Center offers refuge in war-torn Sarajevo

SARAJEVO — It is a bitterly cold day, but the Jewish Community Center of Sarajevo exudes a warm glow.

More than one year after the U.S.-brokered Dayton agreement led to a cease-fire between Serbs and Muslims in this war-ravaged country, the community center and the people who run it still play a vital role in the day-to-day lives of many Sarajevo residents, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Home to La Benevolencija, a nonsectarian humanitarian organization organized and operated by the Jewish community, the center remains what it has been since the war's start in 1992 — a lifeline for the hungry, the homeless, the ones in need of hope.

In a city with thousands upon thousands of refugees, where almost every building has sustained mortar damage and the water supply operates only seven hours a day, the community's pharmacy, clinic and food kitchen are busier than ever.

On a recent day, as the temperature dipped well below freezing, young and old lined up for free medications, many of which cannot be found elsewhere.

The same lines can be found at the free outpatient clinic, the soup kitchen and the warehouse, which once a month hands out small packages filled with food and other necessities.

In the center, run down from years of use, the word "community" takes on its true meaning.

Thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of hot pasta, the center is a noisy, lively place. During holidays such as Passover, when many of the remaining 600 members of Sarajevo's Jewish community gather, there is barely enough room to move.

With the exception of 20 or 30 youngsters, who attend Sunday school classes and occasional parties, the people who come to the center are at least 50.

"The children and most of the very old were evacuated by the Joint [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] during the first year of the war, and most of them have started new lives in Croatia, Serbia, Israel and a dozen other places," says Jacob Finci, president of both the Jewish community and La Benevolencija.

Of the 1,200 community members who lived in the city prior to the war, Finci says, "exactly 1,003 left."

Since the war ended in late 1995, dozens of original community members have returned, usually without their children.

Although the Jews that stayed behind during three hellish years of war suffered alongside their predominantly Muslim neighbors, they were never singled out, says Igor Gaon, the country's sole Jewish parliamentarian.

Yehiel Bar-Chaim, the JDC's director for the former Yugoslavia, says Sarajevo's tiny Jewish community served as a humanitarian bridge during war's darkest days.

Recalling how La Benevolencija — with funding from the JDC, the London-based World Jewish Relief and other sources — evacuated and assisted large numbers of non-Jews during the war, Bar-Chaim says, "There is a naturalness of relations between Jews and the rest of society here that is virtually incomprehensible to outsiders."

The community's Sunday school, which was inaugurated during the heaviest days of shelling, is an example.

"The Jewish kids found a warm environment, a refuge from the war, and they wanted to share it with their friends," Bar-Chaim says.

"They would come and say, `Can I bring my best friend?' No one even thought to say no."