This Lockdown has brought back so many memories, the article below is one of them, when I went to Sarajevo after the war the city was in shock and very damaged. How could this happen to the lovely people of Sarajevo and the beautiful city. For me nothing surprises anymore, this tortured city will stay with me for ever, the people of Sarajevo suffered so much.
MY REIKI JOURNEY
WITH HEALING HANDS NETWORK
TO HELP THE PEOPLE OF BOSNIA
For a decade every Saturday morning between April and October two people have been meeting at Gatwick airport bound for a two week stay in Sarajevo. They are volunteers who may or may not know each other – their connection is their membership to Healing Hands Network, a charity born in response to the atrocities of the Bosnian war. Healing Hands Network (HHN) was born in 1997 after co-founder Vicki Poolea BowenTechnique Practitionerwas moved to do more, following earlier visits to Sarajevo during the war. Four fellow therapists joined her and later that year the charity was formed.
Early therapists who visited so soon after the war’s end sought to help Sarajevans who had been arrested and survived incarceration in concentration camps. The healers, armed with their individual therapeutic training, wet wipes and tea tree oil, were welcomed by grateful overstretched doctors and nurses at Kosovo Hospital who were desperate for any help they could get. Gradually word of these groups of visiting therapists spread and people came to receive treatments from a diverse range of practitioners including those giving physiotherapy, reflexology, massage, Reiki and acupuncture. Treatments were often given in bombed out buildings; the city was without gas for cooking or heating. Rationed water flowed for about 15 minutes a day and electricity was only switched on intermittently for short periods making work for the therapists in the bitter winter months especially challenging.
Rolling forthfrom the original band of therapists, a continuous flow of wonderful people has continued to grow and expand the original concept of HHN. Today around 25,000 voluntary treatments have been given with up to 3,000 treatments being given each season.
Four or five therapists operate on a fortnightly rollover basis meaning there are always two practitioners to show news arrivals the ropes
The HHN teams stay either in outreach villages or the main HHN centre an early nineteenth century housewith treatment rooms and accommodation, on the edge of the Turkish quarter characterised by cobbled street, quaint shops and cafes.
The Charity is expanding and hopes to send therapists who will do similar work helping women who are victims of multiple rapes in Kenya. One member explained, ‘ the stories you hear are haunting and heart-breaking and the long-term physical and psychological damage of the traumas each person has suffered vary but they can frequently last years which is why people keep coming to us.’
There are reports of reduced pain, increased mobility, improved quality of sleep, or more simply an increase in optimism and hope and despite their appalling experiences therapists unanimously agree that their clients hold their grief and anguish with humbling courage.
‘We know we help people move on – we try to heal the scars even if it’s just a little bit,’ adds another member.
On my visit in 2007 I worked as a Reiki Practitioner for Healing Hands Network and came to appreciate just what these other members had been referring to, which is why I’ve booked my ticket to return this August. My journal of that visit which is typical of the experiences I will be returning to follows.
I can’t believe after six months of fundraising, I am actually going to Bosnia tomorrow.
I’ll be joining a team of five Practitioners in Sarajevo working for the charity Healing Hands Network and providing treatments to the citizens of the Bosnian capital. The charity asks its volunteers to raise £800.00 each. Mine was raised by giving Reiki sessions locally – this added £300.00 to the kitty and the remaining £500.00 was raised during one fabulous quiz evening organised by Pat the landlady at our local Pub, the Crown at Giddeahall.
Everything is packed – I probably put far too much in and my bulging suitcase is a challenge to fasten. I seem to have overdosed on underwear, slightly non-sensically I couldn’t resist packing my favourite, if – impractical, shoes just in case I ended up somewhere posh one evening.
We were told the Bosnian weather at this time of the year can be rather capricious – we could be in for some balmy days with temperatures of around 30 degrees but also some very chilly nights; consequently I couldn’t resist packing for all eventualities. And just to bump up the weight I added my favourite crystal which is about the size of a tennis ball (well a bit smaller but is so dense its weight is closer to a couple of bags of sugar). I also have to squeeze two couch rolls in; these are for laying on the therapy tables.
I realise there is no turning back now, it’s fait accompli but departure day has come around very quickly.
My daughter Katie suggested we go to the pub for a meal to take my mind off things. We have a lovely evening, my husband; daughter and her partner are with me and my sister who has come up from Dorset. With family and a few other close friends we’re a party of twelve – all those I cherish most are here. It’s the perfect recipe to soothe my pre-trip nerves (that and a few glassed of red wine.) It’s touching, suddenly, realising they are all here for me, to wish me well.
I wake up feeling simultaneously eager and anxious with thoughts racing through my head at break neck speed.
I’ve heard the Mafia are thriving in Sarajevo. Safety in general, is a natural pre-occupation and I wonder will I be kidnapped or held hostage? A couple of Practioners a few years ago were taken hostage (not anyone from Healing Hands Network though.) I think in general the civilians feel safe as the UN is still very much present, so I guess I will be ok. The police are an obvious presence around the city and from what I’ve gathered; the citizens of Sarajevo don’t make their voices heard for fear of a reprisal of the awful violence that characterised so much of the last decade. Today they are all trying to live together again so no-one wants to be noticed or heard, they just want to get on with their lives.
My wilder imaginings of hostage scenarios mingle with more positive thoughts associated with this trip. I hope this fortnight will furnish me with a clearer understanding and appreciation of the trauma and pain so many Bosnians endured between 1992 and 1995 – I already feel privileged just thinking that my work may touch and help a few who are still undeservedly suffering.
There’s no escaping the fear of the unknown and questions constantly pop into being. What will life be like during my stay, will I cope, and will I get on with my fellow Practitioners? I know I should stop all these busy thoughts, it is, after all, too late to back out; I take a few deep breaths to become still and give myself Reiki.
After coffee and toast for breakfast and a quick last walk with the dogs, my husband Steve puts my case in the car and, as he always does, asks if I have my passport and other essentials. It’s just as well because in the entire last minute flurry I somehow left the crucial passport on the kitchen table – whoops!
Finally at Gatwick, having said my farewells to Steve I turn my attention to finding my fabulous companion Collette.
Collette comes from Provence in France. She has a lovely accent and a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi Frenchness that is difficult to accurately define. She’s small, dark and has boobs which would put Jordon to shame. I nicknamed them ‘Magnificos’ and am certain they will cause a stir in Bosnia.
I’ve known Collette for a year; we met when I noticed she was a member of Healing Hands Network and lived just eight miles away from me in Bradford–on–Avon.
Collette is well travelled and is one of the most dynamic people I have ever met – she is always brimming with infectious energy and I’m looking forward to travelling with her.
We meet up – It’s good to see her. We go through passport control and grab a coffee whilst waiting for the tannoy to announce boarding.
Soon we’re making our way to the plane which looks hopelessly small as though it may need help to actually become airborne.
The flight is virtually empty and the cabin crew are very slack and unhelpful – we have had no food other than some dreadful sandwiches which are totally inedible – they contain a nauseating filling of something so indefinable it could be meat but is just as likely cheese. The coffee is undrinkable it looks like coffee but tastes like Bisto gravy – ugh!. The plane is shaking constantly, it will be a miracle if we make it – I want to go home!
We make it to Belgrade Airport in just under four hours. The airport is virtually empty and very depressing – it looks a bit like communist airports you see on films. There are long empty corridors, hardly anyone around and there’s nothing to do. Our connecting flight to Sarajevo is delayed and we have an interminable six hour wait. We manage to lay our hands on a greasy omelette and some stale bread, but there is nowhere to get any correct money to buy anything like a nice piece of chocolate. It seems a very long time ago since I left my cosy cottage in Wiltshire; I feel like we have already been away days. When we eventually board our second plane, I’m horrified that it’s even worse than the first – if this is possible. It is smaller, only seating about twenty people and appears to have trouble keeping balanced, probably because the deafeningly noisy propeller is having bother turning.
WELCOME TO SARAJEVO:
After a flying for about an hour we thankfully land and are met by Salid, our driver, who will take us to the house which will be our home for the next two weeks. Salid appears very young probably he is in his late twenties, and has a lovely gentle face. Healing Hands employ him to ferry therapists to and from the airport and to ‘Outreach Villages.’
We arrive at the house which is situated up a tiny street on a hill above the city. We walk up to some locked double doors which Salid unlocks before ushering us into an enclosed courtyard. Its 11:00pm very quiet and dark – I’ve been travelling for fourteen hours but as we climb up the steps to the locked front door I note how tired and shabby the place looks. It’s a large building and the paintwork is a dull grey colour, we can’t miss the big holes in its façade which Salid tells us are from mortars. The previous owner was apparently a Serb who fled Sarajevo fearing for his safety during the war, he leases the house to Healing Hands Network for a small rent. It’s doubtful he will return to Sarajevo and I understand that someone else has now bought the house and is leasing it to Healing Hands Network.
Three women are here to welcome us. They have been in Bosnia for a week and they greet us warmly, bringing us some bread and cheese and reticently ask if we would like some wine. Our enthusiastic chorus of “yes please,” is met with visible relief – apparently the outgoing practitioners disapproved of alcohol.
They look very tired and tell us the work is hard but very rewarding.
First we are introduced to Bjorn, a stunning tall Norwegian woman who lives in London with her husband and two children. She has short, spiky dark hair and is wearing an amazing colourful top and draped in a woollen shawl. Next to be introduced is Jane – a northerner, of about 30, she is also tall and very slim. Lastly there’s Helen who is in her late twenties and is a researcher at The University of London. She is small and seems rather timorous – someone I think that doesn’t like to be noticed much.
They ask us if we would like to tour Sarajevo with them tomorrow as volunteers don’t work on a weekend.
INTRODUCTION TO SARAJEVO AND ITS LIVING PAST
Our guide is a chain-smoking communist Muslim with long dark hair that looks distinctly unwashed. But such a description deflects from the man himself – Zijad is not only informative, he has a wonderful dry sense of humour and at the end of our tour generously buys us a beer.
Through Zijad and my own natural curiosity whilst working here, I learn a great deal about this beautiful scarred city – a city with a fine, rich history still trying to recover from one of the most brutal chapters in the savagely messy Bosnian civil war.
To truly get to grips with the complexities of the many vying ethnic groups and militias operating during the war and the four year siege of Sarajevo would require years of study. The plain fact of unpardonable human suffering endured by thousands of innocent civilians is inescapable.
Indeed as Dr Mirko Pejanovic, Dean of the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Sarajevo conceded,
“…during the four year siege carried out by Karadzic’s military forces and the SDS, there were deaths of Sarajevans of all ethnicities…we can not talk of an extermination or genocide of Serbs, but of a responsibility of the SDS and Karadzic’s military forces for the overall extermination of Sarajevo and Sarajevans.”
Over 12 000 people were killed and 50 000 wounded during the daily shelling and sniper attacks of Sarajevo’s siege, which began in April 1992 and ended with the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. As capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo was central to the Bosnian conflict.
In March 1992 Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from the Yugoslav Federation. And though the region was ethnically diverse – populated by Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Slavs – it wasn’t until Serbian leaders, like Slobodan Milosevic, stirred up ethnic tension under the guise of protecting the Serbian minority in Bosnia (Serbs made up approximately 30% of Bosnia-Herzegovina) that the ugliest episode in the breakup of Yugoslavia began.
Bosnian Serb forces carried out barbaric campaigns of “ethnic cleansing,” massacring and expelling civilians from their homes to create exclusively Serb areas, populated by those who demonstrated clear patriotism to their cause.
Clinton’s favourite book on the Balkans, written by a religion professor of Serbian descent called Michael Sells, tells how non-nationalist Serbs who refused the persecution of Muslims were also killed. He wrote of the beating and on the spot shooting of an old Serb named Ljubowho had objected to being separated out from his Muslim friends when Serb militants were carrying out a ‘selection’ in Sarajevo – examples of such depravity throughout the city and beyond were sadly commonplace.
The medieval city of Sarajevo which had been an intellectual centre, noted for its multicultural tolerance became a killing field. It lost approximately 60% of its population and all Sarajevans became victims and witnesses to every conceivable human rights atrocity, including mass executions, rape and starvation.
With all roads blockaded and the airport shut down the residents had to cling to survival in a city without a water supply, electricity, medicine or food. Some estimate that food scarcity caused the average Sarajevan to lose over two stone during the siege. One of the most common signs in the city was those which read Pazite Snaijper! “Beware Sniper” and sniper alleys – streets where one’s life could not be guaranteed were everywhere in the once proud metropolis.
Some have calculated that the city was bombarded with an average of 329 shell impacts per day during the course of the siege. Mass killings occurred several times in the central marketplace, as well as at a football game and even whilst people waited in line for water.
MARKETPLACE MASSACRE BROUGHT TO LIFE
Zijad took us to the marketplace where the infamous 1994 killing-spree happened. I remembered the footage of numerous innocent casualties being helped by rescue workers on the news. As I stood there ogling the plump, colourful vegetables and foods that had been brought from gardens and farms in surrounding villages I reconnected with that grim reality and marveled at the senseless cruelty of firing a mortal shell into the heart of a crowd peaceably shopping for groceries.
The names of the dead are printed in red on the main building in the market place. Many women and children were killed on that raw February morning but suddenly the haunting memories of the mortar attack come crashing into the present. We meet a wonderful man named Zoran who had been selling plants, as he still does today. Zoran spoke a little English and humbly relays how he put his own life in jeopardy that day in order to drag another wounded man out of mortal danger – such bravery from a man who had just been shot himself.
Zoran lifts his shirt to reveal a livid red scar zig-zagging down his back. The damaged lung had to be removed and today his health and ability to work still suffer. Benefits don’t exist in Sarajevo and he makes a paltry £5.00 a day – hardly enough for his family to live on and certainly insufficient to allow him to pay for petrol to go to his sister’s forthcoming wedding in nearby Mostar.
Zoran is our first personified reminder that the ghosts of the destroyed city have not been laid to rest. Today virtually every building and citizen remains part of the ongoing battle to restore Sarajevo’s former glory.
EPICENTRE OF THE CITY DESTROYED – SARAJEVO LIBRARY
Appropriately, our next stop is the library which served the University of Sarajevo and had also been the national library for the Yugoslav Federation. The century-old edifice, which fused Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architectural styles, had housed ancient and priceless manuscripts. The majestic building was a symbol of civic pride, as well as an unrivalled repository of the region’s history. But in August 1992 a Serb artillery bombardment blasted Bosnia’s national library. A devastating phosphorous bomb fired from across the river sparked a fire that obliterated legions of rare books and manuscripts, the entire catalogue system and computer files.
Over 600 periodicals and the archives of Serb, Croat, Bosnian and Jewish writers went up in a smoke so thick that it obscured the sun. Former chief librarian Kemal Bakarsic, wrote an article for a small New York Magazine (The New Combat) in which he pointed out that the destruction of approximately 1.2million ‘book items’ amounted to what was probably the biggest single book burning in recorded history.
As 25 mortal shells struck the building, a further 40 shells were dropped in nearby streets to prevent the fire brigade coming to take action – a futile gesture of needless added destruction given the water supply to the district had been cut-off before the attack. But as flames tore up 50 000 feet of wooden book shelves and the ornate central atrium, librarians and volunteers braved sniper fire and formed a human chain to pass books away from the burning building.
Distressingly little was saved but following the tireless work of Tatjana Lorkovic a Sarajevan émigré, the universities of Yale, Harvard and Michigan have all contributed to the re-stocking of the library.
Re-building is clearly happening but at a painfully slow rate due to funding shortages. But despite the loss of the irreplaceable materials, this building seems to symbolize Sarajevo’s indomitable spirit. It’s a place struggling but committed to, a phoenix-like revival.
As I look around I feel the strength and spirit of this beautiful place – overcome with emotion I wander off alone, when the lilting sound of music wafts to me. I follow the exquisite, hauntingly beautiful sounds and see a dark-haired man, in his early thirties, sitting on the ground playing a guitar. This evocative music and the atmosphere here are enough to make me weep. I re-join the others who all seem equally moved by this place – we don’t speak for some time.
Sarajevo’s 13thcentury library where 1.2 million books were destroyed in the biggest book burning in history; August 1992.
Emerging from the library we look at other buildings around the city – the scars of war visible everywhere. This is hardly surprising considering around sixty percent of all houses in Bosnia, half the schools and a third of hospitals took a pounding during the conflict. Apparently 10 00 shells and projectiles pounded much of the historic architecture of Sarajevo including 1200 mosques, 150 churches and four synagogues. For some buildings here, the damage was evidently too great to repair and the remains of rubble serve as poignant memorials of last decade’s destruction.
But for every broken building there seems to be a story testifying to the dauntless grit and survivor’s spirit that is woven into the DNA of this city and its people.
THE SECRET-LIFELINE: THE TUNNEL OF HOPE
Zoran had recommended we take a trip to the city’s outskirts to learn about the secret airport tunnel. The thousand yard (800 metre) tunnel was dug by besieged volunteer citizens who worked gruelling eight hour shifts for eight months during 1993. Work was ongoing 24 hours a day and latterly miners from Middle Bosnia joined the indefatigable diggers. It was dubbed the tunnel of hope and many believe the underground corridor was the lifeline which saved Sarajevo. It linked the city, cut-off by Serbian forces, to a neutral suburb of Sarajevo outside Serbian siege lines.
The tunnel ran under the airport from where the United Nations operated from. The legendary route allowed vital food, humanitarian aid and people to pass through its dank interior. One million people are believed to have passed in and out of it and 20 million tons of food is thought to have entered the city through it. This is no mean feat considering the excruciatingly cramped conditions inside the tunnel which was so low men had to stoop whilst walking along narrow planks using flashlights to see. Gas masks were also needed to aid breathing in the thin, fetid air. During its construction, water from the tunnel had to be removed in buckets and canisters but still people often had to wade through knee-deep water when the makeshift pumps siphoning off underground water broke.
TUNNEL OF HOPE
Of course, there were thousands who made the nightly overland crossings across the airport to try and fetch food or escape the siege lines. But these desperate people knew they were running a gauntlet and subjecting themselves to heavy machine-gun fire from the Bosnian Serb nationalists who surrounded two sides of the airfield rectangle. It was they who retained de facto control of the airport despite it’s being under the so-called governance of UN peacekeepers. Virtually every night several making the dash across the tarmac died, whilst others were wounded by the indiscriminate fire raining down upon them. Even the UN humanitarian flights carrying food and medicine were repeatedly fired upon.
We visit a house near the airport belonging to the Kolar family. Edis Kolar was just 18 in 1993 but he made countless journeys smuggling much needed supplies through the tunnel which his former home sits atop. Today it is a museum that tells the story of the tunnel. The dirty yellow building is full of mortar holes and shell casings and empty sacks of humanitarian aid have been kept to bring the recent past to life.
The international community acknowledged that the Sarajevans had been starving to death. At the time one United States official commented that most citizens were reduced to a diet of flour and nettles. It is fascinating to actually be standing in the place that was so instrumental in saving so many lives.
But of course the hardships of Sarajevo’s yesterday cannot be deleted from memory.
THE HEALING HANDS EXPERIENCE:
The next day we meet Nadia, our interpreter. She is a smart, immaculately dressed woman married to a diplomat. She explains that the records we must read of the clients we will be treating will be painful. Many, she says, are rape victims as during the siege, libraries, schools and sports halls were turned into concentration camps where a common practice was to call forth women’s names who had to go forward to be raped continually by different soldiers.
The need and demand for continuous treatment is proof that the healing of Sarajevo is very much ongoing. HHN is in constant dialogue with a number of local organizations, including The Red Cross, The Union of Civilian War Victims, The Association of Concentration Camp Victims and The Centre for Torture Victims, all of whom provide lists of members who would benefit from treatments from Healing Hands therapists.
My first client was an elderly Muslim man with half a leg missing. He was shot by a Serb and the injured leg needed amputating. He has been coming since Healing Hands first went to Sarajevo in 1995 and adores Reiki. He has a treatment every week as it provides short-term relief from his pain. Today it is my turn to provide this ease.
Despite his eighty-something years, this old man evidently still believes in the importance of taking great effort to look smart – he is wearing a dark suit, shirt, tie and large hat. On the treatment bed I see there are holes in his jacket, tears in his trousers; his shirt is frayed and he is without socks. Even the soles of his shoes are hanging off. I learn he lost his son who was arrested at Srebrenica along with most of the male population. Fifteen year old boys were shot and according to eye witnesses children under ten and a baby were also murdered. The infamous massacre was reminiscent of the holocaust where prisoners were taken to the woods and made to dig there own graves before being shot.
The suffering of this proud man can be seen in his eyes; yet his face lights up when he smiles as he does frequently after thanking me for the treatment.
Through the treatments I become witness to one appalling testimony after another. Every individual who comes to Healing Hands has their own unique experience of harrowing pain – yet the common denominator, amongst all these suffering souls I saw, was the hope that an HH treatment could provide a breathe of relief. As time passed grew firmer in my belief that relief – no matter how fleeting – has its worth.
I am reminded of a Sujeman, a young man who, in his final teenage year had been interned in a concentration camp called Hadzic, near Sarajevo. Making a courageous escape one night in temperatures of minus 28, he fled through the forest with few clothes to protect him from the merciless cold but far worse than the freezing weather was around the corner. He was picked up by his captors and when they found him he was tortured and repeatedly raped. Refusing to accept his fate he made a second gutsy dash for freedom and life, this time escaping without recapture. But his suffering – both physical and mental remains today. A young broken man he is unable to take up work and live in peace. Yet it was evident Reiki sessions (he’s been coming for ten years) are a tonic and via the interpreter, we even enjoyed a joke together.
When it came to the treatment of Hasija, a smart girl with a blond bob and pale face, who looked much older than her 28 years, a heartbreaking sadness overwhelmed me in a way that is not the norm when I am treating.
Paralyzed down one side of her body, unable to have children and in constant pain Hasija had been multiply raped by Serbian forces that had arrested her together with her father and sisters. Her five year old sister was also raped in front of her and her three year old sister went missing that night and has never been found. After the army had savaged her body both inside and out till it could take no more, her father was brought in and shot before her. The depravity defies comprehension and with some Harry Pottermagic I wished I could have waved a wand, cried expeliarmusand have rid her of such palpable suffering.
I was told she likes Reiki sessions because they needn’t involve touching – this is apparently common amongst many rape victims who value Reiki for its lack of physical contact. Reiki, known as bio-energy healing here, is also an accepted practice amongst the healing arts of Bosnian culture. When I completed my treatment she got up and hugged me. The interpreter commented on the unusualness of this physical gesture and though I couldn’t provide the assuagement I desired, there was something profound about this expression. It showed the treatment, no matter how ephemeral, had been a balm with its own intrinsic value.
And there were many smaller but no less significant expressions from clients who were moved by Reiki treatments during that fortnight. All this heightened my sense of purpose something which also wavered and rocked in the glare of such stark sorrow. One such example came on a day-visit to an out-reach village six miles from Sarajevo. All around the hills of this great city lie legions of white crosses – far more recent than those we see lining the fields of World War Two memorial sites. In fact, they are being added to almost daily because bodies are still being dug up and identified. This is part of an ongoing government pledge to dig up bodies, take them to special identification units where the remains of the conflict’s lost deceased are established and their families duly informed.
As if to emphasize the presence of this still-current process, a beautiful dark-haired woman I treated on an outreach day had been informed the day before that the bodies of her son and husband, both murdered in the massacre of Sebrinska had been identified. At last the long wait, for Kadira, now in her early forties, was over and she could bury them and release over a decade’s worth of pent-up grief and anger.
She wept as I treated her and smiling afterwards, thanked me, telling me the Reiki helped her release so much emotion. In fact during my stay she came to me for three further treatments and with the little money she had, she gave me a pair of Bosnian slippers as a mark of her thanks. Before I left she asked to be photographed with me and we both have copies to this day.
Those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, grief, shrapnel embedded in their bodies, arms and legs missing and so much more besides, still make up the fabric of current-day Sarajevo and the surrounding area.
Just before I left I heard of a farmer who had lost his daughter to a landmine in one of his fields as she was tending the sheep two days previously. Landmines still litter the region – they’re in the hills, gardens, even cemeteries and this girl’s death was all the more tragic as both father and daughter had survived internment in one of the concentration camps set up during the city’s siege. Her senseless death served as a powerful reminder that the forgotten victims of this region’s conflict still need our compassion and support despite not making headline news.
* To find out more about Helping Hands Network go to www.helpinghands.org, 01885 410 620
I hope this wasn’t too long for you.
Love Jenny x