Washington Post, Op-ed

 

Wednesday, January 12, 1994

 

In Bosnia, a Hero Abandoned

by Edward Serotta

 

SARAJEVO-   Zeyneba Hardaga is a 77-year-old Muslim woman living in Sarajevo. She has a letter from the Foreign Ministry of Israel asking all those who come in contact to aid her in any way possible.  The Jewish community sends a doctor several comes a week to look in on her. The American Joint Distribution Committee, which aids Jewish communities in need throughout the world, makes sure her family recieves food packages regularly. And recently a Jewish woman in her neighborhood knitted a bright pink sweater for her 10-year-old granddaughter.

 

During World War II, Mrs. Hargada learned a costly lesson from her father. "You do not abandon your friends,” he told her. This was his first explanation why the family was hiding and protecting a Jewish man during the Nazi occupation of Bosnia. Later he gambled with his own life to bring food and clothing to imprisoned Jewish men. Someone informed on him, and the Zeyneba's father lost his gamble and his life. The Jewish friend that they saved, Josef Kabilo, moved to Israel after the war and tirelessly championed to have the Hardaga family recognized for their bravery.

 

In 1985 Zeyneba and her sister were flown to Israel, and at Yad Vashem, the Museum of the Holocaust, they became the first Muslims to receive a Righteous Gentile Award, the honor given to those non-Jews who heroically rescued Jews from certain death. Her sister has since died, and Zeyneba now shares an unheated seventh-floor apartment with her daughter Aida, son-in-law Branumir, and granddaughter Stella.

 

 As Zeyneba has but one leg, her life is reduced to the one room where the family keeps a wood-burning stove. Her home lies behind Serb lines, and when she fled from it, she brought little other than those items she holds most dear: her Righteous Gentile medal from Israel, a scrapbook of pictures from that trip and the citation from the Museum of the Holocaust. She has held this paper and looked at it so many times that its edges are frayed and brown, nevermind that she cannot read the French or Hebrew.

 

Her daughter Aida faces the pitch-black stairwell several times a day, and does so alone, as Branumir suffers from multiple sclerosis. She lugs sacks of wood, containers of water and boxes of food. One day last month a mortar shell landed just in front of her apartment house, killing five people and wounding ten. Her kitchen window faces the Serb-held mountainside. Snipers  take an occasional pot shot,  and one window in her kitchen was blown out. Two bullet holes decorate the walls.

 

With Zeyneba in failing health, the Jewish community's doctor, Srdjan Gornjakovic, visits as often as he can. When he was concerned enough to take her to the hospital, he did just that, carrying her in his arms down seven flights of stairs while Stela, the granddaughter, and Aida led the way with candles. Sometimes he spends the night in the next room, so afraid is Zeyneba when the nightly shellings start. Last week the shelling was so intense that Srdjan couldn't make it over, and Aida could not fetch wood, water, or food.

 

The Joint Distribution Committee's president, Milton Wolf monitors Zeyneba's condition by radio every week from New York. "Mrs. Hardaga will die if she remains there." he said. She has an invitation from the Israeli government to go and live in that country, but for reasons no one understands, her family does not. And, adds Wolf,  "as far as we know, the Bosnian government has not okayed their names for the next convoy out of Sarajevo, but we're trying like hell."

 

Wolf sighs. "I wonder if anyone has thought of the obvious," he said.  "While it's nice to commemorate a hero, the problem is she is alive now, and the woman who would not abandon the Jews should not be expected to abandon her family.  Not in Sarajevo."

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