Monday, January 22, 2018
St. Louis Bosnians

Memory, Truth and Reconciliation: The Bosnia Memory Project

The ringing phone started Amir Karadzic awake. It was after 2 a.m., and he fumbled for the phone nervously in the dark, trying not to wake his wife and 5-year-old son, who were sleeping in the living room with him. More than two years earlier, Orthodox Christian Serbs had taken over his hometown of Prijedor, and they were detaining and killing non-Serbs. Karadzic’s brother-in-law had been in Omarska, a concentration camp, and his father had fled.

“I’m coming to kill you,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

“Who?” Karadzic asked. “Who is this?”

“Your best friend.”

The line went dead. A chill went through Karadzic as he hung up the phone. His wife, Admira, asked him what happened, and he reluctantly told her. They spent the night arguing in the dark, since by then, electricity was a fleeting wish: Admira insisted that he leave, but Karadzic wouldn’t desert his family.

“You have to go!” his wife cried, as dawn approached. “You have to go! What if they come to kill you?”

A few hours later, Karadzic hugged his wife and son goodbye and walked to the train station alone, where he would board a train to Banja Luka. There, with the help of a friend, he planned to present falsified papers to the Red Cross, claiming that he was experiencing kidney failure and needed to be transported to a Croatian hospital.

As the train started and Prijedor slid past, he didn’t know whether he’d ever see his home or his family again.


“It was really the most terrible moment in my life to make that decision,” Karadzic says now, recalling that night in 1994.

White-haired and 6-foot-5, with a Slavic accent, Karadzic sits in the library at Fontbonne University, where he recalls his story for the Bosnia Memory Project, a group that records oral histories from Bosnian War refugees in St. Louis.

From 1992 to 1995, Serbs in the former Yugoslavian territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina killed and raped non-Serbs in an effort to ethnically cleanse portions of Bosnia and claim the territory for Serbia. In fall 1993, the first Bosnian refugees from the conflict arrived here. Over the next eight years, the International Institute of St. Louis sponsored about 7,000 Bosnian refugees, says its president and CEO, Anna Crosslin. “The people that we sponsored had relatives and friends in other cities,” says Crosslin. “They heard St. Louis was a good place to live and relocated here.”

Attracted by the low cost of living and plentiful jobs, the community quickly grew. Now, with more than 60,000 residents, St. Louis’ Bosnian community is the largest outside of Bosnia.

In 2006, Benjamin Moore, an English professor at Fontbonne University, started talking to Jack Luzkow, chair of Fontbonne’s history, philosophy, and religion department, about collecting oral histories from the war. They developed a course, The Bosnian Immigration: Narrative, Memory and Identity, hoping students could interview Bosnian immigrants about their experiences.

There was just one dilemma: Luzkow and Moore didn’t know any Bosnians at the time. “We started out just walking the streets, trying to figure out how to meet people,” says Luzkow.

By then, Karadzic had moved to St. Louis and started the nonprofit Union of Citizens of the Municipality of Prijedor. Bothered by Serbian denials of war atrocities, he hoped to create an exhibit about what happened in his city. A mutual friend introduced him to Moore and Luzkow. Together, they set to work with students, collecting the stories of survivors.


In Northwestern Bosnia, in the valley of the Sana River, near Mount Kosara, lies Prijedor. It’s a municipality consisting mostly of villages, with a small city of the same name.

When Karadzic was born in 1956, Bosnia was part of the communist Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, which also included the republics of Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia, as well as the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo.

Karadzic’s parents divorced when he was 5, and he lived with his grandparents in neighboring Banja Luka. His grandfather was a Muslim imam, his father wasn’t religious, and his friends practiced a wide range of religions. “We never had any problems [getting along],” says Karadzic. “Even 20 years after the war, I still can’t understand those people who make aggression and why they hate us.”

In 1969, an earthquake destroyed his school in Banja Luka, and he returned to Prijedor to live with his father. After graduating from secondary school, he studied business and hotel management at the University of Belgrade in Serbia.

When Karadzic returned to Prijedor, he was working for a financial company when he met a pretty nurse named Admira and asked her on a date. The couple married in 1984. “She is an honest woman and a very caring person,” Karadzic says. “She is, I can say, much better than I am.”

A year before the war broke out, in 1991, Karadzic was living in Prijedor with his wife, son, and father. He worked at a clothing company and ran a small dairy factory with a Serbian partner.

“A lot of people left Prijedor in 1991,” he recalls. “They told me, ‘There’s going to be war here, gonna be a lot of dead people. Better for you to leave.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I was so sure that after 50 years of living together, nothing can destroy that.”

But in 1991, as Yugoslavia began to fall apart, with Slovenia and Croatia declaring independence on June 25, fighting broke out in both republics. By February 1992, nearly all of the media in Prijedor ran a steady stream of Serbian propaganda against non-Serbs.

“My father told me, ‘Get me out from here, or I’m gonna die,’” Karadzic recalls. “He said, ‘I fought in the Second World War against this; I can’t listen to this.’” Karadzic put his father on one of the last buses to Croatia.

Beginning late on April 29, 1992, approximately 1,500 armed Serbs overtook the city. “It was like switching from day to night,” says Karadzic, recalling when Serbian tanks rolled into town, and many non-Serbs were summarily executed.

Bosnian Muslims were forced to wear white armbands and hang white sheets or towels from their windows to identify their homes. “You were like a chicken living behind the wire,” Karadzic says. “And you knew that one day, they were gonna cut your head off.”

Non-Serbs were fired from their jobs. Karadzic had to register with the police, who assigned Bosnians work that the Serbs demanded, such as sweeping streets and chopping firewood.

In fall 1994, after receiving that haunting phone call, Karadzic fled the country. Unsure of whether or when he would see his family again, he stayed with an uncle in Croatia and applied through the United Nations to be sent to the U.S. as a refugee.

“When I think about that time, I really have fear in my eyes,” says Karadzic. At the time, he couldn’t talk to his wife because the phone lines in Prijedor had been cut.

While living in Croatia, he appealed to a man named Fisher, who got Bosnians to safety by convoy for around $500 per person, recalls Karadzic. After talking to Fisher, Karadzic says the man moved his wife and child to the top of his list, but Karadzic still didn’t know when they’d arrive.

He’d been in Croatia for four months when he got another nighttime phone call. This time it was his wife. “Fisher had a convoy that came to Croatian territory, and they put [the refugees] in some old building,” says Karadzic. “She found some guy with a cellphone and called me.”

Karadzic hurried to the Croatian city Ivanic-Grad, where he picked up his wife and son, who were staying in an abandoned schoolhouse. “It was a lot of crying,” Karadzic says. Even now, almost 20 years later, Karadzic gets emotional talking about it. In March 1995, they received their visas and flew to America.


Karadzic and his family moved to St. Louis in 2003, after seven years in Vermont. When they arrived here, Karadzic discovered that many St. Louisans didn’t understand the Bosnian conflict. When the war ended, with a peace agreement reached in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995, half of Bosnia was handed over to Serbs. Even today, the genocide is not memorialized in Serb-controlled Bosnia.

“Genocide in Prijedor didn’t stop in 1995,” says Karadzic—though the killing stopped, the denial and discrimination continued. So Karadzic with help from Moore, Luzkow, and others created “Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide,” an exhibit that opened at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in November 2007 and has gone on to travel across the nation.

“The exhibit really signaled to us that we needed to keep doing these interviews and building these collections,” says Moore. So they created The Bosnia Memory Project, an archive of nterviews with Bosnian immigrants and others involved in the Bosnian conflict.

Since 2007, the archive has continued to expand. Moore’s students have spoken with dozens of survivors from all areas of Bosnia. One, Dejana Mujkanovic, was a child when the war broke out and remembers watching police take away her father; she never heard from him again. Students have also spoken with American Elsie Roth, a retired nurse who went to Bosnia twice during the war to deliver aid.

Because many of the people who committed the atrocities in Bosnia are still in power, Moore does not publish the interviews on the Internet. Many participants fear retaliation against relatives still in Bosnia or Croatia. Instead, researchers and others interested in hearing the interviews can contact Moore directly.

Moore and Luzkow also continue to teach the Bosnian immigration class and host Bosnia-related lectures and symposiums at Fontbonne University. The next, taking place April 12 and 13, will explore Bosnian identity and include presentations from authors Aleksandar Hemon, Dr. Esad Boskailo, and others.

Moore has witnessed how survivors’ stories have transformed St. Louisans’ perceptions of the Bosnian community, but he’s interested in continuing the project for another reason as well: “We’re going to protect these interviews for generations to come. When the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of our Bosnian neighbors want to know something about their ancestors, we want to have a place for them to go.”

Today, Karadzic regularly speaks to Moore and Luzkow’s class at Fontbonne. He’s also currently the president of the board of the Congress of North American Bosniaks 2000, which offers support to families that lost relatives in the war and works to debunk misrepresentations of the conflict.

While Karadzic wants to fight deniers, he’s glad that the exhibit has managed to break another silence. “With Bosnian culture, we always try to keep [problems] inside the family,” he says. “With this exhibit and the Bosnia Memory Project, we finally opened the door, so people can see what’s happening.”


About The Author


The St. Louis Bosnian is an online database of Bosnian community in St. Louis. The purpose is to document and preserve existence of the Bosnian immigrant community in metropolitan St. Louis area. Through published books, articles, interviews, researches, videos, photos as well as speaker series, seminars, workshops and educational classes. We hope to leave the legacy of our community to the future generations.

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