05 | Sarajevo Training | Fall 1993 | Part 5 – Never Have I Seen Someone Truly Hungry
Come again with us on our trip from the apartment where we spend the night, out into the rain with our umbrellas, ending at the partially destroyed Chinese restaurant to begin the training. As we enter the street into the morning rain, the only working cars we see are the very occasional white vehicles with UN lettered on the side. No petrol for the population. No cars, except the burned-out hulks we pass on the side of the road every few blocks. No one walking on the main road on this September morning at 8am. But as we turn onto a side street we see pedestrians, furtively darting down the laneways. Sometimes with bicycles, sometimes with wheelbarrows, often with plastic jugs and pails. They’re staying in the shadows to be out of the snipers’ sights. The people are on their way to find and gather water. There’s no running water in the city, except for a few open fountains or underground streams. There’s one at the brewery on the other side of town. As we approach “sniper’s alley,” we must be careful to stay out of sight. There have been scores of killings at that suitably named location. Thus begins our first day of a five-day training on the battlefield of Sarajevo. A besieged city, ringed by mountains harboring snipers firing on unarmed innocent civilians; children sledding on the hills of the city park in winter, men and women lining up to draw water to carry home to their families. The mental health professionals I’m training in how to assist others are themselves, along with their families, war traumatized civilians, dodging sniper bullets with the rest of the population. I was to find out in the days to follow how courageous and what heroes they are. And how privileged I am to be able to be of some service to them. What we discover during those precious days together in the center of Sarajevo is that they, and we, may not have food or shelter or water to offer, but we do have our humanity. They are not alone. We will cherish them, be by their side. Let them know they are not forgotten. Those at the training are themselves victims of this war, facing desperation and terror. We will create a safe space here. What does that mean in a war zone? A space where all are respected. Where we open our hearts. Where we may speak and be heard, feel and be felt. Where we deepen our connections. They will be left with a skill set, but more than that. We will cry and laugh. We will learn from and teach each other. Every group for survivors of trauma and rape I’ve led in the past 20 years was preparation to be at this place at this time. Experiential learning. Community mental health. Knowing others care. Feeding their hunger for contact with the outside world. Watching our beauty unfold. We break bread together, and hope is alive in the air. Or is it just that sumptuous buffet being laid out? Most likely, both. It pays off, all that painstaking purchasing and packing to bring in the right food, and a lot of it. After the training we lay out the feast for the day. With the help of the cooks in the community soup kitchen, we assemble items they haven’t seen for a year or more, since the siege of the city began and provisions ran out. There are sausages, salamis, bowls of sugar for the endless pots of coffee (we brought the beans), pickles, mustard, beautiful sweet onions and tomatoes, spices, salty butter in tubs, dark and milk chocolate chunks, nuts and pretzels. There’s even a bowl of American cigarettes for afterwards (imagine the joy!!). The cooks (bless them) have managed to bake a few loaves of crusty bread from the humanitarian aid supply of flour. It’s a sight to behold. I see something I haven’t witnessed before. There is a complete, almost sacred, silence as the participants fill their plates. They eat not so much with speed (although it is quite fast) as with intense, single-minded concentration. Many of them, like most in the city, have been living close to starvation, boiling grass to survive. I realize I have never seen anyone truly hungry before. I feel a profound mixture of horror, awe, and delight as I witness them eat and finally, when the table is bare, settle down and lean back to draw on the cigarettes. Then they begin to speak among themselves, socialize, laugh, become animated. Amazing humans. True Sarajevans. This ritual is to be repeated at the end of each of the days of the training. This is my introduction to the war, the people, and the deeply courageous and dedicated professionals they are. I don’t know it at the time but over the next decade, until I leave the region in 2005, many of them will become colleagues, sisters and brothers, friends. I will hear their stories and come to know their families, a great privilege. For me, it all grew from the seeds of that day, from being with people who were truly hungry.