Convoy carries Sarajevo Jews to safety Refugees include scores of Muslims

November 15, 1992|By New York Times News Service

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- With Jews and Muslim seated side by side on chartered buses and ducking together to avoid sniper fire, more than 200 people escaped this cold and hungry city yesterday in an evacuation effort by Sarajevo's small Jewish population.

For the evacuees, among them many Serbs and Croats, it was a journey of only a few minutes from the last roadblock of the mainly Muslim forces defending the Bosnian capital to the first checkpoint of the besieging Serbs. But it may as well have been a lifetime.

As dusk fell on the snow-covered mountains that surround Sarajevo, the convoy of buses and cars snaked down the dangerous corridor of the airport road, between the sniper and tank positions of the two opposing armies. When the convoy cleared what Sarajevans call sniper alley and gained the relative safety of Serbian-held territory outside the siege, many of the passengers cheered.

While the journey meant bidding farewell to homes and families for all aboard, it held a particular anguish for members of a Jewish population that survived the Nazi Holocaust and rebuilt itself after World War II, only to find itself dwindle again during the siege.

The evacuation, financed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a relief organization with headquarters in New York, left only 500 Jews here, down from more than 1,300 when the siege by Serbian nationalists began in April.

At the Askenaza Synagogue, down by the Miljacka River, organizers of the convoy said that even the Holocaust, in which about 95 percent of Sarajevo's prewar Jews perished, had not left so few Jews in a city where there has been a Jewish population for 500 years.

But for many Jews who left their homes yesterday, some headed for Israel and others for friends' homes or refugee hotels elsewhere in what was formerly Yugoslavia, the bitterness was eased by the knowledge that Jews had not been singled out for persecution.

Among those who packed into the buses with as many belongings as two suitcases could carry were scores of Muslims, who form the majority of Sarajevo's population of 400,000, as well as Serbs and Croats and one Nigerian, who had been an engineering student in Sarajevo.

No group has been more successful in escaping Serbian forces ringing Sarajevo than the Jews, who have now organized seven convoys that have taken 800 Jews to safety. Unlike others, these evacuations have been accomplished without a single injury or death, and without the political interference that has --ed the hopes of so many aged and sick residents.

But from the start, everything the Jewish center has done for Jews has also been done for others, to the point where most of the 150 meals served daily in the canteen, most of the drugs handed out free from the center's pharmacy and two-thirds of the seats on the convoys have gone to members of other groups.

Such policies have flowed from a conviction, strongly held among Jews but also apparently shared by most of the city's zTC Muslims, Serbs and Croats, that Sarajevo can only hope to survive the war and the Serbian forces' "ethnic cleansing" offensives by hanging together as a multi-religious, multi-ethnic community.

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