'My only crime was being a Bosnian Muslim'

In his first hand raw, unfiltered memories in his book, "Bosnian List," young American author Kenan Trebincevic describes his experiences of a twelve-year-old boy in war.

'My only crime was being a Bosnian Muslim'


The debut book  "Bosnia List" of aspiring Bosnian-American writer, 33 year-old Kenan Trebincevic, which was published two weeks ago by Penguin, is captivating America. It has received positive reviews, and interviews from prominent global media, including the BBC, New York 1 TV, and was nominated 'book of the week' on the Oprah Winfrey's TV talk show.

“This can only happen in America,” Trebincevic said in a exclusive interview for Anadolu Agency (AA). He expressed doubts that such a book, “would be published in Europe.”

“It is a totally unfiltered, authentic sum of my memories that I have experienced as a twelve-year-old boy in Bosnia,”

        “By writing this story, I was able to turn the worst experience of my life into the most beautiful.” Trebincevic said, and explained how it was important to ”rewrite the history of the Balkans from a Bosniak family's point of view.”

“Yugoslavian history was always been tainted and written by Serb politicians and educators in Belgrade,” he added.

At age eleven, in 1991, when war in former Yugoslavia was initiated, Kenan was a happy, karate-loving kid living with his family in the quiet  Bosnian city of Brcko, on the river Sava, the longest river in Yugoslavia. Then, in the spring of 1992, war broke out in his native Bosnia, and Sava became a bloody river again.

Kenan’s horrific story started to develop, when his beloved karate coach Pero, a local Serb, showed up at his door with an AK-47 gun (Kalashnikov) screaming: "You have one hour to leave or be killed!"

“Our only ‘crime’ was that we were Bosnian Muslims,” Kenan concluded.

His family's miraculous escape from the ethnic cleansing campaign that swept Bosnia was the starting point for his searing chronicles. It includes his and his family's departure to his final exile in America.

But, his story gets an unexpected new dimension after nearly two decades in the United States, when Kenan and his older brother honor his father's elderly desire to visit Bosnia.

“My 72-year-old widowed father desperately wanted to visit our homeland before he was too old to make the trip. He had a stroke and maybe was feeling his mortality,” Trebincevic said, but also confessed that it was time he faced his past.

When, back in New York, Kenan met Susan Shapiro, a well known Jewish author and award winning journalism professor. This acquaintance would literally change his life when he undertook his first literary assignment to write on his most humiliating secret. 

Despite his misgivings that no one would be interested in the war that took place two decades ago, and as part of his healing process to come to terms with his past, he undertook the work, and has now appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times Op-Ed page, The International Herald Tribune,, on American Public radio, and in the Best American Travel Writing Anthology 2012. 

Writing book therapy mission to help others:

“Writing this book became not only a personal matter, but it was also became a moral obligation to tell the truth not for my family, but for my people, and for anyone who has been persecuted because of their religion, race or nationality,” he explained in the interview with AA.

“I never imagined that our Christian Serb neighbors and family friends with whom we shared birthdays and holidays, would throw their own countrymen in concentration camps, murder them and rape them, just because they were Muslim,” he lamented openly. 

Over 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995, mostly Bosnian Muslims, but also Bosnian Serbs, Croats, Jews and others. The United Nations estimate that between 20,000 and 50,000 Bosnian women were raped in that brutal war.

“My co-author, Susan Shapiro, would tell me that the ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ I realized that this book is the best way I can avenge my people and my family. I didn't want to remain a victim.”

“As soon as I decided to visit my old homeland, I started having vengeful fantasies of what I wanted to do to everyone that betrayed us,” Trebincevic told AA.

Back in Bosnia after two decades, now a 30-year-old American, Kenan decided to confront his painful war-torn childhood. This included facing his former next-door Serb neighbor who stole from his mother. He wanted to revisit the site of the concentration camp “Luka” (Port on river Sava) run by local Serbs where his dad and brother were imprisoned. Kenan also planned "to stand on the grave" of his first betrayer Pero "to make sure he's really dead."

But, in the land of his birth, Kenan found something more powerful and shocking than revenge, and when he realized that he had “never made sense of how and why” he and his family had survived, he felt like he had to write about it.

His connection with his mentor, Ms. Shapiro continued when back in the U.S. again when she shared the story of another student's who was a Holocaust survivor. Trebincevic described the story as “a very raw powerful piece” about religious persecution and loss in general and "this story unlocked something inside me,” he added. 

On an invitation by Shapiro to a book seminar, he met a book agent and he agreed to expand his short story it into a memoir. The rest is history.

“While I started feeling like a victim who lost his happy childhood, I came to understand how amazingly lucky we were,” he said, when speaking about his family's survival in the past Bosnian war. He was so immersed in his story of survival that he even, "had dreams in the right sequence for the book.”

Kenan was insistent that he wanted to tell the story through the eyes of a 12-year-old Bosnian Muslim boy who lived through the Genocide, and “juxtaposed with the perspective of a 30-year-old American Citizen.”

“Now I understand that wars bring either the best or worst out in people. Revisiting my homeland and learning who these ‘old friends’ and ‘neighbors’ really were all along, made the hurt a fraction less.”

- Reconciliation has to be just and natural:

Trebincevic said that reconciliation in Bosnia has to be be "fair, natural and without equalization of guilt between the victim and executioner. " However, he admits that the scars of war still remain in his consciousness of Bosniaks.

“I think there's something deep down in all of us Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) that can never be fully repaired.” He added some other Bosniaks that he has talked with "feel the same."

In his book, Kenan tells how his late mother Adisa, who died in exile in America, repeatedly watched the movie "Schindler's List" (Oscar winning American film  about a German industrialist who saved Jews in War World Two).

He explains that she tried to teach her children the lesson of hope over adversity. "There are always good people without generalization.” He recalls when in 1995, the Dayton Peace Accord was signed, he was “an angry and disappointed 15-year-old boy” and was very reactive to his mother’s comments as she watched “Schindler's List.”  

My mother told me that we should never forget those who did us harm, but that I should also remember the good people and good deeds.  I told my mother that I could count all the Serbs that have helped us on one finger. To my surprise, by recounting our story, I came up with numerous Serbs that helped us and saved us.” But, he noted "there will be no reconciliation if some politicians want collective guilt to be shared by all sides.”

“Imagine if Jews in World War Two, were asked to accept blame as well? There were never any apologies or reparations in Bosnia. This would be the first step,” he underlined.

“Although it was noble for president Bill Clinton to bring the peace in Bosnia in 1995, Dayton was a dirty deal for Bosniaks,” he stated.

In 1995, after 3 years of getting slaughtered, Bosnians were not allowed to defend themselves. They were sacrificed as the victims of wrong policies, but they were subjected to prejudice in Moscow, Paris and London.

“It was noble that the Americans finally intervened to stop the killing. But they also contradicted their own policies for democracy and human rights with this miscarriage of justice by rewarding Serbs for genocide. They were allowed to keep the land they had occupied, never letting the refugees they'd expelled return home,” he explained.

Trebincevic pointed out that the U.S. President Clinton “admitted the inequity” in controversial documents and recordings in the book “The Clinton Tapes.”

“Clinton disclosed that during negotiations NATO allies felt an independent Bosnia would be 'unnatural ' as the only Muslim nation in Europe. The British, French and Russians favored the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims precisely because it locked in Bosnia's disadvantage. France's President Mitterrand told Clinton that Bosnia did not belong among European nations, and the British official spoke of a "painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe."

Trebincevic expressed concern about Bosnian economic sustainability. He said, he "wasn't surprised,"  that thousands of young people recently went to riot in more than 30 cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He consider the unrest socially and not nationally motivated.

“These are protests mainly against high unemployment rates, and they have roots in the unjust Dayton Peace Accord that ended the Balkan War,” he said.

By Erol Avdovic

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