Surprises in the cellar



Boys and girls called to each other in the streets of Zagreb, Croatia. They were happy to be outside for a few minutes. When the streets were peaceful, they quickly hurried to play.

Opportunities to play were rare in Croatia and much of what was once Yugoslavia. War had destroyed many of the cities. The fighting kept everyone huddled inside, afraid of being caught in the crossfire.

Maria and her family knew all about fighting. They once lived in Mostar, a city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the war there took a heavy toll. Everything they owned was destroyed. Even their church was burned to the ground. With nowhere to turn, Maria’s family fled to Croatia.

Soon Maria began working in Zagreb at a relief organization founded by an Assembly of God missionary. She enjoyed giving food and other donated items to needy families. She understood their fear and the pain of losing all their belongings. People trusted Maria. They knew she cared about them.

Maria and her family enjoyed their busy neighborhood. They enjoyed their home and its cozy cellar. Others appreciated the cellar, too. Whenever fighting broke out, parents always sent their children there to wait for the gunfire to stop. It was the only safe place in the neighborhood.

One day the crackle of machine gun fire pierced the air. As the sound grew louder, the children scrambled for cover. “Go to Maria’s house! Go to Maria’s house!”, their parents urged. “You will be safe there.”

Soon Maria’s cellar was filled with children. Outside the air filled with dust as mortar fire shook the buildings and trees.

Maria looked around at the boys and girls. She had no idea how long the latest wave of fighting would last. She knew many of the children were frightened. As the time passed, they would grow restless and even bored. How could she possibly soothe their fears and occupy them until it was safe to return home?

She thought of a special shipment a group had sent recently. As usual, relief workers had distributed some of the items right away. The rest of it was stored in Maria’s cellar to be given away later. In fact, some of the boxes were not even opened. Assuming they contained flour and spaghetti—as most of the boxes did—Maria wanted to keep the food as fresh as possible.

As the fighting dragged on outside, Maria decided to open the cartons. Maybe the older children could help her sort the supplies. Imagine her surprise when she looked inside the first box and found—not flour and spaghetti, but toys! So did the second box, and the third! Now the children had something to take their minds off the danger outside and the cramped quarters inside. They played happily until the fighting stopped.

Maria was amazed. In all the months she had helped distribute items, she had never received anything but food from that particular supplier. Why did this group think about sending toys? And why did she store them in her cellar to be opened at a time when they were needed most?


God cared enough about these children to give them a happy surprise in an otherwise frightening time. His love never changes, no matter what our circumstances may be.


Information for this story came from Elizabeth Mittelsteadt, missionary to Germany. Maria is Elizabeth’s sister.