Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the first refugees from the Bosnian War arriving in St. Louis.
In the coming months we’re going to take a closer look at their experiences in this country and how their presence has changed the cultural landscape of our city.
But to know how St. Louis became home to what’s estimated to be the largest Bosnian population outside of eastern Europe, you have to first understand the brutal ethnic war that many of them fled.
You’re six years old and you’re hanging out with your dad in front of your family’s apartment building.
A car pulls up, you kind of recognize the three men because they’re cops just like your dad, until he got fired for being Muslim.
He goes up to talk to them; he looks back at you…he gets in the car.
It’s the last time you’ll ever see him.
Fast forward 17 years and you’re staring at a video camera, speaking a completely foreign language. You aren’t sure if this is exactly what happened.
“I’m crying and my mother says to me: ‘He just left for a business trip,’” Mujkanovic says. “But I remember specifically knowing that she was lying and he was not coming back.”
In the video Dejana Mujkanovic is a fresh-faced 23-year old with short dark hair.
She’s nervously reaching out for childhood memories that seemed to have just vanished.
“You know, for the longest time when anyone would ask me about my father I would say he disappeared, nesto, nesto, he disappeared,” she says.
Mujkanovic’s father was one of tens of thousands of Muslims who were executed during the war simply because their religion.
And her story is one of dozens that have been recorded over the last six years by the Bosnian Memory Project.
We Owed It To Our Neighbors
The collection is the brainchild of Fontbonne University History Professor Benjamin Moore.
“We felt in part that we owned it to our Bosnian neighbors to understand something about them,” Moore says.
Soon after he got started Moore struck up a conversation with his professor buddy Jack Luzkow, who also teaches history at Fontbonne.
Almost immediately, Luzkow was intrigued.
“I soon wanted to join him because I had been very active in teaching the Holocaust for years, and here was something that also was never supposed to happen again,” Luzkow says.
A Collective Narrative
So, six years ago, they picked up a cheap video camera and formed this kind of intellectual tag team.
Step by step, Luzkow and Moore set out to explore a collective narrative of the war as told by Bosnians in St. Louis.
Along the way they started uncovering artifacts like gut wrenching letters from concentration camps.
But early on they ran into one big problem, Luzkow says people just didn’t want to talk.
“There could be repercussions still, because almost everybody who’s here still has family in Bosnia,” Luzkow says “So, they were very concerned about that, certainly. Some didn’t want to revisit the past, it was too painful.”
Luzkow and Moore needed help navigating the big, complicated cultural divide that separated them from the stories they were out to catalog.
A Connection To The Community
On recent Wednesday evening, Amir Karadizic, a man who would become one of their guides is sitting in the back of a dark coffee shop in South City.
Karadizic is a middle-aged Bosnian man with thick gray hair. He’s a mild mannered, easy-going kind of guy, but he carries around a really heavy set of eyes.
Prijedor, where he was born, saw some of the worst the war had to offer, thousands of its residents died or were thrown in concentration camps.
His face distorts as he describes how the war twisted once peaceful religious differences into unspeakable violence.
Karadizic says many Bosnians survived the war by only trusting their closest family members, and publicly, few are willing to relive a painful past.
“It’s a very, very complicated process to make someone talk about that,” Karadizic says. “They will say, ‘oh yeah, the war happened, we had to go from our homes.’ But they never tell you what exactly happened.”
But, why is he doing this? Why go through all of this over and over and over again?
He says it’s simple, it’s a memory project, and maybe, just maybe, the memory of what happened to so many Bosnians will help prevent something like that from ever happening again.
Follow Tim Llloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd