Testing ideals amid war

January 23, 1995|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Sun Staff Writer

Eager to take a stand against injustice in the world, a 1993 Western Maryland College graduate has left Westminster for war-ravaged Bosnia-Herzegovina.

For the next year, Jay Taylor will work in Sarajevo as a representative of Project Bosnia, a Boston-based organization founded two years ago to take medical personnel and supplies to that troubled country.

Mr. Taylor developed a passionate interest in world issues while in college, friends say. They describe the Baltimore native as a genius in math and chemistry who reads voraciously about philosophy, the Third World and social justice issues.

The county seat was just too quiet for an in-your-face, 22-year-old, angry about injustice in the world and eager to do something about it.

He is testing his ideals by moving to a war zone, friends say.

Mr. Taylor arrived in Sarajevo in October and could hear gunfire and shelling day and night. Now that winter has descended, snow and ice have halted the fighting, he said in a phone interview.

Death is a reality, but he said he doesn't dwell on the danger. He said he can't worry about his safety when at least 200,000 people have died in the three-year war.

"You cease to worry about that," he said. The war "is so much bigger than me."

Mr. Taylor talks more easily about the number and type of weapons held by each side, U.S. policy on the conflict and the history of the civil war than about what life is like in Sarajevo or why he decided to go there. He holds strong opinions about the war.

He believes that the United States should do more to help the Muslim Bosnian government defend itself against the Serbs, who are better armed. The West should lift an arms embargo that has limited the flow of weapons to the Muslims -- the fighting would escalate, but that has to happen for the conflict to be resolved justly, Mr. Taylor said.

He was not impressed by former President Jimmy Carter's recent visit and the cease-fire that followed.

"He's just another politician who flew into the city and left the next day," Mr. Taylor said.

Fighting will begin again when cold weather abates, he predicted.

Mr. Taylor doesn't mince words, say friends from Western Maryland College, who watched his commitment to world issues grow while he was a student. He wasn't afraid to confront the college president about policies with which he disagreed or criticize the school for accepting certain corporate gifts.

"If you asked him how he was, the reaction was, 'How do you expect me to be when everywhere around the world our policies are killing people?' " said Jered Ebenreck, a senior philosophy major who met Mr. Taylor three years ago.

"If you're in the room with him, you feel the anger at social injustice coming off of him," Mr. Ebenreck said.

He likened Mr. Taylor to Socrates because Mr. Taylor challenged others one-to-one about their beliefs, Mr. Ebenreck said.

"He's trying to live as closely as he can to his ideals," Mr. Ebenreck said.

Mr. Taylor said his interest in the war in Bosnia intensified two years ago when he met a young woman from Sarajevo studying at Western Maryland.

Naida Zecevic came to America as an exchange student in 1991, never dreaming war would engulf her home city, making her a refugee in Carroll County.

Miss Zecevic, 20, said the brutality of the war and the seeming lack of interest from the rest of the world prompted Mr. Taylor to go to Bosnia. "He has great care and passion for humanity in general," she said.

Mr. Taylor became outraged about injustice, whether it was in Cuba, South America or Bosnia.

After reading about social and economic problems in those countries, he felt compelled to do something -- write a letter, circulate a petition, plan a rally, distribute posters.

"When you know so much about the world and its injustice, then there's only one choice of what to do," said Maura A. Ziolkowski, a friend and 1994 Western Maryland graduate.

"He sees death and destruction all around and wants to understand why that's happening," said Norberto Valdez, an anthropology instructor at Western Maryland who is involved in social justice issues.

Mr. Taylor was a loner on campus, his friends said, and is not close to his family. He has found support and understanding through Miss Zecevic and her family.

In Sarajevo, he lives with her mother, Esma, and two other family members. Esma Zecevic is a pediatrician who works in a 60-bed city hospital. In September, she was hit by a sniper's bullet, but said she has recovered.

Mr. Taylor is welcome in Bosnia, Dr. Zecevic said. During the past three months, he has seen that life in Sarajevo is difficult. Because gas and electricity are scarce, the family lives in the kitchen -- the only room in the apartment they can keep warm, she said.

The young man has adjusted to the uncomfortable life people are forced to lead in Sarajevo, she said. He is interested in meeting people and learning about their lives, she said.

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