An Interview with Dr. Edo Jaganjac about his experience with war and helping people

20. 4. 2021

Today, we present you with an interview, which was conducted by supporters of Pomůžu jak můžu. It’s a group of mothers who collect clothes and then sell them so that they can send us the money to support people in Yemen. In the introduction, you will also find one of the reasons that brought ‘our’ mothers to their charity activity.

Our friends and supporters, we would like to share with you one of the reasons for setting up our group Mámy pro Jemen. It was the book Sarajevo Princess by Edo Jaganjac.

We were all very moved by it, and the following meetings with doctor Jaganjac belong to one of the biggest moments of our lives. He is an incredibly kind, good, and humane person. We are very grateful to have him in our lives and that he again had some time for us! We bring you an interview with him and a personal note he gave us. (We could not hold tears.) Thank you, Edo!

Living in a war is an absolutely unimaginable situation for me, one that we only see in movies and books. But what does the person feel? Knowing that you cannot influence it, just survive.

War comes to you. You are suddenly there and there is nothing you can do. Before the war there are certain phenomena, which show us what will happen. I remember that when I read Remarque (Erich Maria Remarque), there were people in the books who were arguing whether the second world war is coming or not. And it seemed unbelievable to me that they were not sure. Now I am convinced that there are hints that point towards it even before it happens. After all, universities do teach about methods how to start a war! Easily.

Where do people get the energy, hope, and strength to live? How do they stay alive mentally, not go crazy, and be able to function?

Your body can surprise you with its incredible stamina, and the deadly danger gives you strength and courage. Of course, people break down all the time or change and adapt, but I don’t hold it against them if they break down. After all, that is also part of human nature.

How to stay normal is a very difficult question. I will answer with a quote from the princess (the book Sarajevo Princess): Can a person get used to war? Yes, of course. I did. I don’t like it, but I did. I adapted to the current conditions, I work and eat and think…But can a person adapt to the war and stay normal? That is a harder question. Is it normal to be nervous in an open space? Or to never sit next to a window? To feel danger as a hunted animal and panic when I am in an unfamiliar part of town and don’t know where there could be a sniper? To lie down when I hear a whistle? Is it normal? No, of course not. I am sure this black legionary that stands in front of me with a machine gun and looks at me suspiciously, feels it differently. Or not? Even he wants to survive, and the legion just pays well. What is normal for him? To kill on command and for money. No ideals or emotions. It is complicated. I got used to the war and became abnormal to survive, but him? He must be abnormal all the time, otherwise he would not be able to do what he is doing. Again…! It is normal to kill, is it clear? So then he is normal and up until the war it was me who was abnormal. Now I am normal. Who can tell what is normal? All I want is to be normal. Not special, interesting, extraordinary. I just desperately want to be normal, but I don’t even know what it means anymore.

Actually, it is not even that important. It is important to survive. Maybe not even that. Look forward. Don’t think. Thinking is forbidden. Look forward!

You have worked as a doctor, a surgeon in a hospital in Sarajevo during the war. How much is the job different from the current normal situation? Let us ignore the covid situation now.

We found out that a hospital can operate even without water, food, electricity, and medication. What else can we do? It is impossible to compare it with a peace situation. There are different rules, and it works. You just have to modify them. One of the reasons for writing Sarajevo Princess was the endless questions about how it was able to work, and the answer is in the book.

Women and children were also your patients in the military hospital in Sarajevo, could you estimate how many of the patients were men and how many women?

There were not many children, we all were very invested in their fates. The death of each child was extremely difficult even for us, hardened professionals. There were around 1,600 children killed and 10, 000 were injured.

Women and men were approximately the same amount. At first, there was no military in the city. Sarajevo was besieged and sealed. Then the people living in the city created a Bosnian army. In the end, there were around 20 000 people killed and 100 000 injured.

One of the reasons we asked for this interview was because of Irma and her story, and also all the other children in war. How does it affect their lives? What impacts does it have on their lives at the moment, but also in the long term?

I think children that did not directly experience the loss of parents or relatives have a chance to live completely normal. It is easier for them to heal than for the adults. My girls were at the beginning of the war, 2 and 5 years old, and they do not remember any war.

However, losing parents definitely has a profound impact on life, which is a completely different topic. Lastavica, the association of citizens of former Yugoslavia in Prague, among other things, trying to help children without parents. We focused on SOS children’s villages, and some of the stories are so horrendous. The war is long gone, but there are still many children remaining who have to fight on their own.

Our group Mámy pro Jemen focuses on helping women and children in Yemen. How important is humanitarian help for people in war-torn countries?

I admire you for even thinking about it! Humanitarian catastrophes are not very mainstream topics in today’s society. From my own experience, I can say that such a help can be the difference between life and death, so DO IT!

After reading your book, we all felt like it is pointless to support an international humanitarian organization because there is very little real help and most donations get lost in bureaucracy.  Then what about this small help that we do? Is it significant? If we help only a few people?

The situation in Sarajevo was that only 2% of the help has reached people who really needed it. And believe it or not, the only exception was the Czech “Člověk v tísni”. Back then they had a different name and there was this incredible Czech hero Šimon Pánek. He was selfless, hardworking, brave, and humane! He was able to distinguish what is important and what is not and managed things nobody else could do! You don’t even know what a man you have in the Czech Republic. They left an unforgettable trail in Sarajevo and Bosnia.

I am a supporter of your work – helping people directly, without ‘extra fees’. Lastavica recently collected money to help people after the earthquake in Croatia. We send there a few of our volunteers. (They paid their own expenses.) And they found some people in need and distributed the money from the transparent account among them.

What is your experience with getting food in a war zone? Were there some kind of “food stamps”? What food was available and where? Was there a black market with food?

Without humanitarian help, there is a real risk of famine because neither production nor transportation operate. Also, there is no electricity, so food must be non-perishable, such as flour, oil, rice, beans, cans, salt and sugar. And you combine these, because there is no mean, fruit or vegetable. All trees were cut to survive the harsh winter in Sarajevo. And already in the second year of the war people started planting tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries instead of flowers.

The saying that a hungry person can eat anything is not true. We got some canned food that was not edible; not even the dogs on the street wanted it. We sent it to analysis through WHO and they responded that microbiologically and chemically they are okay, but because of the smell and taste, they do not recommend consumption. But we couldn’t throw it away, so we put it in cauldrons for public consumption. Personally, I had the option to eat even in the hospital, but I only ate every other day. I lost 36 kg in 6 months and then kept the same weight.

We did have food stamps and flour, oil, butter, and bread were distributed according to them. There was a terrible food shortage. However, no one died from starvation, nor did anyone eat dogs or cats. There was no black market with food and although there were no stores, there were makers, where one little of oil cost 80 Deutsche Mark and a pack of cigarettes 50. Money quickly disappeared, so one litre of oil cost 2 packs of cigarettes and people started trading. The most valuable was alcohol, which obviously was not included in the humanitarian aid.

Unfortunately, markets were common targets for mortars and snipers. There was a famous bombing at the Markale market, where almost 200 people were killed by only a few mines.

Did you notice any types of canteen created by organizations to help people? Because I remember a scene from your book when soldiers were handing out canned peas and they knew there were snipers targeting the people. To this day, the thought still scares me.

There were no canteens because nobody way able to guarantee a regular supply of food. UNPROFOR had to throw out a lot of food and couldn’t even give it to hospitals, because they would be helping one side? I remember the piles of roasted chicken they tossed out. And I hadn’t even seen meat for at least a year at that time. I witnessed the humiliating scene with peas twice or it would also happen that UNPROFOR would lure children with candy and then drop a mine on them. I remember one of the children who survived only because they transported him to the military hospital in Paris. UNPROFOR was very nationalistic, but its core was made from the French legion.

So, in good faith, will we ask if our activity – Mámy pro Jemen – has any significance?

Thank God there are still people like you.

Among our supporters, we sometimes come across this question: If you live in a war zone, why not run away? Could you describe your experience with the possibility to leave? Or maybe someone you have been in contact with? How complicated is this?

Running away is the most important question, and everybody in the war zone is thinking about it! And they take advantage of almost every opportunity available. Only those who, for some reason, have to stay, stay. But it is not really a topic for discussion, because the person risks their life and is viewed as a traitor, it is essential to be very careful.

You left Sarajevo in 1993, came to the Czech Republic, and then after the war in 1995 you went again to Sarajevo but did not stay there. Why did you decide not to stay? And what led you to living in the Czech Republic?

If it were possible, then maybe I would rather stay home, but the beautiful Sarajevo city has changed. It used to be my home, but I didn’t want to live in a country with a nationalistic government that supports hatred. I prefer to be a foreigner in a foreign country than a foreigner in my mother country. I chose a peaceful life with my family, which is possible in the Czech Republic, and I don’t feel like a foreigner anymore. I have never faced any xenophobia and I am convinced that the people here are friendly, humane, and normal.

Is there anything positive about your experience with war?

There is something positive in everything. I have gained self-confidence (maybe more than I needed). I could survive even on Mars if I had some straw to breathe. It is also easier for me to distinguish good from bad. In a war, each word and action could mean the difference between life and death, which taught me quick decision making. When I have to decide, I ask myself one question. My motto is – humanity in the first place. It doesn’t have to be fair, acceptable for everyone, I don’t give in to demagogy or fear, I hate selfishness... Just be humane! Then you can be satisfied with yourself, it is important for personal happiness. Be humane and you will be happy. It was not easy, but I was cured from the war, it was hard, but I did it and now I have my beautiful family and I am a lucky person.

From the few meetings we had, you seem like a really big optimist. What gives you energy and happiness in life?

Thank you for this conclusion. My family is the source of my power, and my 4 wonderful grandchildren now give us a second wind at home.

Your intention to help people in need, even though you don’t know them, is admirable and humane. It will bring you joy and peace, so do it!

Wish you luck.

Edo Jaganjac

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