Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

From Mafia to Minister: Slavko’s Story (p2)

This post is the second of a three-part story. I suggest you read part one here before continuing on. Some of this article is recycled from a chapter of my book, Meeting Miss Irby.

When war reached Mostar in April 1992, the city was instantly divided. Bullets and grenades ripped through century-old buildings. Mostar’s streets and cafes emptied as its citizens prepared for the worst.

It was in this hopeless situation that Slavko prayed for the first time.

Within days, God answered. Through inexplicable circumstances, Slavko and Sanja were able to escape Mostar to Cyprus. Slavko found a job as a waiter. Eventually, he and Sanja married.  There, in exile, they waited out the war. In the virtual comfort of the Mediterranean, Slavko forgot the promises he had made to God.

Slavko on Cyprus

Slavko on Cyprus

After the war, they moved to Belgrade, found jobs, and started a family. It was the birth of their first child that forced Slavko to think about God again.

When Jovana was born, something wasn’t right. The doctors were concerned and referred Slavko and Sanja to a specialist—one of the best in former Yugoslavia.

The doctor examined Jovana carefully and patiently. When she finished, she looked up at them stoically. “We will need to do some more tests,” she said, “but I already know what the results will be.” Slavko and Sanja held their breath. “Your daughter has cerebral palsy.” 

That night Slavko went into his room and prayed. “God, I know that I made a lot of promises last time I needed you. I know that I have not kept those promises. But please save my little baby from this disease.”

For two weeks he prayed as his little daughter underwent one assessment after another—ultrasound brain scan, EEG, needles, huge machines. Yet again, he was completely helpless.

When they met with the specialist a second time, the doctor was visibly upset. She looked at the results, then re-examined Jovana, looked at the results again, then re-examined their baby daughter. Finally, the doctor asked them to sit down. “I have made mistakes before in my practice,” she began, ‘but never one as big as this. Your daughter does not have cerebral palsy.”

To Slavko, that was a direct answer to his prayers. A shift took place in his heart; he began to read the Bible and his life began to change. Eventually, he decided he did believe in God and would follow him whatever that meant for his life.

Slavko and Sanja had sworn never to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Belgrade, they were living in an all-expenses-paid apartment. One of Slavko’s wealthy relatives—his father’s elderly cousin who had no children of her own—had promised to support them financially if they stayed in Belgrade to care for her and her husband. Both Slavko and Sanja were working, but the rent money helped them survive. In addition to that, this relative had promised to pass on all of her inheritance to them when she died. That included the 4500 square foot villa with a half-acre garden in the exclusive Dedinje neighborhood of Belgrade as well as the weekend house on Zlatibor, a nearby mountain.

SlavkoSanja at wedding

They were happy in Belgrade, but Slavko began to feel that God wanted them to go back to Mostar.

His hometown of Mostar was no longer what it was before the war. The Old Bridge was completely destroyed.  It stood for 427 years before it splashed into the Neretva River on a November afternoon in 1993. The people of Mostar were desperate, lacking many basic needs.

Some of Slavko’s family still lived in Mostar. During the war, his brother-in-law went to the various aid organizations looking for food to feed his family. At each office he was handed a form that asked for his name, contact information, and nationality. Because of his brother-in-law’s answer to the nationality question, he was repeatedly denied help. He returned home to his wife and children empty-handed. Then Slavko’s mother heard about an organization called Agape, named for the Greek word meaning “unconditional love.” When she came to apply and they asked for her grandchildren’s birth certificates she expected another rejection. To her surprise, the worker just glanced at the documents, confirmed that she did in fact have grandchildren, and handed her a box of food.

Slavko and Sanja wanted to return to Mostar to work with this organization.

They faced a difficult decision: Did they stay in the comfort and financial security of Serbia, or did they do what God wanted them to do?

The conversation with Slavko’s wealthy cousin in Belgrade went as they expected: stay and they could have everything; leave and they would get nothing.

Slavko and Sanja decided to go.

He started volunteering with Agape and taking classes at the Bible School. Soon he was in charge of delivering food to families on both sides, crossing ethnic divides in an ethnically divided city.

Instead of taking from his neighbors, as he once did in Café Lira, he was giving back.

I recently asked Slavko what motivates him to help others, to serve those who come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. His reply:

“My faith is my main motivation. It tells me that we are all God’s creations and that we have value simply because God loved us enough to make us. But we all experience separation from God because we are not faithful to him like He is to us. We disobey him. We sin. I know and can speak from personal experience. I was a liar, a robber, a blasphemer. At first, I did not even care what God thought; then, when I did, I made all these promises that I could never keep in my own strength. Finally, I realized that it is an impossible job to be good enough for God. I cannot help myself; I need help. When I came to that conclusion, God started to change me, and he is changing me still. He is changing me so that I can help others.”

“Jesus, who had no reason to love me, came into our world to be mistreated and cursed and killed, so that I could have my deepest need met, my spiritual need for a relationship with God. If Jesus sacrificed his life for me, what sacrifice is too big for me to give? It sure makes giving a box of food to a hungry family look small.”

Read the last part of Slavko’s story here. Slavko moves his family to Sarajevo and faces a life-threatening challenge . . . twice.


What happened to Jovana? She never showed symptoms of cerebral palsy. In fact, she now competes in (and wins) international competitions in rhythmic gymnastics.

Jovana demonstrating some of her gymnastics skills.

Jovana demonstrating some of her gymnastics skills. (photo by Griffin Gibson)

What have you had to give up in order to live a better story? Comment below.

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