The fragile cease-fire in Bosnia has not made life in war-torn Sarajevo any easier, according to the leader of that city’s Jewish community.
In addition to heading aid efforts, Ivan Ceresnjes, who also serves as the president of the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovenia, focuses on ensuring Jewish continuity in Sarajevo, he said in a recent interview.
“The cease-fire didn’t change much in Sarajevo” and other parts of Bosnia, he said noting that people still are killed or wounded on a daily basis.
The cease-fire, which took effect Jan. 1, is scheduled to end April 30. It has been consistently violated. Over the weekend, Sarajevo came under heavy shelling from Serb forces, and last weekend six people died and seven were wounded by mortar and gunfire.
In effort to make the situation more vivid to people in the United States, Ceresnjes is on a monthlong speaking tour, which stretches from Pennsylvania to California.
One of UJA’s main beneficiaries, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has contributed significant aid to the community.
“I wanted to make a clear picture to American Jewry to tell them what is really going on there,” Ceresnjes said, adding that the U.S. media does not fully depict the situation on the ground.
Since the war began, Ceresnjes and La Benevolencija, Sarajevo’s revitalized Jewish humanitarian aid society, were instrumental in organizing 11 carried both Jews and non-Jews to safer areas. Of the 2,300 Sarajevans rescued by these convoys, 1,100 were Jews, he said. Many of the rescued Jews went to Israel.
Through the aid society, also known as JDC-La Benevolencija because of its support from JDC, Ceresnjes continues to play a critical role in bringing food, medicine and shelter, among other supplies, to the Jews and non-Jews who remain in the city.
“Our obligation is to help everybody,” Ceresnjes said.
Additional convoys are not being planned at this time, he said Getting people out of the besieged area is now being handled on a “case-by-case basis.”
Ceresnjes said he and others like him are able to carry out their humanitarian missions because the Jews, as a group, have not taken sides in the war. As a result, they have been able to gain the trust of the three warring factions: the Croats, the Serbs and the Muslims.
Ceresnjes said the 600 Jews who still reside in Sarajevo are the backbone of a community that dates back to the 16th century.
“We believe in continuity,” he said, adding that it would be tragic if the current war in Bosnia were responsible for ending the area’s Jewish presence. Outside of Sarajevo, 300 Jews live in areas controlled by different warring factions, he said.
Despite the obstacles, Ceresnjes said, the Jewish community in Sarajevo is “alive and kicking.”
As efforts to preserve Jewish life continue, he said, children attend religious schools, books are published, plays are staged and holidays are celebrated.
“Nothing is hopeless to us,” he said of the fate of Sarajevo’s Jewish community.
He has said that after the war is over, he wants Jews who have left Sarajevo to be able to come home again.