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Bosnia: Word for Home from Bosnia's War-Weary

Sarajevo, 17 September 1996 (RFE/RL) - There is an old adage that says the mail will be delivered through rain, snow, sleet or hail, but the saying never mentioned anything about sniper's bullets. That is exactly what 134 volunteers in Bosnia had to brave over more than a four-year period.

The volunteers worked for the Sarajevo-based Adventist Development and Relief Agency, or ADRA. The most unique aspect of the non-profit, humanitarian organization's portfolio in the former Yugoslavia is its mail delivery system.

Through this core group of volunteers, the agency acted as Sarajevo's only mail service, delivering some 800,000 items to the capital city's stranded residents.

The Director of ADRA's Sarajevo's office, Ivan Brehelmaher, was the man responsible for overseeing this simple yet very basic task of life. A pastor, he told RFE/RL correspondent that it was his religious "calling" that brought him to do such work. That, and the fact that there was no one else willing or able to do it. As he put it, every time a driver headed out, "there was danger lurking around the corner."

"Basic delivery in the Sarajevo city center was particularly dangerous. The city's location, nestled between mountains, gave snipers a clear shot of any and all who moved below." Brehelmaher said.

But Brehelmaher said that ADRA lost only one volunteer in more than four years of operation. The casualty was a 22-year-old female, who died in a hail of sniper fire. Seven other mail delivery volunteers, varying in age, were seriously injured.

Brehelmaher braved a few bullets of his own. He told RFE/RL correspondent that the mail route he most often used was through what has come to be known as Sarajevo's "lifeline tunnel."

The tunnel was built under the city's airport. All public mention of the tunnel was taboo during the 43 month war and the Bosnian government in Sarajevo had never publicly acknowledged its existence until two months ago.

"People had to bend over in while making their way through often knee-deep mud or water, helped Sarajevans to survive the siege. Even under the best conditions, tunnel crossings were difficult. Under the worst conditions, I had to wait 20 hours to clear the 60-centimeter wide, nearly 760-meter long passage way." Brehelmaher said

In a little more than one year, Brehelmaher crossed the tunnel 31 times. He said the time he remembers most he was weighted down with eight bags, brimming full of letters, medicine and bible lessons.

Today, the tunnel is no longer used for such purposes, but Brehelmaher said he can still see and feel its presence. He said he also remembers vividly one particular letter exchange.

"The recipients were an elderly Sarajevan couple awaiting word from their soldier son. Instead, the letter they opened brought them word of his death. After many tears and much reminiscing, a friendship formed." Brehelmaher said. He still visit the couple once a week -- letter or no letter -- three years from the time of the initial meeting.

Brehelmaher told RFE/RL correspondent he owed a special thanks to the Czech government and ADRA's branch office in Prague. He said that both had worked together to collect and distribute countless tons of emergency food and clothing, and they had also donated tons of oil for the mail delivery effort. Without them, Brehelmaher said, many a Bosnian winter would never have been endured.

At the end, Brehelmaher noted that "a letter in war time is more than just word from home, it can often be the difference between hell and hope."