Witness in War
on the Vrbas River in north-western Bosnia, the city of Banja Luka
is the second largest in Bosnia
With a population of 220,000. it is the largest city and
administrative capital of the Republika
Banja Luka is famous for its beautiful location and diverse culture,
which dates back to the Middle Ages.
catalogue of horror
has been estimated that 1.2 million men, women and children fled
Bosnia Herzogovina during the crisis in the Balkans in the early
1990s. Of this number, more than 30 per cent were women; nearly 20
per cent were children; many of the remainder were elderly people.
That’s a lot of very vulnerable people. Thousands of children
were separated from parents and siblings. Vast numbers lost other
family members. Many were ethnic Serbs, who settled in neighbouring
Yugoslavia, too frightened to go back to their homes. A large
proportion of those who did go back found their homes destroyed and
remain internally displaced and exposed to harsh weather conditions
and reprisals from opposing forces or communities sicked by war.
no heavy fighting took place in Banja Luka itself, observers from
around the world (including the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees and other UN agencies) found evidence of pervasive ethnic
cleansing (mainly directed at Muslims) in the surrounding towns and
countryside. Banja Luka's once large Bosniak
population is now virtually nonexistent. Entire villages are either
empty or ruined houses have been occupied by Serbs (many of them also
fleeing from fighting) who moved in after the Bosniaks and Croats
fled for their lives. Many Serbs from the outlying countryside moved
to the city in the 1990s.
More than one third of the population of Banja Luka are refugees or
continues to be widespread danger from unmarked landmines and other
unexploded ordnance, particularly on minor roads, unpaved surfaces
and in abandoned or derelict buildings.
elements among Serbian refugees brutally attacked local Croats and
Catholic religious symbols. Everywhere, people were uprooted by
military activity. The tragedy was not limited to any one side.
Thousands of Croatian Serbs were forced to leave their homes and
settle in collective centres and with families in and around Banja
Luka. More than 10,000 Serb civilians were forced to abandon their
homes to seek safety from the military offensives by Bosnian
Government forces against the Bosnian Serb Army in different
locations in northern Bosnia.
uprooted by ethnic cleansing or military activity, whether Muslims,
Croats or Serbs, these victims of violence had their physical and
mental strength sapped by four years of war, compounded by poverty,
lack of food and shelter against bleak weather. Throughout the
conflict, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians paid the
ultimate price for the actions of their leaders.
was against the background of this deeply
distressing picture of intense suffering that I made my first visit
to Banja Luka, in the company of Australian Assemblies of God
travelling overland from Belgrade we crossed the wooden bridge that
separated Yugoslavia from the Republika
The late afternoon sun shone brightly and verdant foliage welcomed
us as we drove along the narrow roads through the hills on the way to
the city. This first thing that struck me was that there no farm
animals in the pastures. No birds in the trees. No people to be
seen. The first village we approached had an eerie feeling about it,
as there were no cars on the road, no children in the streets. On
closer inspection, I noticed that the houses had no windows and that
all the window frames were blackened; many had been reduced to
charcoal. They had been subjected to rockets, grenades and arson as
the advancing enemy destroyed everything in its path. As we drove
further, we encountered crumbling ruins of what were once peoples’
homes. Only empty, black shells remained. Some buildings were
flattened completely; others were barely standing, propped up only by
out of the car I ventured into one of the abandoned, ruined houses.
The doors had been blown off their hinges; the ceilings inside were
hanging precariously. The first room had the appearance of a living
room, although the only elements of furniture that remained were
sticks and fragments of cloth that had been burned. The floor was
littered with scraps of paper. I wandered into the kitchen, where I
found broken bricks and tiles. As I picked up one of the tiles and
brushed off a coating of dust, to reveal the pattern that still lay
beneath, I wondered about the family that used to live here. A
mother would cook for her family; the father would finish his work in
the field at the end of the day and spend the evenings telling his
children stories about the past or helping them with their homework.
Where were they now? Were they even alive? Had their mangled
remains been picked up off the floor and hastily buried, or were they
living in a refugee camp somewhere?
was disturbed from my reverie by calls from my friends, who told me
to take care where I walked because nearby signs indicated the
presence of land mines. Trusting that the house was not
booby-trapped (as many had been by departing residents who did not
expect to return), I pocketed one of the tiles and beat a hasty
retreat to the relative safety of the street..
we drove through the village every house was the same. It was a
ghost town. All sides in this conflict defended their positions and
behaviour with well developed rhetoric based on ancient histories,
vendettas, half truths, prejudices and tales of intense suffering.
All believed they were the aggrieved parties and the “others”
were war criminals. People I met spoke angrily about events as long
ago as the fourteenth century, slaughters that they resurrected again
and again to justify similar barbarities half a millennium later.
There was no forgiveness; only talk of vengeance. The established
church was at the forefront of fanning violent nationalism. (Since
when has God become an instrument of our culture of violence?)
Balkan conflict had its genesis in a volatile mix of religious,
historical, nationalistic and Cold War ingredients. Serbs are
predominantly Orthodox Christians. Croats are mainly Roman
Catholics. A large proportion of Bosnians are Muslims, a hang-over
from the Ottoman invasion of the region, and defeat of Serbian forces
at the Battle of Kosovo at the site of modern-day Pristina in 1389.
The remains of Ottoman buildings in Yugoslavia are a constant
reminder of that loss and touchstones for Serb nationalism.
have run high for centuries, fuelled more recently by Croat support
of the Nazis during World War II, Serb vengeance visited on Croatia
after the defeat of the Axis powers and nearly fifty years of control
by Belgrade after the installation of Marshall Tito as the pro-Soviet
Balkan strong man toward the end of the war. Tito consolidated power
in February 1945 in the wake of the Yalta Conference by purging his
government of non-communists. He organized a strong army and secret
police force that systematically imprisoned and executed large
numbers of Nazi collaborators, Catholic priests, those who had
opposed the war effort and communists who did not agree with him.
For decades he held the country together until his death in 1980,
after which internal forces began fractured its artificial unity.
Christians I talked to spoke of ethnic division. However, few
offered a Biblical, Christian response. Talk of forgiveness was
usually spurned. I was dismissively informed that, as an outsider, I
didn’t understand. Maybe so, but the Word of God is good for
every generation, and applies to every generation. The Gospel still
challenges those who claim to act in its name. Only the power of
Christ can reconcile enemies.
in Jesus’ name
Banja Luka I had the privilege of visiting an orphanage run by a
group of Christians who were determined to show the Christian
alternative. As we toured the orphanage and spoke to the children
and distributed a small shipment of toys from friends in Australia,
my attention was drawn to a young boy who refused to get involved and
seemed to be alienated from his colleagues.
head of the orphanage told me his tragic story. He came from a small
village an hours drive from Banja Luka. At the height of fighting in
his area soldiers burst into his home with pistols and knives. While
he hid and watched, his mother, aunt and sister were raped at
gunpoint. Then the soldiers took the women, his father and brothers
into an outside yard and killed all of them. The same thing happened
throughout the village. After the carnage, the soldiers departed and
he cautiously emerged from his hiding place. He was the only
surviving member of his family. When people came from the adjoining
village they found him and gave him food and shelter until he was
placed in the orphanage. When I met him, his carers said he had not
spoken a word since arriving many months previously. They had never
seen him smile. He simply ate, slept and sat, in a traumatised daze,
day after day, month after month. According to my missionary
friends, the only help available to him and many others like him was
the shelter of the orphanage. I was reminded of Jesus words,
“Insofar as you have done it to the least of these, my
brothers, you have done it to me” (Matthew 25:40). In many
parts of the world relevant Christianity involves loving the unloved,
providing for the ungrateful, caring for those who are abandoned by
the victors of this world’s struggles, reaching out to the
dispossessed and alienated, in his name.
genuine Christians are helping
was to see more of the casualties of the Balkans struggle, in a
refugee camp where we handed over glasses donated by churches in
Australia. Here, whole families slept with scores of others in huge
dormitories. Those who managed the facility said they had no money
and were worried about what would happen when the winter snows
started. Only evangelical Christian organisations abroad were
providing financial and material support.
in Belgrade we visited a couple who lived in a tiny, damp cell
underneath one of the city’s streets. Long-term residents of
the capital, many of whom were untouched by the war, were embarrassed
about the presence of literally thousands of refugees eking out an
existence in there, but did little to alleviate their sufferings.
The man coughed persistently and his wife told us they had no
medication; she was worried about pneumonia setting in. The floor
was damp and covered with sheets of newspaper. Rats were a problem.
Tattered clothes, a tiny portable fuel stove and a rickety single bed
were their only visible possessions. He had served most of his adult
life as an official in a town in Croatia, now he lay humbled, visibly
ill beneath the feet of those who walked the city. Doctors
predicted an increase in tuberculosis cases. The only people caring
for the needy on, or under, the streets of Belgrade were Christians
and Christian organisations who were both marshalling funds to
purchase and send supplies of food to the hungry and coming to
Yugoslavia to show by their example that God loved them. Religion
has contributed to their plight. Christ wanted to set them free and
give them hope. Some churches refused to get involved, for a range
of parochial and particularistic reasons. Those who did so worked
long and hard against almost impossible odds, keeping compassion
fatigue at bay, appealing for supplies that ran out almost as quickly
as they arrived, but saving many lives in the process.
world has lionised its heroes and demonised the villains of the
Balkan crisis. To me, the real heroes have been Christian men and
women like my friends who faced down prejudice and apathy and reached
out these poor and suffering in Jesus’ name. They may not be
rewarded in this life, but they are not ”home” yet.