The following is the story of Mira,* an ethnically Muslim woman who lost her infant son during the Balkan War (1992 – 1995) and left Bosnia with her family in the hopes of making a better life in America. Here she is interviewed at her home in Utica, New York. Part of a project that features the voices and narratives of refugees, it is also a meditation on displacement and the role of storytelling in healing trauma.
“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, 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 on a soccer field coaching a team of fellow Bosnians.
“So we can talk without interrupting?”
Despite her forty years and a daily smoking habit, Mira’s voice has a girlish swing that makes everything sound like a question. She turns on a fan in the kitchen to clear the smoke from her last cigarette and the smell of fried onions. She gives the plastic sheath that covers her dining table a quick smoothing, and carefully 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 tonight’s special Sunday meal. She pushes a ruff of black hair from her watery blue eyes, rests her chin on one fist, and before launching into what she calls “the war story,” gives me a tired, level gaze.
Twenty years ago, and roughly five thousand miles from the residential corner of Utica, New York she now calls home, Serb forces invaded Mira’s hometown of Velika Kladusa in the northwest corner of Bosnia.
“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.”
It was a year into the Bosnian War and Edina had just discovered she was pregnant with her first child. She, her parents, and Ivan left her childhood home with the few belongings they could carry, and trudged north over the Croatian border in what Edina 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 left soon after to serve in the Bosnian Army, and for the next six months Mira lived in the shelter with tens of thousands of other displaced Bosnians. Ivan would disappear for weeks at a time, and she begged for news of his whereabouts from soldiers passing through the camp.
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 one night with painful cramping and found 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 sudden, brutal 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. 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, and she looks away. “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 on her and brought Mira back to the IDP camp hidden in a 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 the author of an ethnographic survey of the Bosnian community in Utica in 2001. He will sometimes bring home to Mira PhD candidates and writers interested in how this ‘displaced’ community has fared in the twenty years since the end of the Bosnian War.
The Bosnian community in Utica is displaced from its source, but 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 have built a mosque downtown and a Bosnian cemetery a few miles outside the city’s urban perimeter. They have renovated thousands of previously condemned houses on the east side of the city, formed soccer leagues, women’s circles, and dance groups.
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 neighborhood networks. Wide connectivity with extended family, other families, and friends was the norm; 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 1992 and now works for immigration services at the 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 neighbors 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 neighbor or friend or relative dropping by. The kids would disappear for hours and the parents didn’t worry because they knew a neighbor or 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 favor,” 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-you-scratch-mine dynamics of social debt and favor 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, and their homes taken over or burned down by neighbors, co-workers, 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 social capital in their new environment – among Bosnians. 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 provoked 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 fueled 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 color 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. “Where do you feel it in your body?”
“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.”
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.