BY JOSH IRBY

FROM

MAFIA TO MINISTER

SLAVKOHADŽIĆ

Slavko at 25

Money, Power, and Connections slavko joins the mafia
Slavko thought there was no problem he couldn’t solve with  money,  power, or connections. On April 10, 1992, all of that changed.
When Slavko was nineteen he joined the mafia.  His family had money, but he wanted to make something more out of his life. Of course, at less than 180 pounds, he didn’t look the part. But he was a part of one of the most successful businesses in his hometown,  Mostar—a mid-sized city on the western side of Yugoslavia in the region known as Hercegovina. In those days, at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, the political seams of Yugoslavia had already begun to tear apart. Mostar was an ethnically diverse town—Serbs, Croats, and Muslims living together. However, the seeds of division were already sown. The Neretva River runs through the valley of Mostar and divides the city into eastern and western halves. Spanning the divide is a 16th century bridge built by the Ottoman Empire which once ruled the region. In many ways, the Old Bridge—Stari Most—bound Mostar to the east and to its past. A few miles upstream from the white stones of Stari Most, Slavko began working in a seedy coffee bar, Café Lira, managing and repairing the slot machines. It was a small establishment—twelve slot machines, a bouncer, and a prostitute—but it was a start. The locals tested their luck with the dropping of a coin and the pulling of a lever. They then had the option of celebrating their victory, or mourning their loss, with a stiff drink and female companionship. In Café Lira, Slavko was the  majstor  (a word meaning both fix-it man and maestro).  To most people there, he was both: the master of the house and the one who kept their hopes, i.e. slot machines, alive. In Lira, he was somebody. One afternoon Slavko was cleaning his family’s car outside of his grandmother's house. In Mostar, especially in neighborhoods like the one where Slavko lived, everyone knew everyone else’s

FROMMAFIATOMINISTER

business. Slavko looked up from his work to see the woman who worked at the Café and two other prostitutes walking down the street towards him. It was like a scene out of Pretty Woman; there was no mistaking their profession. He froze. He imagined what his grandmother would say if word got back to her that prostitutes were greeting her grandson, “Hey Majstore!” Not knowing what to do, he threw himself under the car until they passed. He managed to keep his secret a little while longer. In his first month of work, Slavko made more money than his mother—a university graduate and the director of a big hotel in town. Not all of the money was from his paycheck, though. Everyone stole from everyone else. The boss, Žorže* (pronounced like a drunk Frenchman saying George) had a contract with the various coffee shops and hotels in town where he placed his slot machines. He got 60% and they got 40% of the take. He worked hard, though, to ensure they never got their full percentage. However, while Žorže was stealing from the hotels, his chief man in Bosnia, Slavko’s boss, was stealing from Žorže. Fake jackpots. Two sets of books. It was the business inside of the business. Money exchanged hands to buy silence. Everyone was in on it. Even the bouncer. Tired of losing money through the back door, Žorže once had his team of technicians design a box that went inside of each machine to prevent stealing. It was foolproof. That is, until the same technicians realized there is more money in stealing than its prevention. They designed a new gadget to circumvent the box. They wanted a share of the take too.

The internal business of stealing from one another was much more dangerous than the external one. Slavko wasn’t afraid to threaten a man twice his size. The whole organization—and a very large bouncer—was behind him. No one dared cross the  majstor. On one occasion, though, the bouncer corned Slavko in a hallway, grabbing him by the throat and slamming him against the wall. He thought Slavko had cut him out of his take. Slavko grabbed the pistol he carried in the small of his back and jammed it in the bouncer’s chest. He backed down. That was the only time he had to pull his weapon—and on one of his own. Slavko began rising through the ranks. Soon he was overseeing three different cafés. He was made “Income Inspector”, a position created by his boss to cut down on the stealing. It only provided him a greater opportunity to steal. Eventually he had collected enough money to buy slot machines of his own.

“In his first month of work, Slavko made more money than his mother—a university graduate and the director of a big hotel in town.”
During this time, he also met a beautiful young girl named Sanja. She was perfect in every way except one: she was religious. Slavko was a staunch atheist and loyal communist party member. For him there was no need for religion. He told Sanja that he wanted to date her, but only if she met his conditions. First, she had to throw out the cross earrings that she wore every day. Second, she had to stop going to church. She reluctantly agreed.

Slavko working the slot machines in Cafe Lira. Slavko and Sanja in Mostar before the war.

*Slavko’s boss Žorže evenutally fled Mostar for France where he hid from the authorities. His past, however, caught up with him. He was murdered by the Russian mafia while visiting Prague.

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Slavko was a success. He had everything he needed to solve the problems in his life: money, power, and connections. Then, in April 1992, a semi truck filled with dynamite exploded in front of the Yugoslav army base only a mile down the road from Café Lira. Yugoslavia was falling into chaos. Mostar was thrust into war. Each side of the ethnically diverse city prepared for battle. The Yugoslav army was conscripting any young male they could find, as were the Serb and Croatian forces. Slavko had served his time in the reserves, so they were looking for him by name. He was not afraid to fight, he just did not know how to choose a side. If he joined the Yugoslav army, he would be fighting against his own city. If he joined the Serbian army he would be fighting his mother’s family. If he joined the Croatian army, he would be fighting against his father’s family.

No amount of money, power, or connections could save him from this situation.  For two weeks he stayed the night with friends. He knew if he returned home, they would conscript him by force. He felt more lost than ever before. One day he was wandering through the town with Sanja, when they passed a church. Sanja asked if she could go in to pray; Slavko reluctantly agreed, planning to stay outside and wait for her. Something, that night, compelled him to follow her into the church. He stood alone at the back of the sanctuary unsure how to pray. Eventually he just said what came to his mind, “God, if you exist, please help me.” After that he recited a list of promises that he would fulfill if God came through for him. Then they left the sanctuary. That was the first time Slavko ever prayed.

The Old Bridge under siege. Mostar, BosniaHercegovina

Tragedy knows no border slavko flees mostar
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.
Slavko prayed. 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. 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.

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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 n eve r t o re t u r n t o B o s n i a a n d Hercegovina. 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. 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 and Sanja on their wedding day, July 1994.

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.”

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Following God wherever He leads slavko faces a new challenge
distribute presents to all who attend. This year 300 children came. The church also feeds 20-30 local families with monthly food distribution. Slavko and his family were settling into their new home. When he would go back and visit his friends in Mostar they For five years Slavko and his family lived in Mostar, working made fun of the new “Sarajevan” words he started to use. He with a humanitarian aid organization, completing Bible school, was assimilating. He was happy. and serving as an assistant in a local Evangelical Church. Just During the first few months of 2008, Slavko noticed as they began to grow comfortable with their new (old) home, something wasn’t right. He discovered a growth on his body he God began to lead them in a different direction. couldn’t explain. After consulting a doctor friend, he went in Their path was leading to Sarajevo. for an ultrasound. Although both Mostar and Sarajevo are in the same The growth, which was on his testicle, was a tumor. The country, they are different in many ways. Mostar is a doctor delivered the bad news. There are two types of testicular Mediterranean climate, Sarajevo hosted the winter Olympics. tumors—the bad kind and the worse kind. Both are cancerous. Mostar feels like a small town, Sarajevo is the capital city. He must surgically remove it immediately. Mostar looks westward, Sarajevo looks eastward. However, In April the tumor was cut out and in June he started both are diverse. Both survived a siege. Both cities are, in a way, radiation therapy. Despite the horrible circumstances, Slavko wounded. did not lose heart. Perhaps after surviving a war, refugee life, In September 2003, Slavko and Sanja, along with their and Jovana’s medical uncertainty, he was ready to face any children Jovana and David, moved to Sarajevo. Slavko was the challenge. new minister at a local Evangelical Church. The job came with In fact, he joked about it. inherent challenges, but the work gave him purpose. “I thought my testicles were getting bigger because I am The church was (and is) regularly involved in humanitarian THE MAN. In the end, it was just cancer.” work in the community. Each Christmas the church youth God had prepared Slavko to meet the challenge. However, perform a puppet show for the neighborhood children and there were more obstacles to come.

Slavko and Sanja were on a new adventure. They did not know where it would end. They were following God’s lead.

Ceremony to accept Slavko as the pastor of the Evangelical Church on Kosevsko Brdo. Sarajevo, BosniaHercegovina

The year after surviving cancer, Slavko decided to go back to school. He had completed his studies at the Bible School, but still lacked a University degree. He applied to the Theological College in Osijek, Croatia and started taking classes while continuing to lead the church in Sarajevo. He also moved his family to a new apartment. They needed more space for their growing children. He sold his parent’s apartment in Mostar and secured a nice home with only a 5-year loan. As a cancer survivor, Slavko knew the brevity of life.  He would live his while he could. In December—around Christmas—his life changed again. At the beginning of the fall, Slavko started experiencing pain from his right kidney. At one point, he was in so much pain that he could not stand up to drive himself to the Emergency Room. When he finally made it to the ER, the doctor diagnosed him with kidney stones. He took the prescribed medicine and waited for the stones to pass. However, the pain continued to increase. By December, he couldn’t take the pain anymore. A new doctor prescribed a CAT scan. It revealed a tumor almost 3 inches long right against his vena cava. His kidney had stopped functioning and was completely blocked off by the tumor. For the second time in his life, cancer invaded his body. But this one, because of its proximity to a major vein, was inoperable. Slavko broke. “Why, God? Why me? Why two times?”

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Slavko while undergoing cancer treatment. Slavko with his children, Jovana and David, after graduation from University.

The peace that pervaded his first bout with cancer evaporated. He felt numb. After years of following God, forsaking his inheritance, and serving in the church, the allpowerful God allowed this to happen. “What if I don’t survive? What will happen to my family? Who will pay off the debt on our apartment? How can Sanja work and take care of the kids?” Questions drenched his prayers. There were no answers. In January, he started intensive chemotherapy. They pumped a week’s worth of chemicals into his body then gave his system two weeks to rest. A friend who had been through chemo told him that the first cycle is easy, but each cycle after gets progressively worse. By the fourth cycle, his friend couldn’t even make it up one flight of stairs to his house. Slavko’s apartment was on the top floor of his building, 6 flights from the bottom with no elevator. He wasn’t sure how he—or his family—would survive. After two weeks of recovery he returned for his second cycle. The doctor drew his blood and he waited impatiently for the results. In order to go through the next round of treatment, his white blood cell count needed to be at least 3x109 cells per cubic millimeter (cmm). Anything less and the doctor would postpone the treatment another week or more. He knew that every day they waited, the cancer grew stronger. He returned to the doctor’s office two days later for the results. His white blood cell count was 2.3x109 cmm—too low. The doctor told him to reschedule for the next week. But he was determined.

“Listen, I am a believer in God and I believe that God can do miracles. Can you draw my blood again and see if my white cell count is higher today?" The doctor was skeptical. “It doesn’t work that way. Two days is not enough time for the count to change. But, if you insist, we will put this to rest.” On the way to the lab, Slavko asked Sanja to pray that the numbers would be higher. He prayed too. He asked God to raise his count to at least 2.9x109. He didn’t have faith to ask for more. If God could get him to 2.9, he thought he could talk the doctor into going ahead with the chemo. Thirty minutes later the results came back. The doctor couldn’t explain it. His white blood cell count was 7.7. In that moment, everything changed for Slavko. It was a reintroduction to the God he first met 18 years earlier in wartorn Mostar. It was a reminder that even in the worst of moments, someone is in control. Not just anyone, but someone who loved him. The following week they ordered an MRI, but couldn’t find the tumor. It was gone. Assuming the machine was wrong, they repeated the MRI. The 3-inch cancer had disappeared without a trace. If you ask Slavko, he will tell you that God healed him. But God healed more than his disease, he mended his heart. He finished out the chemotherapy on the request of his doctors. He lost all of his hair, eyebrows, lashes, and nails, dropped almost 70 pounds, and had to wear a fluid bag because of his kidney failure. But nothing could dull his joy.

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Apart from the first cycle, he never missed a Sunday in church, drove himself to all of his appointments, and ascended the 88 steps to his apartment in his own power. For the past two years he has remained cancer free. His kidneys started working again and have grown stronger in the past six months. Today, he continues to minister in the church. He finished his studies and graduated last fall with a theology degree. He travels around the world speaking, teaching, and sharing his story. He has only one regret. He wishes he had asked God for more. In his typical jovial way he jokes, “Five years ago when I first discovered cancer, I was worried because we had just taken out a loan for our apartment. What would the family do without me? So I asked God to give me five more years of life to pay off the loan. Well, it has been five years. I hope he doesn’t

“We have a choice—we can carry our troubles, problems and difficulties through life, or we give them to God. I have tried both. The second option is better.”
Slavko Hadžić

Life, God, and Difficult Circumstances an interview with slavko
When Slavko joined the mafia, he thought it would provide him a better life. Surprisingly, the better life was on the other side of suffering and brokenness. In January 2013, I sat down with Slavko and asked him what he has learned from these life experiences. As for the cancer, it showed me that my life priorities were out of order. Life is short and transient. Too many unimportant things were stealing my time and my joy. Now I enjoy my life, my family, and the people around me so much more. Its the smaller things in life that make it worth living. The Bible says that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him. I experienced this truth. God allowed these difficulties and problems into my life to draw me closer to Him and change me for the better. I learned more about God and grew more in my character in two weeks with cancer then I did in 5 years of "normal" life.

You escaped a war, lived as a refugee, and survived cancer twice. What have you learned about facing difficult things in life?
My country went through a terrible war. Some people became rich through illegal means—we call them war profiteers. I like to joke that I am some kind of war profiteer. When I was dealing with my problems on my own, I didn't see a need for God in my life. Then the war came. I cried out to God. Yes, I lost a lot of my material possessions in the war, but I profited spiritually. And the Bible says that my profits— spiritual things—are much more valuable than theirs. That first prayer helped me start believing in God, but that belief was limited to God's existence. I had no idea that I am a sinner, that my sins separate me from God and that I need God's grace and forgiveness  When Jovana was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, I remembered all the promises I had made to God. I realized that I was a liar and a hypocrite— I searched for God only when I needed Him. Then, when he came through for me, I forgot the promises I had made.

What have these experiences taught you about God?
Well, I started at zero. Before that day I prayed for the first time, I knew nothing about God. Since then I've learned that God wants to reveal himself to us and that He always does when we sincerely search for Him. I've learned that God is the creator of everything and the Lord of the universe; yet He still cares for me and loves me! He showed me this love in Jesus,   the only just and sinless one, who gave his life on the cross to take the punishment for my sins. I've learned that His sacrifice can renew my relationship with God in this life, and for eternity after death. He has a plan for my life and His plan is perfect—much better

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then any plans I make. He is always in control and He knows what He is doing even when circumstances look hopeless. I am learning to put all my faith and trust in Him.

What would you say to those currently dealing with difficult circumstances?

We have a choice—we can carry our troubles, problems and difficulties through life, or we give them to God. I have tried both. For most of my life, I was an atheist, coping with difficulties on my own. Since I started following Jesus and seeking God's Leo Praesen help  through difficult situations, things have changed. Even during my most difficult problems, there is a smile on my face and joy in my heart Slavko and Sanja’s daughter, Jovana, never developed because I know He cares for me. Best of all, I will cerebral palsy. Instead, she competes in international spend eternity with Him. So I would tell those who rhythmic gymnastics competitions. haven't experienced a relationship with God that we weren't designed to carry our burdens alone. The second option is better. Jesus is always ready to forgive, to give us a new start, and take our difficulties from us. To those who are followers of Christ, don't be reluctant to ask for prayer and help from other believers. When I faced cancer the second time, it was the prayers of other Christians, their encouragement and care that helped me through that difficult time. Reading the Bible was also a great encouragement as God reminded me of His promises. Josh Irby | Sarajevo

“Lorem Ipsum Dolor Set Ahmet In Condinmentum. Nullam Wisi Acru Suscpit Consectetuer viviamus Lorem Ipsum Dolor Set Ahmet. Lorem Ipsum Dolor Set Ahmet In Wisi Acru Suscpit Consectetuer viviamus.”

About the Author
Josh Irby lives and works in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina. He is the author of the book Meeting Miss Irby He writes at joshirby.com Connect with him online: Facebook: Josh Irby Twitter: @sarajevojosh

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