April 19, 1996
By Indradyumna Swami
Although we had taken rest at 1:00 a.m., we rose at 3:30 a.m. to begin the six-hour drive to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. We left the Split temple in a caravan of two vans and four cars, with a total of thirty-two devotees. Heading south along the coast, we passed many resorts partially destroyed by the war.
Just before the Croatia-Bosnia border we stopped briefly. A Croatian soldier walked up to our car, rifle in hand, and put his head in the window. I was a bit alarmed as he engaged in an emotional conversation with Lucas, our devotee driver. The soldier seemed disappointed by what he heard and eventually shook his head and left.
I asked what the soldier had asked about, and Lucas said he had wanted to know the whereabouts of his friend, a devotee who had fought alongside him on the battlefield and had helped him by speaking Krsna-conscious philosophy.
As we entered Bosnia, the reality of war was revealed. We often saw three or four villages in a row destroyed and abandoned, with only a ghostly silence remaining. Troops from IFOR, the international peacekeeping force that has replaced NATO, are a common sight in the populated villages. A devotee can get a smile from people in most parts of the world, but here the death and destruction are all too obvious. It was very sobering for us as the miseries of material existence about which Krsna speaks repeatedly in the sastras became manifest.
Lucas, a middle-aged man who served in the Croatian Army as a major, pointed out positions where Serbian gunners had been only weeks before. He was able to determine how far their artillery could fire and what damage it would have done. Such knowledge came easily to Lucas, as if a sixth sense, and I understood how he had survived.
He told me that during the war he constantly prayed to God and felt that his prayers had led him to Krsna consciousness. I thought of Krsna’s statement in Bhagavad-gitathat four kinds of men approach Him: the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.
Lucas and I were close because he had saved my life several months ago when I visited Croatia for the first time. We were on Harinama in central Zagreb when a crazed soldier pulled out a pistol to shoot me during my lecture. Pointing it directly at my face, he screamed he wanted to kill the “bishop” because God had not saved his family.
We later learned that the soldier’s wife and six children had been killed by Serbian forces a week earlier. He had lost all reason and was simply wandering the streets, happening upon our Harinama in his army fatigues. Having had to deal with men in similar states of consciousness during the war, Lucas approached the soldier and began speaking to him in a calm manner. Gradually he convinced the man he shouldn’t kill me, and finally the soldier burst into tears, put his gun away, and walked off.
After passing through mountains and over specially erected bridges, we reached Mostar. I had been there when traveling through Europe as a young man of 19, just before I joined Krsna consciousness. I remembered Mostar as a beautiful little town with a quaint 13th- century bridge spanning a sparkling river. But the town we entered bore no resemblance to the one I had visited years ago.
Literally every house, apartment, shop, and building was riddled with bullets and shrapnel. Many had gaping holes in the sides, and we could see inside as people conducted their daily affairs. Buildings had been gutted by fires, and there were demolished vehicles strewn everywhere. The people went about their lives stepping over mangled steel or concrete and walking through bombed-out buildings. The damage was so extensive I imagined it would be many years before the town could be rebuilt.
However, nothing could have prepared us for what was waiting in Sarajevo, just two hours further up in the mountains. As we approached from the west, we did not see a single building in the suburbs of the city that was untouched by the war. The same scenario continued as we drove into and through Sarajevo. We all stared in amazement, contemplating how an entire city had been ravaged.
One of the most startling things was that there were graves everywhere. Fifty thousand people had died during the fighting, and because they were surrounded, the local population had to bury their dead within the city limits. Thus there were graves in every available space. Most parks and gardens had become graveyards. Even patches of land between two buildings served as cemeteries for two or three bodies, or a single grave was marked with a cross or a Muslim tombstone on a grassy intersection.
Eventually we arrived at the small Sarajevo temple in the Muslim sector of the city. The fifteen local devotees greeted us with a kirtana, which seemed a cheerful contrast to the destruction around us. As I got out of the car, I saw that the temple was also riddled by bullets and shrapnel.
As we entered the temple I asked about two matajis, Jahnukanyaka dasi and Hamsahina dasi, who lived alone here through the height of the war from April 1992 to July 1994.
When Bosnia declared its independence from the Yugoslav Federation in 1992, Serbia immediately laid siege to Sarajevo, and the citizens were unable to leave. Most of them remained indoors to shield themselves from the relentless mortar attacks that rained indiscriminately upon them. However, Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina ventured outside daily to distribute books and prasadam door to door or to the few souls on the street who were braving the shelling and sniper fire.
The temple became a shelter for refugees from the hills, who were driven from their homes by the advancing armies. To live outside meant certain death, so throughout Sarajevo people with homes or apartments gave shelter to others less fortunate. Several families came to the temple seeking shelter, and fifteen people actually lived in the temple room throughout the siege. They always rose early so that Jahnukanyaka, Hamsahina, and the few congregational devotees who risked coming to the temple could have a morning program. The refugees also shared the prasadam that the devotees took daily.
Getting food and water was not easy, because water, gas, and electricity had been cut off. Every day, Jahnukanyaka or Hamsahina had to risk walking to areas of the city where water was available (either from an open pipe or a spring), and much of their time was spent fetching water or food.
Jahnukanyaka later told me that for her and Hamsahina, obtaining water was a necessity—while others remained soiled and dirty throughout the siege, she and Hamsahina always bathed daily, wore fresh saris, and kept the temple spotlessly clean. One man told them that compared with the dirty appearance of most Sarajevans, they looked like angels living in hell.
Many people starved in Sarajevo, but by Krsna’s mercy, Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina had no shortage of food. At first they begged for foodstuffs, but one day they heard that city officials were meeting relief organizations to ration the limited food supplies that were being allowed into the city in UN convoys. Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina went to the meeting, pleading that they were Hare Krsna devotees wanting to distribute food. They had little chance of gaining support for their activities and were told the food would be given to institutions such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.
But the next day, one of the officials, who was sympathetic to them, arranged for a ton of food for prasadam distribution. However, Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina had to pick it up themselves and transport it to the temple. Jahnukanyaka wondered how, with no vehicle, two small matajis could accomplish such a task.
She decided to visit the local Bosnian Army base and somehow got in to see the commanding officer. She convinced him to give her a driver and one of his trucks to ferry the food from the UN depot to the temple on the other side of the city.
In order to ration the food for distribution, Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina ate sparingly. Each day they would bake cookies or bread and go to hospitals, schools, and refugee centers to distribute prasadam. They would even go to the front lines 300 meters outside Sarajevo. Bosnian soldiers were amazed to see two women in saris with cakes and cookies approaching them in their foxholes. Naive about the reality of war, Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina often thus exposed themselves to enemy fire and on more than one occasion had to be pulled down to avoid the bullets. In any event, Krsna protected them in their service.
The most amazing thing was that they also distributed Srila Prabhupada’s books. A large supply of books had arrived in Sarajevo for the Yugoslavian yatra just days before the fighting began, but it had not been possible to deliver them to the temples. The problem was that they were being stored in a house occupied by people unfriendly to the devotees. Worse still, when Jahnukanyaka visited the house, she was shocked to see the books being used to fuel fires. When she pleaded with the inhabitants not to do that, they ordered her away at gunpoint.
Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina, like all ISKCON devotees throughout the world, wanted to participate in the December book-distribution marathon, so Jahnukanyaka went back to the base where the officer had helped her transport the UN supplies. She again begged for help, this time to rescue Srila Prabhupada’s books.
The officer submitted to her purity and determination, and sent a number of soldiers in armed personnel carriers to get the books. Within hours the entire shipment was safe in the temple compound. Putting their lives at risk from snipers, Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina went out daily to distribute the books, keeping aside the money owed from the sales. Even in the hardest times, when they lacked the bare necessities of life, they never used the money, and when the war was over, they sent the entire amount, equivalent to 10,000 DM, to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Sweden.
Often their lives were threatened by soldiers, but Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina were determined and undaunted in their desire to preach. Although it was sometimes possible to flee to the Croatian safe zone under cover of the UN convoys or, if one had to, through the sewer system, Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina always refused. They had their service, and they were in Sarajevo to stay, because they had faith in guru and Krsna.
At the time they were both uninitiated devotees. Only after the war were they able to travel to Croatia to take initiation from H.H. Harikesa Maharaja by letter. There are so many stories of their courage and bravery, so many things to say about their devotion. Thus upon entering the temple, I looked eagerly for Jahnukanyaka and Hamsahina.
But everything happened so quickly, and I soon found myself receiving guru-puja on the vyasasana. I lowered my head, thinking that somewhere in the crowd of devotees who were worshiping me were the two matajis who were worthy of my respect. I waited patiently for the opportunity to speak and glorify the devotees of Sarajevo. When the arati finished and that moment came, I spoke to the fifty devotees present, my voice filled with emotion.
“Thank you very much for the wonderful reception,” I said. “Traditionally, sannyasis travel from village to village and town to town giving association and inspiring people in Krsna consciousness. But knowing the austerities you have all undergone in your preaching here, we have come to be inspired by your association.
“No doubt, Srila Prabhupada is very, very pleased with you. I’ve just been reading My Glorious Master, a book written by one of my godbrothers, Bhurijana Prabhu. Therein he relates how Srila Prabhupada was pleased with even the most insignificant service rendered by a sincere disciple. Considering the great service you have all done here, I’m sure that from his transcendental position Srila Prabhupada is showering blessings upon all of you.
“We have also come because we know that preaching is especially good in situations where people are in distress. For the time being, no one in this city is in any illusion about the real nature of the material world, how it is a miserable place of birth and death. Such people are excellent candidates for Krsna consciousness.
“We should take advantage of this moment and plant the seed of devotional service in their fertile hearts. If you plant an ordinary seed in poor soil it won’t grow, but if the same seed is planted in fertile soil, it grows very quickly. Now is the time to plant the seed of Krsna consciousness in the fertile hearts of the people of Sarajevo, who are weary of war and destruction and are looking for relief.
“Because of your efforts in distributing books and prasadam there is some semblance of peace in this city at the moment. Others may say that peace has come as a result of the arrangements of politicians. But we know that it has come, at least in part, because of your efforts. Srila Prabhupada once said, ‘If just one percent of the world becomes Krsna conscious, the whole face of the earth will change for the better.’
“He also said, ‘If it were not for the saìkirtana movement of Sri Caitanya Mahäprabhu, we could not even imagine how horrible this planet would be at the moment.’ So please go on with your valiant efforts and may Lord Caitanya bless you.”
After my talk, we prepared to go on Harinama saìkirtana, the first time in Sarajevo since the war began. The devotees received permission for the Harinama from the local police, who also agreed to send an escort of two or three policemen in case there was any trouble. But the devotees didn’t expect any trouble because of our good relations with the local Muslims.
We were so excited about going out, we even decided to skip lunch prasadam and honor it when we returned later in the afternoon. I busied myself assembling the devotees, asking them to gather all the colorful flags and banners they had made especially for the occasion. Within a short time, Sri Prahlada was leading sixty of us in a blissful kirtana along the street. Little did we know that we were walking right into the lion’s den.
From the beginning, I sensed that something was wrong. I kept turning to the local devotees. “Are you sure it’s safe to chant in public like this?” I would ask. “Won’t the Muslims take offense at our big kirtana party coming through their part of town?”
They kept reassuring me. “Maharaja,” they would say, “don’t worry.
They love us. We distributed prasadam here throughout the war.”
But in spite of their many wonderful qualities, the Sarajevo devotees are young and naive. None of them had told me that it was a holy day for Muslims, and we were en route towards the largest mosque in Sarajevo just as the prayer hour was finishing. The war was over, but not the feelings of hatred and desire for revenge between the people of the region (the Serbians, the Muslims, and the Croatians), many of whom are fiercely loyal to their traditions. Anything different was bound to provoke them.
Oblivious to all this, we chanted and danced without abate. The kirtan was ecstatic and loud. Some people smiled as we went by, and a few took the cookies we were passing out. But most were cautious. They had been through hell, and the contrast of so many happy people singing and dancing was difficult for them to adjust to. As we weaved our way through the old streets, suddenly the mosque loomed ahead. The moment I saw it I wanted to turn around, but it was too late.
Among the crowd emerging from the mosque, three men in their late twenties saw our procession, and after exchanging a few words among themselves charged towards us, their faces twisted in hate. They ran at full speed and within seconds were upon us. Priyavrata dasa was in front of the Harinama, filming it with his video camera. He didn’t even see what hit him, as the man leading the charge struck him full force in the jaw with a karate kick. Priyavrata spun backwards, his camera flying, and fell on the ground. The three men then plunged into our party, furiously kicking and punching the devotees.
The kirtana stopped, and some devotees fought back. One of the attackers came for me, but I ran towards him swinging my karatalas over my head, and he retreated. To my left I saw three devotees beating back one of the attackers, who fell into a store window, smashing it to pieces. Although we bloodied them, I noticed they seemed unfazed. Nevertheless, they were outnumbered, and they retreated.
The devotees stood immobile in the middle of the street. We sang the Nrsimha prayers, afraid to take another step forward, yet at the same time unsure whether to remain. I looked around and noticed that a number of our party had bloody noses and cut faces. The matajis were screaming, “Nrsimha! Nrsimha! Nrsimha!”
Within minutes, a large group of tough-looking men had joined the original three attackers. As I studied them, I had a feeling that they weren’t simply young hooligans. We later learned that they were all soldiers, just back from the war with the Serbians. They were hardened killers.
A woman reporter from a local television station was filming the scene when suddenly one of the men took her camera and smashed it on the ground. On that cue, about ten of them came rushing towards us. It was a well-planned operation. As they charged at the center of our party, we ran to either side of the street. The attackers then turned and cornered and attacked the devotees, starting with those who looked the strongest.
The first to go down was Nrsimha Kavaca dasa. One of the thugs, a former soldier who had once interrogated Janukanyaka and had also threatened to kill her, shoved a pistol into Nrsimha Kavaca’s face, threatening to pull the trigger. Instead he smashed the butt over his head. Nrsimha Kavaca fell to the ground unconscious, blood gushing from the wound. As he lay in a pool of blood, four men began kicking him in the ribs.
In the midst of the chaos, as each devotee was fighting for his life, Thakura Bhaktivinoda dasa tried to rescue Nrsimha Kavaca, but he was overpowered by several men, one of whom pulled a knife and stabbed him in the back. I stopped fighting to scream to the matajis to run away. Turning to my right, I saw four men overpower Bhakta Colin and stab him. One of our police escorts tried to stop the fighting, but was slapped in the face by the attackers and thrown to the side of the road.
There was blood everywhere on the street, and I wasn’t sure where all the devotees were. Nrsimha Kavaca was still unconscious on the ground twenty meters in front of us, but to try to rescue him would mean certain death. We started backing down the street, but the men followed us screaming, “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! “ [‘God is great!’] When they stabbed a local bhakta we broke into a run, carrying the wounded devotees.
As we approached a main road, two traffic policemen saw us and stopped a passing car. They put Thakura Bhaktivinoda and the bhakta into the back seat and told the driver to take them to a hospital. While Thakura Bhaktivinoda was getting in, I was shocked to see that the back of his kurta was drenched in blood. I then asked the policemen if they would rescue Nrsimha Kavaca.
When we returned to the temple, which was in total confusion, I tried to account for the devotees who had been on the Harinama. We called all the hospitals in Sarajevo asking if any devotees had been admitted. Within an hour we had located them. A store owner had pulled Nrsimha Kavaca off the street into his shop, and then driven him to the hospital, the same hospital where Thakura Bhaktivinoda and Bhakta Edvin, a local bhakta, had been taken. Meanwhile the driver of a car had stopped and taken Bhakta Colin to a different hospital.
I left immediately to visit our injured comrades. Some devotees warned me not to go to the hospitals in devotional clothes, as the men who attacked us could still be roaming the streets. But no one had any pants or shirts, and time was short. I didn’t know if my disciple Nrsimha Kavaca was dead or alive.
As I approached the first hospital, I was shocked to see its condition. Like most of the buildings in Sarajevo, it was partially destroyed. Sections were bombed out. The entire building was riddled by machine-gun bullets, and many parts were blackened by fire.
When my devotee driver and I arrived at the main gate, we were refused entry. The authorities had stopped allowing visitors long ago, because the “visitors” were often soldiers dressed as civilians trying to enter the hospital to kill their enemies. But eventually they agreed to let me in, mainly because they trusted the fact that I am a monk.
When I reached the main floor of the hospital, I was introduced to Dr. Nakash, the head surgeon. He was a large man with a big mustache, and his eyes had deep black circles under them. Dr. Nakash is known internationally for his work during the war, when he performed operations for days at a time without sleep or food, often when the hospital was under artillery and rocket attack. His work was complicated by the fact that there was no electricity or water, and during the entire period he operated without anesthesia.
“In the name of Allah,” he said with arms raised, “please forgive my people for what they have done to all of you. The people of Sarajevo are with you. Only some maddened soldiers have done this.”
As we walked to the room where Bhakta Colin was lying, Dr. Nakash surprised me. “I have your Bhagavad-gita,” he said. “It helped me during the war.”
Bhakta Colin was asleep, his chest and stomach covered with bandages. He awoke as we approached the bed, grimacing in pain. Dr. Nakash turned to me. “Sorry,” he said. “We don’t have any painkillers here.”
I spoke briefly with Bhakta Colin, who told me he wanted to be discharged as soon as possible. As I was leaving, Dr. Nakash told me Bhakta Colin’s lungs were slowly filling with blood, and that he was going to have to operate within an hour. He said Bhakta Colin would be in the hospital for several weeks.
My driver and I made our way to the next hospital, which was in an even worse condition. There I found Nrsimha Kavaca on the operating table with doctors stitching up his head. One of the doctors pushed me out of the operating room and told me to wait outside.
Later the doctor spoke to me. “His condition could be serious,” he said. “He has no memory of anything more recent than five days ago.”
I found Thakura Bhaktivinoda in another operating room. His wife, my disciple Syama Gauri dasi, was crying outside. She told me the doctors were uncertain about the extent of her husband’s wounds and that he would also have to stay in the hospital.
Bhakta Edvin was about to go into surgery. As I waited in the hall to speak to the surgeon, my eye caught two men approaching from the other direction. They appeared to be Muslims, and were looking at me with the same look of hate we’d experienced this morning. As I braced myself for trouble, they walked up to me and one of them spat in my face. With that they left, and I looked for a washroom to clean myself.
At the temple, I gathered the devotees and we discussed what to do next. Some felt that the men would come to the temple and attack us again. “After all,” said a devotee, “this is a Muslim neighborhood, and they can do what they want.”
But I replied that the police knew what had happened and were coming to the temple to get our report of the incident. They had also promised to guard the temple twenty-four hours a day for the next few days.
As we were ending our discussion, the police arrived. They had somehow obtained the video from the photographer whose camera had been smashed, and they wanted us to watch it to identify the attackers. As the video began many devotees started crying, having to relive those moments so soon after the event. One by one the police asked us to identify the attackers. It wasn’t difficult. You don’t easily forget someone who has tried to kill you.
The Police Chief of Sarajevo later apologized for the incident on national television, saying it did not represent the feelings of most Sarajevans towards the Krsna-consciousness movement.