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  • Marcia Jacobs

01 | Sarajevo Training | Fall 1993 | Part 1 – Nothing More Important in Your Life

Photo: Adnan Šahbaz // Shocked citizens of Sarajevo, Bosnia, are trapped in a city under siege as a main street is destroyed by shells. This location is one block from our training site.

I’m in war ravaged Sarajevo, Bosnia, with 21 local mental health providers; psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists. I’m here to offer support and training for the work they’re providing, the response to and treatment of traumatized war victims, many of whom have been raped. In 1993 the Warburton Commission (established by the European Commission in late 1992) estimated that approximately 20,000 women (possibly up to 50,000), mostly Bosnian Muslims, have been raped in the war and require special assistance to address their injuries, particularly the psycho-social ones. For over a year this small group of professionals has been aiding not only the local victims, but also the war traumatized population fleeing “ethnic cleansing” from the cities and villages in the neighboring republics. Since the spring of 1993, when the United Nations declared Sarajevo one of the six “safe zones” in Bosnia, the city has been inundated with war victims, refugees, and displaced persons. This morning the participants in the training, coming from their homes in the city to our meeting place, have themselves dodged sniper bullets to attend. Our meeting room is in a shell gutted, partially standing former Chinese restaurant in the heart of Sarajevo. As I look at the faces before me, I am awash with self-doubt. What could I, a middle class North American, never having been anywhere near the front lines of war, never having dealt with tens of thousands of terrorized civilians, possibly have to offer? How did I get here? What did I know? Imposter! Who was I trying to fool? At that moment of doubt a memory comes, unbidden, a cork bobbing on the water of the oceans of the past. It’s thirty years ago, and I’m a girl of 19. I touch upon the memory for strength.

True, I have never been the victim of genocide, mass rape, sniper bullets. But I do know what it’s like to have a knife held to my throat, all alone and without the possibility of rescue, to be tortured and raped. I know what it is to think that, for sure, my short life will be abruptly and painfully ended at the whim of a sadistic madman.

Courage girl, you know what THAT feels like.

Wear it as your badge of courage, all that you have as you meet the trainees whom are living through the nightmare of genocide in this moment. Summon up every experience from that night in 1963, and all you have learned from the rape and trauma survivors you’ve worked with over the past 30 years, and give the participants your best. There’s nothing more important in your life.

Come with me, now, on my path, from being a volunteer in Zagreb, Croatia, a short month ago, to standing here in a city inaccessible to all outsiders except those who the UN deems necessary, surrounded and under siege by an enemy army.

A month ago, in August 1993, I was invited to a meeting at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Split, Croatia. The meeting’s focus is to identify organizations and resources to assist in providing services to rape victims. There are 17 of us, both international and local, gathered at the table to connect and share. I’m there on my own, not as part of any organization, and introduce myself as a specialist in treatment of rape survivors and trainer of professionals in trauma work, having initially come to Zagreb to support the staff and volunteers at the Centre for Women War Victims in Zagreb. Claudia, a German social worker, introduces herself next. She has been sent by a consortium of feminist groups in Germany. They have raised one million deutsche marks to support grass roots Bosnian initiatives focused on assisting women war victims. At the close of the meeting, she approaches me. She was in Sarajevo a month ago, and while there she connected with mental health professionals from various Bosnian organizations. The capacity of these professionals is being overwhelmed by the sheer number of raped women fleeing the war in the Bosnian countryside and entering Sarajevo. Though highly trained in general treatments, they have little experience in working with war victims, and certainly not those who have been raped. They desperately need support and training. Claudia promises to do her best to find a trainer to bring to Sarajevo. She needs someone to do training; I’m a trainer. We form a team of two and begin plans to enter the war zone in the immediate future. Claudia will arrange the logistics.

It isn’t easy to get into Sarajevo, blockaded and under siege.

The airport is partially destroyed by shelling, closed to commercial airlines, with only UN flights (aptly nicknamed “Maybe” Airlines”) able to access the city. With a purpose and mission, I return home to my temporary flat in Zagreb to prepare for the trip. Now it’s upon us; we leave tomorrow. I stand looking down at my bed, bemused. Dilemmas present themselves, as I’m only allowed one 20 kilo bag.

"My God, how did I ever collect so much stuff?" Strewn out on the bed before me, obscuring the bedcovers, are the precious items to pack for my week-long journey into Sarajevo. My friend Carole, sharing the flat for a few weeks, shakes her head as she looks from the bed to my duffel bag on the floor. "There is no possible way you can get all of that - into that, " she remarks, pointing from bed to bag.” I'm not in the least deterred; there’s too much at stake for that. " I may not be able to lift it when I'm done, but I'll get it all in." Carole curls up in the armchair, cigarette and glass of red wine in hand, to watch, to partake of the sacrament being performed. Each item has been chosen painstakingly, attentively, lovingly. The choices haven't been easy. What would you take into a concentration camp, knowing you couldn't take enough to save a life, only enough to raise the spirits, and with the UN limiting your baggage to 20 kilos? The city is under siege. Food is scarce and has been for over a year. People have resorted to eating grass soup. On the advice of some who know the situation well, I have chosen coffee, tea, sugar, salami, rounds of cheese, American cigarettes, chocolate, tins of pate, soup mix, candles, matches. Claudia, having been to Sarajevo previously, advises me simply about packing. "Take almost nothing for yourself, only things to leave behind for others." Accordingly, I have one change of clothes, some underwear and toiletries, and tampax, my one luxury item. In addition to food and my few personal items, I am packing the gifts entrusted to me to deliver to loved ones inside the besieged city. Once the refugee grapevine hears that I’m going in, the phone doesn't stop ringing with requests.

Letters, medicines, money, all given over with pain; the pain of separation, the torment of being unable to do more where the need is so great.

Yesterday a doctor, Hasan, and his wife, who fled Sarajevo to Croatia for the safety of their 2 small sons, came to visit me. Those who before the war had so much – home, career, family, country – now, as refugees, have almost nothing. Suddenly they find themselves reduced to asking a foreigner, a stranger, to deliver items, mostly medicines, to her mother and to his father, an 84-year-old invalid living alone. A foreigner can enter their country, while they cannot. They bring me their package, maintaining dignity through tears. Many like them have come. With care I place each package inside the bag, feeling the sense of mercy in this mission. Together Carole and I zip the bag. It must weigh at least 40 kilos. I’ll hope for the best. I collapse onto the bed, drained, exhausted.

"You did it Marcia. Let's drink a glass of wine to toast a safe trip tomorrow."

With Claudia’s perseverance, 2 weeks after our meeting we’re on a flight headed into the war zone.

Photo: Marcia Jacobs // The view from my office window in central Sarajevo, onto the bullet pocked residence next door, in 1995.


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