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Bosnian Jewish Leader Hopes Region Wracked by War Can Normalize

October 14, 2004
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Jakob Finci, longtime leader of the Bosnian Jewish community, took a swallow of local draft beer and gestured at the mellow crowd enjoying dinner in an upscale new restaurant not far from the city’s synagogue. The tables were full, and, said Finci, there were probably Serbs and Croats among the diners as well as Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks.

“We all look alike, and we all are using the same language, even though today it’s called by three different names, Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian,” he said. “It’s not easy to distinguish here in the restaurant who is who.”

Nine years after the Dayton Agreement put an end to the devastating Bosnian War, the relaxed dinnertime clatter was a positive sign of recovery in Sarajevo.

But the good food and easy atmosphere masked a host of physical and psychological scars that the city, its people, and all of Bosnia and Herzegovina are still struggling to sort out.

The jobless rate is more than 40 percent, and salaries are low. Despite extensive rebuilding, bombed-out buildings, mass graveyards and other stark war damage are visible throughout the country. Thousands of foreign soldiers are still stationed in Bosnia to keep the peace. And there is still considerable distrust and separation between the ethnic groups.

“You know, after each war, it is the winners who are writing the history,” Finci said during a recent lengthy conversation with JTA. “But the Bosnian War was stopped with the Dayton Peace Accord, without winners and losers.

“All three sides are preparing their own history,” he said. “Our education system is strictly divided by ethnic lines, and we are teaching our children that our neighbors are our enemies.”

During the Bosnian War, the tiny local Jewish community and its social welfare arm, La Benevolencija, won international renown as a key conduit of nonsectarian humanitarian aid to all ethnic groups involved in the conflict. They ran a soup kitchen, medical and communication services, and organized exit convoys for refugees from besieged Sarajevo.

“We have just 700 members, among them 180 survivors of the Holocaust, so we are an aging community,” Finci said. “At the same time, during the war we succeeded in helping at least 10,000 people.”

Finci and other Jewish leaders transformed themselves from middle-aged, white-collar professionals into daring coordinators who juggled identification papers and navigated checkpoints, often risking death in the process.

“It was really like a James Bond movie,” Finci recalled. “But if you ask me now if I would be ready to repeat it, the answer would be no. Because it’s only now that I realize how dangerous it was. At the time, it was a strange feeling of responsibility.”

The war is over, but Bosnian Jews still feel a sense of commitment to help their fellow citizens as they strive to rebuild their country.

“Now we have a different fight, the fight for the normalization of life for everyone,” Finci said. “After nearly 10 years, we still need a lot of help, and thank God it’s arriving.”

Aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other international bodies, the Jewish community and La Benevolencija continue to sponsor programs that help needy members of society at large as well as local Jews.

These include the distribution of aid donations, largely channeled to la Benevolencija through the JDC, which range from used clothing to toiletries to a recent shipment of nearly 22,000 pairs of reading glasses, which La Benevolencija donated to an association of retired people.

A home care program, meanwhile, begun immediately after the war ended, provides assistance to more than 600 needy elderly people in Sarajevo, of all ethnicities.

Also in collaboration with the JDC, La Benevolencija established a training program to help local people set up small businesses. And, with the help of the World Bank, it runs a micro credit institution to provide small loans to the new businesses that are created.

Be My Friend, a project started three years ago, enables about 30 local children to attend a Benevolencija summer camp on Mount Igman, outside Sarajevo. There, they learn core values of civil society as well as have fun.

“They are really our friends,” said Finci, “which is the main idea. It is not that they should become Jews, but that they should become normal human beings and understand that religion and ethnicity make no difference in anything as long as you are human.”

Finci, whose own family roots in Sarajevo go back more than 300 years, is involved in numerous activities aimed at fostering interreligious and interethnic reconciliation in his homeland.

For several years he has lobbied for the formation of a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission modeled on the commission that was active in South Africa after apartheid.

Individuals would be encouraged to detail, in public, what was done to them during the Bosnian War — and by whom.

A major campaign to have such a commission established by Parliament, he said, is getting under way this month.

“The whole idea is based on the fact that we have not just been victims of the war, but also victims of propaganda,” he said, “and we don’t know that our brave guys who defended us also committed crimes on the other side.”

Getting everything out in public would have a cathartic effect, but the facts and figures expected to emerge through the commission’s work would also provide historians with the basis for writing one history of Bosnia free from ethnic bias.

“I know that history is changing every 50 years,” Finci said. “But at least you’ll have the facts in one place and be able to agree about the facts.”

The object, he said, would not be to equalize the crimes of the various ethnicities, but to inject some shades of gray into a black-and-white scenario.

“Unfortunately, everyone knows that the Muslims were the biggest victims and the Serbs were the biggest perpetrators,” he said. “But at the same time it doesn’t mean that there were no Serb or Croat victims, or that there were no Muslim perpetrators.

“Saying all this openly, in front of the media, will, I think make it much easier to reconcile, at least with yourself,” he said. People can say, ‘OK, yes, I suffered a lot, but they suffered also. And we are in the same boat and we should go together or we’ll disappear.’ Europe is unifying and only Bosnia is trying to divide itself in small pieces,” he said. “This is not acceptable.”

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