Diaspora. Such a pretty word. Ripping people from their homeland and scattering them around grudging or reluctant countries is too rough an exodus to merit such softness. The right word would make a harsh, guttural sound, harder to disguise or ignore.
And oh, we would rather ignore it. Home is supposed to be our safe place. It is where we are most vulnerable, where we sleep, cry, yell, get naked, get over the flu. It should be a permanent sanctuary, warm and well-lit however cold and dark the world turns. Everybody knows that. When others lose their homes to war, flood, or fire, their new neighbors show a quick sympathy without daring to imagine such a fate for themselves.
That is how it was in St. Louis. We were intrigued by the Bosnian refugees, met a few, clucked over the horrors they had experienced, collected dishcloths and warm jackets for them. As their numbers grew, we congratulated ourselves. St. Louis had more Bosnians than anybody else! Soon the total hit sixty thousand. By and large, they were smart, sociable, hard-working, an easy group to welcome. They gave us cool restaurants, bars, bakeries, and coffeehouses. They gifted a fountain to us, a replica of one in Sarajevo. Many of the new St. Louisans were artists or filmmakers, enriching local culture. Our kids did homework projects about the Bosnians. But their struggles and nightmarish flashbacks escaped most of us.
There is still time to learn.
Just published by the Missouri Historical Society Press, Bosnian St. Louis: Between Two Worlds was written by Patrick McCarthy, associate dean of libraries at Saint Louis University and the author of After the Fall: Srebrenica Survivors in St. Louis, and Akif Cogo, founder, historian, and archivist for the not-for-profit group St. Louis Bosnians.
“The world is full of people who will die in a place where they never expected to live,” the book begins, that sentence opening an introduction by Aleksandar Hemon. Born in Sarajevo, Hemon came here and gathered a MacArthur grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a faculty post teaching creative writing at Princeton University. He understands exactly how hard it was to take oral histories for this book, how “people get overwhelmed while telling them, remembering things they didn’t know they could—or would want to—remember, insisting on details that are both extremely telling and irrelevant, yet soaked with meanings that are not always immediately apparent.”
Bosnian St. Louis goes on to remind us how beautiful Bosnia and Herzegovina was, and how readily people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds intermarried and socialized. This small country with a mouthful of a name was first part of Yugoslavia—and it was the only Yugoslav republic established purely by geography and history, not ethnicity.
Then, in 1991, Yugoslavia fell apart. Forces set out to divide Bosnians into ethnonationalist groupings and turn them against one another. Preferring civilized unity, they resisted. War raged from 1992 to 1995. “Mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, museums, libraries, and homes were deliberately targeted,” an attempt to terrorize people into submission.
Other countries watched, as we now watch Ukraine. There were rumors of a new genocide, just fifty years after the Holocaust. U.S. President George H.W. Bush blamed “all kinds of ancient rivalries” and offered only humanitarian assistance. (In an unforgettable phrase, the authors describe this approach as “feeding victims while also allowing them to be slaughtered.”)
The next president, Bill Clinton, was initially breezy as well: “Until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen,” he said—two years after Omarska and other concentration camps had been discovered in northwest Bosnia. The year after Clinton made that comment, those who ran Omarska were indicted by The Hague Tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A photograph in Bosnian St. Louis, the young men at Omarska looking like young men at Auschwitz—bald, with barely enough flesh left to cover sharp ribs and spine.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw what was happening,” a Bosnian who had come to St. Louis much earlier said after watching the nightly news. “That normal people could do that to one another. The food was stuck in my throat when I saw those pictures on television.”
When the war and genocide finally ended, “Germany began repatriating Bosnians to their hometowns, places that were still occupied by the very aggressors who had driven them out,” the authors remark. Many chose to come to the U.S. instead, and St. Louis was a major resettlement center.
Bosnians who had already made St. Louis their home banded together to welcome the refugees. There was a bit of history here: in 1904, a group of Christian Orthodox Serbs had come; then, in the sixties, a handful of others then anti-Communist political opponents of Yugoslavia. The community grew. Now Ermina Grbic, cofounder of a beloved restaurant, cooked for the refugees to give them “some sense of the familiar.” Social justice activist Ron Klutho taught himself Bosnian so he could help people feel welcome. Bosnian St. Louis mentions the way he carried hundreds of names, addresses, and phone numbers in little spiral notebooks, but I remember turning to him for sources when I was a reporter, and he never even needed to look. Those names danced on the tip of his tongue: who they were, what was special about them, what talents, what they had endured, what they needed.
Refugees became activists themselves. Safeta Ovcina told a St. Louis audience, “I want you to know that the eyes of all the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are turned to you in hope of your help. Don’t be a passive observer or unwilling participant in the dirtiest war in history. This is a war against unarmed and innocent civilians.”
It was. Yet “even today, those who carried out the genocide [in Bosnia] are denying that it ever occurred or are brazenly celebrating it with a growing chorus of support throughout the world,” note the authors of Bosnian St. Louis.
History repeats itself, gets ignored or denied, repeats again somewhere else. Germany. East Timor. Bangladesh. Uganda. Iraq. Somalia. Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rwanda. Darfur. Syria. DCR. Myanmar. Ukraine.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.