Blinking away the shroud of sleep, Azema Hasanovic picked up the receiver.
Through the hiss and pop of an international connection, cutting across thousands of miles between Bosnia and her South County apartment just a block east of Lemay Ferry Road, were these cold, clear words:
"Tell your husband I saw him in Bratunac. He should have told me he was coming to visit. I would have met him there and killed him -- just like I killed his brother. Why didn't he call? Tell him not to come back."
In a wintry instant, the horror of the Balkans returned -- the ancient and endless hatred between Christians and Muslims, the genocide known as ethnic cleansing, the massacres and mass graves, the internment camp where she, her husband and two children lived.
With an electronic finger, the long arm of violence and terror touched Azema in a place of assumed safety and refuge.
In the middle of America.
Alone in the dark with a severed phone connection and the echo of menace.
On that frigid night in December 2000, Azema's husband, Resid, was pulling the third shift at Supermarket Merchandising Inc., a factory where display cases and shelves for grocery stores are made, a good job at a company where lots of other Bosnians work. Her two children -- Samira, sixteen, and Samir, eighteen -- were asleep in their own bedrooms.
Three months before, Resid had traveled back to Bosnia to visit family and friends. The caller was a Serb who had worked at the internment camp. Five years had passed since the end of the Bosnian war of 1992-95.
What passes for peace -- an uneasy truce enforced at gunpoint -- was still in effect. Still is -- uneasily.
What passes for a return to normal life was also in play.
Uprooted families returning to ransacked homes. A child or adult tripping a forgotten land mine meant for soldiers. A life without jobs or hope. Memories of the dead, questions about the missing. And, always, the hatred that spans six centuries.
"On paper, we can go back. In reality, we can't," says Resid. "I know I can never go back."
Resid's brother was 25 when he was killed in the bloody fighting that marked the fall of Srebrenica, a predominantly Muslim town ground up by Serb forces despite its protected status as a United Nations enclave. Srebrenica is also the scene of the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II, a 1995 massacre during which an estimated 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were executed.
Resid and his family left Bosnia before the worst of this bloodshed erupted, moving to Germany in 1993, then to the United States in early 2000.
His brother's body was never found. Nor was his father's or his father-in-law's.
"We just want to know where the bones are buried," says Resid.
Sitting in the living room of their apartment a few weeks ago, drinking strong, thick, sugar-laced coffee and munching on bits of fried meat, Resid and Azema entertain three new arrivals from Bosnia, all wary about giving their names.
They are among the latest additions to America's largest concentration of Bosnians, the biggest enclave outside their native land -- between 30,000 and 50,000, depending on the refugee agency doing the counting. The eldest of this group, uncle to a mother and her eighteen-year-old son, counts up the number of loved ones killed or missing in his family. Thirty is the tally.
The elder's grand-nephew is listless. Before they left Bosnia, he married his childhood sweetheart. She is still there. With the war over, Bosnians have lost the special status that made it so easy to enter this country and are exposed to the standard hassles of America's fractured immigration system.
Some are so comfortable living in the city's huge Bosnian community that refugee workers worry they have a false sense of security and aren't moving fast enough to learn English and take the other steps necessary to secure citizenship.
Workers helping this newest family of Bosnians settle in St. Louis tell the newlywed his bride will be at his side in six to eight months. A year or more is more likely, say Resid and the uncle.
"The earlier, the better -- but what are you going to do?" says the uncle with a theatrical shrug.
They tease the lovesick young man. He's eighteen. An interpreter replays the banter.
"He dreams about his wife all the time and is sad," says the uncle.
"I'm not crying like he says I am," says the young man. "My wife cries, but I don't."
The others laugh and shake their heads.
Resid talks about his life in America -- what he likes, what he doesn't like.
"Life is too fast-paced here," he says. "Most of the people here, they're always working. I'm getting older faster."
He worries about a language barrier he hasn't conquered: "You don't feel good if somebody's talking to you and you don't understand them."
But he's proud of how his children, sophomores at Mehlville Senior High, have taken to their new life. Samira, the daughter, speaks fluent English with only the slightest trace of an accent. Samir, the son, is a soccer ace.
And Resid's eyes light up when he talks about the freedoms of his newest country.
"I have the same rights that Americans have -- not like in Germany," he says. "And I can work wherever I want."
A simple endorsement of America and her flawed freedoms. No love-it-or-leave-it. No post-September 11 yahooism. No doubt, this plain expression of gratitude is what John Prine has in mind these days when he sings his anti-war classic "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore."
Beats the hell out of all those pickup trucks booming down the highway, cutting folks off in traffic with a middle digit extended and a window-braced American flag fraying in the wind.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.