While building life in St. Louis, Bosnian Sejad Muhic grapples with the past
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2009 - As he stared at the small screen, Sejad Muhic narrated documentary footage of bodies pulled from mass graves for identification. "This is where my brother died," noted Muhic, 49, as he looked at pictures that mirror his own dark memories inside a Bosnian concentration camp 17 years ago.
The ghastly scenes contrast sharply with the idyllic settings in Muhic's coffee table book of Bosnia and Herzegovina, published in 2006.
"Here, it looks like we have no war," Muhic said.
That juxtaposition of images aptly illustrates the lives of many of the estimated 50,000 Bosnian Muslims now living in St. Louis, following the massacre of 200,000 people in the 1992-1995 genocide by Bosnian Serbs and the Yugoslav army.
THE SUFFERING BENEATH THE SUCCESS
On the surface, many Bosnians in St. Louis are doing very well: working, raising families, completing their education, and enjoying home ownership and life in the largest Bosnian community in the world outside of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But underneath, the persistent feelings of loss, grief, suspicion and sheer terror are like a corrosive substance eating away at any peace of mind.
Those emotions are the focus of a study now underway to document mental-health issues and substance abuse in the St. Louis Bosnian community. Investigators hope the research, begun in December, will lead to funding for interventions to help local Bosnians heal.
On his chin and right arm, Muhic bears numerous scars whose faded color belies the brutality he endured in captivity. In May 1992, after the Bosnian Serbs attacked the Muslims, Muhic was captured and taken in the back of a truck to a concentration camp. Two of his brothers were hauled to another location, and his mother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece sought shelter first at a school, then at a Serbian aunt's house.
Unsure about what was happening to his family, Muhic fought to stay alive. Not allowed to shower or bathe for five months, his skin was covered with his own dirt and blood, and the blood of others who were beaten -- sometimes to death -- next to him. Their cries and screams, along with his bracing for similar attacks, made sleep almost impossible.
Subsisting on one piece of bread a day while doing heavy labor such as felling trees, Muhic lost 80 pounds. As the daily beatings to his weakened, bony body continued, he began to go numb.
"When you live with that, it's nothing. Now, if you hit me three times like that, I'd be dead," Muhic remembered.
FAMILY LIFE IN ST. LOUIS
In December 1992, after seven months of captivity, Muhic was released in a Red Cross exchange of Muslims for Serbs. With his home burned to the ground amid continued unrest, staying in Bosnia would be a dangerous choice. Only Austria, New Zealand and the United States would accept the relatives outside his immediate family. Because he had a cousin here, Muhic left for St. Louis with his mother, sister-in-law, nephew, niece and new wife in August 1993.
For one month, they received food stamps and lived with the cousin. Since then, the family has been on its own. Through a relative, Muhic got a job installing electrical units, similar to the work he'd done in Bosnia. With no knowledge of English, he felt he had to perform better than anybody else.
"To everything, I would just say, 'OK, OK.' I had to work at 300 percent because I wanted to show the boss I'm a good worker," Muhic said.
In their second month in St. Louis, the family of six moved into a one-bedroom apartment. It wasn't long until Muhic's wife had a baby. Muhic's 24-year-old niece said they all managed to get along in close quarters.
"My mom, me, my brother and my grandma would sleep in the living room," said Muhic's niece, who asked that her name be withheld. "Then, we had another guy from Bosnia stay with us because he had nowhere else to go."
Though the niece was only 8 years old when she left Bosnia, she knows the war stories by heart. Growing up, she heard family tales of terror the way other children are raised with stories of Mom and Uncle Henry setting up a lemonade stand. One of the most distressing accounts is of her father, Muhic's brother, who died slowly in front of a third brother, inside a sweltering, enclosed truck on the way to a new camp.
"My dad was pretty much waiting for death because they beat him so much. And he was begging my uncle to give him water, but there was no water," Muhic's niece said.
The uncle who witnessed her father's death was also killed a short time later, before reaching the camp, according to survivors who were also in the truck survivors. Years later, these survivors told the family the story of how he died. Besides his brothers, Muhic lost 26 other relatives.
Muhic prefers to look forward. He is a U.S. citizen, as are his two children, 15 and 12, who were born here, and he loves this country as well as Bosnia. The family of four now lives in a comfortable home they own in south St. Louis. Still, Muhic works long hours, mostly so he won't have time to ruminate about the past.
"I spend all my time just running, running, running, then I sleep and then work some more. That's my life," he said.
DANGEROUS SLEEP AND BROKEN DREAMS
Even as he sleeps, Muhic cannot escape the terrible feelings and images that are burned into his brain. The first time he had a nighttime flashback that made it seem he was actually being attacked all over again, he awoke to his wife's screams and his hands around her neck.
"I almost killed my wife because I am fighting her," Muhic recalled.
"I woke him up," his wife, Emira Muhic said. "He was shaking and sweating."
The night terrors seem to ensue after her husband talks about his horrific experiences with other survivors or reporters. Emira said she is not frightened by Sejad. After all, his terrors are her own.
"We came from the same world, and there is nothing to be scared about," she said.
Muhic still struggles with the tremendous betrayal by his former Serbian friends. He also rages against the war crimes trials that have prosecuted only a handful of Serbs for the hundreds of thousands of deaths and given them sentences of only a few years.
"It's like you can kill somebody or rape somebody for free in Bosnia," Muhic said.
Muhic has not yet sought therapy to work through his anger and other feelings, but is currently considering counseling. It is the hope of mental-health researchers that similarly stoic survivors will participate in community-supported group counseling that may come about as a result of the ongoing study of Bosnian mental health.
Though Muhic doesn't like to talk about the atrocities, he does so to put the violence on record. As president of the Association of Survivors of Concentration Camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the USA, he's putting together a book with other survivors. Still, Muhic's despair is palpable as he sums up his anguish and bleak outlook.
"So many things have happened to my family," Muhic said. "Emotionally, I am never happy, and I don't see it getting better."
Nancy Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.