After working through back channels since March to get doses of a COVID-19 vaccine donated to the struggling residents of Bosnia, Boston attorney Phillip Weiner is rejoicing.
“I’m walking on air,” he said as he relayed the news. “I just learned that the American vaccine will arrive shortly in Sarajevo. It is great news,” he said of the 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine being sent to the Balkan Peninsula. “It’s hard to emphasize how important this donation is. It’s a game changer. It’s going to save lives.”
The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has 3.3 million people – including fewer than 1,000 Jews – does not even have 5 percent of its population vaccinated, which is why it has one of the worst COVID-19 infection/death rates in Europe.
Weiner and the groups he assembled are now working to get Israel to commit to a vaccine donation as well.
Since March, Weiner has assembled four groups consisting of former American international judges, attorneys, academics, diplomats, and the Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They made calls, held meetings, sent letters and gave speeches. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer, who was instrumental in establishing war crimes courts all over the world, saw the Jewish Journal’s first article on the crisis, which was picked up by the international Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Israeli press. He contacted Weiner and offered to help.
“The United States has a special obligation towards Bosnia given our engagement with the country in the 1990s,” wrote Scheffer in a letter to Weiner. “There has been enough needless dying. We can prevent the deaths of many thousands of Bosnians with the vaccine and we must do so. It is the least we can do and we must sustain vaccine support for the future.”
Scheffer deplored the “politicization of the COVID vaccine among our population. It only leads to more hospitalizations and outrageous numbers of deaths.” Weiner, 66, grew up in Malden and now resides in Newton. He lived in Sarajevo when he served as an international war crimes judge over the
Bosnian War of 1992-1995. He has remained in touch with his fellow judges and Bosnian residents with whom he attended Shabbat services at the Jewish Community Synagogue in Sarajevo.
It was a phone call from international attorney Nadja Skaljic – whom Weiner had mentored a decade earlier – that kicked off his quest for the vaccine. Born in multiethnic Bosnia just before the 1992-95 war, Skaljic studied law in Sarajevo and, she said, “By a stroke of luck, I met Phil.” They stayed in touch all these years. So when the European press reported that David Kamhi – diplomat, author, Sephardic historian, and acclaimed concert violinist – had died of COVID, Skaljic rushed to tell Weiner that his great friend had died. The news shook Weiner to the core, but he soon learned that other dear friends he knew from the synagogue had either died or were hospitalized. In fact, some 5 percent of the Bosnian Jewish community is reported to have contracted or died of the disease.
“David Kamhi changed things for me,” said Weiner. “There was no reason he should have passed.”
During long calls, Weiner and Skaljic came up with a plan to try to secure vaccines for ordinary Bosnians. They first assembled a core team of international judges and prosecutors willing to use their reputation to urge the U.S. government to help.
In recent days, Bosnia and Herzegovina Minister of Foreign Affairs Bisera Turković thanked the U.S. for its donation and voiced her gratitude to the working groups for their efforts. On Bosnian television, Dr. Ismet Gavrankapetanovic, director of the Military Hospital in Sarajevo, thanked the American group of mainly former international judges who worked hard to get the vaccine to Bosnia.
Weiner said the U.S. vaccine donation is significant because other countries are now joining the effort. Turkey sent a donation. Greece indicated it would donate 120,000 doses of Astra Zeneca. Austria said it would send the vaccine.
“It is piecemeal over several months,” Weiner said. “But the U.S. donation is an immediate gift. The U.S. is buying or has a stockpile of vaccine that it’s sending around the world to struggling countries. You can’t have part of a world virus-free in a pandemic.”
“All my contacts were impressed that we pushed through informal networks to get this done,” said Skaljic, who has lived through the aftermath of the genocidal war that was part of the breakup of Yugoslavia in which 100,000 people were killed.
“What moved me was the triple whammy: Bosnian Jews surviving the Holocaust, the Bosnian war in the ’90s, and then to finally lose your life to a virus. There’s no justification,” said Skaljic.
“If Israel can donate 15,000 doses right now, that’s 15,000 lives that can be saved,” said Weiner. Donating the vaccine to a majority Muslim country would be viewed favorably by the world, said Weiner, adding that Bosnia and Herzegovina has a history of lending a hand to all residents.
Weiner spoke of how Dr. Gavrankapetanovic, a Muslim, personally treated Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, helping him recover from the virus.
During a visit to the emer- gency ward in his hospital at the height of the epidemic, Dr. Gavrankapetanovic recognized an elderly Holocaust survivor, Rikitsa Albahari. “You are here?” he asked, shocked. Knowing she would get far better treatment under his direct supervision, he took her hand and spoke to her and then asked an assistant to wheel Albahari out and bring her to another section of his hospital, where she recovered from COVID.
Growing up in Bosnia, Skaljic used to go to the synagogue with a Jewish friend. “It was normal to go to different houses of worship. That was our way of life and it still very much is. Bosnia is an idea and a metaphor for our times. Can our people work together? Surly if we can manage to do this in Bosnia, there’s hope for the rest of the world. It’s not just a country. Bosnia is an idea of what the world can be.”