Belgrade, Serbia: Friday, July 21,2000: The more I was driven around the city of Belgrade, the more destruction I saw. Many of the buildings were totally gutted from the inside. The United States had used smart bombs launched from 15,000 feet above and guided to penetrate into the building before it exploded with its incendiary payload. The outside of the structure might have looked relatively normal except for the roof being gone, but the inside would be a charred, totally gutted building. I was told that night after night the city of Belgrade was ablaze. Olga said she could stand and watch the incoming rockets fly across the city seeking their targets and entering into the buildings.
The great fear for Olga, as well as other civilians, was that they never knew which rocket had been programmed to hit the building in which they were standing. “Our defense weapons would be fired but would arc across the sky and fall back into the city without reaching a third of the way to the height where the U.S. bombers were flying. It was like the U.S. was playing a game with our city, using it to experiment with their new super-high technique war weapons knowing that we were absolutely helpless to defend our citizens or our city.”
Belgrade city was the capital of the Republic of Serbia, as well as the capital of the entire Federation of Yugoslavia. That sounded a little complicated, and it was. Serbia was a big republic and was much, much larger than the only other republic left in the Federation of Yugoslavia, which was Montenegro. Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo also had been much smaller republics in the Federation of Yugoslavia. But they had all been declared independent, leaving only Serbia and Montenegro still within the Federation of Yugoslavia.
We had previously visited the Minister of Health of the entire Federation of Yugoslavia. But Serbia also had its own Ministry of Health to represent itself as an individual republic. Therefore, when news got out that Project C.U.R.E. was in the city and had met with the Yugoslav Ministry of Health, and when the newspaper article appeared about Project C.U.R.E. working with the Red Cross, the Health Ministry of Serbia also requested to meet with us. We certainly agreed to the meeting. It appeared that the Yugoslav Federal Ministry would be in charge of the international part of getting medical donations into Yugoslavia and the Serbian Health Ministry would oversee the distribution within Serbia. There did not appear to be any conflict in the system but we certainly wanted to meet all the parties to guarantee there would not ever be any confusion or misunderstanding. Thursday, the Serbian Health Ministry contacted Slavka Dreskovic-Jovanavic at the Serbian Unity Congress and said the Minister of Health was out of the city but would request we meet with Dr. Persia Simonovic, the Deputy Minister.
Friday, at 3:00 we met with the Serbian Health Ministry. It was an absolute miracle the way we had been able to meet with all the important officials who had the power to either make our shipping into Yugoslavia a success or a failure. It had been accomplished in such a short period of time and the acceptance of Project C.U.R.E. had been almost overwhelming.
I had only one more business meeting scheduled for Friday. The woman reporter representing the official government newspaper had requested an interview with me through Slavka at the Serbian Unity Congress. It had been set up that I would meet with her at 5:00 p.m.
I had not wanted any publicity while in Yugoslavia. I had just wanted to slip in and slip out of the country quietly. But that hadn’t happened. I knew I was really walking a fine line. The Serbian Unity Congress was an opposition organization to the Milosevic regime. They were not our official hosts but had made a lot of the appointments for us. On the other hand, I had already spent considerable time with cabinet members and representatives of the government. I knew I was tiptoeing through a virtual political minefield and knew the dangers involved in giving an interview for the government newspapers. My only diplomatic hope was to emphasize the position of Project C.U.R.E. as being a humanitarian organization of political neutrality which served many people, many organizations and many governments in 85 different countries around the world. Our specialty was medical help and not politics. Staying focused in the interview on helping people through love and concern and not getting pulled away by any of the reporter’s political questions would be mandatory and perhaps necessary for my life and safety. One slip could be critical.
The people who would have been reading the newspaper would have been people whose city had been bombed and burned by the Americans and they perhaps would have themselves suffered injuries and perhaps experienced death of some of their loved ones. I realized it was very risky for me to even be there, but I was bothered most by having a newspaper article announce to a large segment of the city that an American was even there in their city during those days. Before the interview I prayed God would direct the reporter to ask questions which I could handle with definitive answers of neutrality. If possible, I would like her to even forget to ask the hard questions of politics, bombings and killings.
The reporter had been intrigued with my meeting with the head of the Red Cross. After some easy questions about Project C.U.R.E.’s inception and founding and about its work around the world, she asked why, as an American, I would put myself in harms way to travel to Belgrade, personally. When she lobbed that one to me I knew I could burn up the rest of the day with the answer. The rest of the 40 minutes interview I took to explain why I was the happiest man in the world getting to do what I do. I told stories of Haiti, Africa and Iraq and what God had done in my life to change me from a life of success to a life of significance.
The tape in the reporter’s recorder was about used up when I finished. In the last few minutes she turned to Jim Peters and asked him a few questions about his humanitarian desires for being back in Belgrade. I thanked God on the way out of the office for the way the interview had gone and the fact that however the article might come out I would be safely on my way home before it came out in print!
Olga and Alexander were at the Moskva Hotel when we returned. They wanted us to go to dinner with them at the home of some of their dear friends, Professor Brana Popovic and his wife Olja. Sunday, the doctor and his wife would be leaving Belgrade for Toronto, Ontario, Canada where the professor would be undergoing some radical cancer surgery. They were wonderful and warm people who are highly educated and had a daughter who lived in Boulder, Colorado where she was a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado. The senior professor Popovic was Serbian and had just been dismissed from his University position after many, many years, because of his opposition views against Slobodan Milosevic.
We ate outside in a lovely garden. During the dinner, Alexander and Jim Peters related to the Popovics the incredible and highly unusual meeting we had earlier with the Yugoslav Minister of Health and how he was so moved that he nearly cried. “The story of what God did in your life has not been heard by our friends Brana and Olja Popovic, or by Olga. Please start at the very beginning and tell the entire story. We have never heard anything like it.” I agreed to tell the whole story again.
Dr. Brana Popovic commented at the end, “Thank you for sharing such a strong story with us. I don’t think I have heard such a story before. We are nearly consumed by the thoughts of politics and the need for change and we are terribly frustrated. But you, I believe, have found the answer. We must begin doing what we can to help others instead of being concentrated on political problems in either the Clinton Administration or the Milosevic government. We can do that. That is really the answer for our whole country.”
Next Week: A Crazy Lady and a Hurting World