Behind the Headlines: As War Rages in Bosnia, Humanitarian Efforts Persist
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Behind the Headlines: As War Rages in Bosnia, Humanitarian Efforts Persist

BEHIND THE HEADLINES:. As war rages in Bosnia, humanitarian efforts persist With no end in sight to the war, Jewish communities throughout Europe are banding together to help Jewish and non-Jewish victims in the Bosnain capital of Sarajevo.

In Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, Jewish societies have formed to raise funds and collect goods for La Benevolencija, the Sarajevo- based Jewish aid society.

Resurrected nearly three years ago as was erupted in Bosnia, La Benevolencija has earned a reputation as one of the most effective aid agencies operating in Bosnia.

Its programs help Croats, Muslims, Jews and Serbs alike.

Working in conjunction with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief, La Benevolencija operates three pharmacies, a post office, a soup kitchen, a medical clinic with a division for house calls a food distribution center and a cultural program.

The JDC, which has been providing relief shipments to the besieged city of Sarajevo since the war began in 1992, recently convened a meeting in Paris of the various European aid societies in an effort to coordinate relief efforts for Sarajevo.

“What we want to do is get to know each other and channel Sarajevo’s needs to the right people,” Norman Tilles, JDC’s international development chairman, told the gathering.

Jonathan Kolker, JDC’s finance chairman, said it was critically important for the coalition of aid groups to “steer clear to politics, even the politics of our own governments regarding this war.”

Because La Benevolencija has avoided the political arena, it has been allowed by all the warring factions to continue its operations, observers say.

During the Paris meeting, representatives of the British Fund informed the gathering about their ongoing relations with pharmaceutical companies and food distributors, many of whom have made large donations during the past 24 months.

JDC officials, in turn, offered space at its Croatian warehouse and provided logistical information for getting food into Sarajevo.

Representatives of the various European aid chapters took to the podium to discuss their efforts.

The German chapter, which is known as Benevolencija Germany and is headquartered in Berlin, has only been in operation for a few months. But according to Michael Melzer, the chapter’s representative, $35,000 was collected in its first 120 days of existence.

“Finally, here’s a way people can do something about the war in Bosnia. Not complain, not talk about the West’s inaction, but actually do something,” said Melzer, a German architect.

The Belgian representative, Joelle Baumerder, spoke of that chapter’s success in getting donors to make monthly bank transfers: “We’ve found that people are more willing to make small donations regularly rather than a big sum all at once.”

Haneke Jeldemblom, a Dutch member of Parliament, spoke with obvious pride about ongoing relief efforts in the Netherlands.

Her group, working in conjunction with the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel chapter in Cambridge, Mass., was instrumental in securing a 10-ton truck from Mercedes- Benz to help deliver supplies to Sarajevo.

Because of the conditions in Bosnia, she said, the truck had to be repainted white, the color of all U.N. vehicles.

But a giant blue menorah was painted on the truck’s side at the Mercedes factory, reflecting the fact that all the warring factions in Bosnia respect the humanitarian efforts of Sarajevo’s Jewish community.

The costs for outfitting the truck with special accessories — including the installation of a hydraulic lift to the cargo gate, extra fuel tanks and a radio communications set — were provided by the Belgian and French chapters, the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel and JDC.

Last to address the gathering was Ivica Ceresnjes, president of the Sarajevo Jewish community.

Ceresnjes, who was recently decorated with France’s prestigious Legion of Honor medal for his efforts, has led his ever-shrinking community through the last few difficult year. Although hundreds of Jews have left Sarajevo, mostly emigrating to Israel, an estimated 500 remain. ceresnjes said it was easier to carry out La Benevolencija’s work in Sarajevo knowing how much help and support the group had from outside world.

“It isn’t just the money or the goods. It’s the fact that you’re working for us, and that means with us,” he said.

Ceresnjes also spoke of La Benevolencija’s next project — the building of a giant soup kitchen in the community center basement that will feed up to 1,000 people in Sarajevo daily. Ceresnjes, an architect, immediately pulled out a set of plans for the new kitchen and discussed them with the audience, an act that may speak to his views on whether the war would soon end.

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