10194 Parkwood Dr., #6
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The beautiful azure views of the Adriatic were interrupted by the lines of people with flowers visiting cemeteries, which seemed as abundant as MacDonalds in the USA - but they weren't standing in line for a Big Mac! The tears, the faces, the black dresses and the bright bouquets of flowers everywhere all underscored the irony of the vitality of death. Welcome to the former Yugoslavia!
The attached map visualizes this complex ethnic, political and geographical tragedy, characterized in words by this quote from the November 20, 1993 issue of the distinguished periodical "The Economist":
"When UN soldiers entered the town, they found a mental asylum, abandoned by its staff, in which the less-ill patients were looking after those worse off. The patients had taken over the asylum".
My visit was limited to Croatia and the large adjacent Croat held part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I went with my new friend, Mirko Andjelic, from Reichelsheim (where I live in Germany). Mirko is a compassionate and warm man that studied to be a priest in Croatia. However, he was imprisoned and then exiled in 1968 under Tito for opposition to repression. Today he is married - so no more priest, but a genuine Christian indeed. He is associated with the Catholic relief organization called "Malteser" and also works for the Minister of Refugees in Zagreb (the capital of Croatia). Oh - and he owns and operates the Gasthaus Zagreb here in Reichelsheim where one may find good food and a warm welcome.
I went to Bosnia-Herzegovina in spite of the US Department of State's warning not to, which I now quote from, as follows:
Bosnia & Herzegovina - Consular Information Sheet
Warning: The Department of State has issued a travel warning for Bosnia-Herzegovina. US citizens are warned not to travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina for any reason...
Country Description: Bosnia-Herzegovina is a nation...involved in a civil war. This state of war, resulting in deaths, destruction, food shortages and travel disruptions affecting roads, airports and railways, makes travel to all parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina extremely hazardous.
Entry Requirements: A passport is required. Permission to enter Bosnia-Herzegovina is currently granted at the border on a case-by-case basis.
Medical Facilities: Health facilities are minimal or non-existent; most medicines are unobtainable.
Crime Information: General lawlessness and deteriorating economic conditions have brought an increase in crime. Anti-American sentiments run high in many parts of the country, particularly in Serbian dominated areas.
Other Information: Roadblocks manned by local militias are numerous. These militia groups frequently confiscate relief goods and trucks, and may otherwise behave unprofessionally. Consular services are not available to US citizens traveling in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Some will ask, even before the first part of this report is read, "Why would I go"? The more cynical will offer, as I've already heard, vague allegations of foolishness, attention seeking and even a surreal motivation to follow in the footsteps of Indiana Jones. Given the risk, I penned the following statement in another letter before I left:
"You will ask why would I go? In his writings Paul (...the apostle) urged us to emulate his life-style. He also wrote (a slight paraphrase here by me), '...I feel a debt of obligation to all men, free, slave, barbarian, Jew, philosopher, etc. to make known to them the love of God which is made available through Jesus Christ our Lord'. This love is, without doubt spiritual, but it is also earthly and practical. If I go now, I not only take the opportunity to represent Him and his love today, but perhaps to build relationships that will later offer a more far-reaching chance to bring love, help and the inherent content of His word to this war torn area later when peace comes."
On the above statement I rest my case for going.
However, on the human side, given that we were traveling in a Mercedes panel van with large signs that stated "Humanitarian Help for Croatia", and the warning "...These militia groups frequently confiscate relief goods and trucks...", I do confess to moments of second guessing myself. But, thanks be to our Lord, I'm home safely and I feel that a down payment on my stated purpose for going has been safely deposited in the hearts and minds of new friends made on the trip.
It is difficult to summarize a trip that is best characterized by the people I met and the personal relationships established, as juxtaposed to some grand achievement of delivering food to an entire city, or evacuating thousands of homeless refugees. When I went to the prisons of Colombia there were always encounters that involved large groups of prisoners that one could discuss. No such "group" encounters were evident on this trip. Perhaps the Scripture that states, "...despise not the days of small beginnings" would be appropriate to reference here.
After 18 hours of non-stop driving from Germany that began at 10pm in the evening we arrived in Omis, a Croatian town on the coast (I'm too old for this all night stuff!). In former times it was big on tourism, natural beauty and access to the sea. The latter remains, but the tourists are gone and their money too! Near this town overlooking the Adriatic sea lives Anton, Mirko's cousin and a captain in the army of Croatia. We stayed in his home that night (Monday the 1st of November).
On our way we had driven from the coast town of Rijeka to Omis, about 300km along the picturesque and twisting coast highway - it was beautiful and dangerous too. We, I should say Mirko, made the decision to drive as waiting for the ferry boat that goes from Rijeka to Split would have been a 9 hour wait plus another 12 hours on the boat to go the same distance. Driving, however, meant passing through about 50km of war zone near Zadar that was still subject to artillery attacks from the Serbs, whose front lines were at times within 1km of the highway we traveled!
Mirko assured me, after I expressed some surprise at his decision to drive through an area that he had told me would avoid because of the war problem, that today was a Catholic holiday (...All Saints I think), so military actions were unlikely. He was correct, but he was also very alert and drove fast when we were in the risky area. Later that week 10 people were killed there in an artillery attack.
At Anton's I had my first experience with a style of reception and hospitality that was often repeated. Mirko introduced his "American" friend and I was instantly greeted with warmth and a drink. The Croatians, I discovered, are a very warm, intelligent and sensitive people, in general. In this case I was ushered to a table overlooking the Adriatic and within 5 minutes had four drinks in front of me, Turkish coffee, new wine, a beer and whisky! Guess they wanted to make sure I had a choice.
As a side note to the story it was wonderful to get back to California like weather with dry air and tee-shirt warmth. Also, I forgot to let the reader know that Mirko only knew a few words of English, I knew only a few words of German and obviously no Croatian. We discovered that both of us knew a little Spanish, so we gradually developed a very crude language composed of fragments of English, German, Spanish, Italian and a lot of gestures. Not the ideal level of communication given the place we were visiting.
On the way I read the 23d Psalm to Mirko as we approached the first dangerous section of travel. I thought this was a good choice given the "...valley of the shadow of death" line in it. I read a verse in English and then Mirko recalled from memory the Croatian equivalent - although a few places called for gestures, sounds of "baaaa", for sheep and etc. I think "...the valley of the shadow of death" called for a "...la panorama malo el friedhof" to get the point across ("la panorama malo" in Spanish is crudely, the bad landscape, and "friedhof" in German is a cemetery).
Back at Anton's the party with more friends started. Mirko was obviously quite popular, loved and missed. I was just plain exhausted. With difficulty and great diplomacy I finally retired at 6pm after no sleep of any consequence for about 33 hours. Mirko stayed up until the wee hours and then got up and left at 7am to take the van to the first place where he was to deliver relief supplies.
He had told me the night before I couldn't go with him as he had to go into the sections controlled by the military, and I would not be permitted past the checkpoints. This made me uncomfortable as I wanted to meet the refugees that I trusted were the recipients of the contents of the van.
I was disappointed, and also mildly suspicious about what might be buried under the food and small mattresses that were visible in the van. The normal structural barriers between the military, Humanitarian help, ministry, patriotism and loyalty to ones own people, I discovered, were all dissolved and the result rolled together as whole- there just aren't enough resources or people to cleanly segment all of these things like in a society that's at peace and functioning normally. I was somewhat relieved that the food and mattresses were gone when the van returned.
Left on my own for the morning I went outside for a walk. There was a woman walking her goat. She talked to me, but we couldn't speak a common language. She looked at least 55+, was worn with hardship and poorly clothed. She invited me to her house a short distance away and introduced me to her husband. They served me coffee and breakfast, as if they knew I hadn't eaten. He served me "good morning schnapps" too (...I diplomatically watered the flowers with it when he wasn't looking).
After all this they brought out their family pictures and news clippings that showed the obituaries of their 4 sons that had all been killed in the war. The woman began to weep openly and had to excuse herself. He showed me pictures of their wedding, the funeral of his father and the children when they were young. It seemed to me that they were silently communicating that this was all they had left - memories.
Somehow I was able to gather that they were from Bosnia-Herzegovina and were refugees. I wasn't sure why they welcomed me with such hospitality and opened their hearts and family situation to me with such intimacy, but I felt honored and privileged. When Mirko goes back I will send them a gift. My first new friends in Croatia were, after all, refugees.
When Mirko returned early in the afternoon he was, as usual, in a hurry. We were going to the historic city of Dubrovnik - another 200km down the coast. Fortunately the route was basically safe, although in the fractured borders of the country it required a 5km transit through Bosnia-Herzegovina where it's borders stretch to the sea near the town of Metkovic. Passing through military checkpoints was now reduced to casual routine.
In Dubrovnik I saw for the second time the shattered roofs, burned shells of buildings and the barrenness left in the path of real war. Approaching Dubrovnik seemed like a memory of my first trip to Jerusalem many years ago with all the burned and rusting hulks of vehicles pushed over the edge of the road - monuments without flowers to those less fortunate. Only this was worse than anything I had seen in Israel. I noted with interest a small fishing boat that been raked with machine-gun fire, and then each hole crudely patched by the owner so he could return to fishing.
We were hosted in Dubrovnik by Ivica Gulin, a multilingual and accomplished diplomatic man. He, was in fact, a diplomat of sorts - he is the Minister in charge of the restoration of Dubrovnik. For those that don't know Dubrovnik is a highly valued historic city on the Adriatic sea which is similar to Venice in history as a independent city-state that dominated trade since the times of Jesus and the Roman Empire. It was ultimately eclipsed in importance by Venice.
Dubrovnik suffered a serious earthquake about a decade ago. The world community responded with aid to restore and repair the inner city which suffered much structural damage. In the middle of this meticulous process along comes the Serbian army that puts the city under siege and continual shelling from artillery and mortars.
It is interesting that the outrage of the world community over the Serbian shelling of a city under the historical protection of the UN (...there is some agency in the UN for this) brought such strong political pressure that they finally stopped and withdrew from the very gates of the city. A sad note of history here: the "outrage" of the world community was more aroused over historical buildings than the issues of bloodshed, death and life itself!
Ivica was a warm and hospitable host. He was also associated with the Malteser relief effort as well as the reconstruction and restoration of Dubrovnik - which was now a much bigger job. That night we had dinner in his new home that was still not completely finished - the former one destroyed in the shelling. I discovered that in the center of the van was a large, and heavy, heating furnace brought for his house. Without it a cold winter was in store. Sometimes relief takes very specific and personal manifestations.
We had dinner with him, his wife, two children and his wife's mother. The entire family spoke reasonable English, which I greatly welcomed at this stage of the journey. It was my first, but not my last, experience where the younger child (he was 9-10) brought out empty artillery shells for me to see and doodled at the table making stick pictures of tanks, bullets flying and etc. Ivica's wife, Marija, described to me the terrifying feelings of waiting for the shelling to be over, and then the house-to-house invasion of the Serbian army to begin where they would "slit our throats...". Fortunately this never occurred.
I had prayed quietly most of this day about my plans for the next day (Wednesday November 3d). I thought, "...after all I've helped Mirko with the most important part of the trip, the majority of the relief supplies had been delivered - why go to Bosnia-Herzegovina?" I could fly home from Dubrovnik and arrive back in Germany in time to surprise my wife on her birthday. It seemed like a reasonable idea.
However, I couldn't bring myself, in a mystical sense, to be comfortable with this option. I finally concluded, very prayerfully and mystically I might add, that it was explicitly the Lord's direction to complete the trip with Mirko, including the visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. In fact, I felt strongly impressed in the inner man that much of the reason for my going was ahead of us in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The very nature of such inner guidance is dangerous territory for a thoughtful Christian, as one must enter the realm of guidance that is beyond the solid ground of the Bible. Oh yes, our Lord is alive, and He is able to "speak" to us in our hearts, but when alone and susceptible to many complex feelings that can masquerade as His voice one must listen very carefully. I may not feel at some moment that Jesus loves me, but the Bible provides absolute assurance that is greater than my feelings that He does - but there are no such external reference points for these kind of decisions.
There is a great verse in Isaiah that states, "...you shall hear a quiet voice behind you saying, 'this is the way that you should go - walk in it'". After I made my decision to go I experienced this, and a confidence that dispelled my misgivings. I never looked back on this decision even when the experience was, to understate it, somewhat unsettling. I was confident in His confirming voice "behind me" that I had heard His voice correctly in the complexity of the decision process.
In the morning we left for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although we had up to this time been in the newly created country of Croatia (Republika Hrvatska) I was slowly digesting the fractured geography of the adjoining country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now more accurately defined by the portions held and occupied by the different ethnic groups (...see the map). These new countries resulted from the break up of the former Yugoslavia, and are all recognized by the UN, so the current partitioning of territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina is contrary to the internationally defined boundaries of this country.
While Mirko carried a Croatian passport, his family was from the western section of Bosnia-Herzegovina - which is largely Croatian in ethnic make-up. He has some relationship to the Croatian manifestation of a government for Bosnia-Herzegovina, thus apparently explaining his appointment with the President of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Grude. I should add the appointment was with the Croatian President, as there are apparently now three to four Presidents - depending on which group you are associated with.
We drove from Dubrovnik to the junction of Route 17 (E73) that leads from the coast to Mostar and on from there to Sarajevo. Along this route flows a really beautiful river - and the delta area near the sea is filled with canals, tangerine orchards and fisherman's houses. The sheer beauty of this location made the idea of war seem like a fantasy. It only took an additional 10km of driving to shake that illusion.
Here we were past the Croatian checkpoint and at the Bosnia-Herzegovina entry checkpoint. The way that the military dressed personnel looked at my USA passport reminded me of the warnings. It took a long time to get clearance to proceed. I looked up and saw a UN convey returning through the checkpoint and the UN soldiers were in full battle dress with helmets and flak jackets. I felt unsettled and vulnerable.
We were cleared and proceeded. Only 1km more and another checkpoint to steer you around a mine field. It was interesting to see little signs on sticks, somewhat like golf course tee makers, but they said in English, "Mine". We drove on. The evidence of destruction was everywhere. We arrived at a crossroads that indicated Mostar was about 20km away and the direction to Ljubuski was to the left (North). This junction was in the town of Capljine on the river. We were also within 10km of the famous shrine town of Medjugorje, where the Virgin Mary has been represented to have appeared.
Mirko turned left and headed for the bridge over the river. I knew immediately something was wrong as there was too much rubble on the road to indicate it was currently in use. Sure enough, Mirko stopped in time to exclaim, "bridge kaput"! It would have made a great high dive for cars, but a crossing it wasn't. I was also surprised that Mirko didn't know that the bridge was blown up. It was now clear that we were both "pioneering" a little.
I quietly composed myself and Mirko headed back toward Mostar. I knew he was looking for the next possible bridge to cross, but where would that be? Like a gift, a small bridge was found only 1km more that crossed into the town of Capljine. This town was so ravaged and bombed out that it made Dubrovnik look like paradise by comparison. Just like a normal city people pushed baby buggies through the remainder of streets, school children carried bright back packs and soldiers everywhere lounged at the frequent sidewalk cafes - but this was hardly Paris.
We continued North toward Ljubuski, and after that to Grude. After Ljubuski the countryside was less war torn and beautiful. I actually started to relax and "cruise" a little.
What a rude recall from my temporary enjoyment! The rear of the van suddenly spun out on a right hand curve - we had encountered an oil slick. I looked up at an imminent head-on collision with the corner of a stone wall directly aimed at me, the passenger. I did not have my seat belt fastened - and that saved me from possible injury as I was able to throw myself to the left virtually into Mirko's lap. The van spun back the other way and the passenger side door slammed into the corner of the wall just after the front of the van missed the head-on impact by just inches .
The stone wall gouged its "calling card" half way to the back of the van before we stopped. We both crawled out the driver's side door uninjured. Hard to believe given that the impact bent the frame of the van, destroyed the front fender, destroyed the passenger side door and substantially damaged the sliding door. I gained a new respect for the construction of Mercedes.
The right front wheel did not appear to be damaged, and the tire survived this event. It only took me a short moment to begin to think about the issue of whether the van was in a condition to drive - or what damage was hidden. I think Mirko had the same thoughts because we immediately got back in the van to see if it would "roll", so to speak. Wow, just like off the showroom floor. Did I breath a sigh of relief, followed by prayers of thanksgiving.
Grude was less destroyed than other places, but it still had its share of bombed out buildings, sandbagged basements and soldiers everywhere. My next surprise was Mirko's announcement that I would not be able to accompany him to the meeting because of security reasons, so would I please have a coffee at one of the cafes and wait for him to return in about one hour. As I stood in the center of Grude in front of the bombed out government building, and Mirko drove away in the van, I did feel a certain new dimension of aloneness.
People see danger differently. You become accustomed to it and know your way around some of the new boundaries. I had seen this in the prisons of Mexico and Colombia - places most would hesitate to venture, but where I felt remarkably safe most of the time. Mirko was comfortable and adjusted to the danger - why shouldn't I be too?
Later I would meet two Croatian television reporters in Zagreb that expressed some level of marvel that I been to Grude and returned. They said they wouldn't go there, and they were Croatians, because the many para-military groups were like roaming bands of nomads with no rules - especially if you looked like you didn't belong there and had something of value, like money.
I did sense a heightened level of concern. I attempted to look inconspicuous and watch what happened around me. Hey, have you ever tried this in your new Reeboks, blue-jeans and being 6'6" tall? I really needed to go to the toilet, so I gathered my courage and went into a cafe filled with soldiers. After relieving myself I dared to order coffee in English. Like in some old adventure movie there were at least 3 or 4 solitary figures at different tables having coffee and staring at me. The soldiers were drinking schnapps and beer while engaged in gambling over an electronic card game. I decided a short coffee break was what the situation suggested.
As I walked out a solider passed me that I could tell had just been to the make-up studio for his forthcoming try-out in the next action movie. His beard and long hair complemented the pistol stuffed in his front belt like Wyatt Erp, and strapped on his back was a serious Rambo like knife ready for the next adventure. All that was missing were the cameras.
Mirko was late, it was raining and this all suddenly seemed so crazy. I walked through the town and prayed, but not petitions for safety or protection. For a few minutes, to paraphrase, I rambled something like this:
"Lord, I just don't get it. Why would you lead me to this place at the risk of my life for nothing? I don't need high risk tourism. And look at this place. War, rape and destruction surrounded by a liturgical, and very religious, form of Christianity providing mostly order to the burials and placing shines to the dead. Where is the evidence of the God who said, 'I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...not the God of the dead but the living'. Forgive me Lord for such audacious questions, but you're the God of living humanity, one unique person at a time - how can you tolerate this? How can you who said, '...I am the resurrection and life' allow your name and truth to be so apparently obliterated. I don't know which is worse, war or religion. I feel like Elijah when he thought that only he was left - but I know he was so wrong. Where is the substance under the form? Where is Jesus the Messiah to be found?"
I went to the central plaza and bravely tried to purchase something from one of the street vendors. No one spoke English. Then the few street merchants began to call out to everyone around to find someone that spoke English. Talk about creating a scene I didn't want! Out of this they recruited two ten year old school girls that were passing by who spoke English because it is taught in the school. They helped.
I retired to the park in front of the bombed out government building. I decided to quietly read my Bible, now in the rain, until Mirko returned, whenever that might be. After a few minutes the two school girls returned and approached me with their English book. We talked. They seemed most curious about such an American in their town.
They showed me their English book and we discussed some of the phrases and pictures. While their English was rudimentary, it was proficient enough to actually communicate. They introduced themselves as Vedrana and Katherine (my records may have confused the name of the second girl - I hope not). I was amazed that in this war torn country such progressive education was in process. While they did acknowledge that their teachers were nuns I wasn't sure that the difference between public and private education was distinguished by religious boundaries.
I showed them my Bible and explained what it was. They immediately understood and replied that they "...loved Jesus". I was unkind in my thoughts, wondering if they meant Jesus the statue or the Jesus that lives in your heart through faith. I simply asked them if they knew Jesus in their hearts. Without hesitation they both responded that Jesus did live in their hearts. As the Scripture says, "out of the mouth of babes...thy praise is made perfect". I was both moved and astonished. I reflected on how wrong Elijah had been, and me too.
Somewhere in the stream of our conversation Katherine disappeared and then returned in a few minutes. Upon her return she grabbed me by the hand and excitedly indicated that I should follow her to her home. I was hesitant; she insistent. Her home was just across the street in a 6-7 story apartment building. I went, but when we entered a darkened staircase with no lights and sandbags at the windows I was tense. As we ascended my mind wrestled with the obvious danger and uncertainty of this - and what might await me, but the inner calm and confidence that these two girls could be trusted prevailed.
Her home was small, warm and most welcome. Her mother immediately placed Turkish coffee and cognac in front of me. They actually had a working television and - beyond believe - the familiar faces and style of Sky-Channel (the UK version of CNN, sort of) were there in full color! I wondered what this mother thought her daughter and friend had brought home. She (the mother) spoke no English, but she did speak fluent German, which helped given my few words of German.
In a mixture of English and some German we all talked for over an hour - always with a refill of coffee and cognac appearing if the cup looked empty. We were able also to relate at very high conceptual levels through references to Bible stories. As an example they asked about my family. I was able to describe my experience with my son through the famous "parable of the prodigal son". I would find the reference in my English Bible and they would look it up in a book - not the Bible itself - but some prayer and worship book that contained the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John - the first four books of the New Testament and the so called gospels). It was like a family Bible study and sharing time all mixed together.
A Sky-Channel special news story came on the TV. The subject: Bosnia-Herzegovina. Earlier in the day Moslem forces had attacked the Croatian positions near the town of Vares, which is about 25-40km NE of Sarajevo. The report said that the Croatian lines had fallen and now there were an estimated 20,000 Croatian civilians fleeing for their lives. I could only wonder what effect this might have on my presence there.
We went outside in the rain to find Mirko who was now hours late, one ten year old girl on each side. Vedrana suddenly squeezed my hand and looked up at me with a warm smile and said with seriousness, "...you are a good man, I can see this in the windows of your eyes". I was speechless, moved in the core of my being and flooded with complex feelings and thoughts. What would make her say such a thing? Part of me wanted to remind her of the Bible story where someone said the same thing to Jesus and He replied, "...why do you call me 'good', there is none good except God". I wanted to deflect such a complement, especially in light of the verse that says "...if You should count sins oh Lord, no man can stand", but I didn't know how to do it gracefully.
As I was thinking all this in the space of a few seconds she repeated, "...yes, you are a good man". I realized in this moment that it was not me that was ministering to children in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it was they who were ministering to me. At home, recently, my character and integrity had been attacked with great hostility, by people who have known me for years, people that I had opened my heart to and given of myself to - and most of all people that could only treat me this way by choosing to ignore years of loyalty and faithful friendship. This was an open wound in my heart. They stumbled over the insight that one ten-year old stranger was able to see, "...in the window of my eyes". Inside I wept and thanked our Lord for such a moment of personal encouragement - in a real sense from Him too!
Mirko was not to be found, so we went back to the apartment. The father arrived and the look of shock on his face at seeing me has worth a picture I didn't take. It turned out that he was a lawyer and was part of the Croatian government of Bosnia-Herzegovina. After an animated explanation by all in Croatian of who I was he warmly extended his hand in greeting. We continued a most unusual visit now with the added dimension the father and the 6 year old son that had just returned from school. He presented me with a gift - a picture of himself in his little boy version of the Croatian army battle fatigues.
The girls left again and actually returned with Mirko. He joined in the discussion and talked warmly and with excitement to all. Part of the excitement was his anxiousness to get going. So we all posed for good-bye photos and we left with the girls escorting us in the rain to the van.
We had barely passed the last building on the way out town and I could sense, for the first time, real tension in Mirko. He looked for something in the visor of the van and couldn't find it. I asked what was wrong. He said "no green card", only "blue card". In our makeshift language he managed to communicate that the roads had now been closed to all traffic except for those vehicles that had a "green card" pass. We had only a "blue card". In addition, there was a large relief convoy that was scheduled to use the same road we needed to use. Oh - and it was now pitch black outside and pouring rain - the kind that turns the roads into sheets of water.
After this we drove on in silence. Suddenly, after 10km Mirko made a "U" turn at an intersection and headed back toward Grude. He offered no explanation. He drove slowly and kept looking at side roads and farm houses. He then offered some comment about sleeping in the van. I concluded he felt some real danger and was seeking a deserted setting in which to hide the van, and we would sleep there the night until morning light. Oh - my worst nightmare was really coming true - trapped, and at risk, on a wild dark stormy night in Bosnia-Herzegovina!
Shortly Mirko turned off onto a narrow farm road heading into the darkness of the fields. In about 1km we came to a farm house with some lights. We pulled in and out ran people greeting Mirko warmly and with enthusiasm. Immediately some of the family members were unloading the few boxes of relief supplies left in the van and another one brought us Turkish coffee on tray - just like we were at some cafe.
We retired to the living room of the farm house. There were animated discussions and pauses to listen to radio reports. I understood nothing except that everyone seemed tense. I went outside for a prayer walk. I also recalled my reading of Civil War (USA) history, and especially the movements by Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson under adverse conditions. I prayed that we would take the risk to leave and trust that the bad guys were content to drink cognac in their favorite cafe on such an unfriendly night. I felt that darkness, rain and general confusion would be more on our side than against us.
Mirko did decide to go for it. I was both relieved and apprehensive. We drove toward the major checkpoint that would - hopefully - usher us back into the safer boundaries of Croatia. If was only about 50km back to the coast and to Anton's house at Omis, but what lay in between was surely not clear. We drove for less than 10km and arrived at a checkpoint.
Lined-up for at least 1km in front of the checkpoint were the trucks of the convoy. It didn't surprise me that Mirko simply decided to drive around them. In the process he forced two oncoming vehicles to seek the shoulder of the road as we were in the lane for oncoming traffic. I was glad I was not traveling with a timid person. Like I had recalled in my reflections on the movements of "Stonewall Jackson", the checkpoint was mass confusion under the dark skies and pouring rain. There were numerous cars stopped everywhere, a bus was disgorging all the passengers for document checks. The lines of the passengers and others stretched into the pouring rain and darkness in front of the checkpoint shack.
Mirko stopped the van just short of the check point barrier on the shoulder of the road. He looked at me and told me not to move or get out. With that he jumped out and disappeared toward the checkpoint shack. I quietly waited as still more passengers disembarked from the bus and joined the long lines under the watchful eyes of military types. Somehow the presence of the van seemed to go unnoticed. I wondered when Mirko would return. I wondered how he would explain the presence of a man with a USA passport in his van. I held my passport ready for the expected inquiry.
Mirko returned within 4-5 minutes. I was really surprised. He had a big smile. As he started the van and moved beyond the barrier he lit a cigarette and exclaimed, "welcome to Croatia". I still don't know what he said to the checkpoint guards, or if he even let them know I was sitting, invisible in the darkened conditions, in the van. How he did this all in 4-5 minutes I don't know, but I was glad to have this night in Bosnia-Herzegovina behind me.
We arrived at Anton's house near 9pm. To me it looked like a 5-star hotel in paradise this night. Inside Anton and a friend greeted us. He was in his full military uniform. I welcomed the ever present cognac and promptly accepted a refill. What relief. Anton proudly removed a small roasted pig from the oven and set before us a wonderful table of salad, roast and potatoes.
After dinner I asked Anton about all the paintings in the house, some of which were unfinished. He replied that he was the artist. I told him I admired his art and encouraged him to keep with it in spite of the war. He later presented me with three works of his art. I didn't know how to receive such a personal and generous gift. One of the paintings I hung in a prominent place at home - it's an impression of the face of Jesus during the suffering of the cross. When Anton gave it to me he quoted fluently the phrase, "...Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" indicating the precise emotions he intended to capture in the painting. (translated the above phase is, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?").
Later, looking at a partially completed painting of Moses holding the stone tablets, I asked Anton when he would finish it. He said he didn't know because supplies of oil paint and brushes were unavailable in Croatia. I later bought him a selection of oil paints and brushes that Mirko will take back to him as a Christmas gift. Mirko looked at them and said, "...that's two months of income in Croatia" (about $120.00), Anton will be very happy. I will also write to Anton.
There's much more to tell, but perhaps that will require a book, not the short story this was intended to be. We left Omis and the home of Anton the next day (Thursday November 4, 1993) for Split, which is the Biblical place of Dalmatia according to my understanding. We toured the Roman ruins with Anton as guide, visited his office at the military headquarters in Split and said good bye to him as we boarded the ferry boat for the 12 hour overnight trip back to Rijeka. I was most anxious to avoid a return drive through Zadar - maybe Mirko was too.
In the morning we arrived at Rijeka. After coffee we drove for 5 hours to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Mirko went immediately to a meeting with the Minister of refugees. It took longer than he thought as the crisis of the 20,000 new Croatian refugees near Vares was taxing an already overburdened relief system. Mirko spent hours on the telephone to Germany arranging for two thousand blankets and their immediate transport to Zagreb for these new refugees.
Time was now pressing for me. I needed to be in Dusseldorf on Monday for an important business meeting, and I needed some rest. I agreed with Mirko that flying home from Zagreb wouldn't place him at any disadvantage. He only had a few meetings left that I wasn't needed at, and then a 10-hour drive back to Reichelsheim, Germany. We had a good-bye dinner at the airport and I flew home.
My friendship with Mirko has grown though this trip. Carole and I eat frequently at the Gasthaus Zagreb, and await what God has in mind for an encore.
An April, 1995 Post-Script:
We now live back home in the USA. Mirko is in the process of recuperating from a serious auto accident Croatia. After that he will part of the diplomatic corps of the alliance of the Muslims and Croatians of Bosnia-Herzegovina in an effort to create a new state out of the chaos.
I would welcome any correspondence. Carl Gallivan (firstname.lastname@example.org)