Stories of Kindness from Around the World

Pano's Basement in Bosnia


--by hopeful, posted Aug 19, 2008
It was the early 1990s.  During the bleak years of the Bosnian war, the Serbian Army surrounded the city seeking it's surrender and the expulsion of all non-Serbians.  The residents, with a minimal volunteer and civilian militia, were unorganized but mounted a spectacularly brave defense. 

From around the world, many people converged to help them.  It was an almost magnetic pull to serve a valiant and vulnerable expression of our human experience.  I was one amongst those who came.

Fueled by Hemingway and feeling much like the Spanish Civil War, international brigade volunteers were driving ambulances around town.  And yet it was resident foreigners who were causing the most distress in their hurry to leave the besieged city.  The strong passports allowed most to escape the darkest days, and to sojourn on the Dalmation coast filling their memoirs with a few notes, before going home.

A few of us, though, stayed during the siege.  Most were brilliant and brave, some were plain stupid risk-takers.

Soon Serbs blockaded the city and locked it up for complete annihilation.  Targeted bombings and indiscriminate shelling campaigns of mosques, synagogues and non-Christian faith buildings created much of the rubble.  Residents were left without a way to commune and without even the comfort of shared worship and faith.

Morale was very low, but the philharmonic playing in the streets helped.  Serbian shelling of the marketplace stopped that practice too.  To top it off, the snipers were killing civilians with a preference for beautiful young women.  The city was bleak and the lack of response from the international community provided little hope.  Mass murders of surrendered civilians only compounded the suffering of weak and exhausted residents.

And then a group of Western volunteers assembled to do something.  Because something had to be done.

We got together, and noodled over it for a while but there was no consensus.  Nobody wanted the responsibility that comes with deviant action.

Then, one of us took a stance.  A bold stance.

Pano Kroko, a young American working with Medicins San Frontieres, rented an old central city basement and put a bond in to buy the place in case the city fell.  Rumors held that this basement had been used as a bank vault in the past, and hence was bombproof.

Initially, his ideas seemed far too radical for the rest of us.  So we busied ourselves with the usual -- compiling reports, counting the dead, spreading the little goodwill left in the coffers of the UN.  Yet, Pano kept at it like a busy social engineer.  His hope was to turn this big, cold basement into a safe place for community.  A multi-faith community, no less.

After single-handedly laboring to turn this bank vault into a haven for inner worship, Pano first offered it to a Muslim merchant and city center community for use.  Fearfully, they rejected it.

Just as good seems to attract good, an illuminated, white-bearded Mufti came up to Pano. "I heard about your offer in the market.   I'd like to lead the noon prayers and the Salah there."  It was a big risk, certainly for Pano but also for Faroz Mufti.  But he took it.  And thirty of his bazaar friends joined, and invited others to join.  Soon, this spiritual leader was leading prayers every Friday in the cold basement of a bank vault.

Difficult times demand difficult action.  Mufti and Pano became friends and worked together to improve the space with floor coverings and paint.

But Pano didn't stop there.  He extended an invitation to a Jewish Rabbi.  Surprisingly, the Rabbi agreed to use the space for Saturday prayers. (And it was a good thing it was Saturdays because night curfew would have prevented Mincha prayers and Sabbath on Fridays).

Each group felt like they had exclusive use of the bomb vault for religious services, but the story got even better when Pano invited a Christian priest to preach Sunday service in the comfort and safety of this space.  Tragically, in retaliation for the destruction of their mosques, Muslim fighters had blown up the local ancient Christian church with dynamite. So the Christian priest also sought safety for his flock and found a perfect haven in Pano's basement.

It was only after this spontaneous, clandestine inter-faith center, had been in existence for a few weeks, that Pano decided to make a bold, public statement to all residents who were using the basement:

"This is your space.  You can do with it what you like, in safety and comfort.  I will guarantee your being here in peace.  I will guarantee this with my life, if need be.  But you have to guarantee me that you will tolerate the faithful people of the book who come here to pray too, in different ways.  You are leaves of the same tree of humanity and since you have found here, safety and comfort these last weeks, please continue to do so from now on knowing that by simply being here and worshiping freely, you are the first peace workers in the midst of chaos."

He got up and simply told them brazenly, maybe foolishly, that they could coexist.
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Readers Comments

ed-hardy wrote: As a user i would like to give my humble thanks for your contributions and hope that the personal reasons are of the good
variety. Thanks for your sharing. Ed Hardy
makethemsmile wrote: Skongoose,that was very bad. I'm a christian also but I can't say the word or even write what you kept in front of 'muslim' in your comment. You are suppose to love and pray for them not cause more trouble by your words. Please try and accept that they exist and love them,your love can even change them.thank. It was very bold of Pano, God will continually favour him.
Stuart Harris wrote: Is there no monitoring on this site? How on earth is this negative attitude helpful in terms of what is surely the spirit and purpose of this site?
Skongoose wrote: I don't like Muslims!
lovebug wrote: God bless you Hopeful, I also pray that we could coexist. But I have looked, however briefly, at history. I have not been able to see this, but that is only as far as I can see. I could have missed it. Maybe, next time. I can always be hopeful.
irongrace wrote: you were very courageous in one word WOW
Mangala wrote: So good that there are courageus persons!
Especially so in the many wars that have ravaged in the former Jugoslavia. Makes me think how much is lost for good as to
an idyllic small town called Dubrovnik in Jugoslavia which I visited at the age of twenty. Well, this melancholical musing may not be the right thing to do on this site. But, where there is light there is also darkness.

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