Our Heroes

Heroes and role models in inspire us and guide us. From time to time, we will share some of the stories of our heros and role models. Please send us yours as well!

Ziba Gacanovic (1934 - 2013)

Ziba Gacanovic was born in Sarajevo in 1934, when her country was still part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, ruled by King Alexander, who was assassinated in Marseilles. Following the regency, the German Army invaded and occupied Yugoslavia during the Second World War. Ziba was a schoolgirl under German occupation. At the end of the war, the Partisans, lead by Josip Broz Tito gained control of the former Kingdom, and lead it as a communist state until his death in 1980. Under Tito, Ziba was married, and had two children, a son and a daughter.

After Tito’s death, many complex forces created a movement to separate into smaller countries. When Slovenia announced its independence 1991, the leader of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic invaded, to try and keep the country together, but Slovenia succeeded in breaking away.

On March 1, 1992, a referendum was held to determine if Bosnia should also declare its independence. In response, on April 5, 1992, the Siege of Sarajevo began. Serb Paramilitaries surrounded the city, and attacked the civilian population. Ziba, her daughter, her daughter in law and her grandchildren fled as refugees to Croatia. Her son, a soldier in the Bosnian Army, stayed to defend the city, He was tragically killed in 1993.
The Siege lasted until a cease fire was declared in October of 1995, After the signing of the Dayton Accords, the Siege was declared over on February 1996, and Ziba and her daughter were able to return to Sarajevo. Her son’s wife and son emigrated to Australia, and were effectively lost to Ziba.

The Dayton Accords created the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina under a complex power sharing arrangement between the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, the Muslim Bosniaks, and the Catholic Croatians, Peace is still being protected by outside forces, and a final constitution has yet to be adopted. The once lovely city of Sarajevo, site of the 1984 Olympic Winter Games, was badly damaged by bombs and bullets, and the people of the region devastated by the destruction of the economy and the dislocation of the population as refugees moved away or to new areas.

The death of her son changed Ziba’s life. After losing half of her family to the war, she searched for a reason to continue to live. She became aware of the needs of the children of the tiny village of Illovaca, near Gorazde, in the poorest corner of Bosnia. Many of these children lost their fathers in the war. The industry of the area was destroyed, and economic conditions are dire. Ziba dedicated herself to these children, and helped them in every possible way. From her many friends all over the world, Ziba raised funds to provide a wood burning stove to one child who lived without heat in a stone hut. She traveled from Gorazde to Sarajevo to obtain medicine that was unavailable in the region for a child who had pneumonia. She provided warm clothing for the winter, paid school fees so children could attend school, and provided funds so the poorest children can have school lunch.

After the last Balkan war, Ziba tried to find a way to teach children, so badly scared by the war and intolerance, that peace is possible, and that they can help to create a society where mistakes of the past will not be repeated. Ziba extended her “helping hand” beyond her own country’s borders, hosting international students in her home and assisting them as they pursed their education goals abroad.

Ziba served as a volunteer with Global Children’s Organization for many years and then became a founding member of the PACT (Peace Action Children’s Team) Board in 2005. As the PACT coordinator, Ziba helped select children and volunteers from various communities in her region, and arranged transportation for most Balkan participants going to PACT camps for nearly 10 years.

Sadly, Ziba passed away in December 2013, and her impactful presence will be greatly missed by the PACT family as we resume our camps in our 10th year. Ziba was a true inspiration to all those who had the opportunity to know and work with her from around the globe. We can only hope that folks will remember the incredible model she has provided, and that there will be others who choose to "take up her torch" to serve youth with as much loving energy as Ziba did!