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SPRING, 1998: Volume 3 Issue 1

Working for Peace in Bosnia by Suzanne O'Hatnick

I stood outside the gate to the Muslim graveyard on the hill outside of Jajce, Bosnia, with Amela, my Bosnian co-worker. A neighbor had driven us up the hill to the spot. He joined other Muslim men who had just arrived by bus and were streaming inside the gate. The Imam, a Muslim religious leader, was already there. A few Muslim women arrived. They waited outside the gate with Amela and me, dressed as for church in the U.S. We stood and gazed at the slender white markers that marked the graveyard as Muslim. A UN vehicle drove by with conspicuous black lettering on the white 4X4. Men in white, UN monitors, peered out, waved and drove on. Another vehicle arrived, this time from IPTF, the International Police Task Force. They, too, waved and drove on. Next came a jeep with SFOR (Stabilization Force) soldiers. They drove past.

Eight local Croat police were patrolling in pairs. Jajce, a small mountain town once known as a European vacation spot, had been hotly contested during the war. After a period of Serb control, the Croat army had prevailed and now Croats controlled this formerly multi-ethnic town. I tried to catch their eyes with mine and I smiled at a young policeman. His gaze touched mine and slid hastily away. Surprised, I could see that he was afraid. Of what, me?! I was the only international there. They did not speak.

The Imam began his prayers. Those of us outside waited silently. After the Imam finished, the men inside visited the grave, spoke with each other, hugged friends and relatives they had not seen for a while. Talking animatedly, they left the graveyard. The police waited outside and marched beside the group to the bus. They began to herd people onto the bus. There was mild complaint and annoyance, but the men boarded and the bus left. Others got into their cars and also left promptly. The bus would return to Zenica, the town where most of the displaced people from Jajce were living. The funeral was over.

A week later, Amela burst into my little house, crying with rage. I had been in a meeting with a local Muslim leader, talking about starting a youth club in Jajce, and had not been able to attend another Muslim funeral scheduled for that day. Amela had said she would go. Her American husband, Randy, had stayed with me to help interpret, as my Bosnian was still rudimentary.

"They screamed at us, told loud, dirty jokes and laughed while the Imam was praying, and shouted at us all to leave immediately!" she cried.

"Who?" I asked.

"The police! We knew they just wanted an excuse to crack heads or even to shoot. We ignored them and continued with the prayers. Never have I felt so angry, but we all knew they wanted to provoke an incident so we did not react."

"Were any internationals there?" I asked.

"No," she replied.

It was then I realized how important was our role as internationals simply to be public witnesses. I knew that had I been there, an obvious non-native, the police would have behaved very differently. Sometimes, as I speak about my experiences as a peace worker in Bosnia, people ask me, "But what did you DO there?" Often, all I did was sit with people who were afraid, have a cup of coffee with them, listen as they unburdened themselves of their fears, or told me things they could not talk about with their families for fear of burdening them. I accompanied Muslims to town to buy groceries or walked home with them in the evening from a friend's house, so they would not be harassed by the local police. By mixing with both Croat and Muslim neighbors, I tried to dispel the fear that some had of talking with the "other" ethnic group.

I served as a volunteer for three months for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Jajce, Bosnia, to work with Amela and Randy Puljek-Shank, a young couple who had met and married in Bosnia. Both had been volunteers with IMO, a German humanitarian group, and had been distributing clothes and food to the needy in a nearby town. Randy had trained with CPT and Amela was eager to help her home town of Jajce return to some state of normalcy. They asked IMO to support their efforts to begin peace work in Jajce.

IMO asked CPT to help recruit volunteers to serve with Randy and Amela. CPT sent Lena Siegers, a seasoned, full time CPT volunteer, and me, a member of CPT's reserve corps. Reserve corps members train along with the full time members, but offer two weeks to a few months a year of service for three years instead of full time work.


Christian Peacemaker Team in Jajce, Bosnia. L to R: Lena Siegers, Randy and Amela Puljek-Shank

Christian Peacemaker Team in Jajce, Bosnia. L to R: Lena Siegers, Randy and Amela Puljek-Shank. Photo: David Hartsough


In addition to listening and accompanying, Randy negotiated with the Croat city government to allow international volunteers to come work on simple reconstruction projects. He was careful to split the time for work equally between Croat and Muslim houses and projects. The IMO-sponsored work teams came for two week work projects. They brought such a spirit of enthusiasm and an even-handed approach to all ethnic groups that they were able to ease the tense atmosphere in the town and, in some small measure, ease the apathy that had enveloped the town in the exhausted aftermath of war. Invariably, as they began work, the volunteers would be greeted with suspicion, then, as they cheerfully engaged nearby people in basic conversation and as they worked on industriously, people would come out to talk, then to help. By the end of the summer, the Croat government was beginning to organize groups of young unemployed Croats to work on public projects.

Each peace building assignment is different. While actions vary in response to particular circumstances, what is always called for is solidarity with the oppressed and compassion for both oppressed and oppressor. We are called as peacemakers to embrace both, in love. That does not mean that we approve of or do not reproach behavior that is unjust, but it does mean that we keep uppermost a search for the good in every person we meet with the expectation that it will be revealed and expressed, through grace.

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