Hope gets through to forgotten Serbs Ham radio, letters penetrate Sarajevo

April 12, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,STAFF GRAPHICContributing Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- It was a desperate sound: "Hallo? Hallo?"

The rickety radio receiver crackled. For a moment, fear sprang that the atmospherics might prevent contact. Then a voice from Sarajevo: "Hallo. Mama?"

Tears began to stream down the face of the elderly woman in Belgrade.

"My son, my son," she said.

It was the first time Nada Obradovic had heard his voice since the Bosnian war broke out a year ago.

The family of four had traveled 50 miles to use the makeshift studio of one of a growing number of ham radio operators who keep people in touch with friends and relatives trapped in besieged Sarajevo.

Many of the operators charge steep fees and limit calls to a few minutes, but nobody seems to mind paying.

The family had a second mission in Belgrade: They joined streams of people who daily bring letters and parcels to the only organization they know can reach their loved ones in Sarajevo.

These are the Seventh-day Ad

ventists who have quietly been achieving what other churches and humanitarian organizations have failed to do: They have been acting as mailmen into Sarajevo from Belgrade, Zagreb and many other cities in the former Yugoslavia, as well as elsewhere in Europe. They deliver personal letters, parcels, documents, even identity papers.

The ham radio operators and the Seventh-day Adventists provide a thin lifeline to the outside world for an estimated 60,000 forgotten Serbs who remain in Sarajevo -- hostages of a war that seems unending -- and for the friends and relatives who are desperate for

See HAMS, 6A, Col. 5 HAMS, from 1A

news of them.

Before the war, more than 200,000 Serbs lived in the cosmopolitan Bosnian capital city alongside Muslims, Croats and other ethnic groups.

In the climate of fear and extreme nationalism, the remaining Serbs of Sarajevo feel exceedingly vulnerable. Many of them are opposed to the war.

"I am a Serb, and I was in Sarajevo. I felt myself to be a Sarajevan," said one Serb here who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal against his relatives. "Yet I knew it was my people who were bombarding the city and I gradually found myself isolated, under some suspicion even from my Muslim neighbors. That is only normal, I guess."

The Serb said the city's Muslim authorities will not allow Serbs or any other nationalities to leave. He said he escaped the city by bribing his way out. He had already spent weeks evading city patrols set up to induct military-age men into the Sarajevo defense forces.

One Serbian writer, Marko Vesovic, who chose to remain in Sarajevo, has spoken out against the Serbs attacking the city and the so-called ethnic cleansing process in which hundreds of thousands of Muslims are being driven from their homes. As a result, he said, he is being ostracized by his Serbian colleagues in Serbia.

An interview with Mr. Vesovic that appeared in the semi-independent Borba newspaper was conducted with the help of Toma Valcic, a ham operator here. Mr. Vesovic professed to be gloomy about the eventual outcome of the war. He said he kept himself and his family warm by burning books, "which were my only possession."

But most Sarajevo Serbs use the hams for less intellectual work. Daily, they broadcast their feelings and fears to their loved ones.

But radio contact is too often short and unfulfilling. The letters tend to be thoughtful and poignant, touching a chord of humanity through the nationalist hysteria.

People here who have received letters from friends and relatives say many of them dwell on fears of imminent death and ask for help making arrangements for children who could possibly be left behind.

"This should have been the happiest year of my life," an 18-year-old woman wrote to her brother. "It should have been my first year at university. But instead I spend every day searching for water. I carry 15 liters on my back and 20 liters in my arms. And each day I fear that this is the day I will die."

"Dear children," an elderly woman wrote. "You are grown up now. You sometimes listened and sometimes didn't listen to my advice before. I think that you should put down roots in the place you are now or somewhere else. Here it's going to be gray and sad for a long time. I am

afraid I will not see you again."

Yet another letter was from a Muslim named Suad to his Serbian girlfriend. "Dear Lilja, I love you now more than ever before. I only hope that this will pass and that I will live. After that it is important that I not be crippled or lose my sanity."

The Seventh-day Adventists seem unlikely messengers in this brutal war zone. But the Adventists' neutrality is precisely what enables them to perform this function, explains Milan Suskic, director of the operation.

It is identified with none of the former Yugoslavia's rival ethnic groups. It delivers letters and parcels from all nationalities to all nationalities.

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