Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Quiet Bosnian by Sophie Parrish

The sound of hot, rattling pots and the smell of fresh baked bread spread into the cozy two-bedroom apartment. Atif Beganovic sits contently on his couch, watching the local KRON 4 News show on his on 48-inch flat screen TV. His tan Chihuahua Tino is tucked under his arm and gnawing a large dog bone while Atif watches the on-going destruction in Iraq. The screen is filled with women crying, men yelling and people being carried off in stretchers. Smoke and gun fire spray across the sky.

As calmly as Atif sits, it is hard to imagine that this Bosnian native has also experienced the same kind of terror, destruction and fear during the war Bosnia a decade ago. He and his family have been refugees twice, forced out from Bosnia, then from Germany. He has been through six years of displacement, worry for his family and trying to find a peaceful and accepting place to raise his children.

Now settled in America, Atif, 55, recounts this modern tragedy and the terror and persecution he and his family faced. "What a lot of people don't realize is that (those who fought one another) are all Bosnians, we are all born in Bosnia, we all look the same, we all lived together, it is only our religions that made us different," Atif says with his heavy accent.

The country of Yugoslavia -- which came apart in the Nineties -- integrated the Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbians/Nationalists and the Catholic Croatians. Before the war everyone lived in peace and being a Muslim did not create tension, Atif says. But as the country was falling apart, Serbs who had served in the Yugoslavian army stole the army planes, guns, grenades and ammunition. "The Serbians planned to take over Bosnia and Croatia to make a big Serbia," says Atif.

That's how the war began. Later the Croats turned against the Bosnians, the majority of whom were Muslims, and supported the anti-Muslim warfare. Atif says the war only seemed to be about the Croat and Serbian pursuit of Bosnian land, but it was the unmistakable genocide of 200,000 Bosnians that proves it was because of religious reasons, also. "Slobodan Milosevic, who was the Serbian President before and during the war and Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian President, wanted to make an agreement to divide former Yugoslavia into Serbia and Croatia, and ridding the countries of the Muslims", Atif says.

As Atif delves into the past, the room gradually assumes an intense and somber tone. Atif remembers when the war started, and suddenly his words pour out as he recollects the details of the first day they were attacked.

"I was at home, my wife was cooking and our two children were in our house," Atif says. "I was working on a car in my garage. I heard planes fly overhead. I thought it was just a military practice. Many of my Bosnian neighbors came out of their houses to see the planes. These planes then started to strafe, but it wasn't until a couple of people got injured that we knew that this was a war."

Atif's blue eyes flash with sadness. He says that from then on, every night Serbian soldiers would attack whole families in their homes, often killing and injuring them. Street by street they came. The Serbian soldiers had stolen the dark green uniforms of the now-disbanded Yugoslavian army, with a star symbol on their caps. But later they made their own uniforms, similar to the US camouflage design. "People became very scared. By day the Serbians would drive by in a red van, which we called the 'Scorpion'. When they would see a Muslim on the street they would stop and attack the man or woman. Sometimes the Bosnian would be left injured, and sometimes they were left dead," says Atif as the tension rises in his voice. Atif's two sons, then 15 and 7, attended school until a classmate attacked his older son. Even his son's Serbian friend had turned against him.

Before the war, in 1991 their oldest child Alma had gone to Germany to work. After hearing about an approaching war, she told Atif that she would stay in Germany and get papers for the family to travel and live there. Her decision would ultimately save the lives of Atif and his family.

As the war progressed in Bosnia, mosques were destroyed, women were raped and even children were killed. The soldiers wanted to scare the Bosnians out of their homes and out of Bosnia, Atif says. This tactic proved successful, and everyday hundreds of Bosnians fled to the UN refugee camp in Croatia.

After a year of on-going violence and fear, in August 1993 Atif decided to flee with his family to Croatia. What made him finally decide to go was a sight he will never forget. "I saw my cousin's wife dead in their house," says Atif. His cousin told Atif the Serbians came to their house and attacked him. Thinking he was dead -- he pretended to be -- the soldiers were about to leave when his wife began screaming about her 'dead' husband. Hearing her screams, the Serbs shot her point blank in the head. The couple also had two children who were hiding in the house. The older boy told Atif that he covered his sister's mouth to keep her quiet, so that the soldiers would not find them.

After this horrific event, Atif's cousin and many neighbors urged Atif to leave and take his two sons and wife to Croatia. They left. With two bags of belongings they went to the refugee camp to wait for the papers that would allow them to live in Germany. Alma kept her word, and in September 1993 Atif took his family to Germany.

"We were transported by bus from Croatia to Munich, Germany," Atif says. 'It was so good to see my daughter and be a family again. But only three days later we had to leave Alma and check into the refugee center."

At the refugee center, officials accused Atif of illegally crossing the border. He argued with them and within two days the paperwork was filed and they were sent on to the other side of Germany, to a big building full of refugees. Atif and his family had to move three times while living in Germany. The longest period of time they spent in one apartment was from 1994 to 1998. "It was a seven-story building, and we had one bedroom for the four of us, in a three-bedroom apartment. We shared the small kitchen and bathroom with two other families. Every week packages of food were dropped off to us. There was no private phone, only electricity and water," he says.

Finally after five years of sharing tiny apartments with up to 11 people, Atif and his family were given their own one bedroom apartment. "This was our time to relax, and not feel so overcrowded," Atif says. Atif says they spent the year re-generating and enjoying their privacy. They were just trying to live a somewhat normal life.

But the drama was still not over for Atif and his family. Having re-established himself in Germany, learning German, working again as a car mechanic and sending his two sons off to school, Atif was shocked when a letter arrived from the German Government. "It stated that the war in Bosnia was now over and I had to return home with my family," Atif says, his hands raised up in frustration. "Where were we supposed to go? I didn't know if Bosnia was even livable! We were not allowed to stay in Germany; they would have kicked us out if we did not leave."

Atif returned to Bosnia, the first time since they had left. He saw the amount of destruction Bosnia had endured. "Looking around the blown up neighborhood, houses fill of bullet holes and at our house, I knew there was no future for us in Bosnia, ' he says.

Atif immediately applied for a visa to the US, for the German government had given him two options, to either go back to Bosnia or travel to the United States. "It was yet another move, a new culture and another language to learn," he says.

Leaving Alma in Germany and taking only four suitcases filled with their belongings, Atif and his family set off for America. One of Atif's cousins who lives in Oakland, California, suggested he come and stay in the same apartment complex.

Settling into the American lifestyle has been hard for Atif. "I have found it difficult to learn English," he says. "When people don't understand you and you don't understand them, it is easy to be taken advantage of," says Atif. He complains about the excessive health insurance expenses in the US; in Bosnia health care was free for everyone. "All people want here is money, you want to get a health check up, you have to pay, you want to have eye surgery, your insurance covers only one third, so you have to pay, car insurance, you have to pay. Everything, everything, people here just want money," he says, throwing his hands up.

For all his frustrations and complaints, Atif has done well in the US. His sons and his wife have joined him. He began work as a successful car mechanic at a Mobil gas station in Oakland and now for a Union 76 gas station in Piedmont. In five years Atif has adequately established himself here. His older son, now 27, is also a car mechanic and his younger son, now 20, is working as a manufacturing technician for Intel.

Atif says leaving his daughter in Germany was one of the hardest things they had to do, but he is proud that she is running a very successful Japanese/Chinese restaurant with her husband. Atif says his main reason he came to the US was to give his sons a better life. He plans to live here at least until retirement, and then perhaps go back to Bosnia. Now an American citizen, Atif is a manager at his new apartment complex. He and his wife lead a fairly quiet lifestyle, for which they are grateful, he says. During summer they enjoy going to the Sacramento lakes, and taking their dog for walks around the neighborhood. Atif reflects on the war and says that he is so lucky to have not lost anyone in his immediate family. He knows of many parents who have lost a couple of children.

He prefers a quiet lifestyle, he says. His blue eyes light up and he chuckles. "A good thing about living here is that there are not too many surprises," he says.


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