"So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead."

James 2:17

Guca Gora


by David J. Sheehan

In June of this year, thirteen Texans joined twenty-two other Americans to go to Bosnia to rebuild homes destroyed in the war. I was privileged to be one of these volunteers. Here is our story and the story of a small village, Guca Gora, in central Bosnia.

In the spring, I received an invitation from Dallas-based St. David's Relief Foundation to participate in its "Bosnia Work Camp and Pilgrimage" program. This program allows volunteers like myself to participate in the rebuilding of Bosnia while going on a religious pilgrimage. Our first week would be spent in the Bosnian countryside, roofing and rebuilding homes; then, we would spend the second week in Medjugorje, a site of religious pilgrimage. I had gone last year and found the experience quite rewarding in mixing work and prayer together. This year, I had a premonition that we would have a couple more thorns thrown into our path. Peg, my wife of twenty-three years, supported my decision to go again and, in the process, told me how Bosnia made me a more understanding husband. Upon reading this, the women of America may begin chartering planes for their husbands!

On Saturday, June 3rd, we flew from DFW airport to Newark, gathered the rest of the flock, including our "gray wolves", the Franciscan Friars from the Bronx, and proceeded to Sarajevo by way of Zurich. When one hovers over Sarajevo, the beauty of the countryside with its mountains and rivers is enchanting. From the sky, Sarajevo looks like a fairy tale kingdom. It is only when you reach the ground that the reality of the war and the siege that the city endured sets in. The city, which hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, was once the gem of Bosnia, and it will be a beautiful city again. For now, it is repairing itself from the scars of war. Whether it can regain its pre-war charm, where Serbs, Muslims, and Croats moved freely about in its urbane setting, is another question.

A massive graveyard on the side of one of the mountains will be a testament until the end of time to the courage of these people in defending their home against the Bosnian Serb army. Things at the airport are better than they were last year, but are still somewhat crude. One man watches our baggage as it is unloaded from the plane and placed on a manual conveyor to be x-rayed. We are soon on a coach bus. It is Sunday afternoon, June 4th, and we go to Mass in a nearby Franciscan monastery; then we are on the road to Guca Gora.

Late at night, we reach the village and get off the bus near the Church and Monastery of St. Francis. The villagers are there to meet us in force. Heck, with the Americans coming to town, who needs to watch TV? A youngster named Ivan comes up and greets me, " How can I help you?" I learn later in the week that the kids are taught English when they are about 10 years old. We learn to have the kids be our translators when we wish to talk to their parents or other villagers. In the process, we teach the kids a little bit of Texan.

The language used in this part of Bosnia is a hybrid language most similar to Croatian with some local idioms. I will simply refer to it as Bosnian Croatian as it is common to both the Bosniak Muslims and the local Croatians. Our leader and the founder of St. David's, Mr. Jeff Reed, begins parceling us out to the villagers. I am in the last group of ten men. We are quartered in three rooms with one bath. When I look at our cots, I remark to my fellow comrades-in-shingling, "Lads, I think we have just joined the Bosnian Army!" After a long airplane ride, the cots are quite welcome, thank you.

Monday morning, our hosts feed us a breakfast of bread, cheese, coffee, and soup with a little meat. The diet here is more balanced and less centered on meat as the main course. The coffee is Espresso and, though served in small cups, serves quite a wakeup call. All the food is fresh and tasty. We joke about who snores the loudest. We are all ages with the oldest volunteer being 70 and the youngest being 18. There is quite a bit of intergenerational kidding. Then we proceed down to our meeting place, the Church and Monastery of St. Francis.

While our bosses tour the village, some of us do a Holy Hour in church while others pick up a soccer game. In the church, I noticed that the mural above the main altar had been vandalized. On a side altar, a Pieta-type painting has the faces of Jesus and His Mother scrapped away. I soon learn that this sacrilege took place during the war with the damage done by Mujahedin, extremist Muslim militiamen.

In the afternoon, we get our assignments. Materials have already been delivered to the job sites; all that is required is workers. The local pastor has selected the houses to be worked upon and we begin separating into work teams. One team will work on a massive house across from the church. It is at the crossroads of the town and was one of those houses that has had multiple additions at various eras of its life. I nicknamed it "The Guca Gora Holiday Inn" because of its size and location. Because of its multi-faceted connecting roofs, it will absorb much effort on the part of the volunteers. We notice some graffiti on the side of this building and soon learn its meaning: this building was the headquarters of Mujahedin during the war.

Guca Gora is a Croat village that sits on a main road in central Bosnia. It is a Catholic enclave surrounded by Muslim villages. When the war started in 1992, Muslims were driven south from northern Bosnia by the Bosnian Serb Army. In 1993, the tenuous alliance between Muslims and Croats broke apart in central Bosnia due to population pressures, frustration with the arms embargo, and outside influences. Mosques and churches were destroyed as the madness of ethnic cleansing took its toll. Even today, normal life in the village has not yet resumed, for there is no mayor and the local priest must care for the souls of his flock and perform civic duties as well. Of the original 90 families, 30 have not yet returned to the village either out of fear or for lack of resources to rebuild their homes. There is still tension between the Muslims and the Croats. Yet, local politics is not our trade. We are here to roof houses. Houses become homes. Homes become a community, and communities become nations. The house does not ask its occupants if they are Serb, Croat, or Muslim. The house only asks to become a home.

My team must work on a house that has an old, leaky tile roof. We first remove the ceramic tiles carefully as each one is worth about one U.S. dollar. Money in this country is tight and nothing is left to waste. Then, an examination of the roof reveals that we must fix the rafters to get the roof even. Working with the locals, we form a joint Croatian-American team with the interpreters being put to full use.

Since our local interpreters do not know roofing, we must first explain to them in English what we are trying to accomplish in a simple way. Once they understand what we are trying to do, they can communicate this to the locals. Even the simplest task must be communicated in this fashion with us Americans trying to pick up a little bit of the Bosnian Croat language along the way. Anything that will help to cross the language divide is employed: arms; legs; pictures; and pantomime. When I return home, it takes me weeks to stop talking with my hands.

We start the job late Monday afternoon and it takes us until Thursday morning to complete the house. During this time, we have overcome language difficulties, cultural differences, a rainstorm, Texas-like heat, and the nuances of an old house. We also have had quite a bit of fun. The owner is a short man in his late 60s or early 70s who goes around with a cap "California, U.S.A.". His son-in-law is in town this week, visiting from his home in Switzerland. Like many Croats, the young man has had to go abroad to find work, but returns to his roots when he can. The young man kids his father-in-law that if the Russians were working on his house instead of the Americans, the old man would find a Russian cap for the occasion. I do not doubt it; the people of Bosnia are very resourceful!

Thursday afternoon, we are on to our next project: a large home at the end of town. It actually looks like a large barn, as it is three stories high. The rafters are already set. Our immediate task is to find a way to get the plywood out of the interior of the house and place it on the roof without benefit of a ladder. The ladders will come tomorrow as they are being used on another job; for the time being, we must improvise. I hang a picture of Saint Jude, the Patron Saint of Hopeless Cases, on the wall.

On Friday morning, we hit the "Big Barn" with full force. Through an interpreter, I ask the grandma who owns the house to pray for us. She says she will do so on her knees until the job is complete. I reply to her to pray for the time being in a chair; we want to leave ourselves some negotiating room when dealing with God! It is very hot, and we must drink water constantly. The water here comes fresh out of a well in the backyard of the home. Because of the neighboring mountains, there is enough pressure in the ground to force the water up through the spigot without use of electricity, and the water has been naturally purified. (Ozarka, eat your heart out!)

As we continue our work, we hear the Muslim Call to Prayer several times during the day. In response, we also hear the church bells of the Franciscan monastery tolling the Angelus. The war has caused this region to rely more on God. Now, if they would only learn to treat each other as the children of this same God. During the week as I walked along the main road of Guca Gora, I waved to everyone. Some waved back and some ignored me and gripped their steering wheels tighter, including one gentleman driving a Toyota who looked like Rasputin. Some of the Croats asked me why I waved to the Muslims. My response was that I am from Texas and we wave to everyone. The truth of the matter is that we are neutrals and are not to show partiality to any side, but to be a channel of peace and understanding to all sides.

It is near the end of the week and we are struggling to complete the projects before our Sunday morning departure. Along comes the U.S. Cavalry in the form of two of our Muslim friends from northeast Bosnia. These two brothers are great workers and great friends. I have a running joke with one of them that I am looking for a church or a mosque where I can go, pray, and drink pivo (beer). I told him to look for one also. If I find the place first, I will tell him and he will join me. If he finds such a place first, he is to tell me to join him. That way, he and I will end up in the same temple, praying to God and drinking pivo! It is the only way that I know to solve the religion question; give me a merciful God and cold beer!

My Muslim brothers help the volunteers complete the "Holiday Inn", and then they turn their attention to our "Big Barn". Late Saturday night, we are shingling until almost ten o'clock, guiding our hammers by the light of a beautiful Bosnian moon. We have to quit. My friends will complete the job tomorrow in a few hours; their Sabbath is Friday, not Sunday.

Saturday night is bittersweet. The villagers have adopted us as family. Their children hold onto the little Texas flags that I passed out during the week. They will remember us and they will think of the U.S. and of Texas as two sister countries that came to their aid. Everyone thinks of Texas as synonymous with the Wild West, Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp, the O.K. Corral, and Cowboys and Indians. The Texans in our party did nothing to disabuse the locals of this notion.

At the courtyard of the monastery, we have a delicious dinner. I wander to and fro among my comrades with a bottle of rakija, a clear, plum brandy guaranteed to have you howling at the moon after a shot or two. I have a few takers among the older crowd; the young ones are more health conscious. That night, the sugar in the brandy has me wired and I wander the main road of Guca Gora with flashlight in hand guiding our volunteers back to their hosts, whether they need my help or not. Our work in Guca Gora is finished for this year.

Sunday morning, we are at the 9am Mass. There is only one Mass as the church is large enough to hold all the villagers. The pastor, Father Franjo, has set aside reserved seating in the front of the church for us. It makes us all a little self-conscious as our nature has been to try to be as discreet as possible and avoid the "Ugly American" stigma. However, Father has other ideas. He gives a very strong, emotional sermon to his congregation that God has worked through us. That God has shown Himself to be full of mercy, that God does not hold grudges or draw lines between peoples. We hear Father's words through an interpreter, our young Franciscan brother Anthony from Sarajevo. It is quite a humbling experience.

We pack the bus and begin the journey through the village. The Bronx Franciscans from New York who worked and sweated along with us during this week go to each of our work sites and give the house a blessing. The houses have become homes. We say goodbye to our hosts quickly. If we do not leave now, we will stay forever.

I must confess that I use to give the "bring the boys home" speech quite often to any who would listen to me. After looking into the eyes of the children of Bosnia, I cannot give that speech any more. I would simply ask those of our country who want to bring our boys and our resources back home to please reconsider their position. We live in a land of peace, prosperity, and friendship. Whatever problems we have, be they social, racial or economics, they pale in comparison to the problems of Bosnia. The children there are the future. What future will they become? Our part is to be generous to them in a wise manner as God has been generous to us. Perhaps we Americans, who many Europeans consider so naive, will be naive enough to forge a lasting peace in such a beautiful land.


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