JDC Evacuates 21 More Jews from Besieged Bosnian Capital

With the cooperation of Serbian, Croatian and Muslim authorities, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has succeeded in evacuating 21 more Jews from the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.

Amid a sea of crying family members, U.N. officials and machine-gun-toting French soldiers, the group of 21 left Sarajevo over the weekend and arrived safely Sunday in the Croatian resort town of Makarska, after a dangerous journey lasting more than 24 hours.

There the evacuees will be housed by the Joint Distribution Committee while arrangements are made for their relocation. Two of the evacuees will join family members in Britain, others will fly on to Israel and many of the rest will remain in Croatia, according to Ivan Ceresnjes, a leader of the Sarajevo Jewish community.

The weekend operation was the 10th such evacuation mounted by JDC in the 17-month civil war. All told, JDC has managed to evacuate more than 3,000 people — Jews as well as non-Jews — from Sarajevo, said Ambassador Milton Wolf, the international humanitarian agency’s president.

In a statement, Wolf stressed the non-sectarian nature of JDC’s work in Bosnia, pointing out that the team that executed the latest evacuation brought 3 tons of food into Sarajevo, for the benefit of the entire community.

The latest evacuees, 14 women and seven men, were chosen from a much larger list of nearly 150 Sarajevo Jews slated for evacuation by community leaders and JDC.

“We had originally drawn up a list that included about 150 men, women and children to be taken from Sarajevo,” explained Raviv Tuvya, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Budapest, who was brought in to help process those planning to continue on to Israel.

“But the Serbs and Bosnians allowed us to only take people over the age of 60 and under 18 years. That left us with who you see on the buses this morning,” Tuvya said as the group prepared to depart.

NO GAS, ELECTRICITY OR FOOD

The convoy of two buses carrying the evacuees was escorted out of Sarajevo by two U.N. armored personnel carriers. At one point during the journey, Croatian forces had to clear mines from a section of highway before the buses could pass, a JDC official reported.

Later, when the convoy reached Serbian lines, the Serbian forces provided an ambulance, highlighting the potential for danger. But in the end, the evacuees arrived safely in Makarska, a town on the Adriatic coast, southeast of Split.

They left behind a city that has been hardhit by the ethnic fighting among Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While there is new hope that a peace agreement will soon be signed by the warring factions, those who left over the weekend did not want to take chances.

“The people are afraid of another winter here in Sarajevo,” said Jacob Finci, a senior member of the Sarajevo Jewish community.

“A peace agreement is a peace agreement, but under the one that exists here, we have no water, no gas, no electricity and no food. We have the right to save survivors of the Holocaust,” he said.

Many Bosnian Muslims watching the evacuees’ departure cried tears of joy, with one saying she was happy when anyone could escape “this hell.”

Others were less enthusiastic. Said one Bosnian: “Thank God the Chechniks are leaving,” a reference to the perceived close ties between the Jewish community and Serbia.

Indeed, as Ceresnjes noted, the community walks a fine line when it prepares and executes such an operation.

“There is a lot of animosity toward us,” he explained. “I had to turn away a Muslim woman and her 1-month-old baby from the convoy. If the Bosnian authorities had seen me putting her aboard, there would have been trouble for us in the future. This is what I have to contend with.”

DECIMATING AN ANCIENT COMMUNITY

Ceresnjes said that although this evacuation proved to be more difficult than many in the past, the results were worth the effort.

“Perhaps in two years I’ll come back and visit the graves of my friends,” said Rifka Levi, a lifelong Sarajevo resident who planned to join her cousin in Israel.

“There is nothing here for me,” she said. “On my pension you can’t buy anything. I can’t walk this city. It is destroyed. I was pregnant during the Nazi occupation. That I survived. I can’t do this again.”

Soloika Levi, no relation to Rifka, cried as she watched her 14-year-old son, Miljenko, climb aboard the bus on his way to be with family members in Israel. “He’s all I have left,” she said. “I want him to grow up in peace, not die in Sarajevo.

“I’m scared for him every day he leaves and goes out to play,” she said. “Will he be shot? Will he die from a grenade? This is the best gift he could ever have, his freedom.”

This most recent evacuation leaves Sarajevo’s once large, bustling Jewish community at a crossroad. With less than 700 members remaining, many openly wonder whether continuing evacuations which decimate a community that has survived war, pogroms and hardship since 1665 is such a wise choice.

“We didn’t leave when the Nazis occupied Sarajevo,” said one middle-aged community member. “We didn’t go when the Austrians governed Bosnia, so why do we go now?

“This might be good in the short term, but in the long term I think it’s a mistake. There are no more young people left. Who will continue our tradition here?”

Tuvya of the Jewish Agency disagreed. “It’s great Jews are going. It’s a mitzvah,” he said. “I am ready to take the rest immediately.”

NEXT STORY