As a young soldier in Bosnia, Azem Dervisevic led a platoon that helped keep the capital Sarajevo from falling to Serb forces during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
Now, as a civilian in the Boston area, Dervisevic is still fighting for his homeland, but with culture instead of bullets.
In June, he helped found the New England Friends of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a group that helped organize a recent art exhibit, “Bosnian Born,” featuring the work of more than 20 Muslim, Serb and Croat artists born in Bosnia.
The group also inaugurated its first semester of Bosnian language classes, with a dozen students ages 6-9. Dervisevic hopes it will promote Bosnian culture, encourage reconciliation between Bosnia’s ethnic groups, and preserve the history of the war that introduced the term “ethnic cleansing.”
“I lost my brother and almost all my best friends in the war. I can’t forget and I can’t let anybody else forget what happened,” said Dervisevic, who came to Boston in 1993, went to business school, and now runs a successful construction company.
Despite their relatively short time in America and the ghosts of war, Bosnian Muslims are often thriving in American society. They are physicians, university professors, business owners and financiers. Their children are poised to do even better.
Success, however, hasn’t diminished the sense of injustice that many Bosnian Muslims in America feel over how the war ended, concerns that their struggles could be forgotten, and worries that their culture is still being erased.
Serb forces attacked Bosnia after its government declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992, and waged a campaign against non-Serbs that killed close to 200,000 people, mostly Bosnian Muslim civilians, and drove another million from their homes.
Mosques, Muslim cemeteries and other cultural markers were destroyed. The atrocities were documented by reporters from the U.S. and elsewhere, nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations, which established an international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
The war ended with the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Agreement, which split the country into two states, one Serb and one composed of Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
Although relieved the fighting was over, many Bosnians felt the Dayton agreement rewarded the Serbs’ wartime leaders for their war crimes. That feeling has since been compounded by Bosnians’ suspicions that Serb nationalists are trying to suffocate Bosnia with political gridlock, economic stagnation, blocking the return of refugees and erasing evidence of Bosnian culture.
“Bosnia paid a huge price, and we didn’t achieve anything,” said Alma Vilogorac, a refugee from Sarajevo who lives in San Francisco. “In Bosnia, genocide is rewarded.”
Vilogorac, who lost two brothers in the war, is one of 13 Bosnians who in 1997 sued Radovan Karadzic, the self-styled Bosnian Serb president who’s now on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. The judge awarded the plaintiffs $4.6 billion, although they have not recovered it.
Despite the reams of evidence preserved by governments and international institutions, many Bosnians feel that Serb nationalists and those who failed to stop the atrocities – including top U.N. and Western officials – want to deny or downplay the war crimes.
“So many people have a stake in denying what happened in Bosnia,” said Benjamin Moore, a professor at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, where he helped create “The Bosnia Memory Project,” a collection of interviews, documents and other materials “dedicated to establishing an enduring record of Bosnian genocide survivors.”
“The acknowledgment for the genocide won’t come from the top. Change has to come from the people,” said Moore.
Leaders from the Republika Srpska, as the Serb entity in Bosnia is known, repeatedly deny claims of ethnic cleansing and hail convicted war criminals as heroes. Bosnian Serb authorities routinely threaten to secede, and have established their own police force, telecom system, schools and other institutions.