Refugee Voices: Coming to America Part 1, Aftershock
The Bosnian War (1992–1995) left 2 million people displaced. Forced to flee their country as refugees, many found themselves scattered throughout the United States in major cities and suburban enclaves, trying to build new communities while still healing from the traumas of war. Utica, a cash-strapped industrial city in upstate New York, itself on the brink of collapse, became the new home for thousands of refugees in the late 90’s.
The following is the story of Mira* an ethnically Muslim woman who lost her infant son during the war and left Bosnia with the hope of making a better life in America.
“Oh my God, I’m sorry,” says Mira. “I got home and passed out for hours.”
Mira tugs at the hem of a loose T-shirt that dwarfs her small frame and rubs her face. She offers me a pair of house slippers to wear, the custom in Bosnian homes, and ushers me inside. Mira’s an hour late, logy and flustered. She tells me that her daughters, Selma, 15 and Tanya, 11, are tucked away in their bedrooms and her husband Ivan is coaching a local soccer team.
“So we can talk without interrupting?”
Despite her forty years and a serious smoking habit, the girlish up-swing in her voice makes everything sound like a question. Mira turns on a fan in the kitchen to clear the smoke from her last cigarette and the smell of fried onions. She smooths the plastic sheath on her dining table and places an ashtray between us.
Mira works full time at a nursing home and has spent the weekend ferrying her children to and from karate lessons and cheerleading practice, doing the weekly round of shopping and cleaning, and prepping a special Sunday meal. She pushes a ruff of black hair from her watery blue eyes, rests her delicate chin on one fist, and before launching into what she calls “the war story,” gives me a tired, level gaze.
“I remember the sound of bullets flying over our heads. I remember people falling by the side of the road. I remember their faces, but not their screaming. I saw people screaming but couldn’t hear them.”
Twenty years ago, and roughly five thousand miles from Utica, Serb forces invaded Mira’s hometown of Velika Kladusa in the northwest corner of Bosnia. It was one year into the war, and Mira had just discovered she was pregnant with her first child. She, her parents, and Ivan packed up a few belongings and trudged north over the Croatian border in what Mira describes as “a river of people.”
The river’s terminus was a disused chicken coop, part of a massive agricultural combine that had employed her mother and father before the war.
“That night we swept out the chicken poop and slept on the ground.”
Ivan soon left to serve in the Bosnian Army, and for the next six months Mira lived in the shelter with thousands of other displaced Bosnians. Ivan would disappear for weeks at a time, and when soldiers passed through the camp, she begged them for news of his whereabouts.
The women worked hard to make the camp clean and habitable. But after months of stress, poor sleep, and a diet of UN-issued nutrition biscuits and watered-down bean soup, Mira woke to find blood running down her thighs. She was rushed to a Croatian Catholic hospital and waited several hours before an elderly doctor finally examined her. Mira had gone into early labor, but the baby’s body had not fully rotated; he was coming hips-first.
“I was scared for my baby. I was still bleeding. The pain was unimaginable,” says Mira. “Then the doctor reached inside me and — ” Mira makes a flipping gesture with her hands, miming how the doctor manually turned the baby in her womb.
The hospital had few supplies. Mira endured the birth and the sixteen stitches it took to sew her up afterward with no pain medication. She was allowed to hold her son for a few brief moments before he was taken from her arms and placed, she was told, in an incubator.
Mira is ethnically Muslim, but like many Bosnians in the early ‘90’s who had grown up under communist rule, was non-practicing before the war; she staked more of her identity in being ‘Yugoslavian’ than a Muslim. In none of our conversations does she use divisive language when speaking of Croat, Serb, or Bosnian peoples. Both she and Ivan view religion as a burdensome subject, so entwined as it has become with nationalist ambition.
However, Mira reports that at the hospital she was forced to subsist on water because its Catholic nurses refused to feed her while she healed from the birth. After several days, delirious from hunger and exhaustion, Mira asked to see her baby.
“The nurses told me he died,” she says. “They said they’d already gotten rid of his body.” Her eyes fill. “They told me, You’re free to go home.” She imitates the nurse, waving her hand in a gesture of casual dismissal, then falls silent and gazes at a spot on the table.
Overcome with grief, Mira wandered from the hospital in her nightgown and a pair of slippers. A Serb ambulance driver took pity, and offered to drive her back to the IDP camp. He hid her in the van full of schizophrenic patients he was transporting from a Croatian asylum. One of the women attacked Mira, holding her by the throat and laughing hysterically.
“She was crazy,” says Mira. “She thought it was a good joke, you know?”
Mira has told this story a few times. Her husband Ivan was the translator for an academic study in 2001 and has served as something of a ‘fixer’ for visitors to the community. Forced to fight in three different armies during the war, he is good at breaking down its complexities. Bosnian culture is traditional and patriarchal; Ivan hovers, attempting to maintain centre when Mira is speaking. She barks when he takes up too much oxygen, but doesn’t banish him from the room. They make up on the back porch with a shared cigarette.
It’s a ‘western’ but collectivist culture, defined by relationship and belonging. ‘Alone time’ is rare and precious, and not considered a necessity, especially for women. Mira is being generous with her time, and more so, with her trust; Bosnians learned during the war that outsiders and journalists, eager to pluck their harrowing stories and take their pictures, would have almost no effect on the extremity of their crisis.
Waves of searing images were sent back from Bosnia at the outset of the war: People fleeing rural villages en masse and holding their possessions in a single bag; buildings with their facades blown away; civilians dodging sniper fire in the alleys of Sarajevo; children collecting water in gas cans from a crowded pump; hospitals overwhelmed from the latest shelling, their walls smeared with blood.
There were also images of girls and women, some rendered preverbal by trauma, gathered in aid shelters after being released from “rape camps” created by Serb forces. Violently assaulted by dozens of men for months at a time, the women were released after their resultant pregnancies were too advanced for safe termination.
Finally, there was footage from the concentration camps: emaciated men milling in dirt yards behind chicken wire or bent in rows and cuffed to iron hitching posts in cattle sheds. Starved and beaten into passivity, elbows draped over their knees, they blinked at the Red Cross cameras the Serbs allowed in to prove the camps were “humane.” The imprisoned men, most of whom were civilians rounded up from villages, might have believed that the foreign press would bring, if not peace, at least an end to the abuse and mutilation meted out in the camps.
Such images were at once the most shocking and familiar evidence of human evil the world had seen since World War II. Never again, the unofficial motto that capped the horrors of the Holocaust for millions of European Jews, was invoked as footage from the Bosnian camps streamed back from the front lines. Reports of “ethnic cleansing,” a term employed by the Serbs, was also used by the international community to sidestep the more exacting charge of genocide — and what it might demand.
The lack of military intervention in Bosnia and the subsequent atrocities it enabled led then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke to declare Bosnia “the greatest failure of the West since the 1930s.”
Charles Lane, reporting from Sarajevo four months after the beginning of the siege writes of being badgered by two girls in a freshly-shelled neighbourhood with “the one phrase in English they seemed to have mastered: ‘U.S. military forces, U.S. military forces.’” When Lane tells a young Muslim man whose house and businesses have been destroyed by Serb mortars that he doesn’t believe the US will rescue the city any time soon, the young man replies, “Maybe we should discover oil.”
These two narratives, of horror and abdication, were in part sustained by the place Bosnia occupied in the public’s imagination. Prior to the conflict, most people couldn’t identify Bosnia on a map. Situated in the bumping ground between East and West, in the romantic but shadowy terrain of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia was remote enough culturally to hover somewhere behind God’s back.
With the end of Tito’s “pink communist” dream, and the beginning of a brutal nationalistic war, Bosnia’s identity became enveloped in xenophobic folk-histories: it was apparently ‘haunted’ by 14th century demons and had a taste and tendency for brutal clannish warfare. Its present reality was also obscured by outworn communist rhetoric, complicated political structures, and consonant-heavy names.
Perhaps most problematic, Bosnia was full of blue-eyed Muslims, many of whom practiced a fairly relaxed version of Islam. Sarajevo hosted the Olympics in ’84, and the city was then considered a miracle of cosmopolitanism, comprised of interfaith couples and ethnically and religiously mixed mahalas or neighborhoods. Yet, without an easily digestible identity, and now revelling, it seemed, in rape, fratricide, and bloody mayhem, it was easy for outsiders to confect a narrative for the war that justified inaction.
The WW II formula for genocide had repeated itself; a splintering government and failing economy make fertile ground for nationalist agendas. The complex root causes of the war, however, were reduced to “ancient ethnic hatreds” and Bosnia’s preventable descent into hell could be framed as a sad inevitability: the result of long-suppressed and inherently ‘barbaric’ forces unleashed to settle old scores.
The Bosnian community came to Utica with very fresh wounds, but has remained culturally intact. Many of the 5,000 Bosnians that arrived in the 90’s came from Bosnia’s northwest corner, Mira’s home town of Velika Kladusa. They own construction companies, hair salons, restaurants, cafes, a Karate studio, bars and nightclubs. They’ve built a mosque downtown and a Bosnian cemetery a few miles outside the city’s urban perimeter. Previously condemned houses on the east side of the city were renovated by groups of men in the community, and soccer leagues, women’s circles, and dance groups have all flourished since their arrival.
Though well integrated into the fabric of Utica’s patchwork ethnic make-up, Bosnians mostly work and play with other Bosnians. They are deeply rooted in fidelity to family and many describe a pre-war life filled with fluid, dependable social and neighbourhood networks. Wide connectivity with extended family and friends was the norm. Indeed, the most vital resource for many Bosnians seems to be social capital.
They characterize the relationships of their pre-war lives as porous, open, and interdependent. Most gauge the quality of a life more by the number and depth of human relationships than by personal vocation or leisure time.
“It’s hard to describe,” says Nevena, a Bosnian woman who arrived in Utica in 1993 and now works for immigration services at the Mohawk Valley Resource Centre for Refugees (MVRCR).
“There was a sense of ease, a familiarity. Here, you call your friends to make an appointment to see them. In Bosnia, you just walk in the door. You wake up and there are three neighbours in your house already having coffee. It’s just the way it was.”
Dr. Paula Green, director of the Karuna Center for Peace Building in Amherst, MA, says that this deep connectivity is a hallmark of Bosnian consciousness. In 1996, a year after the official end of the Balkan War, Dr. Green was invited to facilitate dialogues and a healing process for Bosnian Muslim women who had suffered the loss of their children, husbands and homes after their native city of Prijedor was invaded and ‘cleansed’ of Muslims by Serbs.
“I stayed with a family over there, and you couldn’t complete a sentence without some neighbour or friend or relative dropping by. The kids would disappear for hours and the parents didn’t worry because they knew a friend would take care of them. They are very, very connected.”
Visitors, those writers and PhD candidates who come to Utica to collect and piece together the broken narratives of this war, are warmly received and embraced. Many Bosnians I interviewed made themselves available with no knowledge of my background, and no real promise of return.
“Yeah, it works in our favour,” says Ivan. “Better you be a friend than an enemy.”
It sounds like the hard earned philosophy of the eternal stranger, an axiom for wary migrants and those made careful by war. But on a felt level, the warmth and generosity of interactions transcend the I’ll-scratch-your-back dynamics of social debt and favour earning.
Dr. Green recently did a follow up visit to Bosnia in July of 2011. She describes the country as emotionally and economically “frozen.”
“Bosnia is completely stagnated. It’s still too painful, the wounds still fresh. They’re still uncovering mass graves. There is fresh trauma and pain. They identify the bodies from bone fragments, so people are just learning about the death of their disappeared relatives, parents, children.”
Given the generous, connected quality of the Bosnian community, it’s difficult to explain the intimate, violent betrayals that became commonplace during the war, the overwhelming number of accounts of women held hostage and raped by long time acquaintances. Families were tortured and killed, their homes taken over or burned down by neighbours, colleagues, and friends — the very same ‘friends’ who “just showed up” to share the dregs of morning coffee for years or decades.
Despite these traumas, the Bosnian community managed to develop a similarly tight knit network in Utica. Bosnian Muslims are now the ethnic majority; few Serbs have migrated here. Tensions were strong in the 90’s, and still exist based on where people placed their loyalties during the war. At the time, a group of teenagers in Utica even formed a gang, the Full Blooded Bosnians, or FBB’s, who would pick fights based on other kids’ presumed ethnic make up.
Dr. Green, who has witnessed and mediated conflict transformation in war zones around the globe, links the extremity of violence during the Bosnian War with escalating security issues.
“The economy was failing. The government took control of the media, there was so much propaganda. They said: these Muslims are the enemy. They are taking your jobs, your money, your women, your land. You must help us. And if you help us exterminate them, then all of this will be yours. You are free to loot, kill, take whatever you want.”
From the gruesome accounts of survivors and witnesses, there was an obvious pleasure taken by its aggressors in wild violence, in the almost creative application of cruelty. How is a loss of security linked with sadism? How does greed become torture?
“This is Rwanda. This is Liberia. This is Darfur,” says Dr. Green. “It’s war hysteria. A different mind state. Heightened. Adrenalized. One fuelled mostly by scarcity and fear.”
Then how, I ask her, has this community moved forward? How are they able to stay present?
“The past is at a more comfortable distance,” she says. “They don’t have to look at bone fragments.”
As Mira tells and retells her story, there are no inconsistencies. Rather, there are empty spaces, blanks that she can’t fill, stretches of time with little colour or detail. Whole senses — sound, touch, smell — vanish from her memory.
“It’s normal,” she says. “So that your brain can handle what’s happening.”
“How close or far does the war seem to you now?” I ask Mira.
“I hold it in the past,” she says. “But it depends what part, you know? Most parts of the war feel like distant past. My baby feels very close. In my heart.” Mira taps her chest and wipes a tear with the heel of her hand. “Oh my god it comes often, sometimes daily.”
I ask Mira what she would do if she had a little time each week to do something for herself, and her face empties out.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’ve never taken one minute to think about that.”
There are books and artefacts, art and cultural talismans that hold memory, evidence of the collective imagination of the past. There is also embodied memory, the imprint of the personal, physical and emotional trauma of war, ‘spaces’ in the mind and body a survivor may no longer be able to enter.
In the years that follow war, the most dangerous terrain for a survivor might be their own psyche. Acts of interiority like remembrance, dreaming, and imagination are no longer safe. In not being able to enter the space of memory, the ability to imagine into a different future might be similarly compromised.
Distance from the event enables what Juan Goytisolo calls ‘memoricide,’ or the wilful amnesia of a people who believe they must keep forgetting in order to survive. Mira has done what many refugees must do: keep her mind pinned to the present, and look back with a healthy dose of nostalgia at the ‘ex-country.’
Since leaving Bosnia as a refugee in 1997, Mira has never returned to her homeland. She holds warm memories of her pre-war youth, and of the halcyon Bosnia she knew then, when its ethnic and religious boundaries were to her invisible. She reflects that her nostalgic feelings about her “ex-country” will likely not meet the reality of Bosnia today.
“What we used to have we might have fought or even killed for,” she says. “If I went back, I wouldn’t see the fourteen years between us, I would see it as it was. But it’s not there anymore,” she says, and shakes her head. “We have no belonging.”
*The names of Mira and members of her family have been changed to protect their privacy.