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Bosnians Remember When Their City Became 'One Big Concentration Camp'


We're visiting a community still confronting the memories of a massacre. The 20th anniversary was over the weekend. Eight-thousand Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Serb militias. It was the darkest moment of the Bosnian war, the so-called the Srebrenica massacre. There was a memorial service in a Bosnian community south of St. Louis in a neighborhood called Bevo Mill. It's also known as Little Bosnia. Emerald O'Brien from member station KBIA was there.

EMERALD O'BRIEN, BYLINE: This was a march for Bosnian-Americans, people born in Bosnia and who fled as their native Yugoslavia violently broke apart. The single most horrific event of a war that killed 100,000 was Srebrenica, now known as the worst act of genocide on European soil since the Holocaust. It also triggered an exodus from Bosnia. Family connections and affordable housing brought many to Missouri. At least 2,000 Bosnians living in St. Louis are from Srebrenica. Elvir Ahmetovic is one of them. He was 14 when the massacre began, and he'd been living with his family in a cellar near town, trying to survive day to day in the midst of constant bombing.

ELVIR AHMETOVIC: It was a - really a one, big concentration camp. And we were held at gunpoint by the Serbs.

O'BRIEN: On the day Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serb army, Ahmetovic's family was rounded up with other Bosnian Muslims. Everyone was taken to the town of Potocari, where they were told they were being sent to a free area controlled by the Bosnian army. Instead, the men were taken from their families and many were killed, including Ahmetovic's grandfather.

AHMETOVIC: That's when Serbs started killing grown, able-bodied men and teenage boys. I was 14 years old. I don't know how I survived, how they decided not to kill me.

O'BRIEN: Other men fled into the surrounding forests, where they were tracked down and killed.

EDIN OSMANOVIC: I mean, hearing these different stories and you always have a hope, you know? But the more time passes, you know, you start losing hope, you know, every day, you know?

O'BRIEN: That's Edin Osmanovic. He was also 14 at the time. He was separated from his father and brother when they escaped into the woods. They survived, and Osmanovic reached the safety of the free area in a truck with his mother and sister. The war ended five months after Srebrenica. But the country was in ruin, and eventually Ahmetovic and Osmanovic joined a stream of Bosnians applying for refugee status in the United States. That's where Ron Klutho came in. He was a social worker in St. Louis at the time and helped settle some of the first Bosnian refugees. Here, the community flourished.

RON KLUTHO: Kind of a Bosnian business community developed here with stores and restaurants and bakeries where they could get the taste of home. So it was kind of a snowball effect.

O'BRIEN: Bosnians here are diverse. They're old and young. They're professionals and wage workers. But overall, they've succeeded at building new lives.

OSMANOVIC: You know, like, how quickly we kind of stood up on our feet and started, like, with our businesses and kind of with normal life, which a lot of, like, people in United States are struggling with, you know?

O'BRIEN: But the transition has seen its challenges with countries like Russia still denying the genocide and many bodies still missing after multiple reburials by the Bosnian Serb army. Partial remains of Ahmetovic's grandfather were found several years ago. In a speech he gave to the marchers in St. Louis, Ahmetovic said that there's no real redemption for those lost in the war.


AHMETOVIC: I urge all of you not to forget Srebrenica ever and do everything in your power to keep the memory alive.

O'BRIEN: The anniversary events allowed the St. Louis Bosnians to honor lost loved ones, but it was bittersweet. Many Bosnians said there's still work to do - to find the missing of Srebrenica and to find them justice. Emerald O'Brien, St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emerald O'Brien