Dream State | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

April 15, 2009 News » Cover Story

Dream State 

Two Bosnian youths displaced by ethnic strife find a life together in Utah.

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The gunshot was so close to 12-year-old Nermin Uvejzovic, he felt the sound like a slap against his cheek. He was running for his life through mountain forests near his village Godjenje in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbian troops were hunting down Uvejzovic and his fellow Muslim villagers, firing in every direction as the troops moved through the woods.

It was April 22, 1992, a few weeks after the Republika Srpska launched an offensive on the newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina republics. Until that day, all Uvejzovic had known was the rural peace of village life. Now he, his mother and a few other villagers were fleeing through the trees in a column, gunfire constantly behind them. At 5 p.m., his cousin shouted out the soldiers had gone. When Uvejzovic walked back to his house, overhead thunder announced torrential rain. Too late for his home, which had been burned to the ground. “I wasn’t shocked,” the now 29-year-old medical lab technician recalls while sitting in a Midvale café, having arrived in Utah with his family as refugees in 1997. “I was happy to be alive. It was like a bad dream.”

A bad dream is how Uvejzovic’s wife, Aida Neimarlija, characterizes her and her family’s flight from Mostar—once one of former Yugoslavia’s most ethnically integrated cities—in June 1993 when she was 13 years old. Her father was a major in the former Yugoslav air force and a professor in aerodynamics. With a Muslim name and cultural background, the family was secular, non-observant of their faith. Even still, they were forced to flee first by Serbian, then by Croatian assaults on their city.

The Neimarlijas were one of the first refugee families to come to the Beehive State from the war in August 1995. Many Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats followed, forced to flee from assaults on all sides because they lived on the wrong street or had the wrong name. This is a story of two out of many hundreds of teens turned into refugees by an inexplicable war.

Before Utah, Aida and her family had lived in New York’s Queens borough for nine months. Then, they heard from one-time Mostar neighbors relocated to Salt Lake City about a land where, unlike in the New York borough, you could see green rather than gray, you were surrounded by mountains rather than tenement blocks, and cockroaches weren’t climbing the walls.

For Utahns, the presence of the largely Bosnian Muslim community—reportedly around 3,500 but estimated by community leaders as high as 10,000—has made itself known through the numerous modest family-owned restaurants they operate.

“You try to avoid factory work for minimum wage, and you want to stay connected with the community,” Aida Neimarlija says. “So you run cafes.”

But Neimarlija has her eyes set on other goals. Twelve years ago, she worked as a translator for 30 Bosnian employees working at the former Delta Center (now EnergySolutions Arena). Now she’s a first-year law associate at the Salt Lake City arm of international litigation firm Howrey.

Even as these Utah immigrants find themselves consumed by the American work ethic, they still struggle to keep their traditions alive, be it in Neimarlija making Bosnian phyllo-pastry rolls, or Bosnians and Americans dancing a simple Balkan social step at Neimarlija’s wedding called the kolo, which means “the wheel.” The kolo’s roots lie in farm workers returning from the field and dancing together as they chatted about the day. In the way the kolo celebrates the past and present with a gathering of community, the story of Neimarlija and Uvejzovic’s marriage is one that captures both a coming to terms with past tragedy and the rediscovery of community that their ethnically intolerant society lost during the war.

It’s an evolving process. Some of the former Balkan refugees City Weekly spoke to did not want their ethnicity disclosed. “It’s not good to ask someone their religion or what you are,” one said. But whenever an American shows any interest in Bosnian affairs or has visited the country, Neimarlija says, “it’s amazing how it affects our community. There’s this sense of identity we’re searching for. We’re still struggling to figure out who we are.”

Mladen Maric is a 52-year-old realtor born in Banja Luka in the former Yugoslavia, who moved to Salt Lake City in 1973 from Vienna. He wasn’t prepared for the heart-wrenching stories he heard in 1995 as a volunteer translator when Bosnian Muslim refugees started arriving in the Beehive State. “Their whole culture, their identity was taken away from them overnight by people armed with guns,” he says. The refugees came here, “trying to define their friends and enemies.”

The American Bosnian and Herzegovinian Association of Utah was set up in October 1995. It was primarily a Muslim group in the beginning. Even though Maric says he was welcomed by the community, they checked him out by contacting his hometown. “I had to go through a process of vetting,” he says. He wasn’t the only one. When a mixed married couple applied for membership to the association, the Muslim woman was accepted. Her Serbian husband, however, was told, “It’s not for you,” because they didn't know who he was.

Gradually, Maric says, he helped nudge them to an open-door policy regardless of ethnic or religious background. “The process of healing takes time. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to, they couldn’t.”

In the 10 years after the 1980 death of Yugoslavia’s charismatic leader Josip Broz Tito, the tensions between the country’s six republics and two autonomous regions the communist dictator had ruled boiled over when Bosnia and Herzegovina became an independent state in March 1992. The three-year war that ensued saw Croats, Serbs and Muslims at each other’s throats. Nearly 200,000 people were killed and 2 million forced from their homes. Atrocities occurred on all sides. The most infamous was the murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 by Serbian forces.

Just before the massacre began, Nermin Uvejzovic was on one of the few buses to get out of Srebrenica. While his wife Aida Neimarlija’s family slipped out of former-Yugoslavia with fake papers, eventually living in Norway and finally in the United States, Nermin Uvejzovic’s family was trapped for three years in a region where ethnic cleansing, shelling, starvation and death were routine.

Uvejzovic and his family found themselves hiding in the mountains beginning in the summer of 1992. His mother begged for food in neighboring villages. When Serbs launched a second offensive in his village, his grandfather, with whom he grew up, was left behind. “He was in the house when they burned it down,” Uvejzovic says. Every time he heard gunshots, he started panicking and shouting at his parents, “Let’s run! Let’s run!”

For six months, he lived in a sixth-floor apartment in a half-completed building in nearby Srebrenica. With no water or electricity, they had to carry buckets of water up the stairs. He’d stay by the window, never going outside, “just waiting for the next day.” All he dreamed about, he says, “was a piece of white bread.”

Bosnian militia organized attacks on nearby Serb villages. Women and children would go behind them and ransack the houses for whatever they could find. His parents would sneak behind Serbian lines and take corn from the fields. “Shooting becomes a secondary concern after you don’t have anything to eat,” he says.

The morning Srebrenica fell to the Serbs, “I started imagining the way I was going to die—if they’d cut my head off, shoot me. This is it. There’s nowhere to run anymore. You give up, you’re waiting, how is it going to end?”

He got on one of the first, and, he later found out, the last of the buses to leave the area of doomed Srebrenica. An international refugee organization brought Uvejzovic and his family to Utah as refugees. Only 17 years old, he spoke no English and had no friends here. Once a month in the summer, the Bosnian community would gather at Jordan Park for a picnic and to exchange information. For a few hours, he recalls, the older generation of refugees, whom, he says, often struggled so hard with English and adapting to Utah life, “could feel like they had never left their home.”

He worked at Albertsons after high school, filling bags for $5.15 the hour. He first met his future wife Neimarlija through a friend. Five years later, he bumped into her again at the Salt Lake Roasting Company, where they indulged in the well-known Bosnian passion for coffee-drinking.

After Uvejzovic settled in Utah, he became nostalgic for everything Bosnian: food, music, friends, the bucolic life he and his family remembered existed before the war. It was hard for him to adapt to Utah, “although I was happy there was no threat of somebody shooting me.”

In June 2006, a 25-year old Nermin Uvejzovic proposed to 25-year-old Aida Neimarlija while they were riding TRAX downtown. “I think we should get married,” he said.

“I’d love to get your health insurance,” she joked.

But no one in the Bosnian community was joking six months later when 18-year-old Bosnian Muslim Sulejman Talovic gunned down nine people in Trolley Square on Feb. 12, 2007, killing five before he himself was shot by police.

“It scared [local Bosnians],” Neimarlija says. There was some consolation for the community when authorities confirmed Talovic wasn’t a terrorist, when “it turned out he was mentally ill, that nobody knew why he did it.” Then American Bosnian and Herzegovinian Association of Utah president Mladen Maric recalls community members were crushed, “because the shooting reminded them all of the horrors they themselves experienced.”

Six months after the shooting, in August 2007, Uvezjovic and Neimarlija celebrated the happiest elements of the world they had been forced to abandon and of their rebuilt life in Utah. They were married at a private residence on the city’s East Bench.

Neimarlija asked Utah Court of Appeals Judge William Thorne, whom she had interned for, to perform her wedding ceremony in an outdoor arbor. American trimmings in the form of bridesmaids, flower girls and ring bearers looked on. While Aida’s friends from the Salt Lake Symphony played cello and violin in the garden, her cousin Sidanija Delic provided savory pastry rolls called pita, stuffed cabbage rolls known as sarma and other classic Bosnian cuisine. Delic and her husband own Café on Main, a five-year-old Balkan eatery at 2700 S. Main.

“Only real Bosnian women know how to make pita,” Neimarlija says, half-joking about her cousin, who came to Utah sponsored by Neimarlija’s mother, Suada.

When Delic makes pita, she tells onlookers to stand back, then spreads the homemade dough out on a metal table with her knuckles. She picks it up and twirls and stretches it at the same time over and again. Then she stretches it out over the table corners. It’s so fine you can almost see through it. She dapples it with ground beef and onion, or a mixture of feta cheese and sour cream, then she rolls it up into a long sausage. She makes pita, she says, “to keep old traditions alive.”

At her cousin’s wedding, Americans and Bosnians danced together to a local Bosnian band called Two PM. The band played some sevdah, akin to country or Kentucky bluegrass music in theme and tempo. An accordion accompanies songs full of soul and heart, Neimarlija says, that make Bosnians sing and cry. The songs are about forbidden love or, as in “Ie Ne Keleci Manulama,” a husband telling his wife not to stomp around in her clogs because it reminds him of his recently deceased mother.

While Bosnians screamed and sang along with Two PM, some Americans remained quiet before the wailing emotion. Others, however, felt at home. A judge and a lawyer both got the generic kolo steps down straight away, Neimarlija says.

That kind of kolo, former American Bosnian and Herzegovinian Association of Utah president Maric points out, is a social step, not the complex dance moves that Bosnian children and teens learn to present at the annual Living Traditions Festival each may.

The night of her wedding, Aida Neimarlija danced until 5 a.m. until she couldn’t see anymore. Her mother, diagnosed with colon cancer months before, was the last one on the dance floor. Her husband Hamdo said, “How can you still be dancing? You just get chemo two weeks ago.”

With Neimarlija’s mother’s cancer seemingly in remission, two weeks after the wedding, the newlyweds went to Bosnia for four months. Aida Neimarlija interned for a British prosecutor at an international war tribunal. “It was a great opportunity for me to reconnect with my past,” she says. She worked on war crimes in Srebrenica, the town where Neimarlija’s husband had barely escaped from with his life.

She helped depose Serb soldiers alleged to have taken part in atrocities. “I knew what had happened—in theory,” she says about Srebrenica. Sitting opposite men who joked around as they refused to detail 10-year-old events slowly turned her theories into facts.

“Most of the [soldiers she deposed] were there,” she says, “watching things being done.” She talks of men driving bulldozers as they buried their victims.

While her American friends who were interning there and helping depose alleged Muslim and Croatian war criminals had nightmares, Neimarlija had a hard time going to sleep at night. “I was very angry the entire time,” she says. By the end of the four months, “I knew the bigger picture, I knew who was standing where.”

The cases she worked on have yet to come to trial. She follows them a little, she says.

When she started talking about her work to her husband, he says he found it awkward and “too depressing.” He would have nightmares of being trapped in the forest, knowing he was about to be killed. On this visit, he found Bosnia “shocking,” he says, “nothing like I remember.” The food wasn’t special anymore, his friends weren’t the way he remembered them. “Instead of going forward, they were going backward.”

Relatives wanted him to go back to Godjenje in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He refused. They told him the once-beautiful village of 1,000 residents had no more than 50 elderly people amid the advancing jungle, waiting for death. “I was afraid to go back … of reliving those experiences.”

The ache of nostalgia—of being exiled from all he loved—vanished during those four months. When the plane touched down at Salt Lake City International Airport, “it actually felt like coming home,” he says.

When Aida Neimarlija returned from Bosnia, she found out her mother’s cancer had returned. “She had been doing so well at the wedding,” she recalls. “We thought she’d live five, 10, 15 more years.”

Close to death, Suada Neimarlija planned a reception with cookies and coffee in Utah. She struggled with what she wanted done with her remains. If she were buried in Mostar, it would be too far for her family to visit. While she felt Utah was home, it was not her soil. “She wanted to be free,” Aida Neimarlija says. So she asked her husband, Hamdo Neimarlija, and two daughters that, after she died, they return to the Mostar bridge where she and Hamdo were engaged. Suada wanted her family to throw her ashes from the bridge into the river Neretva below.

When the 500-year-old bridge was blown up by Croatian cannon fire in 1995, it seemed to mark the end of Mostar, with its sun-drenched, centuries-old walls and trees heavy with figs and pomegranates. In 2004, though, the bridge was restored and reopened.

So in June 2008, after her mother died in March the same year, Aida Neimarlija, her sister and father took turns throwing Suada’s ashes into the river that flows through a city once renowned for its ethnic integration. “It was a very American thing to do,” Aida Neimarlija says.

In Mostar today, Catholics live on one side of the Neretva, Muslims on the other. Catholics, Neimarlija says, teach a vocabulary that emphasizes their Catholicism. Some Muslim women, she adds, “have covered up their hair with scarves where not so long ago they all wore mini-skirts.” Friends Neimarlija grew up with don’t converse anymore. She saw a Catholic friend friend one day, a Croatian woman another. All three had been close friends before the war. She said to the Croatian the three should get together. Her two Mostar friends hadn’t seen each other in 12 years. The get-together didn’t happen.

“I knew it would have been an issue where we were going to meet,” Neimarlija says with a sigh.

If the Mostar bridge is now a symbol of ethnic division in former Yugoslavia, in Utah, the bridge is one of hope, even unity.

Azra Saran works as a custodial supervisor at the Frank E. Moss U.S. Courthouse. In her free time the past few months, she’s been working on a mural for the walls of the American Bosnian and Herzegovinian Association in Utah clubhouse on 3723 S. 900 East. One of the two 20-foot-long walls is almost complete. It features key former Yugoslavia landmarks: Sarajevo’s city library, Banja Luka’s castle and river, the Jajce waterfalls and the Mostar bridge, its reflection shimmering in the waters below.

With paint and brushes donated from professional housepainters who are association members, Saran set about documenting “where we came from and where we finished.” The facing wall will include Sarajevo’s Winter Games, kolo dancing, and Salt Lake City’s Winter Games and the famed arches of southern Utah.

Saran’s mural marks the intersection between history, nostalgia and the future. She worries the community’s children will forget their traditions, their language, their Bosnian heritage. “You have to keep something [of the past] in your heart,” she says.

The community center serves as a gathering place for Salt Lake City’s Bosnian Muslim community. Some local Bosnian Serbs regard the Serbian Orthodox church St. Archangel Michael at 1606 S. 1000 West as a key focal point for their community, while Croatian Catholics largely attend the Cathedral of the Madeleine in downtown Salt Lake City.

One early March Saturday night after 9 p.m., several hundred Bosnians who have gathered at the East Sea Restaurant on 3695 S. Redwood Road to visit their past. One-time Yugoslavian pop and folk idol Halid Muslimovic is singing. The 48-year-old sports a blond cowlick hanging down one side of his round face. He’s a human jukebox, he later says through a translator. Children and women climb up onstage to have their photographs taken with him as he sings, unfettered by the attention. Men, arm in arm and clutching beers, sway before the stage while women thrust fingers in the air in tune with Muslimovic’s gravelly delivery. This isn’t a public concert—it’s a gathering of friends and family, as Salt Lake City fades from their view in favor of an idealized version of their native soil.

Muslimovic says his ballads are all true. The only thing he can’t write and sing about, he says, “is a man who has never felt anything, happiness or sadness.” He expresses sorrow for his audience that night. “They come [to the United States] because of the war, looking for something.” He sees himself as a connection between their present and their past. “Everyone come [to see me] to go back,” he says. “I bring them the smell of their homeland.” The men surrounding him nod in earnest agreement.

That night, Bosnian Croatians, Muslims and Serbs sing along with Muslimovic, says one of the people who translated for him, Branko Eskic. Eskic, too, used to sing on Saturday nights at a local Bosnian restaurant. When he sang ex-Yugoslavian songs from the 1960s, he’d be transported to the old country before the war, recalling friends, old girlfriends, places. “You forget where you are,” he says. But, he adds, “You’re not disappointed when you open your eyes. It’s just some feelings you can’t fight.”

The same generic version of the kolo that brought Americans and Bosnians together dancing at Aida Neimarlija’s wedding weaves its way around the floor in front of the impassive features of the singer as he lightly bangs the head of his microphone into his meaty palm.

“We all dance the same way, we all sing the same songs,” Neimarlija says.

In Utah it seems, the religious and ethnic divisions that drove Bosnians to abandon their paradise no longer matter. Serb or Croat, Muslim, Catholic or Jew, “It’s not even an issue,” Neimarlija says.

Not everyone agrees. One former refugee said pointedly, “Just because the community goes to a concert doesn’t mean there’s love.” After 2,000 years of Balkan history, nothing is black and white, he says.

For Branko Eskic, it comes down to distance. “We just want to help each other like we used to,” he says. “My neighbor is more important to me than my brother. My neighbor lives close, my brother miles away. If we help each other, God’s going to help us, too.” Eskic, whose parents were Catholic and Serbian Orthodox, says most Bosnians who came to Utah have one thing in common: “They wanted to eliminate that prejudice” that drove them from their home.

Which is why, despite the nostalgia for the days before the war, it’s hard to go back to Bosnia, where ethnic labels remain an issue. “We grew up with living together,” Neimarlija says. “Here, we are united. There, we are not.” 

Recipes of Balkan dishes are available by clicking here.

Photos courtesy Aida Neimarlija

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