Milena Brechelmacher as interviewed by Sharon Cress

My family background

I was born in Bosnia, which is now called the Republic of Serbia. My parents were Seventh-day Adventists, but I never got to know my father well because he died at the age of 24. Despite trying circumstances, I had a happy childhood because my mother always found time to pray and play with my younger sister and me. She was a good Christian influence onus while carrying the burden of a struggling single parent.

I met my husband, Ivan, at the Rakovica Theological School, where we were both studying theology. There was a rule in those days that you had to pastor for two years before you could marry, but because he was already 29 years old, the rule was waived, and we were married and began our ministry immediately.

My family now

We have two daughters, Elizabeth, age 22, and Irena, age 20. They are living in a flat that belongs to their grandmother about 50 km. from Zagreb in a village called Sisak. Many refugees come there. My younger sister now lives in Belgrade.

My mother lives in a part of Bosnia which is very dangerous. I have not been able to com­municate with her for two years. The last time we talked, she was going to try to flee with other refugees from her town when the chance arrived. The Adventist pastor from this area (Prijedon) where my mother lives has escaped the town. He was threatened, his house ransacked, his telephone wires cut, and his belongings stolen.

Our ministry

We began our ministry in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, in 1971. At this time conditions were calm in the former Yugoslavia. We were under Communism; however, the Adventists were able to worship together, both Serbs and Croo ts, There were restrictions on the church. We were not allowed to spread liter­ature through the area, and we couldn't hold public evangelistic meetings. But we did hold evangelistic meetings in the church and were able to evan­gelize this way.

My husband lived in Sarajevo as a child. He went to high school there and remembers the city as it was in those days. His father was the conference president. From 1980 to 1983, Ivan and I also pastored in Sarajevo. During that time, my husband tried many innovative and daring things for evangelism. The conference president warned him to be careful because these activities might end him up in the Com­munist prison. But the Lord was good, and he was able to carry out his projects and never did spend a night in jail.

How we came to Sarajevo

In April, 1994, when we were pastoring in Sisak, Ivan was asked to go to Sarajevo and baptize some new converts. He saw such a great need among the people that he stayed until June. During this two-month period, I kept our church going by pastoring and preaching. I would try to contact him and get instructions on what he wanted me to do with the church so the church programs could continue, but commu­nication was very poor and unreliable. He felt that circum­stances were such that he was desperately needed in Sarajevo and could not leave.

After two months, I decided that I must join him. I was not allowed to enter the area or get anywhere near the city, but I was determined to join my husband in Sarajevo. There seemed to be no way to get into the area. Finally, I had an idea. I organized a humanitarian transport group of four trucks filled with fruits and vegetables for the Sarajevo people. I led this convoy through and over the Igman Mountain and managed to arrive on the out­skirts of Sarajevo. I was stopped there for nine days. There were so many more barriers. When we finally were allowed to enter the city, all the fruits and vegetables had spoiled.

As I entered the city, I began to cry. I had not seen my hus­band in two months, and I did not recognize the beautiful city where we had previously pastored. Everything was shattered by missiles and bombs. Glass was broken and lying around. There were scattered bricks and garbage everywhere. The city was be­sieged and no one could go in or out. I remembered the city as it was in 1984 when the olympics had been held there. At that time, it had been given a new face lift and was called the "city with a soul" because whoever went there kept a part of it in their soul. I could not believe this beautiful place had been destroyed.

Our church in Sarajevo

The church in Sarajevo where Ivan and I pastor has 134 members. The membership stays about the same all the time, because as some church members are able to flee and escape, others are baptized. These Adventists are Serbs, Croats, and Moslems and they all love each other, sing and pray together, and truly demonstrate that in Jesus there is not distinction of heritage.

Sometimes during the worship services, we sing louder and louder to try to drown out the missiles and bombs that are falling. Our church is always crowded for services, and there is a que to get in. We have two sessions.

Our church has never been bombed, and the people in Sarajevo believe that God is protecting it in a special way. They feel safe if they can get into the Adventist church. Many come for refuge.

The church members have received me as an angel from heaven because they know that I am not there because my husband is "assigned" to be there. These church members know that we are there with them because we chose to come there and minister to them. The members would like to flee and get out. Ivan and I volunteered to come and stay.

The church in Sarajevo is a true model of the early apostolic church. The members search for fresh vegetables for each other and for us. We have some dried beans and rice, but nothing else. Last month, my husband was able to get a transport of other food in—we have been one year without.

Living in Sarajevo

The only way to get in and out of Sarajevo is through a tunnel at the airport where food and necessities canbe carried on your back. Czech ADRA donated sugar and oil so we have some of that now, but we have had no pow­dered milk in over a year. In the open air market sometimes there will be fruits and vegetables but they are so expensive, we cannot afford them.

But water is the greatest problem. ADRA had arranged for us to have water 1/2 hour each day in the part of the city where the church is located. But now we don't even have that. We have to go to the well and try to get water. It is very dangerous. We can get some industrial water that can only be used for bathing and washing. This water is so polluted it cannot be purified for drinking. The well where the church members go to try to get water is on the outskirts of the city. They used to try to wait until they though it might be a "safe time." But now they just go anytime because there is no safe time. Last month one young lady, who was studying with us and a friend of the church members, was killed on her way to the well.

My personal life

Life is hard on the pastoral wife and the women church members in Sarajevo. I do not have the necessities that most pastoral wives do—shampoo, soap, personal products. We do not have stockings and very rarely the privilege of having new underwear. One time when I was able to leave the city, I brought two boxes of new underwear to the church ladies. They were overjoyed. One particular prob­lem is to keep myself tidy and attractive.

In the midst of the chaos of this long siege, I believe that trying to stay clean and practice good hygiene is important for a good mental attitude. One symptom of depression is lack of personal hygiene and caring for oneself. This is always a challenge without much water and essential products. I believe this is important to all of the church ladies in Sarajevo, so I encourage them to fix their hair and keep themselves well. They must never forget that they are women made in God's image.

I remember one day the 83-year old church member saint who cooks every day for the 20 ADRA workers and generally mothers them was sitting over in the corner carefully filing and rounding her nails so they would be attractive.

The furniture in my flat is a menagerie collection gathered and donated from those who have been able to flee. Winter is very difficult for us because there is no electricity and no heat. We stay warm by burning furniture or anything that will burn. Many people make a stove out of an old pot by cutting a hole in the side and a burner on top and using it for cooking and heat.

A special blessing

Last Christmas I enjoyed a special surprise when my two daughters unexpectedly came into the city because they wanted to spend the holiday with us. They did not tell us they were going to make this dangerous journey. They brought us huge bags of fruit, which they had carried on their back. When they arrived on the edge of the city, they spent 12 hours being detained in the freezing tunnel trying to get in. They were determined that we would be together for Christmas, that we would have fruit for the holiday, and that they would get through with it intact. God protected them making this dangerous journey.

Time to return

I have been asked several times why I stay in Sarajevo. A few people say that they will go once, but they are so glad to get out safely that they will never go back. They want to know why Ivan and I go to minister there. I tell them it is because I see real people with real needs. Our members lives depend on my help. I do not dwell on the danger, I just minister. I always tell people, "We were not sent, we volunteered. We trust in God and His protection." Prayer is most important to me. God has spared my life many times.

I will leave Budapest in a few days and travel back to Sarajevo. It is a difficult trip.

We will travel all one day and night to arrive in Zagreb. There the ADRA van will meet us, and we will then travel anywhere from six to ten hours to Metkovic. This is a secure road but travel conditions vary so much that we never know how long the trip will take. We will then cut to another road through Mostar, which is in Herzceg-Bosnia and controlled by the Croats. Then we go into Bosnia, controlled by the Moslems. This border crossing is always very difficult between these two groups of people. There we are only about 50 km. from Sarajevo. Normally this would be a 30-minute drive, but the danger gets more extreme. We must go through the Igman Mountain. The only road to the city is controlled by the Moslems. The mountains on either side are controlled by opposing forces, Then the final 10 km. becomes even more dangerous. We can be easily seen and targetedbyboth sides, which believe we are from their opposing side. We can be tracked by infrared even at night. When we are finally through this area, we come to Hrasnica where we report to the military officials.

This is where we must go through the tunnel to enter the city. The tunnel is at the airport, and is only I meter high and 60 or 80 cm. widL. I have to almost crawl to get through. It is muddy and dirty. I am filthy when I come out the other side. Everything Ivan or I bring into the city, must be through this tunnel tied to our backs.

There is a track through the tunnel with a special chair, which rolls on it, for bringing the president in and out. One time the officials let me ride in this chair with all the provisions piled on me while Ivan pushed me through. It made me feel very important!

In summary

When the conflict first began, we received many emergency supplies of food and medicine. Now the war seems old and forgotten by many. The relief no longer regularly comes and times now are the worst they have ever been. Many are exhausted and tired. Some people have forgotten Sarajevo because of the news targeting other areas with their reports. But we know that God has not forgotten us or our church members in Sarajevo.

The most important thing other pastoral wives can do for me is to remember me to our Heavenly Father. His love and protection are never in short supply for me! Please pray for Ivan and me and our dear church members in Sarajevo.