Originally published in Fontbonne Magazine.
Asim Okic can no longer keep his composure as he describes what he calls the worst day of his life.
“They were taking wives away from husbands and children from their mothers,” he says, wiping his eyes. “My daughter was only 7 and she was looking at me, and I could say nothing.”
He takes a moment – the weight of his past still heavy more than a decade later. Quietly, he recounts how he and other Bosnian Muslims were forced at gunpoint into lines. Torn from his wife and two young children, Okic found himself crammed onto a bus headed to an uncertain and dangerous future at the Omarkska concentration camp just outside of town.
It was May 30, 1992, and the Bosnian War – a battle pitting neighbor against neighbor – had begun. The war started during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, when the majority of citizens in Bosnia-Herzigovina voted for independence. Bosnian Serbs rebelled against the referendum and, with military assistance from Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, attacked the Croats and Muslims living in Bosnia. Genocide, euphemistically known as “ethnic cleansing,” soon followed.
Okic, unlike many others, was eventually reunited with his family. Now 56 and working in a factory in St. Louis, he is one of several Bosnian refugees featured in a documentary film being produced by Fontbonne students. The refugees interviewed were originally from Prijedor, a town in northwestern Bosnia-Herzigovina. There, more than 3,500 people were killed and approximately 50 mass graves were later discovered.
The documentary will be part of a larger project titled “Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide,” a multimedia exhibit on the Bosnian War that debuts Nov. 25 at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis.
Most of the students involved with the documentary were enrolled in an honors class titled “The Bosnian Immigration: Narrative, Memory and Identity,” co-taught by Fontbonne Professors Ben Moore, chair of the English and communication department, and Jack Luzkow, chair of the history, philosophy, and religion department. Students worked alongside the professors, researching the war, developing questions and interviewing the survivors. They conducted 18 hours of interviews, all filmed by May graduate Aaron Jeter, who edited the final cut down to approximately 30 minutes.
The film and the exhibit will be produced collaboratively with the St. Louis-based Union of Citizens of the Municipality of Prijedor, a grassroots organization of refugee survivors; local author Patrick McCarthy, an advisor to the exhibit who has worked with the Bosnian community since 1993; and the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. Funding has come from a variety of sources, including the Missouri Humanities Council and the Regional Arts Commission.
“This project seeks to draw attention to the events in Prijedor, and to humanize them, so that people understand the human element in this tragic historic event,” Moore says. “This was a different method of teaching that took us into the community. Jack and I didn’t position ourselves as teachers but as students, and that was invigorating.”
Moore believes this project helped him understand how to better prepare students to participate in a global community. “We all learned, firsthand, how injustice in one area of the world has consequences in another,” he says.
The interviews were conducted at the Buder Library in south St. Louis City. During one session, Alija Memetovic, a 53-year-old retiree, discussed the psychological torment and violent warfare he witnessed and experienced.
“The men were interrogated and forced to admit to offenses they didn’t commit. The Serbs would bring wives and children outside the room and tell the men that if they didn’t sign the confessions, their families would be killed. So the men would sign and they would be killed anyway,” says Memetovic, whose large scar on his left arm bears grisly testament to the torture he endured while in a concentration camp.
The intensity and reality of these stories was not lost on the student interviewers, many of whom only vaguely recall the original news accounts. “It was a great opportunity to learn about world history and current events. I knew nothing about the genocide,” says Jessica Kirkley, 29, a human services major who graduated in May. “Everyone has a different story and everyone grieves and heals differently. I think this documentary accounts for what happened and makes it more socially acceptable to talk about it.”
Kirkley interviewed Memetovic and found his eyes alone told the story of his life. “These people were so hurt. It was very humbling for me,” she says. “I think listening to others’ experiences gives life meaning. It made me realize we have a lot more in common than we think.”
For Brian Eschen, a senior majoring in history, this project was particularly compelling. “History happens now. I believe the more people know about these types of atrocities, then maybe they’ll work to prevent them in the future,” says the 27-year-old, who admits he was initially nervous about the interviews. “These people were amazing. After all they’d been through, they had no sense of vengeance or anger – they were just glad to be done with it.”
Amir Karadzic, founder of the Union of Citizens organization, was pleased with the students’ professionalism. “I appreciate all of their hard work,” says Karadzic, who first brought forward the idea for the exhibit. “Sharing our problems with people we trust and who are willing to help you is always good.”
This June, Moore – along with McCarthy and Karadzic – visited Prejidor, conducting interviews and collecting materials for the exhibit. “We met and talked with writers, educators, religious leaders and government officials in the ‘ethnically cleansed’ city and surrounding region,” McCarthy recalls. “We visited the network of former concentration camps and their natural counterparts of mass graves, makeshift morgues and cemeteries.”
Moore recalls visiting a morgue where approximately 500 unidentified bodies still remain. “It was very intense and sad. The war really is evident everywhere – in the buildings and in the conversations,” he says. “People are still looking for loved ones they lost.”
At least 100,000 people (65 percent Bosnian Muslims) were killed in the war, and another 1.8 million were displaced. Through a resettlement program, St. Louis was chosen as one of three destinations for war refugees coming from the former Yugoslavia. Today, there are approximately 50,000 Bosnians living in St. Louis, constituting one of the largest Bosnian communities outside of Bosnia.
The events of the war in Bosnia-Herzigovina are clearly now a part of St. Louis history – a part of its people who shape the culture, style and politics of the city. And now, Fontbonne students are helping shed light on this history, to show not only the pain of the past but also hope for the future.