Braving wintry weather, Bosnian war refugees dodge sniper bullets, gather wood.

The causes of the former Yugoslavia’s year-long civil war are confusing. The international media tend to portray the war as religious and ethnic, with the Serbs as perpetrators. Diplomatic and foreign-service workers who have lived in that region, however, say it is unfair to blame all Serbs or to view this as an Orthodox (Serbian) versus Muslim (Bosnian) religious war.

Last month’s assassination of Bosnia’s deputy prime minister has damaged hopes for a swift settlement to the fighting. Since the conflict began, more than 17,000 people have been killed. There are one million refugees.

Journalist Lyn Cryderman recently traveled to the former Yugoslavia with Mercy Corps International, an ecumenical relief-and-development agency headquartered in Portland, Oregon. He filed this exclusive report:

I have been to refugee camps, but none like Gasinci in western Croatia. Winter has arrived, and at least half the camp’s population is living in crude, military tents.

There are no floors; no water—except a well a half-kilometer away; rats as big as small cats. With temperatures dropping, the race to cut and store wood consumes every able body. Despite meager resources and a daily influx of Bosnian refugees, Croatia’s arms stretch wide to receive them. If the United States had the same proportion of refugees as Croatia, there would be 17 million to care for. Those refugees not massacred—mostly old men and women, and children—escape to camps such as Gasinci. The younger girls are forced to serve the Serbian soldiers in “rape camps,” while men and intellectuals of soldier age are simply killed.

There is nothing clean or neat about ethnic cleansing.

A crowd gathers in the camp because the imam has arrived. He strides up to Peter Kuzmic, dean of nearby Evangelical Theological Seminary, who has just come from a meeting with the Catholic bishop of Dakovo.

They embrace and talk earnestly about the spiritual needs of the refugees. Somehow, ecumenism seems less threatening with an invading army ten kilometers away.

Three children follow me everywhere. One reaches for my hand whenever I am not taking pictures. Later, an interpreter tells me I remind them of their father. He was dragged from their house in a Bosnian village and shot in front of his wife and children. Their mother was dragged away by teenage soldiers smelling of sljivoic, the potent brandy passed around each morning to keep the troops from thinking too much about their deeds.

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It is time to leave. And as I bend to receive my gift of two slender arms hugging my neck, I think of my own little Molly, wondering why one child should sleep in down and cotton, another child in a tent with rats.

As I head for my car, I meet a young man from Atlanta. I ask him the obvious question, and he tells me his church has sent him and a group of other teenagers to this camp to minister. They have vowed to keep a presence here throughout the war. I think of my own teenage son hoping to go to Key Largo with his youth group for some sun.

Into Sarajevo

Over breakfast at the Dubrovnik Hotel in Zagreb, my traveling companion, Landrum Bolling, and I decide we cannot continue on our tour of “the former Yugoslavia” without trying to reach Sarajevo. He, at 78, a career diplomat, and I, at 43, a journalist and book editor, are an odd-looking pair of travelers. We talk our way onto a United Nations relief flight. Before we know it, we are hustling to catch the next C-130 carrying the day’s first load of flour and canned goods into the city that once was the jewel of the Winter Olympic Games.

En route, I ask a British diplomat: “Are the Serbs as bad as the press has portrayed them to be?”

He replies: “If you’re counting the past fifty weeks, yes. But if you’re counting the last fifty years, it’s simply their turn. At the end of World War II, the Bosnians, one of Hitler’s rump armies, unleashed their fury against the Serbs.”

We land without incident, although we hear shelling and small-arms fire the minute we hit the tarmac. We jump into a Land Rover driven by a young French-Canadian who oversees the distribution of any food that gets in.

“Have you read about Sniper’s Alley?” he asks, turning up the volume on his cassette player.

Before I can answer, he announces, “We’re in it.”

We arrive at the back door of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. The front entrance faces a known sniper outpost. Inside, it is a dark room with boarded-up windows and no electricity. After finding my room—shattered window, no heat—I head back downstairs to take a walk.

On the streets

I head across the street behind the hotel. Every building shows the effects of direct, heavy-artillery hits, and small-arms fire punctuates the air. I am very scared. Two women walk past me and I rush to keep up with them.

“Do you live here?” is my first stupid question.

“Yes, about three kilometers from here.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to walk home?”

The first woman says it isn’t, but the second corrects her. “Yes, it is very dangerous, but we can’t think about it. If we did, we would never leave our homes. We are trying to live normal lives, but it is very difficult.”

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I ask her if she is Muslim.

“No, I am Christian, but I am Bosnian. The chetniks [a derisive term for the Serbian irregulars] won’t ask. They will kill all of us.”

“But we hear that the Serbs want to remove only the Muslims.”

“They want Sarajevo. And Banja Luka. And Vukovich. They want everything.”

We are about five blocks from the hotel and seem to be closer to the gunfire I had heard earlier. I feel like a wimp because I do not want to go any farther. When I stop, they stop too.

“It is not good to stand still,” one of them remarks.

“I think I will go back to the hotel,” I respond.

“You are an American?”

I nod.

A mournful song

Back at the hotel, Landrum is talking with the headwaiter, who says he hates the war, worries about his teenage sons, and struggles with the Big Question: “Why have my neighbors—Bosnian Serbs—turned against me?”

Next to us, a woman sings a mournful song. She is with five other friends. One of them, a man who has had too much to drink, leans over and in broken English tells us the song is a famous Serbian ballad.

“Why is your friend singing a Serbian song when the Serbs are outside shooting at us?” I ask.

It was the cue he has waited for to make his speech. He gestures at his companions and says, “She is Serb. He is Croatian. I am Bosnian. He is Catholic. She is Muslim. He is Orthodox. We are all friends. We have grown up together. My own wife is Serbian. This is how it has been in Sarajevo. This is how it should be.”

Shots, screams—silence

I climb the stairs to my room to try to sleep, but under cover of darkness, the fighting escalates outside my window. I wear my clothes and flak jacket, just in case. Sleep is impossible. I hear shots, then screams, then silence. More shots, then screams, then silence.

I imagine families huddled in their bedrooms as soldiers break down the doors, drag a father out into the street, and shoot him in front of his wife and children. Each scream stabs the night air more deeply than the gunfire, and finally I give in and head down to the dining room to talk with other journalists and Sarajevans.

By morning we have seen enough. Last night was one of the bloodiest in the war. A relief plane was hit. There is talk that all flights will be suspended. We hitch a ride to the airport in an armored personnel carrier and scramble aboard a German plane and learn the next day that relief flights have been canceled. Sarajevo would receive no food or medical supplies for three weeks.

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A church on fire

Before flying home, I have one last stop: Skopje, Macedonia. I attend a Wednesday-night prayer meeting in a Methodist church. Except for the language, it could have been a prayer meeting I attended as a kid, complete with hymns, prayer, crying babies, and a sermon that ran a bit long. In countries like Croatia, Macedonia, and Hungary, evangelical churches are what we used to call “on fire,” and it is a beautiful thing to see.

Their love for the gospel motivates them to want to do something to help war victims, but most churches are small, poor, and unfamiliar with “social ministry” because they have been refused that privilege when ruled by Communists. These churches cannot do it without our help—but what an opportunity it is to put our shared faith where the whole world can see it! All they need is money, clothing, food, medicine, and people, most of which we have in abundance. Western-based Christian ministries are on site, effective, and respected by their host governments. They work alongside Christians in this region.

Difficult questions

I am in my home in a small town in Michigan. It is almost time to go to church. My wife and I have been awake all night, first to get caught up on things, then to talk about my trip, then to wrestle with a question that has vexed us and others for ages: How can otherwise decent people do such horrible things to one another?

It occurs to me that how we respond to this crisis—one that may be repeated throughout the former Soviet bloc—is as important as any of the many fine programs targeting the world for evangelization by the year 2000.

Seminary dean Peter Kuzmic told me that the gospel is more appealing in his native land now than it has ever been. For more than 50 years, the people were under the influence of an atheistic, antireligious government.

Is it too much to imagine that God can make use of a war to drive people back to the Christian faith? And will we let the stream of horrifying photos and news coverage cause us to pray for a great rekindling of Christian compassion?

Lyn Cryderman, a departmental editor for CHRISTIANITY TODAY, is senior acquisitions editor at Zondervan Publishing House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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