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'Unfortunately help always comes a little too late:' St. Louis Bosnians remember Srebrenica massacre

About 1,500 people gathered in south St. Louis to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide Saturday evening with a solemn re-enactment and walk.

Original Story published July 9, 2015

Elvir Ahmetovic, 33, sits at the International Institute. He was 14 during the events in Srebrenica.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Elvir Ahmetovic, 33, sits at the International Institute. He was 14 during the events in Srebrenica.

  Elvir Ahmetovic, 33, is a teacher in the St. Louis public school system. Twenty years ago, he was a child living through an event that has been called the largest civilian slaughter on European soil since the holocaust

“My parents thought, OK, this is something temporary, something ephemeral, we are civilized people after all, we will not let the situation escalate that bad, but unfortunately just in a matter of weeks they came to our village and started killing people,” he said.

Ahmetovic and 70,000 other Bosnians came to St. Louis as a direct result of the Bosnian War, which stretched from 1992 to 1995. During the war, Serbian forces performed ethnic cleansing against the Bosnian population. In July 1995, the Serbian army invaded the United Nations-declared safe space in Srebrenica. Over the course of three days, they killed more than 8,000 men and boys. This weekend marks the anniversary of that genocide.

Srebrenica’s legacy continues to this day. Serbian leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic are on trial at The Hague for extensive war crimes. In March seven men were arrested for their participation in the war’s ethnic cleansing. Here in St. Louis, Bosnian immigrants bear the scars of the massacre.

Ahmetovic escaped the slaughter either through chance or the compassion of a Serbian soldier.

Photo montage of images from the Bosnian War
Credit Courtesy of Patrick McCarthy
Photo montage of images from the Bosnian War (Montage documented at Srebrenica remembrance held at the Missouri History Museum)

Prior to the massacre Serbs separated women and girls from men and boys and loaded them into trucks to be shipped off to northern territories. One soldier asked 14-year-old Ahmetovic to help women and children onto the trucks. As the truck became increasingly crowded the boy became confused, unsure what to do next.

“Then my mother told me to lay down, keep quiet, and just forget about it. And the soldier never came to look for me,” he said. 

Although the soldier could have overlooked Ahmetovic, the St. Louis resident prefers to think the soldier wanted him there, on the truck headed out of town.

The genocide drew international attention that eventually stopped the war, but Ahmetovic also wants people to remember the time before Srebrenica.

His memories go back to the first images of the war on TV. Within weeks, his family fled their home and took up residence in a distant relative’s cellar near Srebrenica. It had a dirt floor, no windows and was infested with rats. Ahmetovic’s parents worked in neighbors’ fields in exchange for food.

One day while mother was gathering hay with his younger sister, Mirela, a Serbian shell landed in the field. He rushed toward the explosion and found his mother holding a wound closed around her stomach and intestines.

“She told me personally that Mirela was dead. And I just lay on the dirt in the dirt there on the road, and it was,” he paused swallowing hard, “it was incomprehensible.”

For weeks he dreamt his sister was alive.

“Every time I would wake up in horrible disappointment,” he said. 

The massacre was to come later.

Sweater worn during the Bosnian War
Credit Courtesy of Patrick McCarthy
Sweater worn during the Bosnian War (Objects displaced at Missouri History Museum Srebrenica remembrance)

Ahmetovic’s family made their way to Sarajevo where they stayed until they gained refugee status and moved to St. Louis in 2001. He said the transition was easier for him than for Bosnians who came during the war. Yet he still bears the psychic scars of the war. Ahmetivic he feels connected to people in today’s conflict areas like Syria, Darfur and Burma.

“I’ve been in their shoes. I know they’re helpless and desperately want someone to help them. But unfortunately help always comes a little too late,” he said. 

Patrick McCarthy, 53, believes that help can still be provided by native St. Louisans. He has worked with the St. Louis Bosnian population since the early days of the war. In 1994, he traveled to Sarajevo, while the city was under siege, and entered the city through an underground tunnel that ran beneath the airport. He said he believes there’s both a national and personal responsibility to help a community after suffering such atrocities. He said native St. Louisans should learn what happened in Srebrenica.

“We have the opportunity and the obligation to take a closer look at the specific circumstances that brought so many of our friends and neighbors and fellow community members, and remember with them, the difficult circumstances that brought them here,” he said.

To that end McCarthy produced a book on the war that focused on one specific Bosnian family who immigrated to the city. He has also collaborated with the Bosnia Memory Project run by Benjamin Moore at Fontbonne University. McCarthy believes the Bosnian story can teach St. Louisans an important lesson.

“People in very very difficult circumstances can not only get their lives back on track but can be integrated into a community like St. Louis.”

On Saturday, St. Louis Bosnians and friends will gather at 3:30 p.m. outside the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce, 5039 Gravois Ave., in South St. Louis to march in remembrance of the Srebrenica killings.

Bosnians will gather Saturday at the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce and Sebilj fountain, pictured here, on Gravois
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Bosnians will gather Saturday at the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce and Sebilj fountain, pictured here, on Gravois