You Ought to Know: Suvada Dzamalija Smajovic and Mensura Berberovic

Friday, September 30th, 2011 at 4:55 PM
You Ought to Know: Suvada Dzamalija Smajovic and Mensura Berberovic by Cornell Green
Contributed photo

OK, show of hands.Do you remember what you were doing in the ?90s? Some of you were wondering what would happen on that weird new show the ?X Files.? Maybe you were more concerned with that night?s episode of the ?Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,? Seattle band Nirvana, and their whole ?Grunge? thing, or Paula Abdul and her video dance partner, a giant cartoon cat.

Most Erieites have some, or all of those types of things in common. In fact, when you look around, it might even be easy to assume we were all just yukking it up with the Simpsons back then.

But if you look just a tiny bit closer, you might see something different. You may not be able to tell at first glance, but some of our fellow Erieites have braved the ?90s and come away with a much deeper story.
While for many of us the day?s greatest challenge then may have been 7th-grade-romance troubles or afternoon traffic, for many Erieites, like Suvada Dzamalija Smajovic and Mensura Berberovic, sometimes the day?s biggest challenge was just living to see another one.In Spring 1992, Suvada, then a stately, raven-haired 22-year-old, was on a bus headed toward the republic of Montenegro. The Bosnian city of Gacko, her home for the past six years, had become a battleground almost overnight.?They had burned half the city?set fires to Muslim stores,? she said. ?They would show up in the middle of the night at people?s homes, pulling them away for no reason.?Suvada decided it was time to go when she woke one morning to find all three of the men who lived in the apartment building next to her, gone?their terrified wives and children left to their own devices, in their former home, now, no more than a windswept, bullet-ridden husk.

Suvada had been caught up in what would be known later as the Bosnian War. With the dissolution of what was a strong central government, after the death of iconic Yugoslavian dictator Josip ?Broz? Tito, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the country she had known and loved, Yugoslavia, had all but fallen apart. Now, Serbia, under Slobodan Milosevic, before, just another one of the six Yugoslavian provinces, had mobilized vital components of the former Yugoslavian State Army and had begun a personal redesign and re-assignment of all the areas of the former Yugoslavian State. Milosevic?s vision: A?Greater Serbia.? The Mission?s main enemies: Outsiders. Mainly Muslims, like Suvada and her family, and Jews.Imagine if one day, California suddenly declared itself a country and told the entire United States Army, guns and all, to forcibly take over Ohio, and round up and kill all of the Libertarians. That?s sort of the gist.

Almost overnight, elements and members of her own comprehensive state establishment had activated a multi-faceted ideopolitical military campaign to eradicate Suvada, her family and the rest of the Muslim population of Bosnia-Herzegovina?over a third of the country.

She?d already sent her three older sisters, stately like her, (at 5 feet 10 inches, she?s the runt of the family), to Montenegro, to escape explosive, escalating violence in Gacko. At Suvada?s urgings, her sisters had come to Gacko to stay, while her mother, adamant and unfazed by rising tensions between ethnic groups, stayed behind with Suvada?s father and grandmother in the Bosnian city of Foca, where Suvada was born.

?She didn?t think it was a huge problem,? Suvada said of her mother?s take on the rising tensions that started as rowdy skirmishes on Bosnian streets. ?If there is a problem on State Street, then you might not become afraid. But when this slowly becomes the whole city, then you realize it?s really a problem. A lot of people died because they didn?t believe they had to leave.?

To outsiders, conflict in the Balkans, the area that encompasses Bosnia-Herzegovina and the other five republics that made up the former Yugoslavia, might be a bit of a conundrum. Not only do most of the people in the mountainous region that has served as a gateway area for much of history?the crossroads between Europe and the Middle-East, the end of the reach of Roman-Catholic Ideology and the beginning of Orthodox territory and even the meeting place of Christianity and Islam?look very similar and share similar European Slavic ancestry, all the ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia, before the Bosnian War, lived together as one country for the nearly 50 years before the conflict erupted.

Before all the violence, Suvada had teachers, friends, and neighbors who were Serbs. Now, suddenly, in their eyes, she was an enemy.

Suvada and her sisters were fortunate. Gacko, farther east than some other Bosnian cities and also more ethnically homogenous, was spared the intense fighting that some more centrally located Bosnian cities saw.

But not everyone in Suvada?s family was quite so fortunate. Shortly after Suvada and her sisters fled, Foca became the site of one of the most notable massacres of the conflict. The two-year-long Foca Massacre saw the deaths of nearly 3,000 Bosnian Muslims, the destruction of 13 mosques, and the torture and brutalization of many others, including at specifically designated ?rape camps.?  As militant Serb forces swept through Foca, many Muslims, including Suvada?s mother and grandmother, fled for safety. Suvada?s family hid in the mountains. When rescuers came to lead the fled to safety, Suvada?s grandmother couldn?t make the trip.

Later rescue groups that went back into the mountains never returned. Other Bosnians found out later that the rescue party and the group of elderly there had been burned alive.

Suvada?s mother found only her charred shoes as evidence of what had happened.?I never had a grave for my grandmother,? Suvada said solemnly.In 1992, Suvada escaped to Germany, where she stayed for some time after leaving Bosnia. While her chapter of the war was ending, another Eriete?s was just beginning.
Mensura Berberovic came of age during what might be called, a sort of Yugoslavian Golden Age. She was Born in 1949, in Vlasenica, Bosnia, about 50 kilometers from the Serbian border. Mensura moved to Sarajevo when she was young, grew up there, then returned to Vlasenica in 1966. By then, much of the economic and political instability that had plagued the Balkans through the World Wars and before had been reigned in by the revolutionary organization and tactics of Tito.

Originally aligned with the strongly communist Eastern Bloc in the 1950s, Tito engineered changes in Yugoslavia?s governance that forged a period and created an atmosphere that has been called Yugoslavia?s ?Good Life.? Tito contributed heavily to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, spearheading a group of nations that weren?t tied to any bloc, ushered in a Socialist Market Economy, and made other reforms that had effects on the domestic level, like worker self-management programs.

In 1970, Mensura married Nijaz Berberovic, who was from nearby Kladanj. He had a job as a supervisor at a local textile company, and life, for the Berberovics, was good.

?We didn?t miss anything from here, (The US)? Mensura said laughingly. ?Fashion, clothes, Levis, everything.? She continued laughing, referring to the trendy, American-esque culture and lifestyle of Coldwar Yuguslavia, which was much different from most countries in the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc.

Technically still a country born of communist ideology and ruled by a dictator, Yugoslavia took good care of its citizens and championed fair policy.

?When you got a job, your first year, you got 21 days vacation,? Mensura said. ?That was policy. Under Tito, we had everything. We went for summer vacations, winter vacations, everything. We visited nearly every state in Yugoslavia.?

By April 1992, Nijaz Berberovic had progressed to become the lead buyer of the textile company he worked for, and Mensura worked as a high-ranking nurse. Their son was a high-achieving high-school student, and their daughter, a college student who was back home on break, was working as a pharmacy technician.

But the Berberovics knew that tensions were rising between ethnic groups. But being so close to the Serbian border, they never quite saw the full scope of the conflict. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had already conglomerated and taken control of Serbian media, beginning the spinning of the gears of his Serbian nationalist agenda that was to fuel the forceful takeover of Yugoslavia."We knew little of what was actually going on in other parts of the country," Mensura said.

Mensura said the Berberovics had talked with their neighbors, both Serbian and non-Serbian, about how, regardless of how things went, the group, some of which had lived near each other for about 15 years, would stick by each other through it all.

?You don?t choose a neighbor,? Mensura said pointedly. ?Your neighbor is closer to you than the collar on your neck. That is how much you take care of your neighbors.?

After a few strange occurrences with their children, the Berberovics decided to send them to the town of Tuzla to stay with Nijaz?s family.

A female friend of her son?s mysteriously called from another town and warned him not to go to school the next day. That same night her daughter had been threatened at the pharmacy she worked at by a man dressed in traditional Yugoslavian military garb.?He must have had a mental disability,? Mensura said. ?He couldn?t have known what he had done, signaling the mission that way.?

A short time later, Nijaz got up one morning to go on a business trip. Just a short time after he left, he was back at their apartment. Mensura said he was white as a ghost. Their neighbor, Jovan, who Nijaz had had beers with just the night before, was standing in front of the apartment-building door with a machine-gun strapped to his shoulder. He wouldn?t let Nijaz leave and wouldn?t go into detail. The Berberovics had partied in the lobby until late the night before. Mensura briefly showed her new cell phone, which was high technology back then. She tried to call her sister in Sarajevo. They went to bed. Not unusual.

What was unusual was that soon the Berberovic?s heard a megaphone blaring noise coming from the window of a slow-moving police car outside. The message was that Serb forces had captured the local Imam (Priest). Muslims were ordered to bring out any weapons they may have had.

The Berberovics tried to leave. Their car packed, they were all ready to drive off when Nijaz saw a Muslim friend who used to be chief of police for their city. He drove up alongside them with terrible news: The roads were blocked. The city was under siege.All the phones were tapped. Harassment and interrogation were commonplace. Soon police started harassing Nijaz. They accused him of having a ?radio station? and using it to organize a plan to bring guns into the city. They captured him and showed him heaps of dead bodies. They told him he would end up among them if he didn?t give them what they wanted. Nijaz didn?t know what to do. The Berberovics didn?t even allow their son to play with guns, and they didn?t have any in the house.The third time Nijaz was taken for questioning, he was told his time was up. He told Mensura that if he didn?t give them what they wanted, he wasn?t sure he?d ever see her again.

Mensura pulled out her cell phone.

?Do you think they want this,? she said. It was all she had. While Nijaz left to discover his fate, Mensura prepared herself to jump out of the window in the event that her apartment was raided.

Nijaz took the phone to his interrogators, and they released him. It turned out their ?radio station,? was just her clunky piece of ?space-age wireless technology.?

Nijaz and his friend, the ex-chief, got together and engineered a plan to escape. They would gather up as many Muslims as they could and make it to a bus station near the trail to the city of Kladanj, in Tuzla Canton, which Mensura called a safe zone.

The phones were tapped. Mensura said there was an audible click a few seconds after someone made a call. Nijaz and his friend created a buzz, through a web of phone calls made in spurts. They would speak for a few moments, then hang up the phone when the recording started.

The first call might go: ?You should be?? (Click). ?At the bus station?? (Click).
?At 7 am?? (Click).

They made calls like this until the full message was delivered.

When the day came, Mensura?s father decided not to go. She removed almost all her gold and valuables and gave them to him as a bargaining chip, should anyone try and harass him. She hugged him.

?I didn?t know that would be the last time I ever saw him alive,? the proud woman said, choking back tears.

The day Mensura arrived at the bus station, about 3,000 Muslims were there. Serbs she knew well, stood watch with machine guns. She had remembered giving some of their children vaccines at just three-days-old. Mensura said the group was held there for over eight hours, outside, with no food, water, or access to bathrooms.

Somehow, after a long standoff, a 30-seater van stuffed with about a hundred people and about 10 cars made it down the road to the safe zone. The train of vehicles was stopped three times at checkpoints along the way. The third time the caravan was stopped, the group was forced to walk the rest of the way, single-file, down a tunnel?the last stretch before Kladanj.

The Berberovics, leading the caravan, stopped when they saw a soldier drop from the top of the tunnel, as they reached the end.

?It?s over,? Mensura thought.

Her fear turned to elation as the soldier turned his head revealing the symbol of the Bosnian Muslim Army.

They were safe?at least for a while.

The war officially ended in December 1995. A reported death toll hovered around 100,000. The massacre at Srebrenica, which claimed 8,000 Bosnian lives, has been called the worst crime in Europe since WWII. The 16th anniversary passed just last month. Milosevic was captured by Yugoslav Federal Authorities in 2001 and sent to trial in The Hague for war crimes. His five-year-long trial never drew a verdict. He died in his detainment cell in 2006.

After 16 years, General Ratko Mladic, Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republika Srpska, or Serbian Army, was recently extradited to The Hague at the end of May. His trial began at the beginning of June and still continues.

Mensura said that sometimes the conflict is referred to as a ?civil war.? She believes that to be a misrepresentation.

?It wasn?t a civil war,? she said. ?When you have someone come knocking at your door and you have nothing to protect yourself, that?s not a civil war. That was aggression. Ethnic cleansing, genocide, aggression.?

Mensura said that 14 years after her father was killed in a final sweep of Vlasenica, in September 1992, his bones were found in a mass grave and identified using DNA evidence.

Suvada made it to Germany in October 1992, where she stayed until 2000 when she was able to catch a plane the United States as part of the U.S. refugee program. She arrived in the U.S. November 2000.

Mensura made it to Erie, in November of 1995.

Mensura is a Language Service Coordinator at the International Institute of Erie.

Suvada is a landlord and an Associate Instructor at the Barber National Institute and lives in Millcreek with her husband Ramo and her two children, Sarah and Muhammad.

In the US, the number of refugees and asylees from Bosnia-Herzegovina surged from just a few hundred in 1994, to nearly 4,000 in 1995. Between 1996 and 1998 Bosnian refugees rolled in at an average of about 5,500 a year.

Mensura estimates there are about 2,000 Bosnians in Erie now.

Suvada is still stately and resilient. Mensura is charismatic, kindly, and well-put together.

They are just like any other Erie, Pa, Americans?except they?ve seen the world, have Eastern European Accents ?and, oh yeah?

They beat Genocide. They?ve got that one under their belts, too.

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