Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: Fate of People of Sarajevo: Prisoners or Potential Refugees

The Jews remaining in Sarajevo spend endless days in the Jewish community center, waiting for something to change.

The community center, adjacent to the old Ashkenazi synagogue of Sarajevo, has served as a home and shelter for Jews and non-Jews alike.

They receive warm meals there, the result of donations from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish La Benevolencija organization.

Despite the 20-month-long siege of Sarajevo, the 500 Jews who still live there suffer no hunger. They live on donated food.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also provides food, but the quantities are negligible. The ration comes to a liter of oil, a package of sugar and three pounds of flour per person every three weeks. And every person is entitled to receive a third of a loaf of bread each day.

The donations given to the Jewish community center supplement the food rations of the UNHCR. Each recipient obtains an additional 26 pounds of food each month, and a warm meal every day.

Fruit, meat and vegetables are rare, available on the local black market for exorbitant prices. Two pounds of potatoes cost $50; similar amounts of sugar and meat cost $23 and $40 respectively.

Where do these black-market products come from? From neighboring Serb villages, smuggled at great risk. Some say they come from U.N. soldiers, who make a quick profit on the side.

“But you don’t need money around here,” said Slobodan Kosonovic, 48, a computer expert who is now out work. “You can simply live on humanitarian aid.”

On one of the few remaining walls in the once-magnificent Old Town Hall there is a one-word declaration of nostalgia: “TITO.” Whoever wrote it apparently longed for the days of the authoritarian marshall who would not let the people of Yugoslavia destroy themselves.

But Tito is long gone, and the people of Yugoslavia are doing an excellent job of destroying themselves and their country.

The war has left 2,000,000 dead and 2 million refugees, right here in the middle of Europe.

Despite the quiet brought by the NATO ultimatum earlier this week, Sarajevo is still one of the saddest places in the world. It is a huge prison where people are quietly waling the streets, barely saying a word, absorbed in their thoughts about their ever-growing share of agony.

Among the city’s unhappy citizens is Alex Bojanic, a professor at the Sarajevo Academy of Sciences and Arts. He works in their publishing department. But there is no publishing, because there is hardly any paper.

Nonetheless, he is planning to publish 20 books – after the war.

Bojanic and his wife, Nenad, have shoved old shoes into the kitchen oven in an attempt to create some heat.

“These are the shoes of the children. The children are safe in Croatia and Holland, so we no longer need the shoes,” they said.

At times they burn books to heat their home.

“Last night Ben-Gurion went up flames,” said Alex Bojanic, his eyes glowing with dark humor.

In better times, the Bojanics spent their summers on the beaches of Makarska, which is now in Croatian hands, or even on the French Riviera. In the old days they made full use of the good life Sarajevo had provided as the center of culture, business and arts of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Although those days are long gone, the Bojanics do not want to leave.

They hope for the good days to return. The shelling and shooting is over, but the siege goes on. And the people of Sarajevo are prisoners in their own city.

Among the prisoners is Igor, a tall, 20-year-old blond Serb. He is one of 5,000 Serbs still living in Sarajevo.

Even when they are not part of the fighting, the Serbs are at times regarded as the enemy because they are hardly enthusiastic partners to the Muslim war effort.

For months, Igor has lived in a hideout, sleeping in a cold office building with no light or heat, living on food that his mother brings him daily.

Even if there is peace for Sarajevo, Igor will not have peace and quiet. He will be a prisoner in his own city. At best he may flee – and become a refugee elsewhere.

NEXT STORY