(Nijmegen, The Netherlands) June 1, 2013 – When there is a war or mass displacement, international relief organizations often rush in, help and after a while disappear again. The Church operates differently: it was there before the conflict, may have been part of the problem, hopefully is part of the solution and remains after the other organizations have left.
When the war broke out in Yugoslavia 20 years ago, Fr. Stjepan Kusan S.J. was provincial superior of the Jesuits. Jesuit students saw their brothers and cousins fighting for Croatia and Bosnia. They asked Fr. Stjepan permission to join them the army – instead he asked them to get involved in the emergency relief, reconciliation and peace.
In 1993 Fr. Stjepan became the founding director of Jesuit Refugee Service Bosnia-Croatia and worked for justice until his death in April this year. After the 1995 Dayton peace agreements, most international organizations left the region, but local Caritas and JRS kept their offices open and continued their work with refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), which in some areas continue to this day.
As most refugees and IDPs today are victims of ethnic cleansing, Stjepan always worked on reconciliation and reconstruction. From the beginning, he chose to work with many diverse organizations, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.
After the war he worked in Macedonia with the Orthodox Church where he organized summer camps for Muslim children from Kosovo, especially landmine survivors, and started a day care centre for families of children with disabilities. Catholics challenged his open attitude to others more than once and most local aid organizations still limit their support to their own ethnic group.
As a young man Stjepan had chosen to be a Catholic – against the wish of his family who were partisan fighters during World War II and staunch supporters of the communist leader, Marshal Tito. Later he became a parish priest, but that did not close his eyes to people's material needs nor narrow-minded when it came to helping others.
Some Catholics reproached Stjepan for helping victims of all ethnic groups, not only his own. I'm sure Stjepan would have quoted the prophet Micah: "You have been told what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8).
I remember vividly how Stjepan was moved to tears when talking with Serbian students whose parents he had known, and who were driven from their land. His eyes shone with joy when he greeted refugee families, making jokes with children and smoking a cigarette with the men standing under the sun on a cold windy day – it did not matter where they came from. They were there at that moment, which was what counted.
by Fr. Jan Stuyt, S.J.
God, give your judgment to the king; your justice to the son of kings;
That he may govern your people with justice, your oppressed with right judgment,
That the mountains may yield their bounty for the people, and the hills great abundance,
That he may defend the oppressed among the people, save the poor and crush the oppressor.
May he live as long as the sun endures, like the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain coming down upon the fields, like showers watering the earth.
For he rescues the poor when they cry out, the oppressed who have no one to help.
He shows pity to the needy and the poor and saves the lives of the poor.
From extortion and violence he frees them, for precious is their blood in his sight.