With the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and under the rule of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, a ghastly, grisly war ravaged Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. The longest running siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare (Sarajevo); the use of systematic mass rape as a tool of genocide; the mass murder of 8000 Bosnian boys and men over the span of two days in the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica; mass graves and concentration camps—sights so macabre as to be incomprehensible and recall the Holocaust in a chilling way. This was a well-documented war, watched over by the UN, journalists, and the world at large. The Bosnia List is the raw, honest, and captivating story of boy and his family’s survival of the Bosnian War and escape to the United States.
A compelling, human, and incredibly moving book, it follows the author, Kenan Trebincevic, as he recalls the idyllic days of his childhood where ethnicity and religion was never something that people even thought about until national rhetoric stirred the flames of hatred and created monsters out of ordinary people.
The Bosnia List fits squarely within the category of survival (and survivor) literature—it is as though by remembering and recognizing one can defy genocide in the most powerful way—by refusing to be erased, to disappear, to be forgotten. It is also unique in that the protagonist is able to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and face the very same neighbors who turned on him. Revenge and forgiveness, we find out, are different sides of a coin.
Movingly told with the help of his former teacher Susan Shapiro, Kenan weaves a story that goes back and forth from his childhood to adulthood. 12-year-old Kenan is a karate-loving regular kid living in Brcko, a northern Bosnian town. One day, he hears shelling and gunfire. His world is about to be upended—all of a sudden, he is a Muslim, a “Turk”—words he had never thought would be used to describe him and, even less so, make a target of extermination. “Where we lived was the most religiously mixed,” he writes. “32 percent Christian Serbs; 17 percent Croats, who practiced Roman Catholicism; and 45 percent Muslim, like us.” Brcko is a secular town; his only awareness of being Muslim that “we had Ramadan and no Santa Claus.”
The Bosnia List is filled with the kind of intricate sensory detail that transports the reader back to a place, inhaling this book and waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. “The first sacrifice of the war was her (his Mom’s) flowers. We kept our shades closed to avoid being sprayed with bullets. She had to watch, mute, while her plants died one by one.” The youngest in his family, he is the only one who can leave the apartment in search of food. While looking for bread, he runs into his karate teacher, Pero, his hero. Pero presses a gun to Kenan’s head, but it misfires, saving Kenan’s life. All of his former closest friends turn on him. He can’t find food for his family because “balije (ethnic slur for Bosniaks) don’t need bread.” Heart-wrenchingly, he writes, “I was the little shrimp outside on the stairwell who every day was picked on by former friends, spat at, denied food in stores, hit, tripped on the steps, shot at.”
The Serb neighbor starts stealing furniture from his house, ominously telling his Mom, “You won’t be needing that carpet.” Saved by the fact that his father was a well-loved community man, his family avoids going to Partizan Sports Hall, where he used to practice karate—“on the wooden floor where I’d kicked and somersaulted, my people were being gummed down by Pero and his comrades, their bodies left on the ground in pools of blood.”
Through a series of miraculous events, his family escapes to Vienna and finally the United States. But as his Dad ages, he longs to return to Bosnia. Reluctantly and apprehensively, Kenan returns to what was once his home…with an agenda, a list. Revenge, closure, resentment, understanding are all stirred up in one. When they leave Brcko, they are literally the last Muslim family there, escaping a tragic fate that does not spare the rest. By the end of the war, Brcko is a skeleton of what was once a beautiful community. As they return back home, he hears the sounds of Muslim prayers over loudspeakers — “the sound reassured me we were no longer the only Muslims in Brcko. Now they say prayers five times a day. For spite. Most of the town is secular.”
Is there healing or closure to be found for Kenan? There is no patois, forced reconciliation, nor are there lugubrious theatrics. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy—that everyone is dumbfounded by what happened, unable to explain, wanting to forget, yet unable to move on. No one seems to understand how they could get swept up in the horrors of war. “Milos looked horrified that I’d ever thought of him as a murderer. He wasn’t angry at all. His eyes caught mine. They seemed to plead for my understanding, my mercy.”
Yet, he is also able to see that many Serb people also chose to help his family. Conciliation and peace are, nevertheless, hard to come by. “Everyone we knew in this country was more twisted in knots than I was. I was fortunate to have an American life to go back to.”