My Reiki journey with Healing Hands Network to help the people of Bosnia

For over a decade, every Saturday morning between April and October two people have met at Heathrow airport bound for a two week stay in Sarajevo.

They are volunteers who may or may not know each other – their connection is their membership of Healing Hands Network, a charity born in response to the atrocities of the Bosnian war. Healing Hands Network (HHN) was begun in 1996 after co-founder Vicki Poole, a Bowen Technique practitioner, was moved to do more following a visit to Sarajevo. Soon fellow therapists joined her and in 1997 the charity was formed.

Therapists who visited soon after the war’s end sought to help Sarajevans who had suffered physical and emotional trauma: rape and torture, the loss of home and family, of limbs, or landmine injuries.
The healers, armed with their individual therapeutic training, wet wipes and tea tree oil, were welcomed by grateful over stretched doctors and nurses at Kosovo Hospital who were desperate for any help they could get. Gradually word of these groups of visiting therapists spread and people came to receive treatments from a diverse range of practitioners including those giving physiotherapy, Reflexology, massage, Reiki and acupuncture. Treatments were often given in bombed out buildings, the city was without gas for cooking or heating. Rationed water flowed for about 15 minutes a day and electricity was only switched on intermittently for short periods making work for the therapists in the bitter winter months especially challenging.

Rolling forth from the original band of therapists, a continuous flow of wonderful healers has continued to grow and expand the original concept of HHN. Today around 25,000 voluntary treatments have been given with up to 3,000 treatments being given each year.

Four or five therapists operate on a fortnightly rollover basis meaning there are always two practitioners to show new arrivals the ropes. The HHN teams stay in a rented house with treatment rooms and accommodation on the edge of the Turkish quarter characterised by cobbled streets, quaint shops and cafés. They are all qualified and experienced therapists, and treat anyone who needs help regardless of race, colour or creed. Clients come from the Association of Concentration Camp Victims, the Association of Civil Victims of War and the Centre for Torture Victims. There’s an endless stream and there’s always a long waiting list.

One member explained, “the stories we hear are haunting and heart-breaking and the longterm physical and psychological damage of the traumas each person has suffered can last years, which is why people keep coming to us”. There are reports of reduced pain, increased mobility, improved quality of sleep, or more simply an increase in optimism and hope. Despite their appalling experiences, therapists unanimously agree that their clients hold their grief and anguish with humbling courage. “We know we help people move on – we try to heal the scars even if it’s just a little bit,” adds another member.
On my visit in 2007 I worked as a Reiki Healer for Healing Hands Network and came to appreciate just what these other members had been referring to, which is why I’ve booked my ticket to return this August. My journal of that visit, which is typical of the experiences I will be returning to.

Anticipation, send-off, take-off

I can’t believe after six months of fundraising, I am actually going to Bosnia tomorrow.
I’m flying with Collette, a massage therapist. Originally from Provence in Southern France, she now lives in Bradford-on-Avon just eight miles from me and we’re great friends. We’ll be completing a team of five healers and therapists in Sarajevo. The charity asks its volunteers to raise £800 each. Mine was raised by giving Reiki sessions locally and one fabulous quiz evening organised by the landlady at our local pub.

After a four flight to Belgrade, a six hour wait at the empty, depressing Soviet-style airport and a connecting flight to Sarajevo, we are met by Salih, the driver who ferries the HHN therapists to and from the airport.

We drive up a tiny street on a hill above the city and reach the Healing Hands house. Salih unlocks some large double doors before ushering us into an enclosed courtyard. It’s 11 pm, very quiet and dark – I’ve been travelling for fourteen hours but as we climb up the steps to the locked front door I note how tired and shabby the place looks. It’s a large building, the paintwork is dull grey colour and we can’t miss the big holes in its façade which Salih tells us are from mortars.

Three Healing Hands therapists are here to welcome us – Bjorg, a stunning, tall Norwegian woman who lives in London, Jayne, a northerner who is about 30, and Liz, a researcher at the University of London as well as a practising reflexologist. They have been in Bosnia for a week, they greet us warmly, bringing us some bread and cheese and reticently ask if we would like some wine. Our enthusiastic chorus of “yes please” is met with visible relief – apparently the outgoing practitioners disapproved of alcohol.

They look very tired and tell us the work is hard but enormously rewarding. They ask us if we would like to tour Sarajevo with them tomorrow as volunteers don’t work at the weekend.

Sarajevo and its living past

Our guide is a chain-smoking communist Muslim with long dark hair that looks distinctly unwashed. But such a description deflects from the man himself – Zijad is not only informative, he has a wonderful dry sense of humour and at the end of our tour generously buys us a beer.

Through Zijad and my own natural curiosity whilst working here, I learn a great deal about this beautiful scarred city – a city with a fine, rich history still trying to recover from one of the most brutal chapters in the savagely messy Bosnian civil war. To truly get to grips with the complexities of the many vying ethnic groups and militias operating during the war and the four year siege of Sarajevo would require years of study.

The plain fact of unpardonable human suffering endured by thousands of innocent civilians is inescapable. Indeed as Dr Mirko Pejanovic, Dean of the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Sarajevo conceded, “… during the four year siege carried out by Karadzic’s military forces and the SDS, there were deaths of Sarajevans of all ethnicities … we cannot talk of an extermination or genocide of Serbs, but of a responsibility of the SDS and Karadzic’s military forces for the overall extermination of Sarajevo and Sarajevans”.

Over 12,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded during the daily shelling and sniper attacks during Sarajevo’s siege which began in April 1992 and ended with the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. As capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo was central to the Bosnian conflict.

In March 1992 Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from the Yugoslav Federation. And though the region was ethnically diverse – populated by Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Slavs – it wasn’t until Serbian leaders, like Slobodan Milosevic, stirred up ethnic tension under the guise of protecting the Serbian minority in Bosnia (Serbs made up approximately 30% of Bosnia-Herzegovina) that the ugliest episode in the breakup of Yugoslavia began.

Bosnian Serb forces carried out barbaric campaigns of “ethnic cleansing,” massacring and expelling civilians from their homes to create exclusively Serb areas, populated by those who demonstrated clear patriotism to their cause.

Clinton’s favourite book on the Balkans, written by a religion professor of Serbian descent called Michael Sells, tells how non-nationalist Serbs who refused the persecution of Muslims were also killed. He wrote of the beating and on the spot shooting of an old Serb named Ljubo who had objected to being separated out from his Muslim friends when Serb militants were carrying out a ‘selection’ in Sarajevo – examples of such depravity throughout the city and beyond were sadly commonplace.

The medieval city of Sarajevo which had been an intellectual centre noted for its multicultural tolerance became a killing field. It lost approximately 60% of its population and all Sarajevans became victims and witnesses to every conceivable human rights atrocity, including mass executions, rape and starvation.

With all roads blockaded and the airport shut down the residents had to cling to survival in a city without a water supply, electricity, medicine or food. Some estimate that food scarcity caused the average Sarajevan to lose over two stone during the siege. One of the most common signs in the city were those which read Pazite Snaijper! (Beware Sniper) and sniper alleys – streets where one’s life could not be guaranteed, were everywhere in the once proud metropolis.

Some have calculated that the city was bombarded with an average of 330 shell impacts a day during the siege. Mass killings occurred several times in the central marketplace, as well as at a football game and even whilst people waited in line for water.

Marketplace massacre brought to life

Zijad took us to the marketplace where the infamous 1994 killing-spree happened. I remembered the footage of numerous innocent casualties being helped by rescue workers on the news. As I stood there ogling the plump, colourful vegetables and foods that had been brought from gardens and farms in surrounding villages I reconnected with that grim reality and marvelled afresh at the senseless cruelty of firing a mortar shell into the heart of a crowd peaceably shopping for groceries.

The names of the dead are printed in red on the main building in the market place. Many women and children were killed on that raw February morning but suddenly the haunting memories of the mortar attack come crashing into the present. We meet a wonderful man named Zoran who had been selling plants, as he still does today. Zoran spoke a little English and humbly relays how he put his own life in jeopardy that day in order to drag another wounded man out of mortal danger – such bravery from a man who had just been shot himself.

Zoran lifts his shirt to reveal a livid red scar zig-zagging down his back. The damaged lung had to be removed and today his health and ability to work still suffer. Benefits don’t exist in Sarajevo and he makes a paltry £5 a day – hardly enough for his family to live on and certainly insufficient to allow him to pay for petrol to go to his sister’s forthcoming wedding in nearby Mostar.

Zoran is our first personified reminder that the ghosts of the destroyed city have not been laid to rest. Today virtually every building and citizen remains part of the ongoing battle to restore Sarajevo’s former glory.

Destruction of Sarajevo Library

Appropriately, our next stop is the library which served the University of Sarajevo and had also been the national library for the Yugoslav Federation. The centuries-old edifice, which fused Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architectural styles, had housed ancient and priceless manuscripts. The majestic building was a symbol of civic pride, as well as an unrivalled repository of the region’s history.

But in August 1992 a Serb artillery bombardment blasted Bosnia’s national library. A devastating phosphorous bomb fired from across the river sparked a fire that obliterated rare books and manuscripts, the entire catalogue system and computer files.

Over 600 periodicals and the archives of Serb, Croat, Bosnian and Jewish writers went up in a smoke so thick that it obscured the sun. Former chief librarian Kemal Bakarsic wrote an article for a small New York Magazine (The New Combat) in which he pointed out that the destruction of approximately 1.2 million ‘book items’ amounted to what was probably the biggest single book burning in recorded history.

As 25 mortar shells struck the building, a further 40 shells were dropped in nearby streets to prevent the fire brigade coming to take action – a futile gesture of needless added destruction given the water supply to the district had been cut-off before the attack. But as flames tore up 50,000 feet of wooden book shelves and the ornate central atrium, librarians and volunteers braved sniper fire and formed a human chain to pass books away from the burning building.

Distressingly little was saved but following the tireless work of Tatjana Lorkovic, a Sarajevan émigré, the universities of Yale, Harvard and Michigan have all contributed to the re-stocking of the library.

Re-building is clearly happening but at a painfully slow rate due to funding shortages. But despite the loss of the irreplaceable materials, this building seems to symbolize Sarajevo’s indomitable spirit. It’s a place struggling but committed to a phoenix-like revival. As I look around I feel the strength and spirit of this beautiful place – overcome with emotion I wander off alone, when the lilting sound of music wafts to me. I follow the exquisite, hauntingly beautiful sounds and see a dark-haired man, in his early thirties, sitting on the ground playing a guitar. This evocative music and the atmosphere here are enough to make me weep. I re-join the others who all seem equally moved by this place – we don’t speak for some time.

Emerging from the library we look at other buildings around the city – the scars of war visible everywhere. This is hardly surprising considering around sixty percent of all houses in Bosnia, half the schools and a third of hospitals took a pounding during the conflict. Apparently 10,000 shells and projectiles pounded much of the historic architecture of Sarajevo including 1,200 mosques, 150 churches and four synagogues. For some buildings here, the damage was evidently too great to repair and the remains of rubble serve as poignant memorials of last decade’s destruction.

The secret lifeline – the Tunnel of Hope

Zoran had recommended we take a trip to the city’s outskirts to learn about the secret airport tunnel. The thousand yard (800 metre) tunnel was dug by besieged volunteer citizens who worked gruelling eight hour shifts for eight months during 1993. Work was ongoing 24 hours a day and latterly miners from Middle Bosnia joined the indefatigable diggers. It was dubbed the tunnel of hope and many believe the underground corridor was the lifeline which saved Sarajevo. It linked the city, cut-off by Serbian forces, to a neutral suburb of Sarajevo outside Serbian siege lines. The tunnel ran under the airport from where the United Nations operated. The legendary route allowed vital food, humanitarian aid and people to pass through its dank interior.

One million people are believed to have passed in and out of it and 20 million tons of food is thought to have entered the city through it. This is no mean feat considering the excruciatingly cramped conditions inside the tunnel which was so low men had to stoop whilst walking along narrow planks using flashlights to see. Gas masks were also needed to aid breathing in the thin, fetid air. During its construction, water from the tunnel had to be removed in buckets and canisters but still people often had to wade through knee-deep water when the makeshift pumps siphoning off underground water broke.

Of course, there were thousands who made the nightly overland crossings across the airport to try and fetch food or escape the siege lines. But these desperate people knew they were running a gauntlet and subjecting themselves to heavy machine-gun fire from the Bosnian Serb nationalists who surrounded two sides of the airfield rectangle. It was they who retained de facto control of the airport despite it’s being under the so-called governance of UN peacekeepers. Virtually every night several making the dash across the tarmac died, whilst others were wounded by the indiscriminate fire raining down upon them. Even the UN humanitarian flights carrying food and medicine were repeatedly fired upon.

We visit a house near the airport belonging to the Kolar family. Edis Kolar was just 18 in 1993 but he made countless journeys smuggling much needed supplies through the tunnel which his former home sits atop. Today it is a museum that tells the story of the tunnel. The dirty yellow building is full of mortar holes and shell casings and empty sacks of humanitarian aid have been kept to bring the recent past to life.

The international community acknowledged that the Sarajevans had been starving to death. At the time one United States official commented that most citizens were reduced to a diet of flour and nettles. It is fascinating to actually be standing in the place that was so instrumental in saving so many lives.

The Healing Hands Experience

The next day we meet Nadia, our interpreter. She is a smart, immaculately dressed woman married to a diplomat. She explains that the records we must read of the clients we will be treating will be painful. Many, she says, are rape victims as during the siege libraries, schools and sports halls were turned into concentration camps where a common practice was to call out the names of women who then had to go forward to be raped continually by different soldiers.

My first client was an elderly Muslim man with half a leg missing. He was shot by a Serb and the injured leg needed amputating. He has been coming since Healing Hands first went to Sarajevo in 1995 and adores Reiki. He has a treatment every week as it provides short-term relief from his pain. Today it is my turn to provide this ease.

Despite his eighty-something years, Amir evidently still believes in the importance of taking great effort to look smart – he is wearing a dark suit, shirt, tie and large hat. On the treatment bed I see there are holes in his jacket, tears in his trousers; his shirt is frayed and he is without socks. Even the soles of his shoes are hanging off.

I learn he lost his son who was arrested at Srebrenica along with most of the male population. Fifteen year old boys were shot and according to eye witnesses children under ten and a baby were also murdered. The infamous massacre was reminiscent of the holocaust where prisoners were taken to the woods and made to dig their own graves before being shot. The suffering of this proud man can be seen in his eyes; yet his face lights up when he smiles as he does frequently after thanking me for the treatment.
The need and demand for continuous treatment is proof that the healing of Sarajevo is ongoing. HHN is in constant dialogue with a number of local organizations, including the Union of Civilian War Victims, the Association of Concentration Camp Victims and the Centre for Torture Victims, all of whom provide lists of members who would benefit from treatments from Healing Hands therapists.

Through the treatments I become witness to one appalling testimony after another. Every individual who comes to Healing Hands has their own unique experience of harrowing pain – yet the common denominator, amongst all these suffering souls I saw, was the hope that an HHN treatment could provide a breathe of relief. As time passed I grew firmer in my belief that relief – no matter how fleeting – has its worth.

All this heightened my sense of purpose, something which also wavered and rocked in the glare of such stark sorrow. One such example came on a day-visit to an outreach village six miles from Sarajevo.

All around the hills of this great city lie white crosses – far more recent than those we see lining the fields of World War Two memorial sites. In fact, they are being added to almost daily because bodies are still being dug up and identified. This is part of an ongoing government pledge to dig up bodies, take them to special identification units where the remains of the conflict’s lost dead are identified and their families duly informed.

As if to emphasise the presence of this still-current process, a warm-hearted dark-haired woman I treated on an outreach day had been informed the day before that the bodies of her son and husband, both murdered in the massacre of Srebrenica, had been identified. At last the long wait, for Kadira, now in her early forties, was over and she could bury them and release over a decade’s worth of pent-up grief and anger.

She wept as I treated her and smiling afterwards, thanked me, telling me the Reiki helped her release so much emotion. In fact during my stay she came to me for three further treatments and with the little money she had, she gave a pair of Bosnian slippers as a mark of her thanks. Before I left she asked to be photographed with me and we both have copies to this day.

Sujeman was a young man who, in his final teenage year, had been interned in a concentration camp called Hadzic, near Sarajevo. Making a courageous escape one night in temperatures of minus 28, he fled through the forest with few clothes to protect him from the merciless cold, but far worse than the freezing weather was around the corner. He was picked up by his captors and when they found him he was tortured and repeatedly raped. Refusing to accept his fate he made a second gutsy dash for freedom and life, this time escaping without recapture. But his suffering – both physical and mental, remains today. A young broken man he is unable to take up work and live in peace. Yet it was evident Reiki sessions (he’s been coming for ten years) are a tonic; via the interpreter, we even enjoyed a joke together.

Hasija was a smart girl with a blond bob and pale face, who looked much older than her 28 years, and a heartbreaking sadness overwhelmed me in a way that is not usual when I am treating.

Paralysed down one side of her body, unable to have children and in constant pain, Hasija had been multiply raped by Serbian forces who had arrested her together with her father and sisters.

Her five year old sister was also raped in front of her and her three year old sister went missing that night and has never been found. After the army had savaged her body both inside and out till it could take no more, her father was brought in and shot before her. The depravity defies comprehension and with some Harry Potter magic I wished I could have waved a wand, cried “expeliarmus” and have rid her of such palpable suffering.

I was told she likes Reiki sessions because they needn’t involve touching – this is apparently common amongst many rape victims who value Reiki for its lack of physical contact. Reiki, known as bio-energy healing here, is also an accepted practice amongst the healing arts of Bosnian culture. When the Reiki treatment was completed she got up and hugged me. The interpreter commented on the unusualness of this physical gesture and though I couldn’t provide the assuagement I desired, there was something profound about this expression. It showed the treatment, no matter how ephemeral, had been a balm with its own intrinsic value.

Those with post traumatic stress disorder, grief, shrapnel embedded in their bodies, arms and legs missing and so much more besides, still make up the fabric of today’s Sarajevo and the surrounding area.

Just before I left I heard of a farmer who had lost his daughter to a landmine in one of his fields as she was tending the sheep two days previously. Landmines still litter the region – they’re in the hills, gardens, even cemeteries and this girl’s death was all the more tragic as both father and daughter had survived internment in one of the concentration camps set up during the city’s siege. Her senseless death served as a powerful reminder that the forgotten victims of this region’s conflict still need our compassion and support despite not making headline news.
As told to Lucy Mayhew©

Sarajevo Fact Box

The siege of Sarajevo lasted four years, from 1992 to 1996. It became the city where Serb snipers continually shot down helpless civilians in the street – between 12,000 and 14,000 deaths occurred including over 3,500 children.

Slobodan Milosevic stirred up ethnic tension under the guise of protecting the Serb minority but citizens of every age and background suffered and the city lost around 60 per cent of its population.

Sarajevowas bombarded with an average of 330 shells a day destroying centuries old architecture including 1,200 mosques, 150 churches, four synagogues and the famous Sarajevo National Library – a building made infamous because it was the last place Archduke Ferdin and of Austria visited before he was assassinated in 1914.

Mass killings occurred at the market place and after a football game. The worst mass killings since World War II took place in the region’s concentration camps.

The government has set up special identification units still in operation to identify the lost victims of the concentration camp genocides and there are still many unexploded landmines with mine disposal teams aiming to cover 2.4 million square metres during 2009.

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