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Roots of murder: Shooter’s kin remember ‘ordinary kid’

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TALOVICI, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The village has changed between the time Sulejman Talovic was born here in 1988 and this year, when he was buried in the town cemetery.

Talovici, a farming village, is 17.5 miles west and two miles south of Tuzla, a city of more than 118,000, although it might as well be on another continent because of bad roads and rugged terrain.

As it was in 1988, Talovici is a typical rural Bosnian town. It is a cluster of homes hugging a steep hillside among forested mountains. A single utility line reaches here, strung on metal poles along the only road. Immediately uphill from the homes are corn fields. A Muslim cemetery skirts one field, and no fence separates the brown cut corn stalks from the scores of columnar grave markers.

The homes are made of cinder block, concrete, brick or stone — sometimes two or three of these materials. Often they have brownish-orange terra-cotta tile roofs, like many houses in Bosnia. Tall conical haystacks bristle from the greening yards.

A dirt road runs the length of Talovici, and grass grows between its ruts. The road winds three miles from the nearest paved route, and driving it is a challenge. It jerks along steep switchbacks, is overhung in places with tree branches, and at one point passengers may have to jump out and help push their car.

On the day of Sulejman Talovic's funeral, March 2, buses that had carried relatives from other towns were parked below some of the worst curves. A couple of miles farther uphill, cars were pulled onto mud sidings throughout the village. Hundreds of men and women clustered on slanted lawns and in front of a large rebuilt home.

Suljo Talovic, father of the Trolley Square killer, stood near the road speaking with reporters in the language of Bosnia, Serbo-Croatian, and answering a few questions of the Deseret Morning News in English.

He says he had to move his son out of school in Salt Lake City because somebody attacked him, explained Nedim Hasic, a journalist from Sarajevo, the country's capital, who translated for the paper.

Talovici's residents are Muslims. Women wear scarves around their hair when outside; many middle age or older people are missing several teeth. In complexion and features, they look like typical eastern Europeans.

In the Muslim custom, people leave their shoes outside on the porch when entering a home. They respect the local imams, leaders of their religion. During the outdoor funeral, each of three imams wore a red fez with a long white linen strip wound around it.

Looking downhill from the road, you would see a pen built of slender logs and wire, housing shaggy, fat sheep. Another is home for a little flock of chickens.

Paths of flat stones lead to doorways, crossing vivid green grass. Small fruit trees with whitewashed trunks grow in front of houses. Huge woodpiles are protected by the elements by what looks like space blankets on top, or by rusted metal sheets held in place by cinder blocks.

On the downhill side of the road, tall foothills rise beyond green fields. The foothills are dotted with brown, cleared spots and dense forests that are dingy gray in the winter. On the uphill side, where most of the houses are, the landscape is so angled that flagstone paths lead to the fields above. All of this backdrop is the same as when Sulejman Talovic was born to Suljo and Sabira Talovic.

The family farmed, raising cows and keeping busy "planting potato, corn," said Hasic.

They sold some of the produce, Suljo Talovic added. The father also worked as a construction worker, "but that was just temporary during the summer." He had no job in the winter. This is how life has gone on for generations in Talovici.

But change, too, is obvious. Also typical of Bosnian towns, wreckage from the war of 1992-95 is inescapable.

A two-story house looms through gray leafless trees, the roof partly caved in, red brick showing through large ragged gaps in the white plaster exterior, dark smoke stains around windows and doors.

Many of Talovici's homes, including the house where Sulejman Talovic lived as a young boy, were destroyed when Serb forces invaded during the war. Around 50 families lived in prewar Talovici. Today, five to 10 families are permanent residents.

Several large homes have been rebuilt and expanded. Some were reconstructed by refugees who were forced to leave but then returned after the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 and stayed here. Others are owned by people who fled to prosperous countries, found employment, sent money back for building projects — and can't quit their new jobs.

One new home is braced into the angled hillside, three stories showing from the front and two from the rear.

"The people live in France, Germany, Switzer- land and the United States," said Hasic.

"They rebuilt the house, and they went home (to Talovici) during the summer vacation for 10 or 15 days." They clean up their property and take care of the cows, then return to the new countries.

Redzo Talovic, 60, fled to Tuzla as a refugee. But seven years ago, he returned to Talovici, rebuilt his home, and now lives in the village year-round. He attended the Sulejman Talovic burial at the cemetery while women met indoors and held their own services.

More than 300 men and boys climbed the hill to the cemetery to see Sulejman Talovic buried, mostly family relations. They carried the metallic casket to his final resting site, prayed, three times said the ritual blessing that they forgive him, and then took turns shoveling the brown earth onto the casket.

Later, as Hasic translated, Redzo Talovic said he found nothing left of his property when he came home. But he was not uneasy about going back to a town that had been overrun by Serbs because, he said, "we feel safe" with international peacekeepers present.

Today, Bosnian Muslims are living in peace with their neighbors, he said.

A cousin of Suljo Talovic, he remembered Sulejman Talovic when he was a baby and a young boy. He never saw him after the family left.

He said the boy was "as every kid, he likes to play. ... Kid is kid; simple, ordinary kid."

People were upset when they heard about the Trolley Square shooting. "We were all shocked," he said. "Nobody could imagine something like that could happen. ...

"He was a completely normal kid."

Following the funeral, a young farmer drove along the road astride a tractorlike contraption. The size of a big snowblower, the front part that he straddled had an exposed engine; the connected back was a square, bright-red wagon.

His face bore a resemblance to that of Sulejman Talovic, and one had to wonder if he was a relative who came back to Talovici after the war. The open wagon behind him carried cardboard boxes — and shovels that were used in Sulejman Talovic's burial.

E-mail: bau@desnews.com