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  • Marcia Jacobs

15 | A Critical Incident | August 1993 | Part 02 - Never Has Grief Been So Palpable

The office in Zenica is staffed by 40 local Bosnians and 8 international staff, courageous souls all, working in an environment of high-stakes danger. The local Bosnian staff are all in an extremely desperate situation.

Prior to the war these men and women were the cream of the crop of successful young adults. They were doctors, dentists, teachers, university professors and students, engineers. The war has stripped them of their jobs, professions, careers.

Many have lost their friends, homes, family. Some have family members being held virtual prisoners in the siege of Vitez, where they are so near, and at the same time inaccessible. What anguish it must cause for them to be working to distribute food, while unable to help family members starving just a few miles down the road. All know what it is like to see their country, their futures, crumbling before their eyes.

Haris, a 27 year old Bosnian driver on the Zenica team, was killed by a sniper’s bullet in mid-August. The drivers on UN teams are an impressive lot, whose circumstances in this war are poignant.

They must have intimate knowledge of the area. Becoming lost in the countryside, or turning down the wrong street in a town, could mean ambush by sniper. They speak English fluently, acting as interpreters and all around go-betweens for international staff and local populations. They are young, with physical agility and mental energy. They don’t sit behind desks in offices, but work 12 hour days jumping in and out of vehicles, often in tight situations. Many of them have recently completed their university educations and were just beginning their careers when the war began. They had futures ahead of them, lives to live. Now they serve their country and struggle to survive. There had been 8 drivers on the Zenica team. Now, with the tragic death of Haris, 7 remain. This loss signifies much more than the subtraction of one, for, as a colleague said in the aftermath, "The best of us is gone." These young drivers, all in their late 20's or early 30's, lost more than a colleague, peer, dear friend. They lost a man who was kind, compassionate, intelligent, filled with love and not hatred, a man who was known for smoothing the waters and buoying up the spirits of those around him. In losing him, they lost an example of who they could be at their best. On that Saturday, Haris was not the scheduled duty driver. At the last minute he volunteered to switch schedules with a colleague who needed the day off. His work would be to prepare warehouses for an incoming truck convoy of humanitarian aid, mostly desperately needed food. Volunteering this way was not unlike him. He was always generous. People who knew him invariably loved him. He was driving an armored, well-marked UN vehicle. Everyone in the region knows that those big white vehicles with the huge black “UN” on the side and roof carry unarmed relief workers. Until now, they have not been fired on. Nearing his destination Haris mistakenly takes a wrong turn, immediately realizes his mistake, and backs up to continue down the road. At that moment a sniper's bullet tears through the side of the armored car, hits a post inside the vehicle, ricochets into Haris' back, exits his chest, and lodges in the windshield. Somehow, he manages, after being hit, to maneuver the car into safety between two buildings. The staff member with him radioes for help, while doing everything she can to staunch the flow of blood from his chest. Medics arrive in 10 minutes. On arrival at the hospital a few minutes later, Haris is pronounced dead. The armor-piercing bullet that killed him is the first of its kind seen in this war. So much for the safety of armored vehicles. So much for the privileged position of earning “hard” currency working for an international relief organization. The best of them is gone. When we arrive, the staff is assembled at the office. Karina and I are providing the space and focus for this shared grief session. The staff is a family, a community. They take this opportunity to be with each other; to derive strength from each other, to share their horror, possibly to come to a place of renewed hope.

Never has grief been so palpable.

Its heavy mustiness shrouds the meeting room. The men and women in this circle are here to mourn a beloved friend. They are no strangers to death in this bloody war, but Haris's affects them deeply. In addition to his beautiful qualities as a human being, he had been, before the war, an electrical engineer and a local soccer star - a legend in the city. Many gathered today have known him for most if not all his 27 years. His former high school teacher/soccer coach is now a logistics officer on the staff. Another UN staff member was, in his pre-war life, one of his engineering professors. Today he describes Haris as a boy who "should never have been anywhere near a war like this." Everyone knows what he means. Haris was decent, sweet, filled with kindness. That over a thousand people turned out for his funeral is remarkable here, where daily war-related deaths have become commonplace. Now all are his mourners in a war in which what they loved is being ruthlessly taken.

I have no doubt that it is a great honor for me to be here with the intention of offering something in this tragic time.

Perhaps the most grief stricken staff are the 7 remaining drivers. Several of them grew up with Haris, were childhood playmates, friends, and most recently colleagues in their UN jobs. As they speak, I get a sense of who these young men are. Some are single, some newly married. Haris married his childhood sweetheart six months to the day before his murder. All of them have lost their futures in this war, which has no foreseeable conclusion. They have taken jobs as drivers, interpreters, logisticians, as there are no jobs in the civil society. The work is dangerous. They are working at the front lines of three warring armies; involved in sensitive negotiations with unstable, unpredictable, armed criminals, negotiating the passage of convoys of valuable relief supplies. All warring parties tend to have antipathy for UN workers, who in their respective eyes are "helping the enemy." Local UN personnel have access to foreign currency and some luxury items, which makes them objects of the resentment and envy of their neighbors. A woman staff member shares that she was talking with Haris's then wife, now widow, before the tragedy. She she told her, "People are jealous that we have some things they do not. What they don't realize is that every time my husband leaves home for work I fear I won't see him alive again." Now her nightmare has come true. Everyone in the groups speaks, except those too choked with tears, and their silence has its own profound eloquence. Each share where they were when they got word of Haris's death; on the radio receiving the distress call, at the river swimming on a day off, in the coffee room awaiting the next call for a driver. One by one they locate themselves in time and space, and with their words move out of isolation into connection, community. Some speak with conviction their unwillingness to accept this death. They prefer, for now, to believe that it is all a mistake. He will enter the room at any moment. Others understand and do not challenge, but rather support, those who take this stance. Haris's simple but great gifts; his compassion, his generosity, his tenderness, have inspired them all. This weekend of communication emerges as a monumental tribute to him and his unremitting uplifting of his colleagues. The staff decides to requisition headquarters for the money to build a soccer field in his honor in the yard next to the office - a small but tangible memorial to his memory. Waiting for our car back to the Sarajevo airport, at the conclusion of the weekend, I am approached by a Bosnian staff member. Amir is the radio operator who received the call that Haris had been shot. He was not able, because the exact location of the vehicle was unclear, to get help to him more quickly. In the group he had expressed his great personal torment over this. Although many reassured him that faster wouldn't have helped, as he was dead within minutes of taking the bullet, his love for Haris, and anguish over his senseless death, would not allow him to put this guilt to rest. "Marcia, please, there is one thing I must say to someone, which I could not speak in the group. Last night I received a call from my friend who is a radio operator at the Sarajevo office. A few hours after Haris was shot, she heard a radio transmission from an enemy unit to the sniper who fired the bullet that killed him. They were congratulating this murderer on his fine marksmanship and promising to reward him with a case of beer. These are not men, but animals, and the war allows their brutality to go unpunished, and even be rewarded." In the APC heading back to the airport in Sarajevo for our return to Zagreb, Karina and I are hushed. Nothing can permeate that palpable grief hanging over us. I’m recalling the expressions, vocal and nonvocal, of guilt, loss, and devastation in the group. Yes, it is good to have a place to speak, to offer support for each other, to come together in community, to comfort each other.

We are human, and we need that to keep being human. But nothing takes the pain from us, from them; his friends, his colleagues, his family. Haris is gone, and something alive and beautiful has left the earth. A gaping void. That is what we are left with. The best of us is indeed gone.


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