Jewish aid to Bosnia continues as NATO troops arrive

"On the other hand, no one knows whether the peace will last and whether they will return home," added Bar-Chaim, who recently returned from the area.

Bar-Chaim said Monday that Jewish-sponsored humanitarian efforts, begun at the outset of the war, will continue.

The Jewish community's reaction comes as NATO troops began to arrive in the region to enforce a U.S.-brokered peace accord between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians.

A peace treaty ending the 43-month war was initialed last month in Dayton, Ohio, and is scheduled to be signed Dec. 14 in Paris.

Bar-Chaim said that unlike other groups, Jews, who live throughout the former Yugoslavia, were not subjected to "ethnic cleansing" during the war.

"The World War II experience has made all sides especially sensitive to the needs and qualities of our people throughout the former Yugoslavia," said Bar-Chaim, who is based in Paris.

An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Jews still live in the former Yugoslavia, according to the JDC. An estimated 700 live in Bosnia; 3,500 in Serbia; and 2,100 in Croatia, where most are concentrated in the capital of Zagreb.

Bar-Chaim, who was part of a delegation from the JDC and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, recently returned from Banja Luka, a Serb-controlled area in central Bosnia, where food and other aid was delivered to refugees.

About 19 Jewish families live in Banja Luka.

The JDC, a nonpolitical organization and one of the United Jewish Appeal's main beneficiaries, has been able to contribute significant aid to the Jewish communities in the region, partly because it gained the trust of the three warring factions.

"There was no hidden agenda," Bar-Chaim said. As a group, Jews also "generally refrained from strong involvement in the political arena," he said, though some "Jews in all communities could be considered human rights activists, nationalists."

The war resulted in some 2.5 million refugees, 1,900 of them Jewish, Bar-Chaim said. Most of the Jewish refugees were from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia that was hard hit by the war, he said.

About 20 percent of the Jewish refugees remained in the region, mostly in Belgrade, the capital of what remains of the former Yugoslavia — comprising Serbia and Montenegro.

And 1,100 Jewish refugees, as well as 1,200 who were not Jewish, were evacuated in 11 convoys by the JDC and La Benevolencija, the Bosnian Jewish humanitarian aid society.

Some of the rescued Jews resettled in Israel, Britain and Canada, among other countries.

La Benevolencija, which is headed by Jacob Finci, plans to continue its work in the area, Bar-Chaim said, adding that "reconstruction and rehabilitation will take a long time."

He cited the ongoing need for La Benevolencija's pharmacy and soup kitchen in Sarajevo, which helps Jews and non-Jews alike. The soup kitchen serves 400 meals a day, he said.

Humanitarian aid efforts also have led to a "flowering of Jewish education," Bar-Chaim said.

After years of war, he said, there is an increased interest in the region in the "answers" that the "Jewish faith offers."