I’M 31-year-old physical therapist living in Astoria, Queens, an American citizen more into “Seinfeld” reruns than bloodthirsty revenge. And yet, 20 years after the start of the Bosnian war that exiled my Muslim family, I still hesitated to buy my lamb prsuta from my neighbourhood Serbian butcher, until I learned he had been here 30 years. So he couldn’t have been the soldier with the AK-47 who took my father and brother to the concentration camp.
I’m one of over 10,000 ex- Yugoslavians in Queens. I have my hair cut by my old countryman Gigi and eat cevapi at the Old Bridge (owned by a Sarajevan also named Kenan). The most ambitious place I’ve frequented around here was Marshall, a Yugoslavia-themed restaurant and lounge meant to help my generation forget about the ethnic hatreds that tore my old country apart. Gigi, who in addition to the hair salon runs a neighbourhood wine bar, opened Marshall in 2009. When my brother, Eldin, and I first went there that December, it was like walking back into our childhood, to the home I was forced to flee at age 13.
The DJ was blasting “Is Sarajevo Where It Once Was,” by Dino Merlin, the famous Bosniak pop artist. Pictures of the Yugoslavian soccer team hung on the walls.
But we were skeptical; the Bosniak owners, Serbian waitresses and nearby Croatian bar could be a recipe for disaster.
We felt bad for the American bouncer, who probably thought he had it easy, overseeing seemingly mild-mannered white patrons. The waitresses who brought our $6 Buds wore white shirts and red scarves, like acolytes of Marshall Tito, the moderate dictator who once united Yugoslavia’s antagonistic groups, and a granite bust of Tito’s head sat on the bar’s top shelf. I turned to Eldin and said, “Think this will make us forget the 250,000 dead?” I was born the year Tito died, in the city of Brcko. At 7, I pledged in front of my class and my favourite teacher, Milutin, to spread the unity that Tito had fought for. Five years later, in the first month of warfare, I bumped into Milutin, now in uniform. “Hey, teacher,” I called. He knocked the grocery bag out of my hand, saying, “Balije don’t need bread.” (“Balije” was a slur for Bosniak.) Holding me by my hair, he rested his rifle against my head. “It’s jammed,” he complained. As I ran away, I caught him waving a three-finger salute, a gesture of Serbian nationalism based on the Orthodox sign of the cross.
That year, I became a pariah. My karate teammates demanded that I return the He-Man trading cards we’d collected. My best friends stopped picking me for soccer games. I’d watch them play from behind the shades of my window, which were closed to protect us from bullets. My mother, Adisa (now deceased), had loved to listen to poprock while trimming her plants. But without sunlight and with nothing but patriotic songs on the radio, the flowers died one by one.
Two decades later at Marshall, Eldin and I listened to music by Dirty Theater, Croatia’s Coldplay. As a bachelor nursing a broken heart, I couldn’t help watching the bar’s beautiful, silkyhaired Serbian waitresses. But their presence meant that soon, young Serbian men started coming in droves.
Slowly, the bar began to Balkanize.
Bosnians, Croatians, Montenegrins and Serbians sat in separate corners. One night, while the DJ played Serbian turbo-folk songs, the $9 stuffed cabbage I ordered came with bacon. Then the D.J. played “Last Supper” by the Serbian pop singer Ceca, whom I had hated ever since she’d praised her late husband, Arkan, an international war criminal. During the conflict, he ran Arkan’s Tigers, a paramilitary unit that robbed and murdered Muslims. I felt like a minority, alienated again on my own turf.
We went back only once more.
During another Ceca song, I saw a man waving the three-finger salute – to me, the equivalent of “Heil Hitler” – and a switch went off in my brain. I flashed to the time my family was stopped at a checkpoint and a paramilitary cocked his gun at my back. The soldiers laughed, proud to demoralise a 12-yearold boy. I wished I could wake up the next day at age 18, to take revenge as a soldier. But as an adult, I’ve never once used my fist, afraid of what I might do.
To get the guy’s attention, I threw a crumpled napkin across the bar. It bounced off his head. His table looked in my direction, and I smirked. I used to stand on the banks of the river in Brcko, tossing rocks into the ripples. I waved my index finger side to side, cautioning him not to repeat the gesture. It would be two against six, but they couldn’t imagine how much rage we had pent up. I had no idea myself until that moment. Fortunately, the Serbians stayed on their side of the bar, merely muttering insults.
A fight did eventually break out at Marshall. Last year, in April, we heard that a group of Montenegrins, who had seen a young customer flash the same salute, wrecked the bar. Out in the street, someone was stabbed in the back; another man had his right forearm slashed. The youngest victim was 21 – a toddler when the war began.
My American pals argued for the young customer’s freedom of expression.
But they hadn’t followed the International Criminal Tribunal. They didn’t know that those responsible for the atrocities would probably die in country-club prisons and be given heroes’ funerals in Serbia, like the one Slobodan Milosevic was given. They couldn’t fathom what it was like to lose your country, your family.
Mine was lucky. In the summer of 1992, Eldin and my father were sent to Luka, our town’s concentration camp.
But right before the Red Cross came to publicise the atrocities in the area, they were miraculously released, and we escaped to America. The leader of the camp was later convicted of crimes against humanity.
Marshall closed after the fight. Today, it’s an Italian restaurant. It was a noble effort by Gigi. But Bosnians like me cannot forget. Although the horrors we witnessed were 20 years ago, the pain is never far away. Having a drink at Gigi’s wine bar last week, I spied the statue of Marshal Tito hiding on a high shelf, behind a bottle of Bosnian moonshine.