The coffeeshops are full again in the summer of 2001, and vacationers from Chicago, Toronto and Sydney eat ice cream at outdoor tables. On the streets, some of which used to be sniper alleys, old friends bump into each other. They talk about their families and their new lives in foreign countries.
They don’t talk about war—nobody talks about it, even though it’s only been six years since the Serbian shells stopped falling on Sarajevo and only two years since NATO bombs stopped blasting craters in Belgrade. That’s all hopefully in the past, and the visitors and those still living in Bosnia chat instead about the present.
“It was so nice,” Tanja Micic says, recalling her first and so far only trip back to Bosnia. “A huge number of refugees came for a vacation all [at] the same time. There’s no war, so the coffeeshops were crowded with people who live overseas, everywhere.”
But Tanja, who now works as the immigration specialist at the local International Rescue Committee affiliate, notices something during the vacation: The country she left in 1992 is no longer home. After moving to Serbia, then Germany and finally to Utah, she is a vacationer in the place where she grew up.
“The people in Bosnia, I don’t know them,” she says, adding that while other refugees have returned to Bosnia, she doesn’t have similar plans. “The main reason nobody wants to go to Bosnia is because they have their friends here now.”
Bosnians are by far the Salt Lake Valley’s largest war-refugee group, with an estimated 7,000 people. Tanja says that “many hundreds” of people from her hometown of Doboj—former population 30,000—now live in Salt Lake. With friends, families and neighbors again living together, this time without worry of ethnic cleansing or artillery shells, there’s little incentive to go back for anything more than a summer get-away.
If there is any hope that war refugees will eventually want to be repatriated, one only needs to look at the local Bosnian community to see that it isn’t likely. Sure, Slobodan Milosevic is gone and democracy is sending out shoots, but that apparently isn’t reason enough to go back to Doboj and Sarajevo.
In Bosnia, before the war, Nevenka Karic had a good job with the state as a construction inspector. In America, she works at a bacon factory with her husband and a few dozen other Bosnians and Serbs. She works long hours in a deadening, monotonous job in the packaging division. She reeks of raw meat, and everything at the factory—the stairs, the doorknobs—is coated with a slippery layer of grease. And yet, she won’t go back, even though she says she could get a better job and a cheaper apartment, and even though her country is now “liberated.”
“I live here. I’ll never live there,” she says defiantly. “I’ll only visit Bosnia. When I make money, I’ll visit, but I live here.”
Nevenka’s husband Fehro worked in Bosnia as a truck driver, and after fleeing to Germany, he worked for several years as a plumber. When he’s told that plumbers make good money in America, Fehro shakes his head and says he doesn’t know English well enough to make house calls.
“I’m 46. I’m too old to learn,” he says.
Besides, he adds, he’s perfectly content at the bacon factory. He makes $7 per hour and gets full health benefits for himself and his family. And there is always plenty of work—he puts in about 60 hours each week. Fehro doesn’t have many plans for the future. He is enrolled in a company-sponsored English course, after management told him that with better language skills, he could move into a better-paying supervisory position. He plans on working at the factory until he retires. He doesn’t plan to return to Bosnia.
Neither does another married couple at the factory, Radojko and Alma Purkovic. Radojko has to work 70 hours per week to make ends meet, but the strain contributed to the heart attack he suffered last year at the age of 39. When asked about what he has planned for the future, he simply laughs.
His wife says there’s no reason to plan for the future. She’s made plans before, only to have them shattered like an 7.62mm bullet entering a single-pane window. Tomorrow doesn’t exist when war—including the West’s “liberation” of your homeland—has forced you to live in three different countries.
“You don’t have a lot of choice. You have to be happy,” she says. “You can’t change anything. You can stay here or you can leave.”
Some of Alma’s co-workers at the bacon factory are getting close to making the decision to leave. Sulejman Pilav says he feels isolated here in America, and he’s ready to believe that peace has finally come to Bosnia.
“I like my country, my city and my people,” he says.
Of course, there is always the specter of renewed conflict. Memories of the war linger like the smell inside the bacon factory. Alma says she doesn’t even like other Bosnians coming to her house because “it brings back bad memories, very bad.”
Those memories came back recently, when TV channels were full of night-vision camera footage and long-distance shots of explosions. Tanja, the IRC immigration specialist, says that the war in Iraq has hardly energized the Bosnian community like it has Utah’s Iraqi and Sudanese populations.
“If you ask people to tell you their opinion about the war, they don’t want to discuss it because they’ve been through it,” she says. “They don’t want to know it’s still happening.”
So they ignore it. They go to their factory jobs and ignore the similarity that pig flesh shares with human tissue. Some of them don’t invite their old neighbors over for dinner lest the memories come rushing back like the whir of a stray artillery shell. And when they go to Bosnia for vacation, they talk about the weather over cups of coffee and then say goodbye again.