SPLIT, Croatia (Nov. 15)
“You see these two suitcases?” asked Vahiva Biscevic, sitting on a crowded bus traveling from Sarajevo to this city on the Adriatic coast. “This is all I have to show for 70 years of my life.”
Biscevic, a dignified woman with sad eyes, was one of the 350 Jewish, Moslem, Serbian and Croatian refugees the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee managed to evacuate Saturday from the war-ravaged capital of Bosnia- Herzegovina.
The evacuation, a sometimes-harrowing 22-hour bus trip through territory claimed by warring ethnic factions, left the refugees and those who assisted them numb with exhaustion.
The saga began in Sarajevo at 7 a.m. Saturday morning, with the arrival of two trucks loaded with vital food and medicines, plus five empty buses, from the nearby town of Kiseljak. A sixth bus, from a Croatian relief organization, joined the convoy.
Securing permission for the vehicles’ entry — and even more so for their exit — was no easy task, according to members of the JDC and the Sarajevo Jewish community, who worked together on the operation.
“We needed permission from all sides of the conflict, at the highest level,” said Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish Humanitarian Society. “Getting the OK took months, and we were in a hurry. Winter has arrived, and it will kill many people in Sarajevo,” he said.
The evacuation from Sarajevo, the eighth such mission by the JDC, took on a dramatic character right from the start.
Despite a supposed cease-fire that took effect within the city limits last Thursday, 10 mortar shells exploded an hour before the vehicles arrived.
At 9 a.m., volunteers at Sarajevo’s Jewish Community Center unloaded the food and medicine in the trucks, which was to be distributed on a non-sectarian basis to those in need.
Then, at 10:00 a.m., just as the busloads of refugees were preparing to depart the beleaguered city, Bosnian soldiers came on the scene. Before they would allow the convoy to leave, they said, the Jewish community must get written permission from either the Bosnian president or the Defense Ministry.
“Despite all the permissions we had received, we were very concerned that we would not get the people out,” admitted Dragen Danon, a former member of the Sarajevo Jewish community.
“It took the Red Cross two months to get one convoy out, and the next day they had to cancel everything because a bus driver in the convoy was killed by a mortar shell,” he explained. “We had gotten all the right permissions on the previous day, but the soldiers in the field wouldn’t accept this.”
After several hours of frantic phone calls to government officials, the convoy was allowed to leave.
By wartime standards, the 16-mile trek from Sarajevo to Kiseljak went very smoothly. “We heard only occasional sniper fire and one mortar landed 100 meters away from us,” said Finci. “For residents of Sarajevo, that represents a peaceful day.”
Upon reaching Kiseljak, the refugees purchased oranges and bananas — the first fruit most had seen in seven months.
But the tension that was beginning to melt away returned a couple of hours later, as five of the six buses could not navigate Bosnia’s steep mountain passes. Snow hugged the road as temperatures plummeted to well below freezing.
The door of one bus was torn off as it attempted a sharp turn, trapping the other buses on the narrow precipice. People stood shivering in the pitch darkness as workers, and then the Bosnian police, tried to free the bus. Four hours later, they succeeded.
Throughout Saturday night, the convoy was stopped at Bosnian, Moslem and Croatian checkpoints. Through the misted windows, one could see villages reduced to rubble a few months before. Buildings and bridges were damaged or destroyed; plastic sheeting took the place of glass windowpanes.
While most of the terrain through which the convoy passed has been calm for months, a few stretches were risky. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the buses had to cross a dam in plain sight of Serbian snipers. Realizing the risk, the bus drivers sped across the dam, then across bumpy dirt roads potholed from mortar blasts.
Exhausted by the tension earlier in the day, many of the evacuees slept, oblivious to the potential danger outside the window.
Others tried to lighten the mood with a funny story or anecdote. During an especially uncomfortable part of the trip, Eli Eliezri, the JDC field operator, dismantled a bulletproof vest he had worn in Sarajevo to reveal a dozen bars of Swiss chocolate.
Even so, the time passed slowly — no more so than at the Croatian border, where every passenger was examined for typhus, which had been spotted in Sarajevo. The checkups took two long hours at a time when the refugees were at the end of their rope.
Once in Croatia, people’s moods became brighter. The excitement built as the local police took the lead and escorted the convoy into Split. Onlookers waved as the lead bus moved forward, sporting the blue and white flag of the JDC.
Dozens of people waited expectantly for the refugees to disembark. Some had come to meet family members; some simply hoped to hear news of home.
There were, indeed, some tearful embraces, but in the end, most of the evacuees were alone. They milled around, pale and weary, searching for a face that was not there.
“We are all so tired,” said Mira, who stood beside her two daughters, Tina, 22, and Milana, 25. Pointing to Tina, who stood on crutches, she said, “First my daughter must have surgery to repair leg muscles injured by a mortar blast. What will happen after that is anyone’s guess.”
The Jewish Agency for Israel immediately took charge of the Jewish evacuees, while other groups took responsibility for the Moslems, Serbs and Croats. Some of the Jews will go to Israel. Most will not.
Vahiva Biscevic will go to Switzerland, where she has family, to start over again. “But I still dream of returning to Sarajevo one day,” she said.
She is not alone.