Serbian Diary: March 1994

by Jim Forest

“And then came the dark times, when the clever shut up, fools were talkative, and the scum got rich.”—Ivo Andric (1892-1975), Serbian recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1961; from Signs Along the Road

Wednesday, March 9, 1994, Belgrade

Because of sanctions there are no flights to Belgrade. Jim Douglass and I flew to Budapest, then took a minibus to Belgrade. Having with us two large cartons of medication for children contributed by Franciscan sisters in Rome, we waited on the Hungarian side of the border with anxiety. Under the sanctions, medicines are permitted into Serbia only by special permit obtainable through a complex UN bureaucratic process that takes months. After waiting an hour, there was spot checking of baggage in the van but luckily our two boxes were buried under suitcases and weren’t opened.

Several hours later we arrived at the flat of Women in Black in the center of Belgrade not far from a big outdoor market. The actual address is not publicized because of death threats the women have received. Their postal address is at the Center for Antiwar Action elsewhere in the city.

There must have been 15 or 20 women crowded into these two rooms plus a small kitchen. The place was bursting at the seams, everyone talking at once, the phone ringing constantly, and coffee being served. Among the many posters on the walls were photos of the vigil against the war that Women in Black have every Wednesday afternoon in the center of Belgrade. After years of being saturated with news about murderous Serbs, it’s refreshing to be talking with Serbs who kill no one, oppose all violence, and help the victims of war. Sadly such people are rarely noticed by the world press.

By midnight everyone was gone and we had the flat, suddenly intensely silent, to ourselves. For beds, we used two mattresses that serve as a couch during the day.

Thursday, March 10

Pavle on the bus
Pavle on the bus

We met with Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, for more than an hour this morning, as gentle a man as I’ve ever met. He is short, with attentive eyes and a white beard, and utterly modest in his manner. He is the only leader of any church I have heard of who normally travels by public bus and tram.

The main subject of the discussion was our hope that he and Pope John Paul, along with Moslem and Jewish leaders, would together go to Sarajevo in a joint witness of peace, repentance and forgiveness.

Patriarch Pavle began his response by recalling his ten years as a student in Sarajevo. “As a school boy my friends included Croatians and Moslems. I still have their photographs. When I think of Sarajevo and the suffering there, I think of my friends.” When Jim showed the Sarajevo banner with its western and eastern crosses, Moslem crescent and Star of David that he has been using on St. Peter’s Square whenever Pope John Paul appears, Patriarch Pavle immediately stood up and started to pray for all the religious communities of Sarajevo: Moslem, Jew, Catholic and Orthodox.

“Concerning me as a person, I am ready to meet Pope John Paul, here or in Sarajevo or anywhere,” said Patriarch Pavle. “I am really ready to meet with anybody for the sake of peace, even if we could only get one centimeter closer to peace. But I don’t represent only myself and my own opinions. I represent the whole Serbian Orthodox Church. According to the order of the our Church, the Patriarch is only the President of the Assembly of Bishops and of the Holy Synod. I have to think of the totality of the Church. The Patriarch cannot make such a decision by himself but rather with the Assembly. This has to do with the way conciliarity [sabornost in Serbo-Croatian, sobornost in Old Slavonic] is practiced in our Orthodox Church. Also I have to underline the fact that this would be the first meeting of the Serbian Patriarch with the Pope in history. Concerning this matter, our sister Orthodox Churches also have to be consulted as the Serbian Church is only a part of worldwide Orthodoxy.”

His view of the war is that not only Serbians but everyone shares in the blame, the governments of former Yugoslavia plus the rest of Europe and the United States. “Everyone is guilty.”

Speaking about war crimes, he said: “There are criminals on every side. God alone knows who has the greatest blame or who has committed the most sins.” As for the Church, “it must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together where each of us must answer for his sins. No one can justify his sins by saying someone else is guilty of a crime.”

He recalled a letter he had received from a Moslem who quoted a passage from the Holy Koran: “Whoever kills another innocent person has killed the entire human race.” “This must also be the attitude of Orthodox believers,” the Patriarch commented.

Clearly the main obstacle to his taking part in an interfaith act of witness with the Pope is the poor state of relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. While the Patriarch has had meetings with Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, president of the Croatian Bishops’ Conference, the Pope is seen by the Serbian population as taking a partisan role in the war. (The non-Orthodox reader needs to be aware of the resentment toward the Catholic Church that still smolders within the Orthodox world. From the Crusader sacking of Constantinople to the missionary efforts the Catholic Church is currently making in Russia, Catholicism is seen as constantly using every method at its disposal to suppress the Orthodox Church.)

Even so the Patriarch reminded us that from the early days of Christianity the Bishop of Rome was regarded as first among equals among all bishops and that, despite the 1000-year of division between the Orthodox and Catholic Church, “he is still respected as such by our Church.”

A two-day meeting of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church will be getting underway later today, we were told. The interfaith pilgrimage to Sarajevo is on the agenda, but an action of this significance will have to be decided by the Assembly of bishops, a group of about 30 that will meet in mid-May.

The fact that the Patriarch personally is prepared to meet the Pope, to go to Sarajevo, and that he was so welcoming to us, as was everyone we met and talked to at the Patriarchate, suggests that there may be a positive response even though it will take time. If it does happen, Patriarch Pavle’s involvement will not only be a personal gesture but an action of the Serbian Church done with the blessing of other Orthodox Churches.

After the meeting, Jim and I went across the street to pray in the cathedral, Saborna Tserkva, a church in good repair on the outside but desolated within, the walls of the church black as chimney smoke, the icons almost ruined, and decaying scaffolding in the cupola. One sees in the condition of the cathedral what the political events of this century have done to the Serbian Orthodox Church. It bears witness to what Serbian friends had told me in Holland, that Tito’s anti-religious policies had been less bloody but more effective than those used against religious believers in Russia.

Friday, March 11

While Belgrade literally means White City, this is definitely not the case. There is no city greyer than Belgrade. Maybe it’s cigarette smoke that has made the city the color of ashes. Those who don’t smoke are few and far between; it seems Serbs are born smoking. Except on a few streets every building seems to have an eroded facade. There aren’t many cars on the streets because of the shortage of fuel and its high cost — a small gain for the lungs of city dwellers. Buses are as packed as a Russian church for the Easter vigil.

Stores are well stocked but very little is being sold because people have nearly empty pockets and the prices are as high as anywhere in western Europe. One person’s monthly salary might be 40 New Dinars. I spent 8.44 New Dinars for three ordinary items at a nearby grocery store. It was 2.88 ND just for a jar of pickled red peppers. It isn’t uncommon to see a store in which there is no one inside but the person waiting by the cash register. There were six McDonalds in the city; only two remain open. Not enough people with money for hamburgers… Again, like the situation with cars, one might mark this up as a plus, but I doubt there are many people in the city would agree.

We had a long visit this afternoon with Father Andreas, secretary to Bishop Irinej, a young monk whose passionate love of Orthodox spirituality is very evident. At one point in our meeting he sang prayers in English to several saints.

We asked him in what ways the Church responds to conscientious objectors. Father Andreas said that while there are many avoiding military service, few seek recognition as conscientious objectors while those who go into the army are so caught up in the fever of war they don’t think about the issue. He added that soldiers in the Yugoslav army are not sent to Bosnia or Croatia and so the issue of soldiers in the Yugoslav army taking part in the war doesn’t exist at present. The combatants are mainly people from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Any non-Bosnian Serbs fighting in Bosnia, he said, go with paramilitary groups that cross the border illegally.

It remains hard to know to what extent and in what ways the Miloševic-led government helps Serbian forces in Bosnia and Croatia. Jasmina Arsova, a university student active in Women in Black who is our main helper and translator, has told me about a soldier from the Yugoslav army she has been visiting in the hospital who was forcibly sent to Bosnia for four months. However it’s possible, as claimed by Miloševic, that this form of intervention is no longer government policy.

Jasmina pointed out a helicopter flying overhead that at least once a day delivers badly wounded soldiers from the war in Bosnia to one of the city hospitals, but this sort of involvement in the war is regarded as humanitarian aid.

As we respond to questions about our meeting with Patriarch Pavle, we are told many stories about him. It was especially striking to hear how he took part in a huge demonstration in 1991 which protested the war and the policies of the Miloševic government. He was riding the tram on his way to visit his sister, as he does every Sunday afternoon, when he saw crowds of people with their protest signs. He got off the tram and walked with them for two kilometers.

We also saw a quotation from him which I gather has been ignored in the government-controlled mass media: “We do not need a greater Serbia paved with new mass graves such as those we had in World War II.”

Saturday, March 12

As I get to know Serbs better, I can better understand that many of them see a parallel between the suffering of the Jewish people and themselves. During World War II, Serbian resistance to the Nazis and their Croatian Ustasha allies cost them approximately one million lives. Earlier in their history they lived under oppressive Turkish rule that now contributes to anti-Moslem fears that help fuel the war.

There is a joke about a Serb meeting a Moslem and immediately hitting him on the head, though the Moslem had done nothing offensive. “What did you hit me?” the Moslem asked. “I was just recalling the fallen Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo,” the Serb replied. “But that was in 1389,” said the Moslem. “Yes, but I blame it on you,” the Serb said.

The past is very present here and with Serbs at least has to be very much taken into account when one talks about the present and future. The propaganda machine that Miloševic manipulates so skillfully reinforces terrible memories which have made many Serbs feel they are a people the rest of the world wants to be rid of, or at any rate a people left alone to defend a Europe that doesn’t yet understand the threat of Islamic expansion.

We had a visit this morning with Father Radomir Rakic, an editor and translator on the staff of the Patriarchate who is also active with the Church Relief Committee. He spends much of his time doing translation work for the Patriarch, but has to do it all on a typewriter half a century old. “This is my computer,” he said, pointing to the venerable black machine by his desk. “At least it was well made. You could drop it from an airplane and still it would type. Only the letter A gives me some problems.” I told him I would try to find some people in the Serbian Orthodox Church in Holland who would give him a real computer and printer.

Thanks to Father Radomir’s help we were able to visit with Bishop Lavrentije of Šabac, a member of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. He responded positively to the interfaith pilgrimage to Sarajevo. He went on to say that the Serbian memory is heavily burdened with tragedies in the past that stand in the way of such gestures. “We cannot forget but we must forgive. We must think how we can live together as neighbors. We have to think what is needed for body and soul. For the body we must end the embargo. For the soul we must forgive.”

Jim Douglass’s fast began in Rome February 12, a prayer for peace in former Yugoslavia and for the interfaith pilgrimage to Sarajevo. He has been on fruit juice ever since. To connect this first part of the fast to Ramadan, he has been drinking juice only after sundown.

Because of his fast and the need to conserve energy, as he now tires easily, Jim stayed in Belgrade while I went with Jasmina Arsova to Pancevo to visit the Peace Action Group “M” (M for Mir, meaning peace). Pancevo is a 20-minute train ride northeast of Belgrade across the Danube River. It’s in Vojvodina, which under Tito was an autonomous republic with its own president, but which has now been merged with Serbia.

The actions of Peace Action Group “M” include lighting candles and displaying a banner for half an hour every Saturday night in the town square, the text of which is “For All the Victims of War.” The person chiefly responsible for this simple witness, which has been going on since the war began, is Senka Mandrino. As we were carrying the banner to the square, she told me, “I do this for my country, the old Yugoslavia, not the new one, but the Yugoslavia for everyone.”

Senka described a larger action they organized recently when there wasn’t only the one banner but another on which all the besieged and destroyed cities and towns of former Yugoslavia were listed: Sarajevo, Mostar, Vukovar and many more. Candles were lit for each place. That evening the vigilers were approached by a soldier from the Bosnian Serb army. “I worried he would shout at us ‘Traitors, why don’t you tell it to the Moslems and Croatians’ or that he would tear up our signs. Instead he hugged us and thanked us, saying, ‘Why don’t you do more like this, then this stupid war will end.’ ”

Senka has a sister in Sarajevo and her husband, Mirko, one of the leading members of the group, is a conscientious objector. “I will continue with the Saturday night vigil until the war ends,” Senka told me.

Using a local book shop as a meeting room, Mirko and Jasmina co-chaired a crowded public meeting that evening at which two journalists from the independent magazine Vreme, Dimitrije Boarov and Zoran Jelecic, were discussing the impact of the war on the economy and the current campaign to stabilize the dinar after more than a year of hyper-inflation. Inflation was 60 to 70 percent per day much of last year. As a souvenir of that period I have a 50,000,000 dinar note in my wallet which was worth about one Deutsch Mark before it became completely worthless; there was even a bill issued for 500,000,000,000 dinars — eleven zeros! Now you see them tacked to walls as grim reminders of the economic chaos of 1993. The New Dinars now in circulation seem to be stable; at present one New Dinar equals one DM.

According to the journalists from Vreme, hyper-inflation was a government-organized method of skimming off huge amounts of money, in the form of the stable Mark, for war related and other purposes, or simply to line a few pockets. The end result is that the middle class no longer exists in the new, shrunken Yugoslavia; the mass of people are either poor or desperately poor.

While most of those at the meeting were clearly educated people, at least one was a working man in ragged clothes who turned up in the hope that someone present might help him find the medication — Forma Berbiton — for his 13-year-old epileptic son. Senka Mandrino talked with him after the meeting, taking down his address and promising to try to find what he needs but warning him she had no idea if she would succeed.

Living near the Mandrino flat, Dirko Mandrino told me, is a grandmother and granddaughter who share one room without electricity or running water. The little girl needs insulin. So far the Mandrinos have been able to find it but it is a month-to-month struggle.

Sunday, March 13

After leaving the St. Sava Church today, Jasmina Arsova told me more about her visits to people in hospitals. One of those she sees every week is a young woman of Serbian nationality, a refugee from Bosnia, who was raped by some of her Moslem neighbors in her village after the war had created a climate of mutual hatred. (The word “Moslem” in former Yugoslavia has nothing to do with religious belief, only what is regarded as nationality.) “She became pregnant, came to Belgrade as a refugee, and gave birth to her child. For two months afterward everything seem fine in her life. Then she had a breakdown and became dangerous to herself and her child. SOS Telephone found a family to take care of the baby. Everyday people are coming to see the mother, but she is still not at all well.”

Today Jim fast entered its second phase: water only until April 3, Easter on the western calendar. As Ramadan is over, he allows himself to drink water at any time in the day. While definitely on the lean side, Jim is in good spirits and health but tires easily.

Monday, March 14

Trivo Indji, a sociologist we met today in the Women in Black office, shares the view that regular soldiers of the Yugoslav army are no longer being sent to Bosnia by the Miloševic government, and also no weapons. He said the only material help sent by the government as such is humanitarian aid. Bosnia has long been one of the most war-prepared areas in all of Europe. Tito saw Bosnia as the impregnable fortress of Yugoslavia and for that reason much of the arms industry was established there. Jim responded that things look very different from Sarajevo. He finds it hard to believe there could be a siege of Sarajevo were it not for Miloševi.

Trivo said one of the worrying events of late in Belgrade is publication of the notoriously anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book Hitler used to justify sending Jews to concentration camps. He had seen a copy in a local book shop.

A high point today was meeting Father Arsenije Nikitovi, a monk with a weather-beaten but radiant face who is the Belgrade director of an Orthodox Church program — the People’s Kitchen — that distributes food to a thousand families who are otherwise in danger of starvation. His office, in a building linked to the main railway station, has been loaned to him gratis. “It isn’t hard to find families desperately in need of food,” he said. “And now we stretch what we give to 1100 families, but it is far from enough.” He hoped we might help find someone to give them a van because they have a lot of delivery problems. And they need more donations of food. At present the main donor is the Lutheran Church in Germany.

Father Arsenije was overjoyed when he heard what Jim’s wife Shelley is doing in Birmingham, Alabama, where Mary’s House provides a temporary home for homeless families. He immediately gave Jim a big hug.

We talked briefly about the war. “Who is most guilty,” he said, “I have no right to judge. Only we must do what Jesus said, to feed the hungry, to help and visit those who are sick. God will judge us for what we do and what we fail to do, and he will judge those who caused this suffering. He will judge, I cannot and don’t even want do.”

He told us something someone told him many years ago that has meant a great deal to him: “When you think there is no way out, keep looking and you will find three more possibilities.” “I have learned he was right, thank God,” Father Arsenije said. He also told us, “Whoever hits another person is not courageous, but rather the one who refuses to hit back.”

We had a long visit at the end of the day with Dragiša Krsmanovic, who has written occasional reports from Belgrade for Peace Media Service, and Milan Radovanovi, a student at the Orthodox Theological School here in Belgrade, a decrepit building across the street from the Patriarchate. A conscientious objector, Milan decided it wasn’t enough not to fight in the war. He wanted to get to know some of those people many Orthodox regard as the “enemy,” that is Catholics, and so has been a volunteer with the Catholic relief organization here, Caritas.

Tuesday, March 15

Jim and I talked with Saša Kovacevic about her life, her two years as a student in Sarajevo (leaving literally on the eve of the outbreak of war) and what brought her to Women in Black. At age 22, she is one of the group’s youngest members.

Saša told us what a relief it had been going from her home in Montenegro to the far more open atmosphere of Sarajevo where she began her university studies in journalism. “In Montenegro everything is hermetically closed, everything locked in custom. It is especially hard for women as they have an old view of women. There were times when I really thought people would beat me on the street. How different Sarajevo is! You can’t imagine how easy it was to live there. No one told me what was wrong with me. I quickly found many friends. I only hope they are all still alive. Now I am in Belgrade, still studying journalism, but I am here with only half my heart. The other part is in Sarajevo. If you are there for only two years, you feel as if you were born there because of the way they accept you.”

She discovered Women in Black through her friend and fellow student, Jasmina Arsova, and quickly became part of the group. “It was not just because of their protest against war and the work with refugees, but because I found they had a name for every opinion I had in my head about women’s rights. In Montenegro they just said I was crazy. But here I found a name for what I believed. Can you imagine that happiness? To find a name for what you had in your head a long, long time, since you were small, and you then come here and find a name for it. So I was really happy to find these women.”

She is not optimistic about the Miloševic government losing power in the near future. “He and his regime may stay in power another five or even ten years. He has succeeded in making everything — all the pressures, even the sanctions — work for him. He has managed to make himself into a hero. The opposition is weak, totally exhausted. They have no new ideas about how to put another government into power. Just imagine, a couple of years ago people were thinking normally, but now you get the impression no one remembers that time. You see what propaganda can do. People are afraid if they say anything critical, they will be accused of wanting to sell the country to its enemies. In many people you see a mentality of total paranoia — the whole world against us, enemies everywhere: Croatians, Moslems, Catholics, Jews, everyone not Serbian. For many people it was the UN sanctions that proved to them everything Miloševic was saying. They accepted the idea that the only solution is for the Serbian people to be completely united — otherwise who knows what will happen to us. So people get very irritated when you try to say that Miloševic didn’t help us but destroyed us.”

“What destroys us is hating people,” Saša added. “When you are born, no one asks you what you would like to be. So how can we hold it against another person in what family she is born?”

At mid-day we had a two-hour meeting with Rabbi Cadik Danon, Chief Rabbi of Yugoslavia. “I was Chief Rabbi of big Yugoslavia and am now Chief Rabbi of small Yugoslavia,” he said when making us welcome in his apartment across the river in New Belgrade.

Discussing the possibility of Pope John Paul coming to Belgrade, Rabbi Danon felt that there would be a welcome here only if there were preliminary actions taken by the Pope that would convince the Serbs the Pope is not their enemy. If he spoke out against the sanctions, that would immediately change public opinion in his favor. In that connection he described the appalling situation in local hospitals. “In some cases operations have to be performed without anesthesia. Whole sections of hospitals have been closed. The mortality rate goes up and up.”

He also said a visit by the Pope to the Jasenovac concentration camp would have tremendous impact on Serbs and no doubt many others. Jasenovac, east of Zagreb, was a huge concentration camp where a vast number of Serbs, Jews and gypsies were killed. How many is a point of contention but 700,000 is the figure one often hears. The camp was mainly staffed by Hungarian Nazis and Croatian Ustashi. “The way people were murdered at Jasenovac was even worse than in Polish camps,” Rabbi Danon said. Among the victims were his mother and father. In all he lost 60 members of his family. If the Pope were to go there, as he has gone to Auschwitz, it would be a very powerful symbolic action.

Rabbi Danon also mentioned, as Trivo Indjic had yesterday, the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He had heard the book was published by the Orthodox Theological Faculty.

It was providential that in the evening while Jasmina Arsova, Jim and I were out walking on Knez Mikhajlova, the wide pedestrian shopping street in the heart of the city. There we ran into Milan Radovanovic, from the Theological Faculty, and Dragiša Krsmanovic, the two people we had been visiting with last night. I asked if they knew anything about the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not only did they know about it but said they would show it to me in Plato, the book shop we were standing in front of. In fact the shop had no more copies; staff had bought 30 copies a few days before but they were sold out.

It turned out the publisher — Vladimir Maksimovic, whose press is called Velvet — was in the shop at the time. He was pointed out to us browsing in a section of used English-language books. He is a man of about 30 with short black hair and a harsh face who said neither he nor his press had any connection to the Orthodox Church.

I asked him why he published a book which was well known as a forgery and which had cost so many lives. “Because it’s the truth,” he said. “It’s no forgery.” I said I would be glad to send him information on the history of the text and how it was produced by the Czarist Secret Service in the 1890s, if he would give me his address. After some hesitation he gave me his card and I gave him mine. I asked when the book had been published. Three days before, he said, in an edition of 3,000 copies. This was the fourth Serbian edition in this century, he added. The last one was published in 1941 — in other words in the time of Nazi occupation.

Afterward Milan and Dragisa took us to a nearby book shop where a copy of the book was on display in the window, a yellow book subtitled “The Jewish Conspiracy.” I took a photo.

While it was a relief to know that the book has nothing to do with the Orthodox Church, still it is alarming to think this murderous book so dear to Hitler is for sale in Serbia for the first time since the Nazi occupation.

Jasmina and I called Rabbi Danon as soon as we got back to the Women in Black office to tell him what we had learned and to give him the publisher’s name and address.

Wednesday, March 16

In a small building next to an ancient mosque in central Belgrade, we were warmly received by the Grand Mufti of Yugoslavia, Shiek Yusufspahic. He was delighted to be photographed with Jim’s Sarajevo banner, though his mind was less on Sarajevo than the needs of the Belgrade’s Moslem community. A new, larger mosque is needed but permission to build it has been refused year after year.

From the mosque we went to the offices of B92, Belgrade’s independent radio station. Discussing sanctions with Veran Matic, the stations’ editor-in-chief of, he told us “the one and only thing sanctions haven’t touched has been the flow of weapons. That sanctions have had a disastrous effect on health care and have made it extremely hard for independent structures like ours to survive.”

Standing on Republic Square in the heart of Belgrade in mid-afternoon, watching the weekly one-hour vigil of Women in Black, I was relieved that they were not the object of harassment and that many people passing by accepted their leaflet.

Sanctions again came up when we met Dubravka Velat of the Center for Antiwar Action, a large, well-equipped office coordinating many projects for the defense of human rights, help to refugees, and opposition to the war. Dubravka said sanctions have only convinced Serbs that Miloševic was right in saying the world is trying to destroy the Serb people. “Sanctions didn’t work. The international community wanted to punish the government but only punished the ordinary people and made Miloševic stronger. It isn’t so bad now as it was last year, when there was pure hysteria, but still there is a widespread feeling, people believing the whole world is against them, a new conspiracy against Serbs. On the one side you have sanctions being used as a way of trying to get people to change the government, and on the other the government using the sanctions as a way to shatter its opposition, and that is basically what has happened. If you go to the hospitals or any social institution, you will see what sanctions have done. More than 50 percent of the people are now below the poverty line. There are 600,000 refugees in the new, small Yugoslavia, and for almost all of them, their situation is desperate. Now there is a stable dinar and for the first time in two years you see the shelves in the stores aren’t bare, but only the rich can buy anything but absolute necessities. The only sanctions that should be applied are against importing weapons into any part of former Yugoslavia.”

She doesn’t accept the claims of the Miloševic government that it has nothing to do with the war is Bosnia. “It’s no longer so open as it was, but it’s common knowledge that the government is involved in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example allowing men in refugee camps to be recruited into the Bosnian Serb army.”

I asked if she was worried about the Center for Antiwar Action being banned. “They regard people like us as traitors, but they don’t suppress us because we serve as a proof this is a democracy.”

I asked if sometimes fear kept her awake at night. “Only once, when my husband, a television director, broadcast a program about the Serbian Radical Party, analyzing the reasons for that party’s political success. That night I put the table and chairs against the front door.”

Thursday, March 17

At 9:30 we were at the mansion of the Italian ambassador for a meeting with Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, Pope John Paul’s personal emissary, who was due to meet with Patriarch Pavle, Bishop Lavrentije, Bishop Irinej and Bishop Danielou at 11. Msgr. Paglia is pastor of the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, a church Nancy, Anne and I visited in the summer. We felt especially at home there; its ancient mosaic icons make it a place where the eastern and western churches still embrace each other.

We found Msgr. Paglia had a similar understanding of the obstacles to Pope John Paul being welcomed by the Serbian Orthodox Church and a similar approach to overcoming them. He said Pope John Paul made a statement critical of the sanctions while in Denver last year but his statement was ignored by the press because President Clinton met the Pope that day and used the occasion to make a speech in favor of bombing Serb positions in Bosnia. The press managed to make it look like the Pope was Clinton’s Amen Chorus.

Msgr. Paglia thinks there are practical difficulties about the Pope going to Jasenovac concentration camp, one being that it is close to the front lines. It is hard enough, he said, for the Pope to get to the three cities he hopes to visit: Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade. But he thought other symbolic gestures by the Pope were possible, for example upon arriving in Belgrade going as a pilgrim directly to the Church of St. Sava, founder of the Serbian Church and recognized by the Orthodox Church as Equal to the Apostles, and praying there for repentance and forgiveness. I assume this event would happen in the ancient Church of St. Sava next to which a huge new church in the style of Hagia Sofia has been under construction since 1986. The Pope could make at this time a gift for the new church.

Both before coming and also while here in Belgrade the Pope could speak out against the suffering being caused by the sanctions. He told us the Pope is acutely aware of the grim situation in the hospitals, the malnutrition touching those in the lower strata of society, and has been speaking to various ambassadors and guests about it. It was the first topic he raised during a recent meeting in Rome with Theovald Stoltenberg, co-chairman of the Geneva Conference responsible for the UN presence in former Yugoslavia.

Visiting Father Andreas at the Patriarchate later in the day, we found Bishop Danielou, a member of the Holy Synod, and met with him in a quiet corner of another office. We gather from his report that what Msgr. Paglia had said to us in the morning was repeated in his meeting with Patriarch Pavle, with stress on Pope John Paul’s dismay with sanctions. In contrast, Bishop Danielou compared a recent statement by WCC General Secretary, Konrad Raiser, in which he said that the World Council of Churches still supports sanctions against Serbia, with Pontius Pilate washing his hands to clear himself of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. (On several occasions bishops and clergy in Belgrade expressed bewilderment and shock about Raiser’s statement.)

We visited the small church of St. Sava, next to the vast new church now under construction, where we prayed that the Pope and Patriarch will embrace each other and pray side by side for peace, repentance and reconciliation.

In the late afternoon we met for nearly an hour with Mons. Salvatore Pennacchio, the Apostolic Vice Nuncio (the nuncio is in Rome). It turned out that Jim and he have a mutual friend in Father Tom Michel, SJ, who heads the Office of Islam of the Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican; Father Michel is one of the signers of the call for the Interreligious Fast and Pilgrimage to Sarajevo.

Coming and going from that meeting, we rode in buses in which I felt like a sardine in an unopened tin. To my amazement Jasmina told me that buses are relatively spacious compared to the situation two or three months ago. “Now you can breathe,” she said.

Returning to the flat of Women in Black, I talked with Jadranka Milicevic, much involved in refugee work, and Jasmina Mustovi, the group’s press officer.

“I got involved in Women in Black,” Jasmina said, “because it gave me a way to take a stand against violence. Earlier I was a volunteer with SOS Telephone which was helping women and children in danger from violent men. But then some of us wanted to do something to protest against war, and that’s how Women in Black began. Our first vigil was on October 9, 1991. We were following the example of Women in Black in Jerusalem where Jewish and Palestinian women protest together every week against the occupation. Since then we continue with the vigil but we have also started other projects — work with refugees, publications work and so forth.”

Like so many people in former Yugoslavia, Jasmina cannot claim a single nationality. Her father is Moslem and her mother from a mixed marriage. “I never had the idea that there was any group I should hate.”

Jadranka arrived in Belgrade from Sarajevo in May, 1992. At first she lived in a camp and now lives in her cousin’s house.

“As soon as I heard about Women in Black I wanted to be part of it. In the beginning I was also active in SOS Telephone but now the work of Women in Black takes all my time. I wanted to be part of a group that could take a stand against the war and also protest the arrest of dissidents.”

Jadranka has never been arrested herself but several times has been ordered by the police to appear for questioning. “They wanted to know how we get the money for our work, how we function, how we get the medicines we bring to refugee camps. They asked why I, as a refugee, am taking part in such a group. They wanted information about my relatives in Sarajevo.”

Jadranka said that many groups in other countries which are trying to help refugees have lost confidence in big official structures like the Yugoslav Red Cross, because aid intended for refugees is sometimes delivered to non-refugees in place of a salary. “It means part of refugee aid is used not for refugees but to buy social peace. So foreign groups sometimes are looking for independent groups they can trust will really give the aid to refugees.”

“The refugees are mainly women and children,” said Jadranka. “Our work with them is not just to give medicines but to help them feel their own worth. So we have a project to make things which we sell for them, especially knitting and embroidery. Now we are also thinking about what we can do with women whose skills are mainly verbal and intellectual. So we started the ‘I Remember’ program which asks them to write stories about what was important in their lives before the war: love, family, home, work. We are making what they write into booklets, postcards and posters. It is good work we are doing, only not enough. We are active in four refugee camps, but there are 235 camps.”

The response of the state-controlled media to Women in Black has been uniformly hostile. “We are described as atheists, marginal people, traitors, even as people who are not ‘racially clean’ because ‘true Serbian woman would never act like that.’ The ‘true’ Serbian woman gives birth to warriors, she doesn’t protest against war.”

I asked about the impact of sanctions. “Right now Yugoslavia isn’t even the third world,” said Jasmina. “We are actually being used for experiments — to see how long one diabetic can survive without insulin, or to study the spread of typhus and tuberculosis under these circumstances. They’re spreading fast. We have less and less basic medical equipment that can be used. Machines in hospitals and clinics break down and replacement parts cannot be obtained because of the sanctions, or even if they can be obtained no one can afford to buy them.”

Meanwhile the armies on every side seem to have no end of money. “You know one bullet costs one mark,” Jasmina said. “If they shoot one bullet in one second, you can imagine how many marks are spent just for those bullets in four years? I don’t want to calculate it. And I’m not even talking about grenades and bombs and all the other military equipment.”

She said people are becoming numb to violence. “It’s no longer shocking when you hear on the radio that people were killed in the war yesterday. It’s awful. We hear the news. It’s no longer people’s names, just numbers. In the beginning there were names. Now there are only numbers. People are just numbers. We hear that in Sarajevo 60 people were killed and 200 injured. Just numbers. I keep thinking, maybe tomorrow I will be one of those numbers.”

Despite his fast, Jim is his usual self, his sense of humor thriving and persistent as ever. The water he drinks is either boiled before use or is bottled mineral water.

Friday, March 18

Jim and Jasmina took the train to Voljevo this morning, a three-hour train ride to the southeast. The train station was filled with brass bands seeing off hundreds of 18- and 19-year-old conscripts heading for training camps. In Voljevo they visited the wife and son of a friend Jim has in Sarajevo, a deserter from the Bosnian army who lives in hiding. The wife and son escaped two years ago. A moving and painful day, Jim says.

I went with Jadranka, Rada and Violeta to a refugee camp northwest of the city, Kovilovo, where about 135 people from Bosnia are living. With running water and showers, a dispensary and a large garden, it is regarded as one of the best camps and as such has been displayed to visiting UN officials.

While there we visited with a middle-aged woman named Sena Markovi, a former teacher. She is one of 12 people sharing a room filled with narrow beds. The most grueling aspect of life in a refugee camp must be the complete lack of privacy.

As part of its “I Remember” project, Women in Black has just published a small multi-lingual booklet with a short essay be Sena. Here it the text:


The 3rd of April, 1992. Friday. My first class: a test in V13. The little pupils are half-blue and half-asleep but serious. The auxiliary verb to be: I am, I shall be, it was… Their cheeks are flushed with — strain. In the second row near the window the twins: Ivana and Bozo, Samir and Sanela. The sisters are trying to help their brothers who are a little less good than they. I pretend not to see…I never had a brother. Because of the war — fifty years ago.

“The children are to go home” — a colleague announces hurriedly, unbelievably serious. Oh, yes. That morning, at the crack of day, a grenade had exploded near my bed — or so it seemed to me. The first grenade on the Kupres Plateau…

April 3rd, 1992… Our colleague D has been taken away! It is true that I cursed both Croatia and Serbia — and God! It’s not true that two snipers were found in my house. What would I do with them? I taught your parents…

Never again will I go into the classroom. After the last class I don’t have anything more to say.

Do you remember the time when we read touching texts? We were so quiet. If we could read them to the end…

You used to say: “Teacher, crying is not shameful!”

Had my words not become speechless, I wish we had only one more class: we would scream, scream so much that the whole world would hear us. We would scream to heaven, to God, my children!

Your teacher, Sena

Sena showed me a drawing she had made of her house and garden, the house burning and the flowers broken. Apparently the charge that snipers had been hiding in her house was the pretext for burning her home. She said, “I don’t know why they wanted to destroy the garden as well. All those beautiful flowers!” Another drawing showed several houses burning on the hillside.

Rada told me that for a long time after becoming a refugee, Sena was truly speechless, living in silent, deep depression. Now she has become a vital person again, a human fireplace warming her crowded room at the refugee camp. She hugged us all, made us coffee, and was full of joy to see the first copy of her booklet. Later we had lunch in the austere cafeteria: a plate of beans, a little sauerkraut and two slices of bread.

Rada (who comes form Mostar, the town once famous for its ancient bridge and now famous for the bridge’s destruction) had a letter today from someone very close to her. Inside was a pressed rose and a four-page letter. The letter contained news that someone close to her had been killed in the war. Jadranka and Violeta were crying after Rada read the letter aloud.

Rada always wears a necklace that has a copper image of the Mostar bridge as it was before its destruction.

In the late afternoon, back in Belgrade, I went to one of the university buildings in central Belgrade to meet with Sonja Prodanovic, Zdenka Milivojevic and Marina Blagojevic. Sonja is a well-known architect and also active in Women in Black. Marina and Zdenka are professors of sociology. They want to start a center that at the present they call the Museum of Antiwar Resistance. Their symbol is the Mostar Bridge.

What they have in mind isn’t a museum in the usual sense, more a place, as Marina said, “which in a variety of ways would treat what is usually called history — that is mainly the history of wars — as the history of failures, but failures which can help us learn how to live together without more such failure.”

“People here have become more and more compartmentalized, every little group in its own small box,” Marina said. “We need to develop projects that draw people together and that generate energy — for example concerts and exhibitions.”

“We want to make the other side of history visible,” Sonja explained. “What is not generally known in the world, and even to most of the public in ex-Yugoslavia, is how many people opposed the war and how many people did what they could to help others during the war.

“Official pro-war ideologies in ex-Yugoslavia have relied on the negative picture of the ‘other’ created in mass media, with each nation pictured as a victim of another nation. Peaceful history was reinterpreted as a history of hidden hatred. But in reality many people continued to live together and to help each other, even during the war. Many of us have survived owing to help and solidarity from other people. Many of us still believe that peace is still possible. We believe that human solidarity is stronger than hatred.

“Although we have been constantly exposed to stories of violence and destruction, we still tell each other ‘little’ stories about good will, help and sacrifice. In this way we know there is another side of a history. It is exactly in the time of war that peace initiatives should be supported. It is exactly now that we must start remembering and preserving that other side of our history.”

“Just as war was created by an interpretation of history as a history of wars and hatred,” said Marina, “peace can be created and nourished by the interpretation of history as a history of living together. Even in the Balkans, people were living together longer in peace than fighting wars.”

Their vision, I realized, has much in common with the work of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, which is not just a place to remember Anne Frank and her family or what the Nazis did in the areas they ruled, but a place that tries to equip visitors to respond to Nazi-like movements of the present time: to save the Anne Franks alive today. I proposed they contact the Anne Frank staff and see if they could be invited to come to Amsterdam. I also suggested they try to make arrangements to bring the Anne Frank travelling exhibition to Belgrade.

Saturday, March 19

Again and again people I talked with in Belgrade insisted that Jim and I had to visit at least one monastery. Bojan Aleksov, a draft refuser and member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship who is one of the several men working with Women in Black, told me it was a sin to come to Serbia and not to experience one of its centers of spiritual life.

With all our meetings in Belgrade, such a trip seemed impossible. Then Bishop Irinej of Novi Sad — sometimes described as the Foreign Minister of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the “right hand of Patriarch Pavle” — invited us to come with Father Andreas to the Kovilj Monastery and meet with him there after Vespers.

At the Kovilj Monastery, which lies in southern Vojvodina, we found a finely-made stone church in the Byzantine style. The fifteen monks living here, most of them adult converts to Orthodoxy, are a young community. In the last part of the Tito era, only two elderly monks lived here. For years the monks’ cells were used by Serbian artists, and still there is a close link between the monastery and both intellectuals and artists.

Bells summoned us, along with about a dozen other guests, to join the monks for Vespers in a small dimly lit chapel. Through several small windows there was a view of an orchard.

Bishop Irinej, spiritual father of Kovilj, was present for Vespers. At the end of the service he spoke in his surprisingly quiet voice about the deeper meaning of the Great Fast that had begun that week. “It is the season to clean our hearts.”

With the abbot, Father Porfirijie, and several other monks, Jim and I talked for more than an hour with Bishop Irinej, meeting in an upstairs room. He is a young bishop, thin, with a long dark beard, wearing thick glasses, speaking in a quiet, reflective voice. There is about him a profound gravity and a sense of grief.

Like Patriarch Pavle, he stressed that the Church must practice conciliarity — sabornost — in its actions, not unilateral gestures. If the Patriarch meets the Pope, it must be an action of the whole Church. “We Bishops must listen to each other, listen to our people, and listen to the other Orthodox Churches.” He spoke of encounters involving the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia as well as his own recent meeting with Pope John Paul in Rome. Regarding the latter, which happened “despite protests from our own people,” he wasn’t convinced Pope John Paul yet understands the principle of conciliarity that stands at the center of Orthodoxy.

He felt a large share of the blame for the tragedy of former Yugoslavia belongs to the mass media. “Our situation is so complex that even we cannot understand it, so we know how difficult it is for any reporter. But I have come to the conclusion that there are no morals at all in the profession of journalism. In their oversimplifying of what has happened here, the world is given the image of Serbs as a demonic people. And what this does to the Serbian people is convince them that outside political powers want to destroy them. It is a common feeling. We see ourselves being made to fill a role formerly played by Soviet Russia. My personal opinion is that the West has behaved like an elephant, and the result has been a much longer and much more cruel war. Neither do I think the Vatican, which so quickly took the western, German position, can be proud of its role so far. I am aware that the Pope himself doesn’t call for the bombing of the Serbs, yet he doesn’t object to those who make it seem this is his position. In Belgrade, people were preparing to be bombed and thinking that the Pope was one of those who wanted that to happen.”

Returning to criticism of the media, he noted that the activities of the Serbian Orthodox Church in opposition to war and to help the war’s victims are almost entirely unreported. “People in other countries are given the idea that the Church is actually in support of the war, even fomenting it. Whatever we do to save the lives of others, not only Serbs but Moslems and Catholics, is ignored. The western press says not one word about any good deed. And this of course makes it easy to justify and maintain the sanctions.”

“Sanctions kill people just as effectively as weapons of war,” he said. “Please understand, people are suffering, children are dying, unborn children are punished in their mothers’ wombs because they cannot get the medication needed. Truly Christ is suffering. It is a kind of brutality such as was practiced by the Gestapo of Hitler. Hitler had the idea of collective guilt which he assigned to the Jews. Now it is the Serbs who are guilty as a people and must be punished. Our nation has been made into a ghetto. In principle the sanctions are not supposed to be a barrier to medicines but in reality they are. We have seen shipments of medicines wait on the border for months before being permitted into our country, and by that time many of them were too old to be used. Though we know the Pope has made some statements critical of sanctions, somehow they are never reported and so his opposition to them remains unknown to the public and perhaps even to political leaders.”

Bishop Irinej noted there were indications that the Vatican is changing direction and may become outspoken on the issues of sanctions. Days before the Serbian Orthodox Church had received a large gift of medical aid from the Catholic relief agency, Caritas, and there were meetings underway with Msgr. Paglia, a personal emissary of Pope John Paul. “What we wait for now is a clear public statement from the Pope so that our people and the world will know he opposes what sanctions are doing to us. We need prophetic steps from him.”

He spoke about the political double standard. “We know the Croatian army is fighting in Bosnia, but Croatia is not under sanctions. Not that we want such a thing to happen! Only we want a single standard of morality, not one for Serbs and another for everyone else.”

He said America’s “new world order” was another kind of prison. “In the Soviet prison you got to sleep on the ground. In the American prison you get a bed and a TV. But it is still prison.”

I asked what signs of hope he saw. “There is no hope in politicians. They say one thing today, and tomorrow the opposite. If there is an act of terrorism, they immediately blame it on the Serbs and then, if later they find they were mistaken, they lose not a minute of sleep. Except for Christian acts of witness, I don’t see any other light. There is a planetary illness. The only cure is spiritual. It needs prayer and fasting to make a decisive step toward repentance.”

The symbolic and prayerful action of Patriarch Pavle and Pope John Paul being together in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb is clearly something that Bishop Irinej recognizes as potentially contributing to a cure to the planetary illness which Sarajevo has come to symbolize. If only Pope John Paul can work in the coming weeks and months to help remove the obstacles and misunderstandings that impede Catholic-Orthodox relations…

Toward the end of our conversation monks sang for us in Serbo-Croatian, Greek and English. Then outside the monastery we looked up at a sky whose stars, even to my book-worn eyes, seemed to be no further away than the roof of the church.

Sunday, March 20, Novi Sad

The city cathedral is in the Catholic architectural tradition and the iconography inside also shows the unfortunate influence of the baroque period and the era when Novi Sad was under Austrian rule, but the Liturgy itself, a three-hour celebration, was intensely Orthodox. The church gradually filled until there were hundreds of standing people filling the building, men and women, old and young. It was impressive to see nearly everyone receive communion. Afterward we had lunch with Bishop Irinej — for Jim consisting of one glass of mineral water — and then hurried to the train station with Father Andreas, catching the 2 o’clock train to Budapest with one minute to spare.

* * *