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For Bosnian student, thoughts of war are never far away

STANFORD -- As he lunches under the umbrellas at Tresidder Union, 21-year-old Orhan Niksic could be any Stanford student contemplating upcoming finals and political science papers.

But just now, Niksic's thoughts are 8,000 miles away, in his home town of Konjic, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“I just received a letter the other day,” he says quietly, his dark eyes downcast. “One of my best friends, in the Bosnian army, was killed during the shelling. Another lost his leg.”

Konjic, a manufacturing center about 35 miles south of Sarajevo, has been shelled by the Serbian army on almost a daily basis since war began 31 months ago, in what used to be Yugoslavia.

Located in a mountain valley, the town's population has swelled from about 45,000 to about 60,000, as refugees of all nationalities have poured in. They are jammed into factories, schools and movie theaters, sometimes 200 to a room. The city has virtually no electricity; the little news they do hear is from the BBC, by transistor radio.

Niksic's father, a Bosnian Muslim who carves wood furniture, and his mother, a secretary and homemaker, have been living in the basement of their brick home since April 1992, when the shelling began.

Although the building has been hit twice already, their greatest worry now is over Niksic's 20-year-old brother, Adam, a volunteer in the Bosnian army.

“The conditions in the city are just miserable,” says Niksic, who arrived at Stanford last April. “There are a lot of crippled civilians without legs. Ninety-five percent of the population is dependent on outside relief because they have had no income for the last three years.”

There is no telephone service into the city, either, so his father calls when he can, about once a month. But mostly Niksic can only read the news and wait, and try to concentrate on his studies.

It's hard to concentrate, especially when he hears that the United States, European powers and Russia are bickering over whether to intervene in the crisis.

“If a child hears from one parent, 'Don't do that,' and from another, 'That's all right,' then of course the child will continue what it is doing,” he says angrily.

His solution would be an immediate end to the current arms embargo against the region, a stepping-up of air attacks against Serbian positions and, most important, more unity among the Western nations about what should be done.

“The aggressor in this war should not be rewarded,” he says. “In my opinion, the world community is just giving the aggressors the go-ahead and saying, we'll not do anything to stop you. They say, let's stop the war only after the Serbs have taken so much territory. They want to reward ethnic cleansing, versus the democratic state for which the Bosnian people are fighting.

“Except for some aid workers who have risked their lives, I believe that the United Nations has been completely ineffective and has even contributed to what is happening there now.”

Secular culture

It was all so different just a few years ago, when he was a teenager. Back when he was attending the state-run high school, Niksic was friends with students of all the nationalities that made up the diverse nation of Yugoslavia.

“My friends and I, we'd all go out and drink beer together. The Bosnian Muslims are much more westernized than those of other countries,” Niksic explains. “It was hard to tell who was Croat or who was Serb.”

At the same time, he says, Yugoslavia's economy was fairly prosperous. “The incentives for work were not that great, but compared to the amount of time that people spent working, the economy was quite well off. The country had open trade and production was not centralized as it was in the Soviet Union.

Niksic was a good student, and in 1991 he signed up for an exchange program in the United States. He completed his final year of high school in the small town of Rexburg, Idaho, living in the home of a Mormon family.

He was just preparing to go home, in 1992, when war broke out.

“Everyone advised me not to go home, including my family,” he recalls. “But I felt that I should be together with my family and with my people through all their troubles. I felt if I stayed in the United States, it would be an escape. I couldn't leave my friends and my family behind.”

Niksic flew to England and visited Oxford (where he had been accepted for admission), then flew to Italy. From there he traveled by bus through Croatia. He remembers speeding by car with some friends through the city of Mostar.

“It was just rubble; a Bosnian Hiroshima,” he recalls.

“When I finally saw my parents, they were glad to see me, but they were also worried about my future in a place where my life would be exposed to danger at any moment.”

Niksic stayed close to home at first, working in his father's wood shop. Then one day he met a field officer with the International Rescue Committee, a private, New York-based humanitarian organization that was delivering relief supplies to town and villages in the war zone.

“My dad made a contract with the committee to produce bunk beds for refugees. The field officer came by a few times and saw that I could speak English well. She needed a translator, but she was very hesitant to take me. She thought I was too young. But I insisted on it.”

For the next year, Niksic traveled with the organization's truck convoys, first as a translator and then as a field officer himself, assessing needs and delivering heating oil, blankets and tents to towns and villages in the war-torn areas.

One of his most dangerous missions was a night journey by truck into Sarajevo, to bring food supplies to an aunt and uncle who were starving. As he neared the besieged city, he abandoned the truck and walked barefoot, in water up to his knees, through a kilometer-long secret tunnel built by the Bosnian army. On his back he carried a 120-pound pack filled with food.

“I arrived about 4 in the morning, and when my relatives saw me, they started to cry. They immediately started cooking what I had brought. They said it was the first time they had eaten meat in a year and a half. For months, their only food had been pasta. No sauce, no meat, just pasta.”

While in Sarajevo, Niksic also worked with the International Rescue Committee to obtain relief supplies for his own city, which by then had come under siege - squeezed between the Croats on one side and the Serbs on the other.

“It took two months to convince the committee leaders that a convoy could be taken into my city safely,” he recalls. “I made arrangements with UN officers to escort the trucks into my city. We carried 150 tons of seed for spring planting.

“People were waving at the drivers when we came in. It was the greatest day of my life.”

Coming to Stanford

The siege of Konjic ended when Bosnia signed a peace agreement with Croatia. And though the Serbian shelling continued, Niksic was convinced that the best way he could help his country, in the long run, would be to continue his education.

Helped by the International Rescue Committee, Niksic was granted refugee status and allowed to return to the United States. Niksic's International Refugee Committee mentor contacted film producer Randy Bean, a former Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford - who brought his case to the attention of Provost Condoleezza Rice.

Applying for admission to Stanford was problematic for Niksic because he had no academic records - they were gone, along with his high school. So the decision was made to allow him to take classes as a non-matriculated student for one year, to allow him to earn some academic units and build up an American record on which a future freshman application might be based.

Now living at the campus home of Dr. Robert Kallman, professor emeritus of radiation oncology, Niksic is taking two political science courses, as well as economics 1 and calculus. His tuition is being paid by an anonymous donor.

Niksic hopes eventually to get a master's degree in economics, and then return to help rebuild his country. Despite the dark days ahead, he believes firmly that the various people of the former Yugoslavia can live in peace together.

“Now, after the peace agreement has been signed by Croats and Bosnians, it shows that people can live together, as long as national politics are not involved. These people have been living together for 500 years. They're dependent on each other, and no matter what happens we'll have to live together again. “



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