Sarajevos Jewish center damaged in first shelling

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BERLIN — For the first time in the 3- year-old war in Bosnia, the Jewish community's headquarters in Sarajevo has taken a direct hit.

A 120-mm mortar shell hit the Jewish community center in the Bosnian capital about 3 p.m. Monday, but no one was hurt, said Jacob Finci, president of La Benevolencija, the Jewish community's non-sectarian aid agency.

"The shell hit the top floor and destroyed an unused room. Since it was after our regular lunch time, almost no one was in the building," he said, speaking by telephone from his Sarajevo apartment.

Finci said he and Ivan Ceresnjes, community president, received telephone calls from both the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian government. Each blamed the other side for the attack.

Finci, who maintains a strictly apolitical stance in the ongoing conflict between the Bosnian government and rebel Serbs, refused to speculate on which group was responsible for the assault.

"We're still feeding people every day, whether they are Jews, Croats, Serbs or Muslims," he said.

Aided by supplies from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, England's World Jewish Relief and a network of ad hoc organizations operating throughout Europe, La Benevolencija has become one of the most effective humanitarian aid agencies in the war zone, distributing food, mail and medicine.

But because of recent heavy shelling, less than half of the usual 320 daily visitors have come to La Benevolencija's soup kitchen in the past month.

And with all access routes into Sarajevo blocked, La Benevolencija no longer has food packages to give out, despite the nearly 100 tons of food waiting in rented warehouses outside the city.

"We've asked for cash wire transfers to be made," Finci said, "and we hope to be able to provide all community members with around $30 per month. That should help them buy necessities."

World Jewish Relief officials reported from London that $15,000 has just been wired successfully to the community's bank.

The attack came as tensions in Bosnia grew. Bosnian Serbs overtook a U.N. safe haven in Srebrenica this week, and NATO forces conducted air attacks. Military observers believe this will be a dangerous, if not decisive, summer for the warring armies.

Yet while many Sarajevans are afraid to go outside, the Jewish community has launched a summer program of Jewish culture.

Twice weekly, about 20 Jews, Muslims, Croats and Serbs gather in the community center to learn about and discuss Jewish history, to watch videos on Israel — on a television with a gasoline-driven generator — and to study Hebrew.