Journey to a shattered land


BY CAMERON McWHIRTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The image haunts Omar Velagic: a glimpse of his grandmother on a television news report. The footage showed elderly residents of Sarajevo walking through a snowy downtown park, collecting bits of wood near tree stumps. Many Sarajevans were freezing to death that winter. Omar, his parents, Sanja and Nerman, and his younger brother, Miro, saw - for a few seconds - Sanja's frail mother, Zehra Santic, stooping to pick up a bit of kindling.

"Can you imagine seeing someone you know, your grandmother, going through that? Sadness and hatred combined together in me," said Mr. Velagic, 21, of Loveland. "Sadness at seeing that my grandmother had to do that to survive and anger at the Bosnian Serbs for doing that to her . . . There was a lot of frustration, because we couldn't help her at all."

His mother, Sanja, taped the broadcast in 1993. In those days, at the peak of the fighting in Bosnia, his mother was taping news reports all the time, piling videos up on the living room shelves of their suburban Cincinnati house. Hers was a desperate attempt to stay connected to her homeland; to fend off the guilt of not being there, not suffering along with friends and family caught in the war.

After years of separation, Omar is about to see his grandmother. Troubled by war images and driven by a hope that Bosnia can rebuild itself, he is set to return to Sarajevo Monday with two Enquirer staff members.

He leaves with two carry-on bags. One bag will have his belongings: a few pants, a few shirts, a toothbrush and a notebook. The other bag is for his grandparents: sweaters, underwear, medicine, vitamins and German marks - crucial items out of reach for most Sarajevans since the war broke out.

Omar also will be carrying pain, anger and a profound sadness. He is going back to Sarajevo, but he knows already that he cannot go home again. He has spent years reading news reports about ethnic cleansing, rape, murder and other atrocities - mostly directed at his people, the Bosnian Muslims.

"Everything is changed, destroyed," he sighed. "Nothing will be the same. As we get closer to leaving, I get more and more emotional. I know this is going to be hard."

Weighing heavily upon him is the choice he knows he has to make, a choice few young men ever have to make: to return to his country to help build a lasting peace from the carnage or to turn away from the destruction and start a new life away from the mountainous land that his family has called home for centuries.

Stranded in the U.S.

The Velagic (pronounced Veh-LA-gitch) family came here just before the war. When fighting broke out in 1992, Sanja and Nerman decided they should stay here in America, for the sake of their two young boys.

But after making the decision, Sanja was unable to sleep for the first year of the war. Until a year ago, she couldn't discuss it without bursting into tears. Once on the television, she saw a close friend in Sarajevo filmed visiting the grave of her recently killed son. Sanja knows that could easily have been Omar.

"It was too hard," she said in her halting English. "To see that horrible pain going on just on the TV and not being able to show your sympathy."

Sanja, now 42, coped by mobilizing the family to do something. They gathered food and medicine for Bosnian refugees. They sent money to relatives. They tried to get her parents out, but both her and her husband's parents were too afraid to leave their homes despite all the fighting.

Sanja regularly wrote the White House. During the Dayton peace talks, she helped organize a special visit by Bosnian refugees from Greater Cincinnati to see Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The group urged the leaders to find an end to the fighting.

But still, conflicting emotions tore at the family.

"You have two different feelings," Sanja said. "You feel relief that you have done what is best for your children, and you feel guilty that you are not with your relatives and friends. But always my dad would tell me, stay where you are, stay safe."

Omar tried to explain the anguish to fellow students in an English class at the University of Cincinnati.

"A cave of sadness lives in my heart," he wrote in 1993 class paper on the war. "It's hard to live without Sarajevo . . . I never hated before but now I do. I hate those who took my friend's childhood . . . I hate those who made me hate."

The war - halted now after the Dayton peace agreement and the intervention of U.S. and NATO forces - took a tremendous toll on Bosnia, a country about half the size of Ohio with about 4.3 million people. More than 200,000 died in the fighting. More than two million people became refugees.

In the Tristate, a dozen refugee families have settled in the last few years. About 30 Bosnian high school students are staying temporarily with Northern Kentucky families. Most of the Bosnians in Greater Cincinnati came from Sarajevo, like the Velagics.

Like all Bosnians who fled the war, the Velagics now face a difficult choice: to return or not. "It's not the same city, but I need to see it for myself," Omar said. "I need to see if it can be rebuilt, the life that existed there. This trip will decide a lot about my future, what direction it will take."

The Velagics were luckier than most Bosnians - Muslims, Serbs and Croats - uprooted by four years of war. The family escaped the war by chance. They happened to be in Cincinnati on a two-year exchange with father Nerman's valve company when fighting erupted in April 1992.

They had planned to return when Omar graduated with an American diploma from Sycamore High School. The diploma was supposed to help Omar get into engineering college in Sarajevo. Later, he planned to work with an American firm in Bosnia.

Instead, the family found themselves stuck in America with few of their belongings. Their apartment in Sarajevo is now occupied by a family that had to flee the fighting. As for their family furniture and belongings, no one knows what happened to them.

Nerman got an engineering job with Lukenheimer, a Cincinnati valve company that used to deal with his old factory in Sarajevo. Sanja works for a furniture wholesaler. Omar now studies at the University of Cincinnati and Miro is in high school.

By all appearances, the Velagics today are a typical suburban family in middle America. They have a nice home near Loveland, an English Spaniel named "Lucky Bosnia," two cars and a well-groomed lawn. Nerman could pass for a thoughtful professor of theology with his thick glasses and dark eyebrows. Sanja checks to make sure guests are well-fed. Omar, in a dark turtleneck, blends in well with the young crowds at bars on Main Street or Mount Adams. Miro, wearing a Chicago Bulls sweat shirt, fits in shooting hoops on any court in the Tristate.

If the family hadn't left for Nerman's job assignment, life would have been drastically altered.

In Bosnia, Omar - 6-feet, 2-inches tall and 215 pounds - would certainly have been drafted. Miro, 18, would have followed suit. Sanja and Nerman would be unemployed, as both Nerman's valve factory and the railroad where Sanja worked have been shut down. And the family apartment would have been threatened daily by shelling. The family would have had to scrounge for food, water and heat.

"It makes you wonder about the curves and paths life takes," said Omar. "If we had stayed, I would have gone into the army. I would have volunteered. Maybe I would have been killed. My parents or brother may have been killed. It makes you wonder if someone is up there, directing your actions, or if it's just destiny."

Sarajevo

The Sarajevo that Omar Velagic remembers best is the city in 1984, when he was ten and the proud city was the site of the Winter Olympics. For a month, foreigners crowded into the city, smiling and laughing. He remembers Canadians, wearing the Maple Leaf sewn to their jackets, walking the streets singing. He remembers talking to Germans and Americans.

"Everyone was so friendly to everyone else," he recalled. "It was such a good atmosphere." But the city that Omar knew is altered completely by fierce fighting in the worst war to hit Europe since World War II.

"It will be hard to see everything changed completely," he said recently in the den of his family's house. "Everything is destroyed. That will be the most difficult part for me, seeing what has happened. For years, I've sat watching the bodies on the television and I've said to myself, 'That's the street where I used to walk.' "

Recently, the family looked over a large map of Sarajevo on the dining room table. Sanja and Nerman met and fell in love in the city. Their two sons were born there. The map, one of the few still available, is dated 1986, two years after the city was the site of the Winter Olympics.

All the streets and neighborhoods were well defined and, for a few moments, the family lost themselves in memories. They pointed out where they worked, where they met, where they lived, where they used to like to eat. But the war crept back.

Nerman pointed out the neighborhood where he and Sanja were married.

"Here, in Ilidza, this is where (the wedding) was . . . Now, Ilidza is all Serb, they control it," he said. "There has been a lot of fighting there. Shelling."

The war erupted in April 1992, when Bosnian Serb militia began attacking the city. Many Bosnian Serbs, the second largest ethnic group in the country, were opposed to a referendum in Bosnia that called for independence from Yugoslavia.

Many Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats voted for independence in the referendum. Bosnian Serb political groups, most of whom boycotted the vote, began to seize territory and declare a "Republic of Serbia" apart from the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government. A vicious war ensued.

Sarajevo, always controlled by the Muslim-backed Bosnian government, was shelled for years by the Bosnian Serb artillery from overlooking mountains. Sarajevo, according to a 1993 population estimate, had 383,000 people, slightly more than Cincinnati's 364,000.

So many civilians have been killed they had to bury the dead in a soccer stadium.

Omar, his deep voice trembling slightly, tried to convey what happened to his city.

"It's as if Kentuckians starting bombing the city from Covington and Newport," he said. "It's like burying people in Riverfront stadium."

He knows that at least one cousin, Braco, is dead. He was killed early in the war when an artillery shell slammed into a Sarajevo street.

Omar's old haunts, like Veliki Park, were only a few years ago as serene as Eden Park or Fountain Square. Today the park has no trees. His old school, in downtown Sarajevo next to the Holiday Inn, is pock-marked with bullet holes. According to a friend whom he met recently, many of Omar's classmates - Muslims, Serbs and Croats - have been killed.

"He told me, basically, half my freshman class is dead," Mr. Velagic said.

Many of his classmates joined the various armies in the war. Some Serb classmates later shelled the city for the Bosnian Serb army.

Omar recalls that the first girl he ever kissed, a school classmate named Tanya, was a Serb. He remembers walking in downtown Sarajevo, looking for a park bench to sit with her. Finally, near the Miljacka River, he found one. They sat down and he kissed her.

"Who knows where she is now," he said. "Maybe up in the mountains with other Serbs."

Memories of home

The Velagic home bears small reminders of their Bosnia, a peaceful mountainous place in the heart of the Balkans. Atop the television, a small Bosnian flag shares a plastic stand with the Stars and Stripes. On the shelves, Serbo-Croation dictionaries sit next to the novels of Bosnian Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric.

Hanging in the hallway is a small etching of the bridge at Mostar, one of Bosnia's most famous landmarks. The bridge has been destroyed by the war.

Now, with peace in Bosnia enforced by NATO, each family member faces the future.

Miro, now a senior at Milford High School, has no hesitation.

"I plan to return," he said. "It is my home. I want to help rebuild."

Nerman is sick about what happened in Bosnia. He fears the extremism and violence may have poisoned his country forever.

Sanja also is fearful and agonizes over her eldest son's trip.

"I really worry," She said. "If it was just up to me, he would not go. It is so dangerous . . . so sad what happened to our city."

Her youthful face, despite smiles, carries a pained expression. For four years, family friends have died, disappeared, or become enemies. Developing a hideous life of its own, the war went beyond its political causes to devour people, places, memories, happiness.

When the war first broke out, Sanja spent months by the radio and television. She got out her map of Bosnia daily to try and figure out who had captured what city, village or mountaintop. Eventually, she learned that only the war was winning. She has stopped making so many videotapes.

"After a while, I became exhausted by the war," she said, sitting at her dining room table. She doesn't know if the family should return. Omar knows that for himself, and for his family, he needs to see Sarajevo as it is today, not how they remember.

"I need to see what happened. I need to understand it."

Published Jan. 29, 1996

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