Slide 1 This presentation is entitled Bosnia – A Story of Refugees. My name Dzuber, is from Bosnia, so this presentation includes information from both my personal experience and from the literature. But why should we think about Bosnia now? The war is over and the peace, although cold - holds firm. I want to begin by addressing that question. We need to understand the Bosnian story because it shows us what it is to be a refugee, a stranger in a strange land, along with all the pain and paradox. Through the story we can learn how to provide healthcare that makes sense. Lately, I have been struck by the many similarities between the conversations we had about the Bosnians and the current conversation we’ve having about Syrian refugees. I usually work in low or free community clinics and it’s not uncommon that people from far flung places in the world, places of violence, appear on the clinic schedule.
Slide 2 Throughout the conflict in Bosnia from 1992 until 1995 when the US finally intervened, a false narrative was used as a primary reason not to intervene. The story went like this….
The hatred between “ethnic groups” in the country was too deep and too religious to be stopped. The problem with this story is the people of Bosnia are not different ethnic groups, they come from the same genetic lineage, and speak the same language. The peoples of Bosnia are all of Serbo-Croatian descent and all speak a language with 3 names. Yes, there are different dialects but as my Bosnian cousin tells me, “We understand each other.” The roots of the conflict are not deeply religious misunderstandings. In fact the Bosnians, particularly the Muslims, were historically and politically the middlemen negotiating conflict between the Croatians and the Serbians.
The Bosnian story is also a narrative of who conquered the various areas of Bosnia’s people. For Croatia it was the Austrian Empire, for the Bosnian Muslims it was the Ottoman Empire, and for the Serbs rule came from the east. The religions followed empire.
And there were other historic sources of conflict some more imagined than real. If you read the history your will learn about:
The Serbian Foundational Narrative which remembers a loss of territory in the 1300’s, a loss of the idea of a “Greater Serbia,” loss of Serbian Identity
You’ll read of the alliance of Serbia with Russia during the cold war. As a result of this alliance the Serbians in Bosnia were the military and so well armed when Yugoslavia fell apart.
You can easily notice the two consonants in my name “Dz” as a hallmark of an eastern European name. My grandfather who brought the name to the U.S was, born in the mountains of Bosnia Herzegovina and came to the US at the turn of the twentieth century to escape starvation. He must have been an unusual man because Bosnia has one of the lowest refugee rates in the world, especially if you look before 1992. My family from Bosnia explained this to me in 1995 when they came, themselves, refugees, telling me that no one would leave Bosnia. That was, until now, unthinkable. It was too beautiful to leave, a paradise, a land of honey.
Slide 3 So what was this war really about?
It was a deal between Trudjman and Milsovcheic to create a bigger Serbia, to create a bigger Croatia. A simple contest for land and power. To achieve these aims you had to get a lot of people to move, and in that sense the war remains a great success.
Ethnic cleansing stands as a strategy that can work! On this slide you see Bosnia before the war. Greater Serbia is toward the east on the right side of the map and Croatia on the left and north upper side of the map. The Bosnians, mostly Muslims, are pictured in green. The Serbs are pictured in red and the Croatian in blue. Notice you cannot construct a bigger Serbia or a bigger Croatia unless the Muslims move.
Slide 4 Here is a map of Bosnia after the war. The colors no longer mingle. It turns out if you rape women, kill old people, kill the men, burn the homes, cut off the electricity, starve people of food and water, people will move. This map shows why I say the war from an ethnic cleansing point of view was a great success. Except for Sarajevo the war’s original aims were achieved. Notice the Serbs are clustered around the borders with Serbia and these were the areas of many mass killings.
Slide 5 Richard Holbrook said Bosnia represented the greatest collective failure of the West since the 1930s.
200,000 Muslim civilians were systematically killed.
20,000 people remain missing.
2,000,000 people lost their homes, their land, their world and became refugees.
Slide 6 I remember as if it happened an hour ago.
I got a call from the IRC that four families with children would be arriving in a week and could we make arrangements for them.
We picked everyone up at the SF airport, carrying some stuffed animals for the children. Only one person, Dzana, spoke some English. They had survived the siege of Sarajevo, walked out of the city using the famous tunnel, and took a bus over the mountains into Croatia, where they waited for 8 months for permission to come the US, sponsored by my elderly father. Two families were relocated in Modesto with cousins and two families with us. We sat together on the deck at my sister’s house, mostly staring at each other. We ate spaghetti and they smoked cigarettes. It would take time to find out what they had been through. But despite the language problem there was a sense of mutual recognition. We struggled to communicate. Dzana’s grandfather and my grandfather were brothers and at first that was all we knew.
Slide 7 This slide shows the tunnel which goes from the center of Sarajevo to the airport. It’s about 2 miles long. Most adults cannot stand up in it unless they are very short. It saved the capital as that was how supplies of food and fuel could be smuggled into the city for survival during the siege. Dzana and the others walked out this same way, carrying a small suit case each. Her son Tarik was 4, her daughter Lela was still at the breast. She did not walk. Dzana told us the story. They were in their home on the hillside of Sarajevo when their neighbors, carrying guns, people they knew personally came to their house in the late afternoon one day. They were told they had fifteen minutes to leave. Get what they could and go or be killed. Mesha had built that house with his own hands. They left quietly, leaving their life behind. Dzana said over and over again in those first few months “they killed my life.” The house was used by the snipers during the war to terrorize people in the city, picking them off one by one if they dared leave their apartments. I remember seeing that on the evening news and wondering what had happened to Dzana. As it happen right before the war broke out Dzana had visited us in California so we had had a chance to meet. She was an OB/GYN surgeon and was here in California at a medical conference.
Slide 8 There are many new words for war. The missing words are often soldiers and armies. Was war always this way? I thought that it used to be that the armies fought first and then if you lost your group was destroyed. After the war one of my Bosnian cousins got a new house in Alameda, built by habitat for humanity. Alma had lost her father and brother in the war. They died in one of the many camps that starved, raped, and murdered people. Her brother, she told me, was a special case at the Hague because he was crucified using a big wooden cross and this was the reason she was singled out to get the house once in the U.S. She was also asked to give several interviews when she was here because her story was so personally moving. I never did have the courage to ask her to tell me more. She looked exactly like my auntie Selma and that was startling enough.
Slide 9 Only diplomats and politician can argue about whether it is a massacre, a genocide, or a concentration camp, or I don’t know what. If it needs to be ignored then we say it does not rise to the occasion. The people in the camps don’t care because they are starving. When I look at this photo I imagine this might be what Alma’s brother looked like before he was crucified by the Bosnian Serbs. The safe areas in Bosnia were created in response to the marketplace massacres in Sarajevo. The mortars killed six children and we saw it on TV. The safe areas were always only a policy...words only. There is no security if there is no force to back it up. Bosnia should teach us this lesson forever. Safe areas, as it turned out, were smoke and mirrors. Bosnian Muslims lived in these areas, and it was territory that the Serbs needed to be pure therefore they could be cleansed...to create a better Serbia.
When the Bosnians came to the US I learned that my father Rizvan, found out as a teenager that his last name was not real. It had been changed at the immigration dept. in the US when his father came, because they could not say or spell Dzubur. When my father found out he went to the court to get the name changed to the correct one. This must have been a big deal. Like Karadzic the Bosnian Serb leader, my grandfather, Ramel, was a mountain man. When I was a child my father told me my name was Turkish, later as an adolescent he said, not really, it is Serbian. Still later he again said not really, your grandfather was a mountain man from Bosnia Herzegovina. Not until 1992 when the war broke out that I learned the name Dzubur was Bosnian. What is in a name? I would say, plenty.
Slide 10 The Serbs had the army and the US arms embargo prevented the Bosnian Muslim community from defending themselves. We should remember that events are never neutral. Mesha, my cousin’s husband, was mad at President Clinton for not helping sooner, before his family was slaughtered on the farm. So his first emotion was not gratitude for US help. At the time I found that confusing. It is hard to get war right. If you act it may be wrong. If you don’t act it may be wrong. So we might as well act with a principled pragmatism. Ironically, at first it always seems better to be for peace. In the case of Bosnia it was probably better to be for justice and against ethnic cleansing than to be for peace. Bosnia should teach us justice and peace exist in different spheres.
Slide 11 Visegrad was ethnically cleansed early on in the war. Dzana’s husband Mesha brought her sister and family to the U.S., Bejia, her husband, and two children. Bejia lived in Visegrad in eastern Bosnia. She hid in the vegetable garden when the soldiers came to the house and killed her mother. Her daughter had already left as a refugee to Sarajevo the weekend before when they received a warning. Bejia then joined her daughter there. When she came here she did not speak a single word of English. I hired her at the Methadone Clinic. She ran the childcare room. Staff complained about nepotism. I ignored them. Here I learned a couple of things. Some people can love even after the unthinkable, and Bejia is the most loving human I have ever known. Bejia did not have any problem communicating with the children. They were learning English too. Bejia still works there today. She is always grateful. Every time I see her she makes Borac from scratch for me. She still thanks me for helping her ten years on. This Bosnian dish is made from a thin fila dough, layer upon layer, with olive oil in between and the stuffed rolled and baked. It take two days to make it. She acts like I saved her life but in reality she changed mine, adding something new. Bejia’s husband however did not make such a smooth transition. He did not learn English so remains isolated. He could not work so went on SSD. He cannot support the family or re-establish his former identity. We needed a mental/medical provider that spoke his language to address his problems. It has been almost 20 years and his life remains diminished.
Slide 12 It was a long hard slog for the Bosnians to build a new life here and yes they were the lucky ones. Sometimes we did not understand. We were so happy to have them it was confusing to us that they didn’t want to be here. Dzana would only say “they killed my life” and if it were not for the children she would kill herself. They all had dreams that terrorized. For a long time they believed the Chetniks (another name for Serb militia) would come through the bedroom windows and kill them and that no power, not even the US, could stop them. Slowly in time their lives were rebuilt. They bought a house in Alameda, an historical landmark and torn it down to just the facade, and Mesha rebuilt that beautiful old house. They still live there. My father died in Dzana’s mother’s arms about a month after they came. It is a nice memory. The war ended soon after they arrived. Still Mesha always says he would never go back to Bosnia to live. He would never be safe there. I think he left for his children. Dzana and Mesha taught me that refugees may not be grateful for their rescue, at least not for a long while. When I see a refugee in clinic I make it a point to ask, where are you from and why did you leave? When have been to their country, I say it is a beautiful place, and I always have an opening.
Slide 13 I tell you this story so that you will know when working with a person from a strange land to listen a long time and get the story. Consider what the traveler has been through and ask yourself if there someone to support them building a new life. Mental health concerns may be more important than things like TB screening or immunizations. And finally make sure someone speaks their language.