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Remembering a Great Humanitarian

By Michael Boyce

Today on the blog, we're pleased to bring you a guest post by Ann Blackman: friend of Refugees International and author of a new book on Julia Taft, the great humanitarian and public servant. We also encourage you to follow Ann on Twitter at @offtosaveworld.

 

Former RI President Ken Bacon gave me the psychological boost needed to begin my biography of Julia Taft, OFF TO SAVE THE WORLD: How JULIA TAFT Made A Difference (Maine Authors Publishing, November 2011). “Julia was fearless about the bureaucracy,” Ken said as we sat down together over lunch. “She knew how to make the power of the US government work for her, and she didn’t do it in a ruthless way that made enemies. People loved being ordered around by Julia Taft.”

Ken sent me to see another RI president, Lionel Rosenblatt, who told me of meeting up with Julia in Sarajevo in January 1993, when she was working with InterAction and leading a coalition of relief agencies to the Balkans.

Julia was staying at the city’s only functional hotel, a Holiday Inn. Its top floors had been blown off in fighting months before, but it did have rooms available, as well as a dining room that served one Spartan meal a day. As Julia tells the story, the group entered the huge lobby, which had smashed windows, chandeliers dangling from the ceiling and hallways lit only with candles.

When Julia got to her fifth floor room, she found taped-over windows that had been shattered by bullets. The whole wall in back of the bed had been gouged out by machine gun fire. The room looked out over “Sniper Ally”, a boulevard in front of the hotel where people had to dodge gunfire.

Julia put down her bags and went off to look for Lionel Rosenblatt, who had arrived in the city a few weeks earlier. “Those were dark times,” Rosenblatt told me. “It was the first winter of the siege and morale was at a low point. We even talked about how we would evacuate Sarajevo if we had to.”

After meeting with Lionel, Julia retuned to the Holiday Inn. The weather was bitter cold, and the hotel had no electricity or running water. When she got to her room, she looked around and thought, “This is it, curtains, my last night on Earth,” she thought. She wrote a letter to her husband and children saying, basically, “I’m not going to live through this.”

Then she grabbed her Kevlar vest, her helmet, and a blanket and went into the bathroom. “I crawled into the tub and thought, ‘Now I have an extra wall between me and Sniper Ally.’ This is the safest place I am going to be. But after about two hours, I thought, ‘Julia, if this is your last night on earth, why are you trying to sleep in this stupid tub when it is so uncomfortable. Go sleep in the bed.’” She went to the desk, piled up some other furniture between it and the window, and went to sleep.

The next morning, she took off again to meet Rosenblatt. But first, her driver stopped at the Sarajevo hospital to drop off a load of medicine. Seconds after they drove off, a 120-millimeter shell exploded exactly where their car had been parked. By the time she arrived at the Parliament building, where RI had its headquarters, Julia was a wreck, but Rosenblatt helped to settle her nerves. “He was a real hero,” she said.

Julia Taft died of cancer in March 2008. Lionel Rosenblatt received InterAction’s Julia Taft award in July 2009. On December 1, 2011, Julia Taft was honored with a tribute sponsored by InterAction, the State Department’s Bureau of Refugees, Population and Migration, USAID and the United Nations Development Programme. The tribute was held in the Julia Taft Room at InterAction.

 

To learn more about OFF TO SAVE THE WORLD: How JULIA TAFT Made A Difference, please visit www.offtosavetheworld.com.

Off to Save the World is Ann Blackman’s fourth biography. She is also the author of Seasons Of Her Life, about Madeleine K. Albright, the first women to become U.S. secretary of state (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 1998); co-author of The Spy Next Door, about the secret life of FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen (Little Brown, 2002); and author of Wild Rose, A True Story, about the remarkable life of Civil War spy Rose O'Neale Greenhow. (Random House, 2005).

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