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Answering The Call For Help Peace Corps Veteran Heads For Sarajevo To Work For Catholic Relief Services

Tom Perko starts his new job next week with a flak-jacket, a combat helmet and an armored Toyota Land Cruiser to get to and from the office.

The supplies are standard issue for employees of Catholic Relief Services in Sarajevo.

Among the Spokane man’s top qualifications: He is single and has no children.

A veteran of the Peace Corps, Perko, 36, is familiar with international relief work. He’s worked in Costa Rica, Africa and Russia. His new job is his first in a war zone.

Since the ethnic breakup of Yugoslavia, Orthodox Serbs have rebelled against the primarily Muslim government of Bosnia. Backed by neighboring Serbia, the rebels want to take back land they were run off of hundreds of years ago.

Perko said he is eager to see if any of the skills he acquired building schools in Africa or distributing food in Russia will translate to Bosnia.

“There you have the Orthodox and you have the Muslims, so you have to work through the religious differences. But you also have the ethnic divisions, the Croats and the Serbs,” he said. “I’m curious to see that, to see if any of the things I’ve learned in other places will apply.”

Perko will be one of three Americans employed by Catholic Relief Services in Sarajevo. He will manage several programs, including a trauma counseling service designed to help those in shock from the constant onslaught.

The relief organization also runs a bakery and a clothing factory, both of which provide jobs and supplies to area residents.

“We help both sides, because both sides are suffering,” he said. “And it’s the citizens who are suffering, not the people with guns. That’s who we are there to help.”

Serb rebels occasionally shell Sarajevo, site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, which has turned into a ThirdWorld war zone. There’s not much protection from that kind of attack, Perko said.

“You just have to avoid the areas most likely to be shelled,” he said.

Perko will also serve as a liaison between other relief agencies and Catholic Relief services, arranging for supplies and overseeing the distribution.

“The problems in a war situation is there is a lot of confusion and you can lose stuff,” he said. “It’s important to provide some accountability because your donors expect that.”

That work will take him out of the office and possibly into dangerous areas.

Although the Serbs have been taking United Nations soldiers as hostages, Perko said he doesn’t think he will be a target. More likely, he said the danger will come from random snipers.

“The Serbs have declared humanitarian workers off-limits,” he said. “It’s kind of honor among thieves. You just have to take their word for it.”

Growing up in Spokane, Perko was the eldest of six children. The son of recently retired Washington Trust executive Thomas J. Perko, he described his upbringing as affluent.

All the children went to Catholic schools. Perko was the only one to go to a public university; the rest choose private Catholic colleges.

With a degree in construction management from the University of Washington, he was working on a big Spokane project when he went to Mass one day and the priest talked about Africa.

“I thought, I’ve got a pretty good job, making pretty good money, but I could be doing this for the next 40 years of my life,” he said.

He joined the Peace Corps. In three years he helped villagers build four schools in Togo, West Africa. They made the bricks from scratch, cut the two-by-fours from newly-felled trees.

“I went in there thinking that I was going make these big changes,” he said. “Instead, I was the one who changed. I bet the people remained pretty much the same, except they have those schools now.”

Perko said he was stunned by the generosity of people who have so little.

“They will share everything they have with you,” he said. “Most Americans aren’t really aware of how much they actually have.”

Perko said his new assignment in Bosnia may be his last job in international relief work. He is starting to yearn for a more settled life - something he won’t find in Sarajevo.

There, electricity and running water are available about two hours every day. Natural gas, the primary source of heat, is also sporadically available.

Despite meager pay, Perko said he is eager to face the challenges of Sarajevo.

“I’ve had a pretty privileged life here,” he said, looking at a view of the city from his father’s back porch. “I thought maybe I could contribute something back to people who didn’t have as much.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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