Forward into Battle? Not here, where The Virgin reigns

Bosnian Holy Site Offers Peace For Pilgrims, But Nearby And Ugly Civil War Rages.

By Tony Horwitz - Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal

MEDJUGORJE, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The artillery duel begins midway through Mass, just before the Virgin appears.

Kneeling in the choir loft of Catholic Church, a young man and woman suddenly stop praying. Eyes open, lips moving silently, they speak to a figure visible only to them. Cannons thump in the distance. After a moment, the two resume praying, joined by pilgrims who have come here to witness the apparition of Mary.

Leaving church, pilgrim Michael Paulson rubs creaky knees and guns thunder again in the hills. "I’ve had open hart surgery, a ruptured appendix, a gall bladder removed, a back operation, a plugged carotid artery, an angioplasty, and I’m on my second peace maker",. Says the retiree from Gary, Ind. "You think I’m afraid of a little shooting?"

Pilgrims’ Progress

When fighting erupts in foreign lands, Americans are often the first to cancel their travel plans. But in war-torn Bosnia, faith has proved stronger than fear. A few pilgrims still visit Medjugorje: to watch and speak with the visionaries, and to hear from them the divine message that is strikingly at odds with the slaughter and strife all around.

"Mary is trying to tell us that we need to live in harmony", says Esther Oakley, a hospital worker from far Rockaway, N.Y., "I’ve never felt so peaceful as I do right here".

Medjugorje’s fame dates to 1981, when two teenagers scaled a rocky hill outside town to sneak a cigarette. On the way down, they said, Mary appeared in the sky. Four other youths later saw the Virgin, too. Since then, about 15 million people have flocked to this mountain village, making it, along with Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, among the busiest pilgrimage sites in the world.

Once a rural backwater, Medjugorje quickly sprouted a garish strip of pizza parlors, hog dog stands, money changing stalls and souvenir shops peddling every thing from crucifix key rings to jigsaw puzzles of the Virgin aloft on a cloud. "The atmosphere was Mary-Word", recalls Veronica Kolanko, a Tampa, Fla. Nurse who first visited here in 1990. "I spend most of my time buying rosaries".

She has returned this fall to find many shops shuttered and the mood, well, more celestial. In place of the busloads of visitors – many of them curiosity seekers – there now are only true believers. A barefoot Tasmanian in a brown monk’s cloak call himself "a slave of Mary". An unkempt Belgian woman says "I took a vow of poverty and chastity here a year ago and I never left".

The fighting, just 10 miles away, has infused their prayers with special urgency. "It’s a very satanic war", says Mr. Kolanko, who carried medicines here from a hospital in Tampa. "With the ethnic cleansing and all, you have to wonder if the Serbs are possessed. Maybe our prayers can help change that".

The war also was brought relief to the town’s visionaries. Marija Pavlovic speaks daily with the Virgin, at precisely 6:40 p.m. On the 25th of every month, she receives a special message from Mary that she writes down and shares – even faxing it to the church if she is out of town.

This gift has made her much sought after by pilgrims, who hike out of town. Past the Grace Tourist Agency, to the simple home Ms. Pavlovic shares with her parents. "Crowds used to wake me up singing ‘Ave Ave’ under my window", she laughs. Some mornings I felt like dumping a bucket of water in their heads".

Now, interrupted during her Saturday vacuuming, Ms. Pavlovic is glad to chat with a rare visitor – about politics as well as religion. An unassuming 27 years old in blue jeans and sweatshirt, she harbors the same conspiracy theories as her Croat neighbors. Serbs are backed by Freemasons, she angrily insists, and Muslims are the agents of Arab "holy warriors".

But such biases vanish each evening when she chats in Croatian with a woman who appears on a cloud. "The Virgin is wiser than us", she says. "For her, there is no Serbia or Croatia. She says Satan is present on all sides in this war".

In blood-spattered Bosnia, such evenhandedness is astonishing. In other ways, too, the war has enhanced Medjugorje’s fame as an oasis of peace and mistery. At one point, the war front was only three miles away – so close that Easter Mass was held in a sandbagged cellar. Planes and artillery ravaged nearby towns. But only six shells hit Medjugorje. The casualties: one cow, one chicken, one dog.

The sole air raid on the town ended with a few bombs exploding harmlessly. This has spawned an elaborate tale, regarded as gospel by residents and pilgrims alike. When Serb pilots flew over town, the story goes, their radar screen went blank and low clouds intervened. In one version, a pilot was so stunned that he bailed out and defected to the Croatian side.

Dragan Kozina, the town’s mayor and military commander, says the stories are baseless. But he is struck by another seeming miracle: Of 150 local men who gone off war, two have been injured slightly and none have been killed. "You have to believe that either we are very lucky", he says, "or that someone is protecting us".

For the Indiana retiree, Mr. Paulson, it’s a small miracle just to be here. The only other place in Europe the 71 years old has visited is Normandy – aboard a landing craft on D-Day in 1944. This time, he has spend two days in planes, buses, cars and taxis – only to land in the middle of a war once again. "Seems like folks in Europe are always fighting", says the white-bearded pilgrim, gazing at the hills and popping pills for a heart condition.

Mr. Paulson, a former juvenile probation officer, has come here with a vision of his own. He wants to transport small stones from Medjugorje to Indiana, where he hopes churchgoers will obtain a stone by making a donation – half of which goes to their church, and half to a non profit foundation. Mr. Paulson wants to use this money to build a Girls Town for troubled youths, near Boys Town in Omaha, Neb.

Ultimately, he hopes to build a similar center in the former Yugoslavia. "It might be a small way for people here to start living together again", he says.

This passion for reconciliation comes from personal experience. The child of Croatian immigrants, Mr. Paulson says the closest friend from his youth was Serbian. "My parents never talked about Serb and Croat", he says. "We were all just Yugoslavs".

Now, staying at a farmhouse where pilgrims stop, Mr. Paulson gives his rusty Croatian a workout. Seated around a table groaning with soup, chicken, potatoes and coleslaw, he begins the dinner by declaring, "This war is insane".

Mr. Paulson’s host smiles politely and offers a glass of the plum brandy popular in this region. "I don’t drink", Mr. Paulson says apologetically. "I’m on pills".

This sparks a laugh, as does his photo album. It is filled with snapshots of Mr. Paulson as a volunteer of Santa Claus, at a roller rink in Gary. He does a few "Ho ho hos", chats about the Chicago Bulls (popular in basketball – crazed Croatia) and about his great-grandchildren. By the end of the dinner, on of the boys in the family has agreed to help him gather stone from nearby fields.

Mr. Paulson isn’t sure he will ever see his dream realized. He can’t stay long because he has no credit cards and only $1,000 in cash. Even if his health holds, returning here won’t be easy: His only income is a Social Security check and a small government pension. But Mr. Paulson says his mission is no more daunting than that of other pilgrims, praying for peace in the midst of war.

"If you want to move mountains", he says, taking another pill, "you have to do it stone by stone".

The Wall Street Journal, Monday, November 9, 1992

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