Live to Tell

After surviving the Balkan wars, refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina have been given a place to tell their story at the Missouri Historical Society. The hard part is deciding what that story is.

Aug 16, 2000 at 4:00 am
In one photo, a girl turns a cartwheel in a small patch of yard in front of her South St. Louis home. In another, a girl in a pretty dress sits in an upholstered chair as if she were a princess. In a portrait, a teenage boy looks directly into the camera with handsome dark eyes, unassuming, a stars-and-stripes kerchief tied around his head.

Devoid of context, Tom Maday's photographs elicit a benign appeal, black-and-white documentation of the everyday lives of St. Louis families. Yet as part of the forthcoming book After the Fall: Srebrenica Survivors in St. Louis, the images become more testament than documentary. They are expressions of wonder: how life goes on after unimaginable catastrophe.

Selected images will be used in a yearlong exhibition at the Missouri Historical Society, opening Nov. 25. Tentatively titled We Will Survive, it aims to explore the lives of Bosnian refugees in St. Louis: who they are, what has brought them here, how they are making a go of it in their new homeland. One of Maday's images will serve as introduction to the exhibit -- that of a smiling Muska Oric surrounded by her four children. On entering the space, visitors will see another image of Muska -- that of her hands holding a photograph of her husband, Haso, missing since Srebrenica's fall in 1995.

Srebrenica, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- if these names have any meaning at all for St. Louisans, it is as distant memories with unpleasant associations: ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, mass graves.

Patrick McCarthy, a St. Louis University librarian, was the catalyst for both the book and the exhibit. He has worked closely with the Bosnian refugees in St. Louis since they began arriving in the early 1990s. His association with the Balkan conflict has made him acutely aware of the inclination toward forgetting in contemporary life: "In the cycle of how we understand events, when things are over, they're really over."

His recent efforts -- writing the text and conducting interviews for the book, acting as liaison between the Bosnian community and the museum -- are acts of resistance against the ease with which the past turns into airy abstraction. "We do have the opportunity to go beyond the superficial," he says. And more than the opportunity, in McCarthy's way of thinking, the duty. He recalls a visit he made to Sarajevo during the siege, entering the city through tunnels under the airport. Amid the rubble of the streets, he saw well-dressed men, women in makeup. He refers to this care for surface appearance in the midst of horrific circumstances as "the stature of defiance." The Sarajevans were, he says, "maintaining their humanity before terrible inhumanity.

"The question is not how they did it, but who are you that you can so diminish your own humanity by looking the other way, or forgetting?"

Proportionally, St. Louis is the home of the largest Bosnian population (an estimated 25,000-plus) in the United States, and that population is second only to Chicago's in terms of numbers. In just the last five years, the Bosnians have become one of the largest single ethnic communities in the city. Their unique presence suggests a unique story, one which McCarthy began talking to the Historical Society's director of exhibitions, Myron Freedman, about three years ago.

His proposal was relatively modest compared with the exhibition that evolved from it. Like anyone with a book, he was looking for a suitable publisher, and the Historical Society seemed a good possibility. But timing, as any student of history knows, is everything, and McCarthy had come to the museum when it was planning for its new facility. Part of the museum's discussions were concerned with looking for ways to become more involved with people in the region, to become more of a local resource for people to tell their own stories about what St. Louis is and how it came to be.

From these discussions emerged the Community Partners Gallery, a space in the west wing of the old building, where 1904 World's Fair memorabilia now resides. There will still be space devoted to the World's Fair, but, explains Freedman, the Community Partners Gallery is "more a concept than a physical space" where the Historical Society hopes "to use our resources and our facilities to foster dialogue in the community about the region's persistent issues. We want people to come to us with stories to tell."

McCarthy had a story, and, because of his closeness to Bosnians here, could provide the Historical Society access to many more stories. McCarthy's book project "became the backbone for us to build something else around," says Freedman, "but we didn't know what that was until we actually went to the community."

The community, however, was suspicious at first. The last decade of conflict in the former Yugoslavia has been an experience of "the most intimate betrayals," McCarthy explains, in which neighbors became enemies. "To build a relationship of sufficient trust about difficult experiences," McCarthy observes, "means you have to get to know people," and coming from a major institution creates "inherent limitations." McCarthy began contacting people such as Adnan Jasarevic and Lejla Susic, two Bosnian refugees who came to St. Louis in the early '90s. Local Muslim leader Imam Muhamed Hasic was encouraged to participate as well (many Bosnians are Muslim, either practicing or not).

Freedman enlisted Historical Society gallery designer Margaret Koch to take part in the project. With introductions from McCarthy and Ron Klutho (another St. Louisan who has worked closely with the Bosnian refugees out of the St. Pius V parish on South Grand Boulevard), Koch found herself in the homes of Bosnian families, admiring the traditional lacework, drinking very strong coffee and listening.

Koch, who is quiet, reserved and unassuming, appears to have been a good choice for an exhibition the design and scope of which are determined by a very living subject. "In terms of the design of the physical space," she explains, "one of the things that we did was to listen for phrases or ideas that kept being repeated by people around the table." The phrase "I can only speak for myself" is one Koch heard repeatedly, and it is being incorporated into the exhibition. The working title, We Will Survive, comes from the common Bosnian response to "How are you doing?" "We're surviving, we have to survive, what can you do?" is typical, says Koch, adding that the term "survival" comes up a lot in conversation.

The narrative structure also began to evolve from how participants spoke. "As we met with people, these themes came up over and over again," says Koch, "'before the war, the war, coming to St. Louis.'"

The meetings of an advisory committee began last October, consisting of Historical Society staff, McCarthy, Klutho and whoever might show up on a particular evening from the Bosnian community. McCarthy laughs at what he calls the "fluid sense of participation" at the monthly gatherings.

Freedman remembers there were only three Bosnians at the first meeting he participated in, but one was the imam: "People such as him, they get the word out." Koch says 15 or 16 Bosnians began coming to the meetings. "There hasn't been an advisory meeting where someone hasn't brought someone else along because they have something that was important to show."

One regular participant, Adnan Jasarevic, who came to the U.S. from Brcko on Dec. 1, 1994 (like many refugees and immigrants from around the world, he's specific about the date), says he learned of the advisory meetings through McCarthy. In St. Louis, Jasarevic spent three years as a caseworker for the International Institute, and he reckons, through that experience, that he's been involved personally in the lives of 5,000-6,000 people -- meeting them at the airport, finding them apartments, jobs, health care, schooling. "I know what people eat; I know how they breathe," he says, smiling. "Somehow my name is pretty well known in the Bosnian community." He now works for the Aetna health-insurance company out of a glass office building in Creve Coeur.

The Historical Society "needed someone with a better understanding of the culture," Jasarevic says in describing his role. He made suggestions about focus, direction, what to include and what not to include: "Part of my personality is that if I think differently from someone, I let them know." One of the concepts he felt differently about early on was the museum's idea that the exhibition should be about "reconciliation."

St. Louis has long been the home of both Croatian and Serbian immigrants, which is a cause of underlying tension between the different ethnic communities. Bosnians are here because they fled Serbian and Croatian armies. There are refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina who say they never want to live near Serbs or Croats again. There are those who say they only see the individual, not a representative of an ethnic or religious group. These separate ways of coping with life in St. Louis create yet another division among Bosnians. Faced with these realities, "reconciliation" was an overly ambitious goal, if not a presumptuous one.

Rather, Jasarevic and others from the Bosnian community wanted to "inform St. Louis about Bosnian culture, which would include the Bosnian war itself but also how we live our lives, how did we settle here."

In talking about Bosnian culture, one of the central themes that emerged was diversity. Lejla Susic, who came to the U.S. from Mostar in 1993, worked as an interpreter and translator for After the Fall. Susic holds degrees from Iona College and Webster University; she received scholarships from the Bosnian Student Project -- a fund for refugees whose college work was dramatically interrupted by the war (McCarthy has founded such a project through SLU). Since moving to St. Louis in 1995, she has provided translation and interpretive services for Bosnians through a Catholic social-services program.

"This country was a crossroad of religions," she says of her native land. "This diversity is still present if you're really dealing with people who are cosmopolitan, who are people who are open to everything else. Yes, you still have -- as in every religion and culture -- you always have those who are orthodox and say, 'My religion is the only one that matters.' You always have that. But (diversity) was the spirit of the country. We wanted to make sure that this was going to be a fair exhibition. It's not going to side with any religion. It's not going to side with anybody."

"Bosnia was diversity," says Jasarevic. He describes how, before the war, one could climb a hill above Sarajevo at noon and hear an imam's call to prayer from the mosque, a cantor's chant from the synagogue, Catholic church bells, "all within a few hundred yards of each other. Is there anyplace in the world where you can find that?"

Says Freedman, "They don't want to be seen as simply a religious group, because, according to the people we've spoken to, that was a part of the propaganda that was pushed by (Serbian President Slobodan) Milosevic to make it look like it was something of a holy war. But, in fact -- and this is something our exhibit talks about as a result of their stories -- Bosnia-Herzegovina was a melting pot of people. That's something that they want everybody to know. It wasn't religious group pitted against religious group. It was everybody living next to each other -- not necessarily blending, but everybody was able to live in harmony with each other."

But to present such a diverse culture in a limited space makes for significant challenges. "It was interesting in those early meetings," says Jasarevic. "Everybody wanted to focus on the part of Bosnia they are from." Eventually the group came to agree on one town. "Just tell the story of Srebrenica," says Jasarevic. "From telling one or two stories about Srebrenica, you can tell everything about Bosnia."

A United Nations-designated "safe area," protected by Dutch peacekeepers, Srebrenica came under the assault of Bosnian Serb forces led by Gen. Ratko Mladic on July 6, 1995. The Dutch were severely outnumbered and outgunned, and they quickly retreated from their observation posts. Although the Dutch requested NATO air strikes, a lack of international will allowed Mladic and his men to take Srebrenica without resistance. For the next five days, the area became a killing ground. Men were taken away and machine-gunned. Women were raped. More than 7,000 citizens of Srebrenica are unaccounted for. Srebrenica is now known as the site of the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

St. Louis is the home of the largest population of Srebrenica survivors outside of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There's an inherent challenge for a museum -- which tells history through artifacts, documents, the remains of the past-- to tell the story of the Bosnian refugees. "Immigrants have bags, property," says Jasarevic. "Refugees are forced to leave homes with nothing but a handful of memories."

A few artifacts have been made available: photographs of Sarajevo, shell casings, a remnant of the national library that was bombed, plastic used to cover blown-out windows. There are also more benign objects -- lace embroidery (hekla), coffee grinders, musical instruments. Koch has come across artifacts from the Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo in 1984: a torch, photos of the main arena, the skating rink, ski slopes. The Historical Society is putting out fliers to request more objects.

As the exhibition has come together, it has evolved into three sections (although the plans for the exhibit are 90 percent complete, specifics are subject to change). The first, titled "Peaceful Coexistence," features photos of modern cities and emblems of Bosnian culture. Koch says the Sarajevo Olympics functions as a transition to the next section, labeled "Surviving Genocide." The third section is "Bosnians in St. Louis."

The references to the Olympics are important, says Jasarevic, because "the average American has not heard of Bosnia, but people care about sports. It's a good reminder of what Bosnia was." In the advisory meetings, Koch has observed how the Olympics come up as a source of great pride, as well as sorrow: "They were devastated that some of these areas that were so beautifully portrayed during the Olympics became haunts for snipers and were destroyed during the war."

The advisory committee has been involved in a wide range of discussions -- some seemingly inane, such as whether or not slivovitz (plum brandy) should be displayed -- the imam, being a practicing Muslim, is against it. Choosing an appropriate map of the region was cause for intense debate.

The most sensitive subject remains the war itself. "Our intention has never been to exploit the drama of what happened," says Freedman. "We go where they want us to go. If they want to tell us that they left behind friends and they lost family members -- they can't just write that out of their consciousness. But they also want us to know that they have jobs. They're buying homes. Their kids are in school."

Yet the war is the center of the Bosnian story, the reason they are here. In the design for "Surviving Genocide," there are plans for a canvas tent, much like those used for the processing of refugees by international relief organizations. Overhead will be strands of barbed wire (if the fire marshal allows it). More graphic images of the war, taken by Maday, will be curtained. There will also be a "quiet, reflective place," says Koch, a place for "remembering people who are still missing. There wasn't any family in St. Louis that wasn't affected, so we have a memorial wall."

Plans for an installation where visitors could write comments were vetoed by the Bosnian committee members. They feared nationalistic slogans that appeared during the war could appear again in St. Louis.

The story of the war -- as with the other sections of the exhibition -- is told through images, artifacts, text and sound. In a sense, much of the exhibition revolves around that photo of Haso Oric, the missing husband of Muska and brother of Fatima Jasarevic. Muska has returned with her children to Bosnia- Herzegovina in the wake of the rape and murder of a Bosnian girl by a man who was preying on the community. (One of the cruel ironies of the Bosnians' story is that after leaving a war zone, for the most part personal safety is their greatest concern in St. Louis.) Fatima remains with her husband and three children, the youngest born in St. Louis.

In the final section of the exhibit, visitors will find such images as that of the young girl playing in her yard, depictions of the Bosnian success story: buying a home, getting an education, being part of the workforce -- people transforming the character of this city as refugees and immigrants have before them. The past they left behind gives special meaning to that progress.

Susic hopes the exhibition may instill, here in St. Louis, that spirit of diversity that once was Bosnia, to "help us to open Americans to other cultures, to other views, to diversity, to other opinions.

"The world is not a big place."