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'Being Bosnian' explores impact of genocide on a new generation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In 1993, the first Bosnian refugees from the genocidal war in Bosnia Herzegovina arrived in St. Louis. Since then, the Bosnian population here has grown to an estimated 60,000. Now, 20 years later, a different set of challenges faces a younger generation of Bosnians, many of whom have no first-hand memories of the war, but nonetheless represent its legacy.

“Most of the Bosnians who are here in St. Louis are not supposed to exist from the point of view of the perpetrators of genocide,” observes Ben Moore, director of Fontbonne’s Bosnia Memory Project, “and equally, the memory of them is not supposed to exist.”

That reality is what lies behind a ground-breaking national symposium, “Being Bosnian: Identities after the War” this Friday and Saturday at Fontbonne University.

“The fact that St. Louis’ community of Bosnians is here because of genocide gives a significance to this conference,” says Moore. “A lot of Bosnian neighbors will be there.”

The symposium represents a “unique collaboration between higher education and the community,” Moore says. He believes it “marks the emergence of a new generation,” now 21 years since the siege of Sarajevo began. “The questions are different from when this community first started forming.”

In this regard, “events like this are the opposite of genocide,” aimed at fostering dialogue and preserving individual and collective stories.

Moore expects strong attendance, including academics from various disciplines and universities, Bosnian St. Louisans, representatives from aid agencies that work with refugees and survivors, and teachers from the Affton and Mehlville school districts, which enroll a significant number of Bosnian students.

In addition to panels and open discussions, Friday’s program features the St. Louis launch of fiction writer Aleksandar Hemon’s first volume of nonfiction, "The Book of My Lives," released in March. Hemon, who was visiting the United States and remained when war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, is the 2005 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award.

Saturday’s presenters include Dr. Esad Boskailo, a psychiatrist, author and University of Arizona professor -- and survivor of six concentration camps in Bosnia; and author Amila Buturovic, associate professor of religious studies and humanities at York University in Toronto and a specialist in Islamic studies.

“Hemon and Boskailo are able to make a connection between the specific kinds of suffering that were inflicted on Bosnians and the larger question of suffering that is part of human experience in general,” Moore comments.

“Therefore, they really present Bosnia and the Bosnian diaspora as important lessons in what it means to be human. It’s impossible to understand the war and genocide apart from the individuals who experienced it.”

Buturovic’s work focuses on “reconstituting the pluralism that was destroyed by war and genocide.  While her scholarship is about the Balkans,” Moore believes “it has important implications for understanding cultural pluralism in St. Louis and North America.” 

What does it mean to be Bosnian?

But for Moore, “the mother of all questions” this weekend will be “how did the war and genocide change Bosnian identities. For example, is the vocabulary for describing Bosnian identities in ethnic and religious terms really adequate?”

Fontbonne’s Bosnia Memory Project will be honored May 9 with a FOCUS St. Louis “What’s Right with the Region” award for “Improving Racial Equality & Social Justice.” The organization was founded in 2006 by Moore and fellow Fontbonne professor Jack Luzkow.

That terminology was solidified by the Dayton agreement, “which inscribed ethnic differences into the governmental system in Bosnia and left Bosnia divided,” Moore says.

The country’s presidency rotates among Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Croatian, and Serbian leaders, and a political boundary divides Bosnia into the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

“One thing I really hope to get out of this conference is a better understanding of the relationship between Bosnian diaspora communities and Bosnia,” Moore notes.

“Many refugee groups gradually separate from the home land, [but for Bosnians] the pattern set by previous ethnic groups in the early 20th century might change because of technologies like Facebook and Skype that allow connections to be maintained.”

He hopes the symposium will serve this purpose as well.

“Bosnian diaspora communities can have positive effects on changing the dire state of things" in Bosnia, he says. “I don’t think we know what’s going to happen to Bosnian identities here or in Bosnia over the next 20 years because I don’t think it’s fated to turn out one way or another. I really think it’s in the hands of Bosnians and their friends.”

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