Drew Christiansen

Our small caravan drove into Slavonski Brod, a war-torn Croatian city on the banks of the Sava River. It was July 1992, just after the first cessation of conflict in Croatia and at the beginning of the war in Bosnia. From the outskirts of the city, we could see heavy, black smoke rising from downtown. Farther on, it became clear that the bridge tying Slavonski Brod to its sister-city Bosanksi Brod had been seriously damaged. Downtown a stream of men was marching away double-time. They were Bosnians who had fled the new war in their country and were being kept in the city’s sports stadium until they could be repatriated to serve in Bosnia’s fledgling army. That afternoon the Serbs had bombarded the stadium with rocket and artillery fire. Thirty had been killed.

 

The leader of our international mission—Americans, Austrians and Croatians—was Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, then the U.S.C.C.’s special representative to the former Yugoslavia. From early in the morning we had been on the road touring the ravages of Croatia’s recent war, a team from Croatian TV in tow.

By mid-afternoon, Archbishop McCarrick was growing restless. He wanted to visit the Bosnian border. The day before, Croatian and U.N. refugee officials had told us there were 10,000 refugees stranded at the border; but the chief of the European monitors, Lord McDonald, baldfacedly denied it. The European Union ploy was clear: Avoid acknowledging the problem and there would be no problem to solve. McCarrick wanted to find the truth, and so he pressed Msgr. Vladimir Stankewicz and his Croatian staff to take us to Slavonski Brod.

But we found that there was one more refugee camp to visit, another ruined town to see, more television footage to be taken. The day grew late, but the archbishop insisted we had to go on.

When we arrived at the local parish, the pastor wanted us to move on, pleading the city was under attack. (Actually the Serb gunners had taken a break for dinner.) The archbishop demurred. We needed a rest stop, he said. Over slivovitz and Turkish coffee we learned that one of the auxiliary bishops accompanying us was the chief chaplain of the Croatian Army and had papers that could take us across the damaged bridge to Bosanski Brod on the Bosnian side.

So we found ourselves across the river in a throng of Bosnian refugees, many burned out of their homes that very day. There were more than 7,000 people waiting to cross into Croatia and out of the war zone. After 45 minutes our translators heard some in the crowd talking about taking us hostage to force their way across the border bridge. We got into our vans and crossed the river. As we prepared to leave Slavonski Brod, the rocket and artillery fire resumed, and we drove rapidly out of the city with only our parking lights burning.

The next day Archbishop McCarrick told Croatian TV news what we had witnessed in Bosanski Brod and denounced the E.U. monitors for their unwillingness to tell the truth. Back in the United States, the U.S.C.C. united with the National Council of Churches and with Orthodox and Jewish groups in appealing for refugee aid for the coming winter.

On July 7, Theodore McCarrick, now cardinal archbishop of Washington, will mark his 75th birthday. Over the years, I have also traveled with the cardinal to Guatemala, Mexico, Lebanon, the Holy Land and Rome. That is a very small part of the list of places to which he has traveled to aid the church in need, to be at the side of refugees, to argue for religious freedom and to plead for peace from belligerents. Around the world, there are countless people who have reason to give thanks to God for the life of this heroic American archbishop. I am happy to be in their number.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America.

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