clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

SAFE HAVEN: IN UTAH, 300 REFUGEES FROM BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA FIND SHELTER FROM TEMPEST OF DEPRAVITY, DESTRUCTION AND DEATH.

On a 100-degree day in August, Kemal Mehinovic, wearing shorts and a James Dean T-shirt that someone gave him, tours his two-bedroom flat in west Salt Lake City.

The motel-like unit at the end of a dead-end street overlooks a decaying asphalt parking lot, where the sounds of children at play help mask the noise of the nearby freeway. Inside the apartment, there is nothing: no air conditioner, no phone, no bed.Kemal, his wife and their two teenage children are all moved in.

But he does not bemoan their lack of possessions. Eight months ago, he was a prisoner in a Serb-run concentration camp in Bosnia, enduring starvation and daily beatings.

"I feel lucky to be here," Kemal says in his native Serbo-Croatian tongue. "We lost everything."

Kemal and his family arrived in Salt Lake City July 12. They are among some 300 refugees who have come to Utah in the past 21/2 years as part of an international effort to find homes for tens of thousands of people forced to flee the war in the Balkans.

As the war escalates, more refugees are expected.

"We have a family of four coming on Wednesday and another family of four coming next Thursday," said Lily Miner, regional director of the International Rescue Committee, the leading volunteer agency assisting refugees.

Working with the the U.S. State Department and the United Nations, the IRC finds homes in the United States for exiled Bosnians, most of whom are Muslims. In Utah, Catholic Community Services also helps settle refugees.

During the past year, the Beehive State has become increasingly attractive for relocating Bosnian refugees, Miner said. "This is a good state for them due to the landscape, the mountains and the weather (all similar to Bosnia)."

But the state's natural beauty is something these refugees will have to enjoy another day. Right now, they're struggling to heal physical and psychological wounds and to procure life's basic necessities.

When refugees arrive, the first order of business for the IRC and CCS is to find them an apartment. Usually, the families must stay with other Bosnian families until an affordable unit can be found.

As a result, the Utah Bosnian community has been fragmented into low-rent districts around Salt Lake County. The largest of these is on 300 South near Redwood Road, where two small apartment buildings now house 15 refugee families. It has been dubbed "Little Bosnia."

The owner of these apartments is Aslan Kraja, an Albanian immigrant who speaks the refugees' language. Kraja has played an important role in helping his ethnic Bosnian brothers get settled.

Other Bosnian communities have sprouted in apartment complexes in Rose Park, Sugarhouse and near the Cottonwood Mall.

For the first month or two, rent is paid by the IRC or CCS. After that, the refugees are on their own.

That means going on welfare or getting a job. Despite Utah's strong economy, landing a well-paying job is difficult - especially for people who don't speak English or whose skills have not been certified to American standards.

Some refugees find jobs quickly, but many have been here for more than a year and remain without work. Usually, it takes up to 8 months, Miner said.

The jobs pay $5 to $7 an hour - poverty-level wages for a family of four.

To get ahead, the refugees must go to school to learn English. Once proficient there, they must then attend trade schools or college to improve their skills.

Finding a job and learning a new language are only a few of the problems the new refugees face.

An immediate one is health.

The University of Utah's Family Health Center has seen most of the Bosnian refugees. Dr. Howard Wing says the refugees are "a very sick group of people with complaints ranging from residual gunshot wounds to complicated cardiac problems."

One young boy is being rehabilitated at Shriner's Hospital after losing his right hand in a shelling attack.

Flashbacks to the war. Mourning for relatives killed. Anxiety about loved ones missing or left behind. Fear about the future. All these are taking their toll in the form of gastritis and ulcers, Wing said.

"More than anything is the emotional stuff . . . There are some really shellshocked people out there."

Here are some of their stories:

MEHINOVIC

Kemal Mehinovic remembers the exact date: April 17, 1992.

That was when Serb rebels arrested him at his home and took him to the police station at Bosanski Samac in northern Bosnia. The Serbs had just taken over the city, whose inhabitants numbered 33,000.

A baker by trade, Kemal had done nothing wrong. His "crime" was in being one of the city's 2,300 Muslims.

From the police station, Kemal was taken to a concentration camp called Batkovic near the Bosnia-Serbia border.

For the next 18 months, he was beaten regularly with pipes and billy clubs. He watched helplessly as prison guards cut a friend's head off with a knife. As they indiscriminately shot prisoners. As they pulled prisoners' teeth out as souvenirs.

"We just waited for it to happen to us," says Kemal through an interpreter. "We waited to see if we were lucky or not."

Besides survival, Kemal worried most about what had become of his family.

His wife, Fazila, now 37, and their two children, Damir, 17, and Elvira, 13, had been taken to a concentration camp for women and children. They lived there for 14 months before being released.

Kemal, now 39, was freed in October 1994 and immediately went in search of his family, finding them in Sarajevo two months later. The family then fled to a refugee camp in Croatia until they found safe passage to the United States.

Penniless and bringing only the clothes they were wearing, Kemal and his family arrived in Salt Lake City on July 12. They were greeted at the airport by Kemal's brother, Muharem Mehinovic, 44, who had arrived a month earlier and whom Kemal had not seen for more than three years. Until the first part of August, Kemal and his family lived with his brother in an apartment on 300 South near Redwood Road.

They now have their own apartment, but it will be a while before they can begin to pay for it. First, they will enroll in English lessons at Salt Lake Community High School and hope to become proficient enough to find work soon.

AHMED HAMED

MOHAMED

When someone comes to dinner at the home of Hamdy Ahmed Hamed Mohamed, his two daughters, Bussajna and Fatmira, must share a plate.

There are not enough dishes to go around. And the only utensils are spoons.

Waving a cheap yellow plastic bowl in her hand, Hamdy's wife, Fatima, laments, "In Bosnia, we had porcelain."

Porcelain, lace, art, fine furniture, two houses and money in the bank. Upper-bourgeois European at its best in prewar Bosnia.

Their belongings now are in the hands of the Serbs. Hamdy and his family, devout Muslims, are in a one-bedroom apartment in Rose Park.

Their exodus began in April 1992, when busloads of Serbs began arriving to take control of their hometown, Bosanska Gradiska, a city of about 60,000 people on the south side of the Sava River in northern Bosnia.

A welding engineer, Hamdy was working at a nuclear power plant in Slovenia at the time and could not return home for fear of being killed or imprisoned.

So he moved to Zagreb, Croatia, and began making arrangements for his family to join him there.

The reunion would not come for another nine months. Until then, Hamdy's family - and eight other Muslim families who eventually took refuge in their home - lived in constant terror.

"I was scared every day," says Fatima through a translator. "It's hard for me to talk about it."

Muslims - like Fatima, a school teacher - lost their jobs. Some were hauled off. Women were raped. Shops were destroyed. At night, the Serbs conducted frequent drive-by shootings at random Muslim targets.

"By 4 p.m., all Muslims were in their houses. We boarded up our windows and bolted our doors," says Fatima. "When Serbs started firing, we lay on the floor."

In February 1993, the family was able to flee Bosnia for Zagreb. On July 13, they arrived in Salt Lake City with a few bags of clothes and $250 cash.

"I'm still looking for a job," Hamdy says. "If I was successful in Europe, I'll be successful here in U.S."

Uncertainty lingers in his optimism. "If I cannot be successful, my children will," he adds. "We are going to build our future on our children."

For Fatima, living in the United States is a mixed blessing.

"I feel safe now - physically. But my soul is in Bosnia. I would go back now, if I had a place to go. I will go back when our city is free. If God decides, I will stay here."

BILIC

Three years ago this summer, Almir Bilic, 10 at the time, picked up a piece of a bomb that the Serbs dropped on Kotor-Varos, a village of about 37,000 between Banja Luka and Sarajevo.

He threw it and it exploded, sending a piece of shrapnel through his right arm and into his chest, where it remains today.

Though a serious injury, it was nothing compared to what happened four months later: Serb soldiers rounded up the Muslim men from Kotor-Varos and neighboring villages. Half of the prisoners were transferred to a concentration camp. Half were taken into the woods and disappeared.

Almir's father, Demal, and his older brother, Samir, were among those in the latter group. Almir does not like to talk about what might have happened to them. He looks away and then down when the subject is brought up.

His father's brother, Mehmed Bilic, is only slightly more open.

"Nobody knows what happened to (Demal and Samir). They are dead, maybe. We don't know," says Mehmed, who spent 6 months in the Batkovic concentration camp.

Mehmed, his wife and three daughters came to Utah in September 1993. They immediately sent for Almir, his mother, Emina, and his 1-year-old brother, who had fled Bosnia in November 1992 and had been living with an uncle in Zagreb. They arrived in Salt Lake City Aug. 19, 1994.

Though Mehmed has found employment as a gumball machine repairman, Emina is unemployed and struggling to learn English while caring for her rambunctious toddler.

In the meantime, she and what remains of her family are dependent on welfare.

KURBEGOVIC

Redzo Kurbegovic is a burly, charismatic man with dark, deep-set eyes. As he describes his war experience, he talks methodically, his powerful voice rising and falling for emphasis.

It is no surprise when he reveals that he was a high-ranking Muslim party politician in his hometown, Sanski Most, a southwest Bosnian city whose pre-war population of 60,000 included about 28,000 Muslims.

The Serbs took complete political control of the city in the spring of 1992.

On May 25 of that year, they arrested the city's influential and rich Muslims. Among them was Redzo.

"I was a very rich man. I had my position of power in the city," he says, his daughter, Tina, interpreting.

During the next few days, the Serbs destroyed the Muslim part of town, burning hundreds of houses and torching all 42 of the Sanski Most's mosques.

Redzo's prison cell was 6 feet wide by 7 feet long. At times, five prisoners shared it.

Every day, to mark time, he would place a piece of paper in the "window," which was a piece of metal with 411 holes drilled in it. Redzo's pieces of paper eventually filled 87 of those holes.

After prison, Redzo was taken to concentration camps, first to notorious Manjaca, near Banja Luka, then to Batkovic. In both places, he witnessed executions, beatings and watched as prisoners died in the battlefield while digging trenches or retrieving fallen Serb soldiers.

Prisoners, dressed in filthy, blood-covered clothes, were treated poorly and often given only grass or bread crumbs to eat. A favorite murderous pastime of the guards, he recalls, was to lay a shackled prisoner on his back next to a fence and then jump from the fence onto the prisoner's stomach.

When Manjaca was visited by Western European journalists, every inmate who gave interviews was later beaten to death with 2-inch metal pipes.

"I just waited for the moment they would come for me. I didn't think I would make it. I was so scared, I couldn't remember my name."

As part of a prisoner exchange between Serb and Bosnian government forces, Redzo was released on July 21, 1993. He had been in captivity for 422 days.

Redzo fled to a refugee camp near Zagreb and called his family, who packed their belongings and joined him the next day.

They arrived in Salt Lake City in September 1993. The Kurbegovic family is now a pillar of the Bosnian community in Utah. Redzo is a machinist for Kimall Equipment. Redzo's wife, Fatima, took a crash course in English and now works for the IRC as a caseworker.

Their daughters, Tina and Inna, help other refugees with translation and cultural adjustment.

ANTELJEVIC

Dragan Anteljevic, 46, has a Serb surname. He's married to a Bosnian Muslim.

The couple is one of only a handful of "mixed marriages" in Utah's Bosnian community.

Because of the fear and hatred that Bosnian Muslims have for Serbs, the couple's situation is dangerous at worst, socially isolating at best.

So far, however, they have had no problems fitting in.

In Bosnia, the story was much different. When fighting broke out, Dragan immediately lost his job as an electrical technician in a heating/cooling company in Mostar, a large city of 126,000 people, southwest of Sarajevo.

A town with the most mixed marriages in Bosnia, Mostar experienced heavy fighting.

Vesna Anteljevic, 42, kept her job as a pharmacist to keep her family alive for 18 months during the heaviest fighting. She would come back from work covered with dust from the shelling.

Eventually, the fighting and harassment became too much for the Anteljevic family, who left Mostar on Sept. 5, 1993. The opportunity to flee came during a cease-fire between the Serbs and Croats. A friend took them by car to Split, where they caught a bus to Zagreb. A few days later, they went to Belgrade, where they lived until last March, when they arranged to come to Salt Lake City.

Dragan works for a company that makes automatic teller machines for banks. Vesna is learning English so she can attend the University of Utah to get her pharmacist license. Their oldest son, Damir, is attending Salt Lake Community College and their youngest son, Goran, will be attending Highland High School this fall.

They are determined to re-establish in the United States the good life they lost in Bosnia.

"As much as this war crippled us, because I sometimes dream of the whistle of shells and bullets, it also makes us stronger because we have survived so many things."