserve our goods and our lives? A serious decision had to be made. We had already heard gunfire and deafening explosions of bombs. As we passed the night with the soldiers, we could see that they were prepared for the rigors of battle. They wore bullet-proof vests and were heavily armed. Even the cook toted a machine gun on his back. And here we were wearing shirts, neckties, and lapel cards! Was it wise for us to continue?
Arrival at Travnik
Our only hope, it seemed, was to negotiate with the third party in this war. The next morning we asked a young woman if she knew where to find the party’s post headquarters. “It’s not far,” she said. “Just through the woods, you will find a building that was once a hospital.” We were anxious to go. The soldiers were amazed that we dared to leave the camp unarmed.
The former hospital was in ruins, but an officer was present. He agreed to help, advising us to speak to his commander first. He took us in his battered car and drove at high speed along the front line. We stopped at a building where the commanding officer received us in a dark room.
“Last night we wanted to open fire on you,” he said. “What do you want?”
“We are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we want to take relief goods to our brothers.”
He was quite surprised—and impressed—since for weeks no relief convoy had dared to venture into Bosnia. After being thoroughly searched, we were given a written confirmation. The previous night we thought we had no chance of continuing our journey, and now we could proceed without escort!
We drove through the woods, passing through one checkpoint after another, and at times we drove along front lines. Despite the danger, we arrived safely at Travnik. A soldier who heard of our arrival ran to a house where our brothers had gathered. “Your people are here with the trucks!” he cried. You can imagine their joy. We carried food into the house, spoke a few words, but then had to move on. It was getting dark, and a perilous 20-mile [32 km] journey lay ahead.
On to Zenica
An escort car guided us through the woods at high speed. Some said that we would never make it to Zenica, but we did. A gloom seemed to have settled upon the town. There were no lights and no cars on the road. Zenica was besieged on all sides, resulting in great famine and despair.
As we drove along the street, we saw an amazing thing—two Christian sisters witnessing! The previous day at their meeting, we learned, it was decided that the brothers would have to go to the woods to look for food, as supplies were depleted. We arrived just in time! We unloaded one of the trucks at four o’clock in the morning, while no one was on the street.
The next day we contacted a general, who was quite surprised that we had made it to Zenica. We now inquired about traveling to our next destination, Sarajevo.
“No one has ventured in there by truck for months,” the general said. He eventually gave us permission to travel across the mountains. “But I tell you, it is tough,” he warned. “I am not sure your trucks are strong enough to make it.”
The general had not exaggerated. When we were just 25 miles [40 km] from Sarajevo, we had to make a 90-mile [140 km] detour through the woods! We will never forget the ride from Zenica via Sarajevo to Jablanica that took three days and two nights, often at a speed of only three miles [5 km] per hour. The “road” was a path worn down by armored vehicles. We drove over daunting rocks and holes. Frequently we had to drive without light, and on two occasions our trucks almost slipped down treacherous hills. An army truck following our convoy turned on its light for just a moment and was immediately fired upon. At times we had to repair damaged bridges and fix tires.
As we arrived at the outskirts of Sarajevo, we asked to speak with the general in charge. While waiting, we saw a truck on the street carrying ten corpses and a sack of heads; soldiers were negotiating the surrender of the corpses—an unpleasant sight indeed, making us yearn for the day when war will cease.—Isaiah 2:4.
At 10:00 a.m., one of us was finally granted an audience with the general and his high officers in a dark room, lit only by a candle.
“Who are you?” the general asked.
“We are Jehovah’s Witnesses. We want to take food to our fellow Witnesses in Sarajevo.”
“Do you know that there are many of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sarajevo?”
“Yes, that’s why we are here.”
Then the general mentioned the name of a Witness. “Do you know him?”
“Yes, he is our friend.”
“He is my friend too,” the general said. “We went to school together. Since he has become a Witness, I appreciate him even more. He has done a lot for you people. Please tell us more about Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
An hour-long discussion ensued, after which more than a dozen magazines and brochures were placed. After a second meeting, the general agreed to make special arrangements so that the relief goods could be delivered to the Sarajevan brothers.
This was no small undertaking. About 30 persons, including some non-Witnesses, lugged parcels weighing about 60 pounds [27 kg] each. They labored from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. on two separate nights—a total of 18 hours. An elder related that his neighbors were so overwhelmed by the relief efforts that they knelt with the brothers and thanked Jehovah! Of course, they too received some food.
Imagine our brothers’ joy upon receiving some 24,250 pounds [11,000 kg] of relief goods! The situation was desperate. Locally, two pounds [1 kg] of flour cost between DM450 and DM1,000 ($300 and $660, U.S.). A sack of wood cost about DM400 ($260, U.S.), and a quart [liter] of diesel fuel cost DM30 ($20, U.S.).
It was as if for every danger we faced along the way, we were now rewarded. We were delighted to contemplate the joy of our brothers when they received this relief shipment. It was an experience that they—and we—will never forget. But now we had to start thinking about the challenge of returning home.
“How do we get back?” we asked the general.
“The same way you came,” he replied.
We were exhausted, low on fuel, and had no spare tires. It started to rain, and we could not travel through the mud. We asked the general if we could travel to the south.
“There are heavy battles there,” he said. “Not even a mouse could get through.” After a while, however, he reconsidered. “Try it,” he said. “After all, you made it here.”
We had to leave one truck behind and distribute its fuel among the other three trucks. We left at midnight and again drove off into the woods.
Our return trip was not without problems. We encountered an army truck lying on its side, partially obstructing a bridge that we needed to cross. We saw that if we could remove just one of its wheels, there would be enough room to pass.
We appealed to an armed soldier. “May we take off the wheel and mount it again after we have crossed the bridge?”
“If you touch the wheel, my gun will have some work to do,” the soldier replied, aiming his weapon.
We thought it might be better to make some coffee and offer the soldier a cup. For some hours, we told him about the 1991 international conventions, such as the one held in Zagreb. After that, his attitude softened, and he allowed us to remove the wheel.
At Jablanica, one of us spoke to a commander about the route we wanted to travel. He could not believe what he was hearing. “You want to go through the Neretva Valley?”
He was understandably alarmed. The hillsides of the Neretva Valley are held by different armies. They are constantly shooting at one another. For nearly ten miles [16 km], the road is treacherous. “That’s the way it is,” the general said, “and yet you want to go through?”
After weighing the matter, the general said that we could go—but only if we were accompanied by officials. These officials, however, were reluctant to go with us! Eventually, we requested that they simply contact the other side and announce our passage. We would cross unescorted the next morning.
With large letters, we labeled our trucks as carrying humanitarian aid. After saying a prayer, we drove into the valley. We agreed that if shots were fired, we would not increase our speed and create suspicion.
We crossed the bridge to the other side of the river and continued on through the next valley, passing animal carcasses and demolished trucks and tanks. Suddenly we noticed land mines lying on the street, making it impossible for us to pass. We sounded the truck’s horn until two soldiers peeked from behind a rock. “Who are you? What do you want?” they demanded.
After identifying ourselves, we asked if they would clear the street, and they agreed. Finally, we reached the other side.
The soldiers there were amazed to see us. They came slowly out of their hiding places, approaching the truck with their guns aimed directly at us. We showed our permit papers along with our license plates, which we had removed for security reasons while we were driving through the war zone.
“Nobody was expecting you,” one soldier said. “How could you get through?”
Contrary to our request, no one at these outposts had been informed that we were coming! The officer continued: “Our guns were cocked, and we were about to start firing.”
We asked why they did not do it.
“I have no idea,” the soldier replied. “I believe it was your fate. But when we looked at you through our field glasses, we saw the ‘humanitarian aid’ label, and we did not know what to do with you. So you made it.” We later offered a heartfelt prayer of thanks to Jehovah for his protection.
Though their circumstances are severe, the spirit of our Bosnian brothers and sisters is inspiring. They share the material things they possess as well as many words of faith and encouragement. In Zenica, there are 40 active Witnesses, including 2 special pioneers, 11 auxiliary pioneers, and 14 newly baptized persons. The 65 Witnesses plus 4 auxiliary pioneers that still remain in the city of Sarajevo are conducting 134 Bible studies. The Witnesses spend an average of 20 hours each month talking to others about the good news of God’s Kingdom.
Truly, Jehovah’s Witnesses constitute a worldwide family of believers. They willingly risk their lives to do good to those related to them in the faith—even those they have never before met. Why? Because they love them. Jesus Christ said: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” (John 13:35) Certainly this has been the case with our family of believers in Bosnia.
[Map/Pictures on page 24]
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Taking aid to Bosnia and Herzegovina
[Picture on page 26]
Inching past a capsized truck