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Serb Brings Elderly _ Muslims, Serbs and Croats _ Safely Through War

March 1, 1996

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ The city’s nursing home sat just 50 yards from one of Bosnia’s deadliest front lines. Most employees fled, but not Milena Mucibabic.

Running away would have meant abandoning hundreds of elderly people. So the Serb nurse stayed, helping her grateful charges _ Serbs, Muslims and Croats alike _ through the ravages of old age, sickness and war.

``Everybody deserted us,″ says Gizela Cvetanovic, an 81-year-old Croat. ``She made us feel we were somebody’s.″

The home for the elderly in the western suburb of Nedzarici was caught in the middle when war broke out in April 1992. More than 100 employees left, leaving Mucibabic and five co-workers to care for the 300 residents, as ethnically split as warring Bosnia itself.

Mucibabic (pronounced MUH’ chi bab ich) offered the old people a deal: She would try to keep them alive, if they would keep peace among themselves.

``The first day I told them: `Everybody else has abandoned you, but I promise you, I will stay with you as long as it takes,‴ the slender, energetic, 54-year-old nurse recalls. ```But if I hear one national this or that, I’m off too!‴

He threat held for 3 1/2 years of the war.

``We got along fine,″ says Kata Buntic, a 76-year-old Croat. ``We never had arguments.″

Two of Mucibabic’s co-workers during the war were Muslims, sticking it out in a Serb-held suburb. The team of six cleaned, washed, cooked and cared for the bedridden. They talked to them, hushed their screams, held their hands at night.

``The worst year was the first one,″ Mucibabic says, ``when we did not know whether we’ll be killed by cold or by daily shelling and sniping.″

Electricity and gas were lost early in the war, which meant no heat for the four-story nursing home. Food and medicine were soon gone, too, and international aid packages were few and far between.

The isolated, elderly residents made easy targets. The war claimed its first victim at the nursing home in the summer of 1992, when a shell hit the front yard and fatally wounded a woman. Mucibabic tried to tug her into the building.

``She was screaming, I was pulling her in, and suddenly her arm detached itself ... I will never forget that,″ she says.

During the first winter of the war, 20 of Mucibabic’s charges died, victims of shelling and sniping. Cold and hunger hastened the deaths of another 143.

The survivors huddled for months in the icy cellar, as shelling raged above.

They had nowhere to go, unlike Mucibabic. Her husband had stayed on the Serb side, and their two grown sons were living in Sweden.

Yet Mucibabic _ who lost both parents in World War II when she was 3 _ says she was never tempted to leave. ``I grew up as orphan, in institutions and homes like this one,″ she said. ``I know how the (old) feel. I could never desert them.″

About 100 nursing home residents survived the war. They live today in the same building, now scorched and shell-marked, and Mucibabic still runs the show.

``I only did my job,″ she said, her wide face crinkling into a smile.

One of several Serb-held Sarajevo suburbs that under the peace accord should become part of the Muslim-Croat federation, Nedzarici this week was handed over to the federation’s police.

Most Serbs fled, fearing the rule of their wartime enemies. Again, Mucibabic stayed.

Arriving from Sarajevo to take over the old folks home, social welfare officials gathered on the ground floor, waiting for Mucibabic. When she came down, she flew into the arms of one of them, Dr. Rusmir Ajanovic, a Muslim.

``That’s my doctor!″ she exclaimed. ``We worked together for 10 years, before the war.″

Ajanovic said that Mucibabic will be asked to stay.

``Thanks to her, people have survived,″ he said. ``She ought to get a medal or something.″

Serb survivors said they will leave if she leaves. Mucibabic has not made up her mind.

But she says wherever she ends up, she will always work with old people.

``I had this grandmother, my only living relative, and she was the best grandmother in the world,″ she says. ``She taught me that all the people should be loved, no matter who they are.

``In every old man or woman, I see a bit of my grandmother.″

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