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Ifeta's Quest

Ifeta's Quest: A Bosnian Refugee Confronts Her Past

Ifeta's story was published in the Utica Observer-Dispatch on December 28, 2003. Subsequently, The New York Newspaper Publishers Association honored the article with an Award for Excellence in the category of Distinguished Feature Writing.

Categorized in these topics: Kolo Trauma Format Women in Collaboration

Heading east from Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital city, paved roads turn to gravel, then gravel turns to dirt. Soon, the road is nothing more than a rutted path, in-laid with sharp rock. The path curves and bends between trees, then shoots out onto a plateau with an open view of the valley. Cold wind whips through the treetops, hinting that snow will come soon.

Chapter one: Ready to return
The front door of the green house on Mason Street in East Utica had been left open. Inside, funky platform boots and sensible slides were tossed on the landing and lined the stairs all the way around the corner and up to the apartment door, which was also ajar, as though someone had rushed outside into the September afternoon.

Ifeta’s suitcases were leaning against the wall, and stacks of clothing waiting to be packed were covering the floor. Shirts and watches were everywhere, the piles falling over into one another.

There wouldn’t be much room for her own clothing, she said, her smile revealing that she was clearly just fine with the predicament.

After all, it wasn’t often that a “rich” American cousin could lavish gifts upon her Bosnian relatives, especially after an eight-year absence.

“There will be a party at the airport!” she exclaimed.

In August, a team of O-D journalists asked Ifeta, 40, and her daughter Amela, 21, to join an October trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over cups of strong coffee served from a long-handled pot in her living room, Ifeta agreed to a trip she had considered making on her own many times since she left Bosnia in 1995.

She beamed when she talked about how much shopping she would have to do. Serving trays, Muslim-themed jewelry, the latest in Bosnian-style lace curtains and souvenirs from tourist traps – Ifeta had a list a mile long. To her, it was a sign of the many friends she had made since she moved to Utica.

But as the departure day drew closer, Ifeta pointed to the few pictures she had of the family she had lost. She spoke of the faces on display above the television in her living room. This one had died in the war, she said, and that one, too.

Her cousin, Nazif Mahmutovic, told her he had found his family’s remains in a morgue in eastern Bosnia, near where they had been exhumed from a mass grave.

But that wasn’t all he had seen.

Ifeta’s parents were there, he said.

She should go to the morgue herself and identify them, he told her.

If she found her parents, she could bury them in Sarajevo.

If she found them, it might be just enough proof to punish their killers.

* * *

On Oct. 2, Ifeta stared out the window of the minivan on the way to John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. The Bosnia she would see in 12 hours would be very different than the country she left behind years ago.

Ifeta and her husband Sead Bektic once lived near Sarajevo with their daughters, Amela, born in 1982, and Dina, born four years later, in the first-floor apartment of Sead’s family home.

They had good jobs. Ifeta worked as a secretary for the Red Cross, and Sead was employed at one of the many local factories.

In 1984, Sarajevo was beamed onto television screens all over the world when the Winter Olympics came to the city, and Ifeta’s husband helped ring in the festivities when he performed traditional folk dances at the opening ceremonies.

Everything was so expensive and Sarajevans could hardly walk through their own city, but Ifeta thought it was wonderful. She had always known that Sarajevo deserved a place on the global map of world-class cities. And she, Ifeta Bektic, was a Sarajevan.

It was a source of pride for a girl who grew up in tiny Mahrevici.

As a child in the village, Ifeta spent her days helping around the family farm. Her parents, Edhem and Umija Kovacevic, insisted on it.

Edin, the youngest child and only son, strutted around the farm, following his father as he tended the livestock. Ifeta and her three sisters learned to cook and sew.

The Kovacevics are Muslim, a religious legacy left by the Ottoman Turkish Empire that invaded the region centuries before. Many neighbors in Mahrevici were Orthodox Christians, people who remained loyal to their faith despite Turkish rule. In the bitterly divided country, they are known as Serbs, a group that has clashed with Bosnian Muslims for centuries.

But in times of peace, the two groups helped one another through bitter winters deep in the forest. They also celebrated together, enjoying one another’s holidays.

In the days of Ifeta’s childhood, Mahrevici wasn’t so isolated, nor so small. The road to the village was wider then. Children from Mahrevici walked 45 minutes each way to a village across the valley where they attended school up to the eighth grade. Then they took the bus to Cajnice, the closest town that was large enough to have a telephone, for high school. Ifeta stayed with relatives during the week, and returned to Mahrevici each weekend.

Everyone knew that Ifeta would marry young. But it wasn’t a walk down a flower-strewn aisle she dreamed of.

Sead Bektic was in Cajnice on a fishing vacation when he met Ifeta. After just a few days, he asked when he could come for her. She gave herself a week to prepare.

When he came, she was ready with the needlework and household linens she had been making throughout her childhood. The two secretly hiked up the mountain out of Mahrevici and moved to Semizovac, where they lived in the Bektic family home.

It was 1980. Ifeta was 17 years old.

Her father was angry with her, but not for leaving in secret. He had expected that. It was the way he had claimed his wife, and his father had done the same. He was angry that she married Sead so quickly.

But he gave his blessing when the couple came back to make peace with her parents. So Ifeta came back again and again, unwilling to sever roots with the village she loved.

* * *

In 1991, Ifeta’s brother Edin turned 18 and prepared to leave for his required tour of duty with the army. Sead and Ifeta returned to the village that winter for his going-away party.

There was music and dancing, drinking and eating as the young man buttoned up his new uniform and packed his duffel.

Across the village, a Serb family was preparing to send its own son off to battle. Vajo Baturan had just turned 18, and his father Stojan invited the village to his send-off, just as the Kovacevics had done earlier in the week.

The plum brandy flowed freely between rounds of coffee as the men clapped their sons on the back. It was their duty, the families agreed. The festivities lasted through the week until the two soldiers hiked up the mountain, leaving their families behind.

In those years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia was breaking apart into its component states. The harmony and economic vibrancy orchestrated for decades by revered leader Josip Broz-Tito was giving way to ethnic tension and uncertainty.

Nationalist feelings, long suppressed, flared as leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia fanned the flames.

Milosevic made a point of visiting the site in Kosovo of the Serbs’ most famous defeat at the hands of the Muslims. Over the centuries, Kosovo became a rallying cry. The outcome of a battle in the year 1389 was being made relevant in the modern age.

In 1991, Serb forces sought to hold a disintegrating Yugoslavia together. They briefly fought Slovenia before taking aim at Croatia, home to many Catholics.

Two months after Edin left for the army, a Serb commander told Edhem’s cousin that the Muslims would be next. Edin should escape from the army while he could, the commander said.

Something was coming on.

“If they do it bad to the Catholic people, they’ll do the same to the Muslim people,” Ifeta recalls thinking.

Back in Mahrevici, Edin walked down the mountain, passing houses that stair-stepped toward the valley. When the Serb neighbors asked why he had returned, he told them he was injured.

As the sky darkened that winter, ancient fears filled the forests of Bosnia.

In January 1992, Kimeta, then 21, Ifeta’s youngest sister and the only daughter still living in Mahrevici, called Ifeta from a telephone in Cajnice.

Come home, Kimeta said. You’ll be safe here.

But Ifeta stayed in Sarajevo.

Soon, the forest closed in around Mahrevici, swallowing up half its inhabitants.

* * *

Bosnia had declared its sovereignty in October of 1991, but it wasn’t until April of the next year that the United Nations formally recognized it as an independent state.

This was an affront to Serbs, and soon the mountains surrounding the city were teeming with snipers who became a symbol of the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Sarajevans were trapped, and more swelled the city daily to seek refuge from regions overtaken by the Serbs.

When the war broke out, Ifeta was fighting for space for her daughters in her own tiny cellar, a haven for dozens of people from the neighborhood.

Bombs shook the earth while the group waited in silence, hushing their babies and trying to quell hunger pangs.

Dina, 5, was on Ifeta’s lap. Amela, 9, sat to her side, her hand clamped firmly on Ifeta’s leg. A coat wrapped around them all.

“I didn’t want them to kill just one,” Ifeta said. “Not just me or just the kids. If they killed us, they killed all three.”

They left Semizovac in a mass exodus of Muslims just as Serb forces began seizing homes, slaughtering those who stayed behind.

As families trudged to safety, they were split apart. The men were handed guns and told to fight, Sead among them. The women and children boarded Red Cross buses bound for Croatia. Ifeta and the girls found relatives there to stay with.

Months away from her husband, unsure of whether he was alive or dead, wore on Ifeta. She took a chance, alone. She would be just a few days, she told her girls. She crossed the line into Bosnia, and found her husband in Breza, a town about an hour’s drive from Semizovac.

But the border closed, and she was unable to return.

“I left my kids in Croatia,” Ifeta says now, her eyes haunted by a choice that spiraled out of her control.

Ifeta and Sead hunkered down in a tiny house in Breza. One day, they got a phone call over the radio from the girls in Croatia.

Mommy, we’re going to Sweden, they said. Maybe we’ll never see you again.

Ifeta collapsed on the floor. She was rushed to the hospital and treated for a nervous breakdown.

Amela and Dina moved to Sweden as refugees with their cousins. For three years, Ifeta remained in Bosnia, shouting through radio static to her daughters every few weeks.

In March 1995, Ifeta and Sead were accepted as refugees to the United States. Mirsad, Sead’s brother, and his wife, Melisa, met them at the airport in Syracuse.

Ifeta didn’t have much with her, just a few articles of clothing and nearly no money.

And when she opened her eyes the next morning in Utica, Ifeta first saw the snow. Then she saw the street she would call her own. It was horrible, she thought. It looked like there was a war here, too. The houses all along Jefferson Street were unkempt, and garbage lined the gutters. But that garbage soon became her gold.

Like birds feathering new nests for the season, refugees in Utica walked the streets at night, collecting castoffs from the curb for their homes. Every Wednesday, they searched the streets of Utica. On Sundays, they caught rides to New Hartford.

Refugees called this “Street Time.”

For months, Ifeta made the rounds, even checking curbs on her walks between her apartment and the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, where she took English classes.

Piece by piece, she prepared a home for her daughters, who arrived from Sweden in November. For Amela, her parent’s faces had faded in her memory so much that she didn’t recognize them when she got off the plane.

Ifeta scrambled to support her household with minimum wage positions at factories along with odd jobs. When her marriage fractured and Sead moved out, Ifeta’s resolve grew stronger.

Among her jobs, she worked at Georgio’s Village Cafe in New Hartford. The owners are her friends, she said, just a few among many.

The television news kept her up to date on events in Bosnia in the years after she left. The post-war era was filled with reports of mass graves, abandoned towns, minefields.

For Ifeta, it seemed all too much to contemplate. The emptiness inside her grew as her family in Mahrevici remained silent.

Ifeta isn’t sure when she realized they had died. At some point, she simply knew it in her heart.

* * *

Hours before the flight to Bosnia, Ifeta called her daughter Dina, now 17, from New York City. Tears slipped down her face when she heard her daughter’s voice. She handed the phone to Amela.

Amela pleaded with Dina not to cry; it was only a few weeks, then they would be together again. Ifeta shook her head, wondering if it was a mistake to return.

But her cousin Nazif’s call about the morgue had given her purpose. The trip would be more than visiting relatives and purchasing trinkets – she would unearth the secrets of Mahrevici.

On the airplane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, Amela stuffed earplugs in her ears and tried to sleep. Ifeta closed her eyes, but her mind was racing.Just a few more hours.

Chapter two: Blood ties
Ifeta hoisted the suitcases onto the counter in front of the customs agents at the Sarajevo airport.

It wouldn’t be easy to get through these checkpoints, she had said as she was packing. Whenever Bosnian officials think you might have money, they’ll stop you and get what they can, she said.

After their search, the customs agents told her she would have to pay 70 konvertible marks (about $45), or leave the suitcases behind.

Ifeta glared at them. Eight years away from Bosnia and this is her welcome.

She had arranged her hair and checked her lipstick in the last minutes of the flight, but her rehearsed smile was fading fast as the customs agents stared her down.

Everyone else had breezed through customs and was right around the corner. Amela’s sobs, the family’s welcoming words, just a few yards away.

She pulled out American dollars, but the man shook his head. There was an ATM around the corner where she could get Bosnian currency, but the suitcases would stay with him until he was paid.

The first hugs and kisses with relatives she hadn’t seen in a decade were brief. By the time the ATM dispensed its bills and Ifeta had snapped them at the customs agents, the moment was lost.

* * *

Much had changed in Bosnia, but not the driving. Two small cars sped through the traffic, weaving in and out, missing other vehicles by inches. They veered back and forth up a mountain road until all of Sarajevo was in full view.

Houses stand at every angle, yearning for the best view.

Overlooking a city in the United States, they would be worth millions. In Bosnia, they are fashioned out of cinderblocks and surrounded by tomato plants and potato patches.

The family gathered in the small front room in the home of Mehemed Ahmetovic, Ifeta’s cousin, and his wife Asima.

Asima spooned coffee grounds, pulverized into a powder, into a pot and added boiling water. Tiny coffee cups were arranged on a tray, clinking together as she carried it to the low table. Asima set it down between packs of Drinas, cigarettes so cheap even the unemployed can afford the national habit.

Ifeta disappeared into a back room and began pulling out the gifts she had so lovingly gathered. She placed them before each person in the group. As she disappeared for the next stack, the relatives shuffled through the shirts and trinkets, eyeing them critically.

They shoved the gifts aside. In a country with more than 40 percent unemployment, a new blouse or button-down shirt does not put food on the table.

Only Alija Kovacevic, a favorite cousin who received a pocket watch, reacted warmly. He held it tightly and gave Ifeta a long hug. He put the blue Wal-Mart bag that wrapped it in his pocket before he walked back toward the road.

Inside, everyone picked up a miniature spoon and stirred their coffee slowly.

The women dipped sugar cubes in the thick liquid and crunched on them, while the men sipped carefully. They smiled and laughed and talked.

The telephone rang.

“Molim,” Asima greeted the caller, then passed the receiver to Ifeta.

She took it and stepped into the hallway. Soon, she returned, her face streaked with tears. A relative she thought she would see on this trip had not survived the war.

Soon, the phone rang again, and the receiver was handed to Ifeta. She went into the hallway and came back, crying.

The phone rang again. More tears.

“If I knew everything was like this, I would not have come,” Ifeta said, burying her head in her hands. “If you’ve lost everything, why come back? For what? For crying, for hurting?”

* * *

The next day, Ifeta left the city for the suburb of Semizovac, to the home she left behind years ago.

Fikret and Fatima Jarovic, Ifeta’s sister-in-law and brother-in-law, live in the middle level of the three-level home. They, too, had fled when Serb forces pushed through. They returned to their home last year.

Serb families had lived in the house after the Muslims were pushed out. Ifeta stood on the front porch and looked at the wall of the house.

Scratched into the paint is a child’s handwriting.

“AMELA,” it reads. Just below that, several more names are scrawled in blue crayon, written by Serb children who followed Amela’s example.

Ifeta walked around the corner to the cellar where she and her family had huddled under a coat as bombs dropped outside. She stood in front of the piles of firewood that now take up most of the dank room.

“These two days, I have only found bad,” Ifeta said. “If I knew everything was like this, I would not have come. It’s so hard. I feel now that Utica is my family, my city.”

* * *

Upstairs, Ifeta sat on the edge of the couch in her sister-in-law’s place. Fatima handed her a tiny cup of thick coffee.

“They opened another grave,” Ifeta said, drawing her Drina cigarette to her lips.

“My cousin found an aunt over there,” she said, exhaling a line of smoke.

“He said he saw my parents.”

Fatima and Fikret fell silent.

Then they spoke rapidly in Bosnian. Fatima abruptly stood and went to the stove to prepare another round of coffee. She shook her head as she boiled the water and gathered the tiny cups onto the tray. She whispered something in Bosnian under the clinking spoons.

The light was fading over the valley. A crescent moon hung low in the sky. The muzzein began his call to prayer from the slender minaret shooting up from the mosque across the river.

All across Bosnia, mass graves are being exhumed by the International Commission for Missing Persons, an organization created to help survivors of the war find remains of those they had lost.

That was how Ifeta’s cousin Nazif had found the remains of three of his family members.

The bodies Nazif identified had been found in a mass grave near Mahrevici, where 16 of his and Ifeta’s relatives had disappeared at the same time. They were taken to a morgue in the eastern Muslim enclave of Gorazde, which is surrounded by Serb-controlled portions of Bosnia.

It was a year between when Nazif gave a blood sample and when he received word that his DNA had been matched to bone marrow from the remains. He laid the bodies to rest in a Sarajevo cemetery last year.

Fatima stood up to make a fresh pot of coffee. She shook her head and whispered to Ifeta in Bosnian.

“They all said, ‘Please don’t do this,’” Ifeta said. “‘It might not be safe.’”

But Ifeta had no doubts.

Chapter three: A village's secrets

The bridge over the Drina River is suspended high above the banks, where food carts and restaurants are lined up for visitors who come to take in the waters at Gorazde.

On the bridge, schoolchildren mingle with tourists. Old men carrying canes and wearing tweed hats stop to chat.

“These are my people,” Ifeta said. “Drina people.”

The Drina, flowing through a valley that twists and turns through eastern Bosnia, has long been romanticized by Bosnians.

Nobel Prize winning Bosnian author Ivo Andric put the name of the river in the title of one of his classic works, a novel focusing on Bosnia’s turmoil in the years before World War I, which was sparked by an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo.

Ifeta swam in the river as a child. As a young woman, she walked across the bridge into Gorazde for the shopping.

During the 1990s war, the clear waters flowing from the mountains turned murky with the blood of Muslim bodies, necks slit or pumped full of bullets, and dumped by Serbs from towns upriver. The bloated figures washed onto the banks in Gorazde, a city that remained a Muslim enclave throughout the war.

Then, it was accessible only by a Serb-controlled pass known as the Blue Road, named for the United Nations caravans that would travel to Gorazde from Sarajevo. Muslims were not allowed to travel through, and it became the site of impromptu executions. Many Muslims still fear this road.

In October, four days after arriving in Bosnia, Ifeta traveled on it through the Serb Republic to Gorazde. Ifeta and her relatives – her brother-in-law Fikret and three cousins, including Alija — reassured one another. They would not stop the car for any reason, they said. They would keep driving until they reached Gorazde, and the safety of the Muslim-controlled Bosnian Federation.

* * *

Surrounded by Serb forces, the entire city of Gorazde became a target for bombs and snipers during the war. Many buildings are still crumbling from the onslaught they endured.

Pasted to the front window of one is a poster filled with rows of grainy mugshots of local war criminals, many known to be living in the area.

This was Gorazde’s police station.

Inside, prosecutor Mirsad Bilajac sat in a suit and tie behind a desk in a bullet-riddled office at the end of a hallway littered with shattered glass. Except for his surroundings, he looks like a character out of “Law and Order.”

Before the war, Bilajac was trained as an investigator in Oklahoma and also spent some time in Texas. He wears a cowboy hat in one picture hanging on the crumbling wall and stands next to a horse in another.

His job is to gather evidence against local war criminals. It is work he likens to the court dramas he got hooked on when he lived in the United States.

“Like in American movie,” he says. “Like Los Angeles – in L.A. It’s a little different, but I always watch those movies.”

One part of his job is to give permission for people like Ifeta to visit the morgue outside the city. It houses the remains of bodies found in mass graves.

Ifeta also had other business with Bilajac. While the others waited outside, she offered him a list of names — people she believes killed her family in Mahrevici.

Bilajac had heard the names from other people, he told her, but there are so many war criminals in eastern Bosnia and not enough time or money to prosecute them all. She would have to find witnesses herself willing to share their stories in court, he said.

* * *

As they drove away from the police station, Ifeta was sure she would see the remains of her family in the morgue. One day after giving a blood sample at the offices of the International Commission for Missing Persons, she hoped to identify bones and clothing so that a DNA match could be made.

“I think God helps me now,” she said.

They crossed the bridge over the Drina and made their way outside the city to a bombed-out factory building.

Inside, the morgue was littered with old surgical gloves and a layer of dirt.

As the men dragged out white plastic bodybags and unzipped the covers, Ifeta pulled on a pair of gloves and began to search for signs of the lives she had once known.

Ifeta handled the bones gingerly. She knew that each pile of bones, now tangled in tree roots and decaying amid dirt clumps, was the mother or father of someone — someone searching, just like her.

In red mesh vegetable bags were bundles of clothing found with the bodies.

There were threadbare green dimje, the traditional baggy pants worn by Muslim women. As Ifeta stared at them, she imagined her mother, a woman who once wore dimje as she kneaded bread in the kitchen.

Ifeta held out a jawbone from a bodybag. Just two teeth were left.

Ifeta’s mother had two teeth, just like that.

“This I think is my mother,” she said.

Her father was a kind, generous man who was rarely angry. He helped his neighbors, Ifeta said, and everyone liked him.

There on that dirty floor was a sweater she thought she had given him, a small, telling hole in the shoulder. He had burned himself with a cigarette in that very spot, she said.

She looked back at the corresponding bag of bones and picked up the skull. She cradled it in her hands, staring into the empty eye sockets.

It was him, she was sure of it.

Ifeta went through each bag, her mind flooding with memories of her family. She was desperate to make a connection with the people who had been killed, thrown into the ground, dug up and then abandoned here in this factory, mere miles from where many of the killers still lived and breathed, each day a little further away in time from any chance they might pay for their actions.

Ifeta saw another sweater, one she believed her sister made for Edin. Edin, the brother who had worn with pride the uniform of the Yugoslav National Army the day he and his Serb neighbor hiked away from the village to serve.

She put her hand to her mouth and choked back tears.

She had seen enough.

* * *

Ifeta sat on the front steps of the morgue, holding a cigarette to her lips. The men stood by the car, leaning up against it, waiting for Ifeta to give the word that they could leave this place. They were so close to Mahrevici, they believed anything might come around the bend in the road.

They drove back across the bridge over the Drina, where so many bodies had floated down from towns in the mountains, and into the Serb Republic.

Don’t stop the car, Ifeta said.

In one town, a man on a cart raised his hand in what seemed at first to be a greeting. Ifeta drew her breath in sharply.

He had extended his thumb and first two fingers, Ifeta said, in the Serb nationalist salute.

“That’s a big-time Serbos guy,” she said.

She turned her head and stared straight ahead, down the road toward the safety of Sarajevo.

* * *

Ifeta couldn’t stop now. Somebody had killed her family just because they were Muslim. And now, Ifeta had seen what she considered proof.

“I only want to know now who did this,” she said.“Why did they do this? Who hid my family? Who killed my family? I’ve been waiting 11 years to find the bodies. Maybe I’ll wait 10 more years, but I’ll find out who did this and why they did this.

Even if the ICMP didn’t confirm a DNA match before she left Bosnia, she resolved that she would be back.

“I can’t leave it like that,” she said of the bones. “It was an empty place, an old place. I felt sad about that, because they are not animals.”

* * *

But for now, all she could do was wait.

And there was plenty to fill the days. Relatives all over Bosnia expected visits.

She packed an overnight bag and ventured north into the Serb Republic.

Feelings between Muslims and Serbs in the north are quite different than in the east, where most of the war’s worst atrocities were committed. In Prnjavor, where Ifeta’s aunt lives, many Muslims have returned to their pre-war homes.

Ifeta gave directions through the town until she could no longer remember which way to go.

Then she got out of the car and followed a woman and young girl through a field and into a wooded area. They said they knew the way. The girl, a blonde pixie, ran ahead down what used to be a road but now was just two ruts, overtaken by wild grass, sharp rocks and mud pits.

The path curved into a meadow and weaved between haystacks. Around another bend, there was a small house surrounded by barns and outbuildings. The girl ran straight up the steps and into the house.

A moment later, Aisa, the girl’s grandmother and Ifeta’s aunt, appeared in the doorway.

Aisa’s traditional headscarf was slipping off her gray hair, and she wore rubber boots common to Bosnian men who tramp around the forest. At more than 70 years old, Aisa and her husband, Mustafa Skorupan, harvest their own fresh apples and grapes and chase their cow through the pasture.

Inside, after serving coffee and pita to her guests, Aisa held a silver Motorola cell phone to her ear, its blue light glowing against her face. They have never had a telephone here at their farm in the woods, but Aisa borrows a cell phone from her son to keep in touch with her grandchildren in the United States.

Ifeta explained what she believed she had seen at the morgue – the remains of relatives, including her father — Aisa’s brother.

Aisa didn’t look up from her stove, where a pot of soup was simmering. News of death and violence out of Mahrevici was nothing new to her.

Aisa and Ifeta’s father Edhem were two of 15 children who grew up together in Mahrevici. Of the 15, only six survived World War II.

Aisa and Edhem were very young when they watched from a closet as their father’s throat was slit by their Serb neighbors, she said. Their brothers were killed with knives.

After the massacre, their mother Pasa took her remaining children and fled Mahrevici. Years passed before they felt safe enough to return.

Family legend has it that the killings were carried out by a Serb villager. When the family returned to Mahrevici, he still lived there.

He was an old man who walked around the village, leading a white horse by the reins, Ifeta recalls. He never said much to anybody.

Everyone knew that he had killed so many people, Ifeta said, and some people in the village were going to testify against him.

But he died before his court date.

“Of heartache,” Ifeta said, for all the sins he had committed.

Mahrevici was a different place after World War II. Those that remained had split it into two villages.

Only Muslims lived in a cluster of houses on a plateau higher than the rest. In the lower houses, Muslims lived alongside Serbs.

Ifeta’s father believed Mahrevici could overcome its violent past. He lived in the lower village, and became good friends with many Serbs there, including relatives of those he was sure were guilty of killing his father and brothers during World War II.

But Aisa left all that behind when she moved to Prnjavor with Mustafa. She found peace there, in her little clearing in the woods, where she was surrounded by the life she had once experienced in Mahrevici.

When Ifeta rounded the bend and saw her aunt, her last link to her father’s generation, she found it, too.

* * *

In 1996, the year after the war, power lines were strung through the forest to Mahrevici.

But electrical service is sporadic because the villagers can rarely afford to pay the bill. This month, it is more than $430. It will be cut off soon, they said.

“Then we will sit in the dark and wait for something to help us,” said Radmila Subara, a Serb woman standing in front of her rustic home with her husband and two grown children.

Ostoja, her husband, spent the morning chopping wood, then returned home for a nap before heading back out into the forest. His Yugoslav National Army-issued jacket and hat — the uniform of Serb forces during the war — will keep him warm in the chill air.

These days, he said, there are fewer men to help haul wood. Edhem Kovacevic, Ifeta’s father, was always counted on, not just for long days of work but also to share a glass of plum brandy. Now, Ostoja said, life is very difficult for him.

“I have lived better with the Muslims before the war than with my own Serbs,” he said through a translator. “The Kovacevics helped me a lot.”

What happened to them?

They left, Ostoja said. During the war. They are all alive in Sarajevo.

Ostoja waved his arm toward a row of empty houses above his own.

Those were Muslim houses, he said. One was the Kovacevic house, Ifeta’s childhood home. It was still standing despite charred brick walls. The houses were looted and some were burned by marauding troops passing through, Ostoja said.

He said there was never a conflict between Muslims and Serbs in the village. The Muslims all left because they were scared, he said.

In the middle of the village are two Muslim gravestones, names of Ifeta’s relatives etched on them. Bullet holes mar the corner of one. The white marble is the only sign that Muslims once shared the village with Serbs.

Some Kovacevics visited Mahrevici this summer, Ostoja said. Hamed Kovacevic, Ifeta’s cousin, came to talk with the Serbs about building a house on the family land. They all had coffee together.

Before the war, Ostoja and Hamed worked together in a forest products company.

“If Hamed would come, I would be happy,” Ostoja said. “Hamed wants to build a home here. We’re good friends.”

* * *

Ifeta was furious.

They are liars, she said back in Sarajevo.

“I don’t know why they said Kovacevic is alive,” she said.

Alija Kovacevic, her cousin, was the last person to see the family. He said the Muslims were warned by a Serb man in the village sometime in 1992.They should leave during the night and take refuge in the forest, the man told them.

Something was coming on.

But no one wanted to believe that the things that happened during World War II — the things that have happened generation after generation in Bosnia – could happen all over again.

Alija left with four other men that night. They hid in the woods for three days before emerging in Gorazde, where Muslims huddled in anticipation of an assault on the city.

Every family member who stayed behind in Mahrevici was never heard from again.

Now, Ifeta wanted to know the rest of the story.

Despite all the warnings against going to Mahrevici, she wanted to confront her former neighbors.

It was Saturday. Her return flight to the United States was for Monday morning. She didn’t want to leave Bosnia without knowing.

But hours before she was to leave for the village, Nazif begged her not to go.

That would ruin everything, he said.

He had been gathering his own evidence against the Serbs in Mahrevici for years. If Ifeta confronted them, they would hide before he could convince war crimes prosecutors of their guilt.

Don’t go, he said, and I’ll show you what I have. We can work together to get revenge.

* * *

Nazif works in a casino in the middle of Sarajevo, where men squander away their money under flashing lights — even at 10 in the morning.

He led Ifeta and Amela through the casino to a back room, where they sat around a low coffee table. Nazif leaned back in his chair, his hands interlaced behind his head.

He had been back to Mahrevici himself several times over the past few years, he said. Secretly, he paid two Serb men there to describe what they had taken part in a decade ago, he said. He said he taped their words.

As Nazif tells it, a small army of Serbs from around Mahrevici gathered the Muslims together and locked them in a house one day in the late spring or early summer of 1992.

The Muslims were tortured there, Nazif said. Women were raped. Eyes were gouged out. Body parts were chopped off.

After the torture, Nazif said the Muslims were loaded into a truck to go to Mostina, a nearby village.

On the way to Mostina, there is a bridge. A Serb military commander stopped the truck there and told the men to take the Muslims back to the village, but he was brutally assaulted. The commander ended up in a hospital in Cajnice, where he stayed several months. Even now, Nazif said, that man is in a wheelchair because of what happened that day. He lives near Mahrevici.

When the truck reached Mostina, the men locked the Muslims in dumpsters and left them there for three days. At the end of three days, they threw grenades in. Then, to make sure everyone was dead, they shot each body. Everyone was buried in a mass grave in the woods near Mahrevici, Nazif said.

There were 10 people who died in those dumpsters, Nazif said, including Ifeta’s parents, her brother and sister.

Six other Muslims had been left in Mahrevici. Two women, Nazif’s cousins, were burned to death in their home, he said. Four others, Nazif’s brother and his wife and their young children, were held captive for 10 more days before they were killed in the forest five miles from Mahrevici.

Their bodies were left there. A week later someone, no one knows who, buried them.

* * *

Nazif paid the men he recorded on the tape. He said they are drinkers and gamblers, and would do anything for money, even turn on their own relatives.

But he believes they are telling the truth. They were crying on the tape, he said.

Nazif hasn’t given the tape to any officials yet. He said he is waiting for the last mass grave, one with his brother, sister-in-law and two children, to be exhumed.

“I hope judgment will happen,” he said. “Let them suffer the way everyone else did.”

Nazif believes the stories, but no one who wasn’t there in 1992 can know for sure. Serbs say tales of war atrocities are exaggerated, and they point to brutality perpetrated by Muslims in the 1990s and in World War II.

The one thing that is certain is that no one in Bosnia has escaped suffering.

For Ifeta, her drive to know her family’s fate had built into a quiet rage. She first wanted to find the bodies, then she wanted justice. On the eve of leaving Bosnia, Ifeta wanted revenge.

Surely, the family has evidence to convict the men she had always suspected of killing the family, she said. Isn’t the tape enough?

“I haven’t been angry like this before,” Ifeta said. “They did the same thing in World War II before, and now they do it again, and somebody needs to stop this.

Epilogue: Waiting... wondering
Two months later, Ifeta is back at Georgio’s, learning to stuff mushrooms.

They might make a cook out of her, she said. She’s not sure if she wants to prepare Italian food, but she’ll give it a try.

It’s good to be working again.

But as the days ticked by, her trust that something would change dissolved like the sugar cubes she drops in her coffee.

There was nothing to do but wait — and for what, she wondered in her lowest moments of despair.

“Maybe I pick the wrong bones,” she said.

Finally, in late December, the call came. The ICMP had found a match — her mother.

She put her face in her hands.

She thought going back would re-energize her soul. After years of living in a foreign country, she craved the familiar cobblestone streets of Sarajevo, and she expected them to revive her spirit.

But Bosnia had chipped away at her for years, claiming pieces of her cheerful disposition and her hopeful outlook.

Now, it has become the deepest of betrayals.

“It’s no more chance for nothing,” Ifeta said.

Or maybe not.

Two days later, she picked up the phone and called Mirsad Bilajac, the war crimes prosecutor with a love of American movies.

There was still the tape, she told him.

It might be enough, he said.

Maybe those guilty for the killings would face justice, no longer living in freedom so close to the bodies they tortured and left to rot.

Maybe Mahrevici would yield its secrets.

Somehow, there is still a bit of the young girl in Ifeta who left Mahrevici at 17, believing that anything is possible.

And so she waits.


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