Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Burning of Ivanci

Part II in the Remarkable Life of Tomislav

Click here for part one

The ear-splitting clanging sound abruptly woke Tomislav up on a cold November morning.  Curious, he ran to the window in time to see a large metal beast approaching the village.  “What is that, father?” he asked his dad who joined him at the window.

His father looked deeply disturbed and even frightened, something Tomislav had not seen before.  “My son, this is something very bad…it is called a tank.”  That  morning on November 30, 1943, Tomislav’s  9 year-old-life was about to change forever.

As the Germans began encircling the village with tanks and soldiers, the sixty families in the village seemed paralyzed with fear.  After all, word had passed from village to village about massacres and burning of nearby villages—all the men from ages fourteen to 60 would be taken to one end of the village and summarily shot before the village was burned.  Often, women and children would be killed as well.  Since 1941, Hitler had been aggressively trying to regain control of Yugoslavia, which was fracturing into groups either resisting Hitler or supporting Hitler—but all trying maintain their own power.

“Let out the cow,”  Tomislav’s father whispered harshly to his mother as the soldiers attention was momentarily diverted to collecting men in the houses around them.  Quickly, she darted to the shed next to the house and released the cow. His father clung to one side of the cow, directing it to walk into the fields and towards the river—its large frame hiding his body.  Eventually, the soldiers noticed  something strange with the cow and started shooting.  Releasing the cow, he began to crawl on his belly until he was out of range.

Meanwhile, Tomislav remained behind with his three siblings and mother.  Amidst the screams from the families and the sounds of gunfire at the far end of the village, they huddled in fear, not knowing what to do.  A blast of gunfire exploded from his aunt’s house, next to theirs—killing a woman and her children seeking safety there.

Suddenly, a soldier appeared at their doorstep.  He motioned with his hands that he was going to burn their house, but indicated for them to run away from the village,  pointing which direction to go.  Tomislav and two of his siblings immediately ran out, leaving another brother in a state of shock upon the bed.  The soldier motioned for another aunt to pick up the boy and run away.  As the family was running through the fields, desperately trying to reach the forest, Tomislav stole a quick look back.  He saw a bright orange flame against the crisp blue sky—but even as he saw his home burning, his fear drove his small legs faster to escape from an unknown terror.

That fateful day was another tragedy amidst a host of others in those dark years. Many people died and all of Ivanci burned.  But God was present in the darkness. “God gave that soldier a kind heart,” Tomislav reflected, decades later.  “We were saved in this miraculous way because of that soldier.”

And yet, their escape was far from over. They were now vulnerable refugees, fleeing for their lives in a place fraught with violence and bloodshed.

Part 3: Searching for Safety

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Changing the world always begins over coffee

“The church needs to change….maybe in the future it could be in a cafe like this, just a few people sitting around drinking coffee, praying, and reading the Bible. People can be so narrow-minded.”

No, I wasn’t in America listening to young people vent about the church.  I was sipping coffee in Croatia with three Bosnian friends, students at a seminary.  As they went back and forth, sharing their visions and dreams, hopes and frustrations, I had the sense to remain quiet as a mouse, soaking in the moment.  Was I listening to future history being written?  A thrill passed through me as I realized that these young men would likely be some of the  second generation leaders of a still-young Bosnian Evangelical church—a church forged largely through the horrors of war and its aftermath.

“What is a pastor, anyway? How does someone decide if you are a pastor or not? What does the church in Bosnia need?”

All of a sudden, one of my friends stopped talking and looked at me, humor hovering around the corners of his mouth.  “We better be careful about what we say….this might end up in a book someday.”  I laughed and urged them to keep talking.  “How can you see it changing?  How would you contribute?” I asked.

Another friend looked at me and smiled.  “I don’t know,” he said.  The other said, “I guess it is up to God.”

I thought about some of the first generation Bosnian Christians I had interviewed. Their stories—often fraught with pain and tragedy—told of radical conversion during the war, sometimes being thrown into leadership when they were barely taking their first steps as Christians.   “Be careful, ” I said, treading gingerly on words I was not sure I was entitled to speak.  “Remember they have laid the foundation for you, and it sounds like it has been a very difficult task.”

He smiled, “We know. We respect them and what they have done. Maybe it was so hard  they have just dug the holes for the foundation.”

Two hours passed quickly and soon we were piling on our jackets and tromping out the door.  “I think you would fit better in Bosnia,” one said to me.  “You have a similar spirit to ours.”

True?  I don’t know…but I certainly felt honored at the compliment and invigorated by the conversation—and I don’t think that it was just a caffeine buzz!