Bread, water, medicine: JDC feeds hope in Sarajevo

NEW YORK — As horror stories continue to emerge from Bosnia, the Jewish community there is clinging to a glimmer of hope.

"The sky is still blue and it's not as ugly as when you watch CNN," a leader of Sarajevo's Jewish community said in a phone interview this week.

Ja'akov Finci, the leader of the Bosnian Jewish humanitarian group LaBenevolencija, said the Jewish community is on the priority list to get electricity.

The higher priority allows the group to continue to serve the vital needs of the city's beleaguered population, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

"We had one of our best meals [today]," Finci said: white beans, white bread and tap water, which is considered a real luxury.

The meal, served almost daily to more than 300 people — including Jews, Serbs, Croats and Muslims — is a model of collective ventures to aid the embattled region. Catholic Relief Services supplied the flour for the bread, and the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee provided the beans.

Finci said 80 tons of food, medicine and clothing — most of it provided by the JDC — are poised to enter the city. But because roads are mined, traffic has been halted.

Still, Finci remains optimistic. The supplies are not immediately critical, Finci said, estimating that there are enough supplies to last another 45 days.

Still, he added, "It's better to make sure it's all here."

Because of the dedication of international Jewish relief groups such as the JDC, the Jewish community continues to enjoy special privileges, Finci said.

"Our pharmacy is still the best pharmacy in town," he said.

Non-Jewish Sarajevans are also reaping the benefits, as the idea that Jews are a "light unto the nations" takes on literal significance in this city of limited electricity.

"Non-Jews join the community to watch TV, because the Jewish community [building] is one of the few places where you can find electricity and water, without talking about politics and everything," Finci said.

And the usual tensions in Sarajevo seem to have eased, if only momentarily.

"Today was absolutely calm; there wasn't one bullet or shell in Sarajevo," Finci said in the phone interview Wednesday.

Despite the strife, the community follows a routine — even amid rumors of new Bosnian Serb offensives.

The Jewish Sunday school meets regularly, as about 40 children watch Jewish history videos and listen to lectures on Judaism, Finci said.

But there are still chilling reminders of bloodshed. Finci said many of the dead are buried in a nearby soccer field.

The JDC has been operating in Sarajevo for about 40 years, but began intensive efforts in Bosnia in the war's early stages.

In April 1992, with conditions in Bosnia worsening, the JDC helped evacuate many women and children from the area. Since then, the JDC has organized 10 more convoys of refugees, both Jews and non-Jews.

Some 500 Jews have left the country since the war began, many of them going to Israel. Several hundred Jews still remain, seemingly committed to share their neighbors' fate.

As the president of the community, Ivan Ceresnjes, is fond of saying, "Jews have lived in Sarajevo for 500 years, and we have the right to live here another 500."