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Relief Worker Takes Break From Bosnia Agency Director Says War A ‘Stupid’ Contest For Power


Kurt Tjossem tells his parents the truth about his job. Just not the whole truth.

On vacation this week from working as head of relief efforts in eastern Bosnia, the 27-year-old Tjossem hears plenty of questions from his parents, Harrison residents Bob and Gretchen Tjossem.

“They support what I’m doing,” he said while on a 30-day vacation in the United States. “But I tell them only so much.”

They know, for instance, that on May 25, a large artillery shell hit the town square of Tuzla, the city where Tjossem has worked for a year.

That 120-millimeter shell killed 76 people, most of them under 25 years old.

He didn’t tell his parents he was about half a mile away.

Nor that he and a friend had talked about walking to the square several minutes earlier.

For most of the year, Tjossem has been director of relief efforts for the International Rescue Committee in the Tuzla section of Bosnia. IRC is a New York-based non-profit relief organization.

His job involves organizing and helping run about a dozen relief efforts providing economic assistance and education to thousands of refugees and hard-pressed residents of Tuzla.

That city, which used to be a “safe city” protected by the Bosnian government, has seen its population swell with refugees since the war began three years ago. Its population has reached 160,000 - with 60,000 refugees having fled there because of the Serb-Bosnian war.

Tjossem grew up in Minnesota, where his parents lived before moving to North Idaho in 1993.

After college, he served a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Poland, followed by earning a master’s degree in international diplomacy in Boston.

Those years gave Tjossem an intense curiosity about Eastern Europe. When he got a chance to work for the relief agency, he leaped at the chance.

He earns $20,000 a year but receives a living stipend and a food allowance while in Tuzla.

The meals almost seem to coincide with the two or three Serb-launched shells that hit the city daily.

After spending time with both Bosnians and Bosnian Serbs, Tjossem has formed a careful neutrality about which side is most to blame.

“That attack (on Tuzla) was an egregious offense and should be totally condemned. But that’s not to say the Bosnians haven’t also aimed artillery at Serbian towns.”

He’s concluded, after all the discussion, that the conflict is nothing more than “a stupid, stupid war” that is a vicious contest for power, not a clash over ethnic and religious differences.

“Really, it comes down to different groups seeing the disintegration of Yugoslavia and looking for ways to better themselves at the expense of others,” Tjossem said.

After the deadly shelling of last month, government troops have gradually forced the Serb forces to retreat on two sides of the city. Still, people in Tuzla can easily hear sounds of skirmishing at different hours of the day.

The main concern remains helping rebuild Tuzla’s economy and net of social services. The region was already struggling with poverty before the war, like much of Yugoslavia did after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

“You have to be careful not to just keeping handing out aid. There are some refugees who have come to depend on that aid,” noted Tjossem.

He plans to keep working in Tuzla through the rest of the year. Then he’ll come back to the United States, perhaps finding a job with a relief organization.

“It’s not a place one can work indefinitely,” he said of Bosnia.

“The work is very satisfying, but people often reach agency burn-out. Some people can only work in Bosnia so long, before they have to leave.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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