In this riveting and heartbreaking tale of war and recovery, Kenan Trebinčević returns to his war-ravaged homeland of Bosnia. His goal is to let his aging father return one last time, but what Kenan learns during the trip helps him heal the odd mix of bitterness and guilt that has filled him for more than twenty years.
In December 2009, Kenan and his older brother, Eldin Trebinčević, sit in a Balkan-themed bar in Astoria, Queens, New York, drinking rakija, plum moonshine, and listening to a Bosnian ballad. The bar’s owner, a fellow Bosnian Muslim, hoped to unite the different groups from the former Yugoslavia, trying to mend the hatred that had gone on for almost twenty years, since the beginning of the Balkan War. Kenan initially loved the fellowship he felt there.
“After two decades here, I’d become a proud citizen of the United States, and I’d chosen to live in New York’s most culturally diverse borough. I was a pacifist more interested in the Yankees and Seinfeld reruns than bloodthirsty revenge. Yet more and more I found myself returning to this busy avenue known as Yugo Row…as if it wasn’t too late to recover what was lost.”
But Eldin wasn’t so sure the local melting pot of Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs was such a safe idea. And he was right. It only took a year for the different groups to separate into small islands of resentment and distrust. They were, after all, products of the war. Would healing never take place?
Kenan’s secure life in Brčko, Bosnia had suddenly changed in July 1991, when his beloved Karate coach, Pero, became a different person almost overnight. The television news reported on the group to which Pero now belonged – the “weekend warriors,” Bosnian Serbs who would don a uniform and gun to kill people in Croatia during the weekend. The ethnic cleansing had begun.
The war came to Brčko, and to the Trebinčević family, on May 1, 1992. Gunfire filled the city; Serbian tanks rolled through the streets. After seven days of remaining in their apartment without utilities, and blankets covering their windows, Kenan was finally sent out to find what food he could for the family. Surely no one would hurt a young boy. But Kenan learned a brutal lesson that day that changed his reality forever.
A bullet almost hit Kenan as he was returning home, so he flagged down his favorite teacher from school, hoping to hide from the violence by standing behind him. But his beloved teacher stopped him in the street.
“Balije [derogatory slang for Muslims] don’t need bread,” he shouted, and knocked the bread out of Kenan’s hand. The teacher then put his AK-47 against Kenan’s head and pulled the trigger, but Kenan’s life was miraculously spared when the gun jammed.
His world had turned upside down, no longer a place where Kenan and his family were welcome. They were being hunted.
The atrocities witnessed and experienced by the Trebinčević family would leave an indelible mark on them. Bosnians were massacred throughout the city, throughout the country. Rounded up and shot en masse, their bodies stacked onto trucks that took them away in plain view. It seemed they were living in 1942, not 1992. Wasn’t anything learned from what Hitler had done to the Jews?
To pass the time in their darkened apartment, Kenan and Eldin made a game of guessing which weapons were being fired. They became experts in identifying AK-47’s, Howitzers, RPG’s, VBR launchers, and M48 machine guns. A macabre game that came to symbolize what their lives had become.
Finally, after months of hiding and trying to stay alive, Kenan and his family, the last Muslim family that remained in Brčko, barely escaped Bosnia in early January, 1993. Most of their possessions not stolen by neighbors were left behind. After camping out with other families in Austria for nine months, they were finally accepted by the United States, and were sent to live in Connecticut. They knew no one there, and were at the mercy of the church members who helped them establish a new life. Kenan’s father, Senahid, took as many jobs as he could find; his mother, Adisa, babysat; and Eldin was a busboy at a Mexican restaurant. They worked as much as was physically possible to avoid welfare.
During the next eighteen years, Kenan and Eldin completed their education and secured well-paying jobs. But their father had a stroke in 2001, and then their mother died from cancer in early 2007. By 2011, it was clear that their father wanted to go back to Bosnia, to their hometown of Brčko, one last time before he died. But Kenan had vowed never to return to Bosnia, every cell in his body resisting the dreaded trip.
“It was a conspiracy. Despite my good arguments, the world was pushing me to face down our past.”
After Senahid told his sons that he was afraid he would die before making peace with his former country, Kenan and Eldin finally gave reverence to their father’s wish. They would visit Bosnia.
And Kenan decided that he would use the trip to settle unfinished business with the people who had hurt his family. He wrote a list of twelve things that he needed to accomplish while in Bosnia – a sort of bucket list for retribution and revenge against the Serbs from his past. Kenan addressed each item on The List, but what he experienced and discovered was not what he’d expected.
Reading The Bosnia List gave me a historical lesson of the genocide that was happening on the other side of the world in the early 1990’s, while I was safe in my Texas home, working, and raising my kids. Driving them to soccer practice, doing homework with them. I hadn’t paid the attention the Balkan War so truly deserved. Three-hundred thousand people were slaughtered between 1991 and 1995. I was horrified to read the details. I felt fear as I read about a young boy who had an AK-47 pushed up against his head, who saw his father and brother rounded up and taken to the local gym where the self-proclaimed authorities shot boys and men lined up against a wall. The words made the Trebinčević’s fight for survival up-close and personal.
This book scared me to death. Just imagining what it would be like to have my close friends and neighbors suddenly become mortal enemies, trying to kill my family because of our ethnicity, and our religion, made me feel a glimpse of the fear I’ve always been privileged not to experience. How would it feel if my country were suddenly eliminated from the map, the roots we’d planted totally destroyed?
And yet, in the end, amid all of the atrocities, pain, bitterness, and retribution, Kenan Trebinčević was able to come to terms with the people who had hurt him, and better understand why his beloved Yugoslavia was destroyed, and the Bosnian people with it. Kenan’s perspective had changed:
“For two decades I’d been clinging to my rage over what the Serbs did to us. The resentment might never totally disappear…Yet during my trip to Bosnia, giving up on getting real revenge, something internal was repaired: I came back more trusting and hopeful…It felt like an affirmation of my mother’s faith that even during the most tragic times, there were flickers of goodness that must be remembered.”