Courtesy Kenan Trebincevic

‘The Bosnia List’: Recalling a childhood lost amid war

Kenan Trebincevic’s memoir on returning to Bosnia resonates with exiles in the US

In 1991, when Kenan Trebincevic was 11, he often played soccer with the other boys who lived in his apartment complex in his small town of Brcko, in northern Bosnia. Whether Christian, Roman Catholic or Muslim — as Trebincevic’s family was — the boys attended the same school, went to each other’s birthday parties and shared the victories of moving up in karate class.

Bosnia was then the most religiously diverse of the six Yugoslav republics — Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and the largest, Serbia. But in the next nine months, Trebincevic, along with his mother and father and 18-year-old brother, Eldin, struggled to survive in the face of the ethnic cleansing campaign Slobodan Milosevic ordered upon their town and many others. Over the next five years, tens of thousands of Muslims and ethnic Albanians were killed. 

Trebincevic as a boy, with his karate class.
Courtesy Kenan Trebincevic

Trebincevic, now 33, recently published “The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile and Return,” an account of the horrors of the Bosnian war and his attempt to make peace with the past.

“This book is so important for us because it’s told through the eyes of a child — not a politician, religious leader or someone who stands something to gain,” says Faruk Bilalagic, 29, a computer consultant from Richmond, Va., who escaped with his Muslim family from their home in Sarajevo at age 9. Bilalagic says the book is being read widely in what he calls the “Bosnian diaspora” — the 250,000 or so Bosnian-Americans who escaped the war in the Balkans and wound up in the United States. 

I thought of the billboards contrasting the red-checkered Croats, green Bosniaks and blue-striped Serbs: It seemed the whole neighborhood had been divided into three rival teams.

Kenan Trebincevic

Trebincevic’s father was a well-regarded owner of a gym in Brcko, known affectionately as the town’s unofficial mayor, and his mother was a friend to all. But goodwill toward them and their sons disappeared overnight when the Serbian army arrived. Friends and neighbors turned against the Trebincevics based on their Muslim religion. It didn’t matter that the family was secular, celebrating Ramadan but also Christian holidays with their neighbors. 

Even Trebincevic’s closest friends treated him differently.  “Velibor and Dalibor insisted they were Serbian generals and I was the enemy Bosnian soldier,” he writes. “I thought of the billboards contrasting the red-checkered Croats, green Bosniaks, and blue-striped Serbs: It seemed the whole neighborhood had been divided into three rival teams.” 

Kenan Trebincevic with his brother, Eldin, circa 1985.
Courtesy Kenan Trebincevic

Trebincevic and his family’s early attempts to escape were foiled by the Serbian military, and they eventually became the last Muslim family in their building, and then in their town. They feared each day for their safety.

“One week into the war, I caught Mom covering her mouth as she peeked through the shade’s narrow slits,” he writes. “I dropped to my hands and knees next to her, watching a truck filled with corpses pass underneath our third-floor apartment. Arms and legs hung off the back, looking like a crate full of broken dolls’ limbs. … All civilians were stopped by soldiers demanding identification cards. Our Muslim names would get us killed.”

Soon after, Trebincevic’s beloved karate coach, Pero, who once had held him high in the air to congratulate him on his newly acquired brown belt and regularly had dinner with the family, showed up outside their building in Serbian military garb with a group of soldiers under his command and a list of families to be killed.  

“Leave or we will kill you. One hour,” a soldier yelled when Trebincevic’s mother, Adisa, answered the door. For a time, the Trebincevics hid in the apartment of relatives. Eventually, they escaped to Hungary during a blizzard, then to Vienna with the help of a Serb police captain who had lifted weights at Trebincevic’s father’s gym before the war and from a sympathetic Serb woman who prepared their passports and documentation.

Trebincevic’s mother, who died of cancer 13 years after the family immigrated to the United States and to whom the book is dedicated, was the family’s moral compass. “See everyone for who they are, not what they are,” Trebincevic recalls her telling him when he said that he wished that all the Serbs would die. “The best revenge you’ll have is great success.”

And Trebincevic is doing just that. A physical therapist and freelance writer, he lives blocks from his brother, also a physical therapist, and his father, in Astoria, Queens, home to many of those who escaped the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Despite my good arguments [against it], the world was pushing me to face down our past.

Kenan Trebincevic

“The Bosnia List,” published this year.

When the family arrived in the United States, in 1993, they first settled in Westport, Connecticut, where the Trebincevics slowly became accustomed to their new home. His father and brother found fast-food jobs, while his mother took babysitting work. Trebincevic, as the only Bosnian student at Bedford Middle School, felt “invisible and insignificant.”

Two decades later, after getting his degree at the University of Hartford, becoming a U.S. citizen, and moving to New York City, he began to think more deeply about the war he had lived through. “I was a pacifist more interested in the Yankees and “Seinfeld” reruns than bloodthirsty revenge,” he writes in his memoir. “Yet more and more I found myself returning to this busy avenue known as Yugo Row, gravitating toward the other 10,000 expatriates in Queens, as if it wasn’t too late to recover what was lost.”

Trebincevic and his brother began to frequent some of the nightclubs and restaurants where many expats hung out. Yet many of the old hatreds had survived, he says, as groups of young Serbs openly gave the military salute to others from the former Yugoslavia. “I was no longer a scared, five-foot, hundred-pound eleven-year-old,” Trebincevic writes, recalling one night when a group of Serbs at a neighboring table gave a salute. “As an adult, I’d never once used a gun or knife or my fist. I was afraid of what I might do. But now I didn’t care if I was outnumbered. I finished my last sip of beer. I picked up the empty bottle, ready to break it on the table and use the jagged edge as a weapon. My brain told me to simmer down, not do anything that could destroy the nice world I’d manage to rebuild here.”

In 2011, Trebincevic’s father planned to return to Bosnia to see friends and family and pay his respects to those who had died in the war. Trebincevic, still consumed with anger, decided to go with him. “Despite my good arguments [against it], the world was pushing me to face down our past,” he writes.

He compiled a list of places to visit and tasks to accomplish while he was there, as a tribute to his people. “Instead of history museums, medieval castles, and waterfalls the Balkans were known for,” he writes, “I scrawled down lists of names of Serb classmates and friends who’d turned on us.” Trebincevic also planned to stand at the grave of his former karate teacher Pero, leave lilies at his grandmother’s headstone, and visit the Muslim cemetery to honor his father’s fallen comrades — all of which he did. The list became the premise for his book.

Four months after his trip, Trebincevic met journalist Susan Shapiro when a back injury brought her to his physical therapy practice. She encouraged Trebincevic, as his mother had done, to remember not only the Serbs who’d harmed his family, but also those who’d helped the family escape.

Together, Shapiro and Trebincevic co-wrote the book. It’s now being translated into Bosnian.

“It’s been a little surprising,” he says of the book’s reviews. “A lot of them say that I eventually forgive and that the book is this amazing story of forgiveness. But if you read the book, you see that I could never forgive the murderers and the people who did harm to my people and my family.”

Trebincevic says he wrote “The Bosnia List” to give his people a voice. “I want to help Bosnians my age, to help them go back and make sense of what happened,” he says. “I think it helps to go into that deep pain. Our culture is not the kind to sit around the table and talk about it. Writing became a way of turning the worst experience into the most beautiful. I realized that sometimes you have to go backwards in order to move forward. And that’s what happened to me.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the number of Bosnian-Americans living in the United States.

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