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Rebuilding Homes and Faith in Bosnia

Knowledgeable roofers begin the roofing process.
Photo by Wendy-Marie Teichert

More knowledgeable roofers begin the roofing process by attaching the flashing and lining up the first row of shingles.


A summer vacation becomes a working pilgrimage as American volunteers help rebuild houses and a church in war-torn Bosnia.

By Wendy-Marie Teichert

 

A Land of the People

A Typical Day

Youthful Enthusiasm

A Cooperative Effort

A Chance for New Life

A Final Blessing

Relief Foundation Provides Hope

Days of hard work and years of war had not robbed the old woman’s eyes of their sparkle. She nodded her scarf-covered head and spoke—through her granddaughter’s translation—in the throaty language of Bosnia: “Thank you to the Americans for coming.”

Sipping coffee under a sweet-smelling grape arbor that warm day last June, I found it hard to imagine that five years ago this farming village had been a battleground. Our hostess, “Baba,” spoke excitedly as she pointed at the ground where a mine had exploded and the stucco farmhouse wall that had been hit by debris.

Despite the green cornfields and golden haystacks, we had seen enough destruction to believe her. It was first evident on the Sarajevo runway where a gutted plane turned a hollow eye toward us.

Photo by Pat Pope

Remnants of a bombed-out house remain in Bosnia. It is one of many that are prominent throughout the southeastern European country.

Our bus ride through the city was a tour of ruin. The Olympic stadium had become a graveyard. The press building was a shambles of rubble. Apartments displaying laundry lines stood adjacent to others with broken, blown-out windows. Northward in the beautiful mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bi-H), homes were disfigured by bullet holes, caved-in roofs, dangling electrical wires. It was because of the war’s devastation that we had come.

Our group met for the first time at John F. Kennedy Airport, gathered from New Hampshire to California, from Minnesota to Texas. The next two weeks we would work, eat and pray together, as we joined forces with Boderiste (Boh-dah-REESE-tah) villagers to rebuild their homes. Of the 35 of us, a few were skilled in carpentry, but some, like myself, found it challenging just to hang a picture. Diverse in background and skill, our group included contractors, farmers, students, teachers, engineers, nurses, accountants and friars, whose commonalities were a desire to help and a gray “Roofs Across Bosnia” baseball cap.

We came together under St. David’s Relief Organization, which has delivered everything from goats to Gerber’s to Bosnia. Run by Jeff Reed, St. David’s is dedicated to assisting the Bosnian people. While the nonprofit enterprise is nondenominational, it works with Franciscans in Bosnia to distribute needed goods. Its association with the Franciscans and Medjugorje gave the venture a distinctly Catholic flavor.

Though we shared a common faith, our backgrounds defied categorization. There was the charismatic contractor, who seemed able to sing shingles into place. There was the embattled Southerner, who on the sly, hung pictures of Our Lady in her office. There were Franciscan University of Steubenville graduates and Young Serrans, and a guitarist from Santa Cruz, California. An Ohio pair who met on the previous year’s expedition had returned as a married couple. There were two parish priests and five Franciscan friars, all of whom seemed equally at home on the roof as in a church. Throughout our stay, they led us in morning and evening prayer, offered Mass, belted out hymns and hammered nails.

Each of us felt called, and each had responded to St. David’s brochure that showed people roofing a ravaged home. The photograph was captioned, “How are you going to spend your summer vacation?”

Until I received it, I was going to spend my vacation taking art classes and working on my house. But the photos of fleeing Kosovars tugged at my heart, particularly one that showed thirsty children reaching through a train window for water. Their plight spurred me to help in some concrete way. Bosnia, which borders Kosovo, had suffered a similar violent cycle of aggression and recrimination in the early 90’s. Thus, the flier from St. David’s seemed like a personal invitation.

A Land of the People

Boderiste lies in northeastern Bosnia, close to the Croatian and Serbian borders. We boarded the bus in Sarajevo where we began a six-hour drive on increasingly potholed roads. The village’s mayor, Slavko Blazevic, had met us at the airport. It was the task of this tense, energetic and practical man to feed, house and transport all who had come to roof houses for the next nine days.

On the first and ensuing days, Slavko told us about his village. On May 1, 1992, villagers heard tanks coming up the hill. People scrambled to defend themselves but, at the end of a three-day battle, eight were dead. During the next four years, 57 villagers—almost five percent of Boderiste’s population—died defending their homes. Many families fled to safer havens in Croatia and Austria, and the population of 1,200 dwindled to 37 families.

Slavko looked thoughtful when asked why the people didn’t all leave or surrender. “This is the land of these people. The land and the Church is their life.” The families have lived on their farms for hundreds of years.

Someone asks Slavko how long his family has been here. He tries to oblige with a precise number, but instead shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “A very, very long time,” he responds.

Why did he stay? “It is hard to say,” Slavko replies through the translator. “I could see that if everyone left, the village would be taken over by Serbian forces. Someone needed to stay here and stop them.” He later showed us the hand-dug trench where village men had faced Serbian tanks. The trench, five by eight feet, is nearly hidden by vines and wildflowers. Purple vetch, white daisies and yellow fiddleneck blanket the scar and reminder of war.

Alongside the wildflowers, the people of Boderiste are slowly healing. With the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995, villagers began to restore crumbled houses, bring in electricity and erect telephone lines. A current project is to have running water; right now, people draw or pump water from wells. About 700 villagers have returned, 60 percent of the original population. But Slavko wants young people to return, so the life of the village can continue. For the latter task, he linked up with St. David’s.

After greeting the villagers, we trudged down the road for Mass. The church was decked with flowers rising in tiers around a statue of Our Lady. Prior to the Mass, village boys vied to be altar servers.

When we arrived, many of us had been traveling for over 30 hours. But the hospitable people of Boderiste wouldn’t allow us to go to bed without supper. So, after Mass, Stefen, the restaurateur, served us a delicious meal of soup, fish and potato salad. (Later in the week he roasted a pig that produced the thickest, tastiest bacon I’ve ever had.) Travelers were then divided among host families.

A Typical Day

On our first day, after we awoke to the crowing of roosters, Slavko directed us to the village of Dubravice (Doo-brah-VEETZ-a) since Boderiste had been the site of previous roofing efforts. As we traveled through lush meadows during our 10-minute drive, we observed that Dubravice seemed miles away in spirit from Boderiste. In Boderiste many homes were sound, while in Dubravice every other house was crumbling. All were pocked by bullets and shrapnel. In Boderiste we saw expansive fields of corn and potatoes; in this village gardens hugged the houses. Boderiste had young families and many children. Here, most people we saw were middle-aged or elderly. Before we left the bus, we were warned to stay only on the roads and paths because of mines.

Jeff had shipped supplies, including three aluminum extension ladders, to Boderiste before our arrival. That increase was appreciated by those who had shared one communal ladder during the last working pilgrimage. Also in the pile were nail bags, and I chuckled when I saw, in this remote corner of the world, a dark Croatian man sporting the bright orange Home Depot logo.

The weather was another improvement. It had rained during the preceding “Roofs Across Bosnia” endeavor, making for precarious footing for the roofers. This time the weather was clear and hot. Our good fortune was unlucky, however, for the villagers who needed rain to irrigate their fields.

Photo by Pat Pope

Father Mariusz Koch bestows a blessing upon a home that received a new roof.

Our days fell quickly into a rhythm. One group rose early to beat the heat. The more knowledgeable roofers started the homes, attaching the flashing and lining up the first row of shingles. This done, the neophytes started in, following the line already set. At 7:30 a.m., a second wave rolled into Dubravice carrying baskets of bread, cheese, eggs, bacon and a big kettle of tea or coffee. After breakfast, roofing recommenced.

Our work was supported by prayer that began with adoration after breakfast and continued throughout the day. Now and again, a team member would lay aside his hammer, climb down the ladder and hurry to the chapel for his half-hour shift.

The first day I considered working on a steep two-story house and narrow planks that acted as crew platforms. While our families back home were offering prayers for protection from violence, the more probable and immediate threat was falling off a roof. As a result, I decided to wait to learn about roofing until we worked on a lower house.

After a midday Mass and siesta, we returned to work, our numbers augmented by village children who were out of school. At first the children seemed only to want to keep us company, and during lulls many of the St. David’s band played Frisbee or basketball with them. In this way everyone learned new vocabulary, and some could actually say more than dobra utro (“Good morning”), although just dobra (“Good”) came in extremely handy. Eventually, a few older children joined the roofing crew.

Youthful Enthusiasm

During a break, some of us visited the children on their own turf. Returning roofers had brought colored markers, paper and activity books for the one-room school that oversees the first four years of education. (Older students attend school in the nearby city of Brcko.) At the front of the classroom was a blackboard and a map of Bi-H. The walls were bare except for the children’s art. Wires sprouted out of the ceiling where lights awaited completion. A wood stove stood ready for the cold winter months.

Students sat two to a table, gazing shyly at the Americans. As their teacher handed out markers, children burst out with delight. They were thrilled when they were given books and pens, which they quickly showed to each other. Even index cards were objects of admiration. Americans mingled with the schoolchildren, showing them how to do mazes and connect-the-dots. As a teacher, I realized how much I take for granted when my Bosnian counterpart held up a pad of binder paper and the children applauded.


Photo by Pat Pope

Volunteers, who spent part of their time visiting children who attend the village school, taught them about mazes and connect-the-dots.


Though short on materials, the children demonstrated how a culture is passed on through language. They treated us to a program of poetry, skits and songs. Ingenuity, too, made up where supplies were lacking. Our primary translator, a young man named Salik, had taught himself English by watching American soap operas.

If the teacher had a lesson plan for that day, she gave it up. The excitement of the morning led to an early recess, and the students gave us “high fives” as they ran out the door. The children brought vitality and enthusiasm to the building project. During one bus ride home, they began to cheer for their soccer team. Then for their village: “BodeRISte!” (clap clap clap). Then for us: “USA!” (clap clap clap). Then for God: “JeSUS!” (clap clap clap).

A Cooperative Effort

One hopeful sign for this half-Muslim, half-Croat (Catholic) community was the evident cooperation. The Muslims sweated alongside the Catholics, joined us in our meals and invited us to theirs. Reversing the unhappy trend elsewhere, the Muslims generously helped shingle the church.

In this part of the country, tensions exist mainly between Croats and Muslims on the one hand and Serbs on the other. Suspicion and bitterness still erupt in local fighting as we learned from the American soldiers of nearby Camp McGovern.

Our acquaintance with these soldiers began one night when five of them showed up at the restaurant door. Clad in helmets, boots and camouflage coveralls, one of them drawled, “Anyone he-uh from Tay-ux-is?” He was greeted with cheers and foot-stomping from the predominantly Texan group. Thus began a warm exchange that was followed by a visit from the second platoon and its commanding officer. One of my favorite scenes that day was a Franciscan friar comparing notes with the gunner atop an armored Humvee. What did the soldiers miss the most? To a man they replied, “My family.”

The soldiers invited us to lunch at their base in nearby Brcko. Some of us sat with the commanding officer, himself a Catholic. While we munched on American hamburgers, we discussed not the war or problems of racial prejudice but alternate ways to interpret Scripture and the need for soldiers to attend Mass.

The mission of these soldiers, members of Fort Hood’s 1st Cavalry Division, is to ensure sufficient stability for the Bosnians to get on their feet. They referee conflicts, remove mines and patrol northern Bi-H to prevent bullying and recrimination. In a sense, the peacekeeping force acts as a splint to hasten the healing process.

A Chance for New Life

Time and again since returning, I’ve asked myself, If it had been me, could I forgive? If I’d lost my home, if one of my family or friends or students had been maimed or killed, could I forgive? I was startled and even shocked by an acquaintance whose summary comment to the havoc in Bosnia was, “Why can’t people just get along?”

The scale and intensity of this war demand, at the least, a cry of lamentation. It is as close as I have ever come to anything like the Crucifixion. Humanly, it seems that forgiveness is impossible, that the secret of peace lies only in the grace flowing from the heart of the dying God-Man.

God has been merciful to me and has not asked of me this kind of self-effacing forgiveness. What he has asked of me, what I brought back from the Balkans to share with my colleagues and family, is an increased sense of the importance of personal presence.

The soldiers conduct “presence patrols” to prevent outbreaks. Our band of volunteers carried out a “presence patrol” as well. We were bringing the presence of Christ, extending his Incarnation. The rebuilding of a few roofs, though, is statistically insignificant. The import of our effort was simply “being there,” being aware of the sorrows and labors of the villagers and offering assistance.

This important truth is one that I can live in the States as I sing songs with children, have coffee with a friend or tutor someone in chemistry. The importance of the action lies less in accomplishment and more in presence and attention. After all, we do not call Jesus’ continued life on earth the “Real Product” but the “Real Presence.”

Our presence carried with it something of the power of Christ’s eucharistic presence, with its implications of healing and Resurrection. We came, perhaps like Mary Magdalene, to offer consolation and help in a sorrowful moment. Like her gift, our poor and sometimes even inept offering resonated with the first beats of a new rhythm, the prelude to a new melody that can break the unhappy pattern of crimes and paybacks.

This melody resounded in the stories we heard of individuals who had transcended age-old feuds. Stories told of men and women who provided food, transportation and consolation to anyone afflicted by the war, Serbs and Muslims who wanted to go into business together and displaced mothers on both sides who together mourned their dead sons.

With our eyes we saw encouraging signs. Boderiste had been transformed from a demoralized community to an optimistic one. The Franciscans in Mostar, whose 130-year-old church was burnt to the ground in 1992, erected a new structure in its place. They even preserved two statues that survived the flames, a Madonna and a charred lump that is barely recognizable as St. Anthony. One evening I sat on the balcony and listened to violin music wafting over the cornfields. Haunting but lively, it was music for a wedding, a sign of unity and a promise of new life.

A Final Blessing

By the last day, we were a team of almost-expert roofers. One girl marveled that she was able to hit in nails with only two swats. Even I felt I could hold my own on the flimsy supports. We finished up and surveyed our work: seven houses and one church. Some dark clouds appeared on the horizon, and the Franciscans hurried to exchange their T-shirts for habits in preparation for our final task: the blessing of the homes.

Photo by Jeff Reed

In song, workers process throughout the village.

A makeshift wooden cross led the way. The cross was carried by Darko, a blond 13-year-old who had variously translated, roofed and played Frisbee. Behind him walked Father Mariusz Koch from the Bronx and Father Art Flores from Texas. Our sweaty band followed behind them, and we began to sing: “Blessing, glory and honor be to our God....”

Our journey along the dusty road of Dubravice became a mysterious journey of the heart. With each step, I more deeply felt the long history of the villagers, their bond to the land, their sufferings in war, their resilience in peace. Many homes were still tumbled down; but these, too, might one day be re-built. Anything is possible.

Our voices grew stronger as we passed from house to house. “...Honor be to our God forever....” At each home, family and friends were gathered. Priests sprinkled the walls with holy water, praying for renewal, security, hospitality and peace: “May Christ dwell in this home, and may all who enter it be welcomed as Christ.” And we all sang “...Forever and ever, Amen.”

We sat down during our final evening to a meal doled out by Stefen. Between courses, we exchanged thanks and addresses. Suddenly, our supper was interrupted by a thunderous blast. In the silence that followed, we heard a more welcome sound. The village farmers smiled: It was raining.


Wendy-Marie Teichert has been a Montessori teacher for many years, and is a catechist in the Montessori-based “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.” She received her B.A. in liberal arts from Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, and is presently tutoring chemistry and pursuing graduate studies in botany at California State University, Sacramento.

 

Relief Foundation Provides Hope

by Donna Palmatary

St. David’s Relief Foundation, which began as a fund to purchase medical supplies for the people of Bosnia in 1991, is now a nonprofit organization that provides construction items, educational materials and food to those in need in the war-torn country. It also provides volunteers who have repaired roofs for Bosnian families each summer since 1996. Headed by Jeff Reed, the nondenominational organization has made a difference in the lives of those affected by the war that ravaged the southeastern European country.

Reed’s commitment to the Bosnian people started when he met Franciscan Father Svetozar Kraljevic, O.F.M., during a 1991 pilgrimage to Medjugorje. Father Svetozar, a friar who works in Bosnia, “asked for help on one of the churches,” noting that eventually the country’s people would be in greater need, Reed explains.

A parishioner at St. Michael Catholic Church in Garland, Texas, Reed considers the influence of the Bosnian people a grace. So, when Father Svetozar asked for assistance in 1991, the Dallas, Texas-based organization responded.

Through its “Roofs Across Bosnia” program that began in the summer of 1996, St. David volunteers have helped reunite neighbors, communities and families.

Began After Dayton Accord

The focus on reconstruction began after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. With travel much less-restricted, organizations like St. David’s were better able to assist people whose homes had been damaged. Prior to that time, the goal was shipping supplies to the people who “were basically struggling for the basic necessities of life,” says Brother Leo Fischer, C.F.R., a seminarian at St. John Neumann Residence in the Bronx, New York.

Fischer, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal who was a part of the working pilgrimages in 1993 and 1998, said the country has changed. In 1993, “the war was intense.” Yet, he adds, “What St. David’s was supplying got to the heart of the people.”

During his second trip in 1998, with the war over, people have hope but they have not lost sight of the previously dominant interethnic civil strife. “The most important thing,” Brother Leo says of the St. David’s project, “is helping the people who are most in need of help...the ones who are affected by war, and must live with the remnants of war year after year.”

The effect of the war, according to Brother John Anthony Boughton, C.F.R., a seminarian at the St. John Neumann Residence, is most evident in drawings done by refugee children who learn in a makeshift kindergarten classroom. Brother John, vice president of St. David’s Relief Organization, first visited Bosnia in 1992. While there, he saw paintings that had houses blown apart, dads unshaven and grimacing, moms crying, trees broken and no smoke coming from the chimneys of their homes. When the war was over, he returned to their classroom. He found that the children’s artwork reflected a glimpse of hope for the future. The fathers were clean-shaven and not grimacing and the mothers had nice dresses. Both parents were placed in backgrounds symbolic of new life, such as new trees with fresh leaves.

The situation, though, remains tentative. “It requires us to pray, respond, live the life of the sacraments,” Brother John says.

“Seeing God’s hands” in the lives of the Bosnian people and “seeing them turning their lives over to him” helped strengthen Brother John’s affinity for Franciscan spirituality. Formerly a Protestant, he professed his vows in March 1997 with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the Bronx, New York. He continues his coursework in philosophy at the St. John Neumann Residence in preparation for the priesthood in 2006.

Brother Leo, who also professed his vows in March 1997 in the Bronx, New York, is continuing his coursework as well in philosophical studies. A candidate for the priesthood in 2005, Brother Leo discerned the religious life during his time in Bosnia.

Will They Return?

“If the opportunity presents itself,” he will return. Brother Anthony welcomes the chance as well. He says the sacrifice of time and energy is worth the spiritual graces that are received.

Helping the less fortunate in Bosnia reflects just one part of the friars’ statement on charism, nature and purpose: “engaging in hands-on work with the materially poor and destitute.” It also represents their hope to present a “prophetic witness of Christ’s teaching that life is a pilgrimage of committed faith, trusting hope and effective love of God and neighbor through the work of the Holy Spirit.”

For further information on St. David’s Relief Foundation, or to become a volunteer, contact the organization at 10382 Miller Road, Dallas, TX 75238, telephone (800) 618-9789, fax (214) 613-4005, e-mail: stdavids@gte.net. You can also check out the program on the Web at http://www.stdavids.org.

 


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