Child shares memories of Bosnian social conflicts

Monday, January 7, 2002

For many war means choosing sides, fighting for ideology and defending collective beliefs. But in every conflict, there are other, younger witnesses who do not understand why their fathers fight.

They do understand fear, uncertainty and good-byes to their friends and family.

More than a decade ago the ties broke which held the former Yugoslavia together. The republics that constituted that country began declaring their own independence, while others made a mad grab for power.

It was there that now 10-year-old Alma Suvic discovered war.

Alma now lives in Des Moines with her father and mother. All of them immigrated to the U.S. from Bosnia five years ago. Alma spent part of her holiday break from school to talk with students at St. Mary's this week. She came to Storm Lake with her father, who has been working construction in the area.

Like other young girls, Alma likes to play basketball, dance and hang out with her friends. But she also has seen another side of life - like the nearby sound of a gun.

"My mom and I were at my grandpa's house when we heard a gunshot that scared us," she said.

This was back in 1992 and 1993. Alma was only 3 years old when the fighting started. She didn't know what it was about then. She is now starting to learn from her parents.

The Bosnia-Herzegovina war is still one many do not understand. It began as the former Yugoslavia disintegrated. The member-states which formed the country began declaring their own sovereignty.

When Bosnians voted for their own independence in 1992, Bosnian Serbs opposed the plan. Supported by Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbs began an offensive against the Bosnian government and its people.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Croats were driven from their homes by the Serbian forces. Alma and her family are Bosnian Muslims, one of the groups of people displaced when Serbian forces began an offensive to gain territory and to carry out their idea of ethnic purification. By 1995 there were reportedly 3.5 million refugees.

Alma did not know why the fighting was happening. She did know that it forced her father, Jasmin, and several of her uncles to go away and fight.

As tensions mounted, Alma and her mother, Ismeta, moved to a refugee camp. The dormitories there were a series of large, one-room buildings.

"Fifty to 75 families lived in one house," Alma said. "There were no walls."

Alma knew quite well why they went to the camps.

"If you wanted to die or suffer with other people you stayed at home, but you moved if you wanted to stay alive," she said.

They lived with complete strangers, but they became friends over time. Alma said they didn't have much, but while there she would play soccer with the other kids. They would also play hopscotch, drawing the hopscotch squares in the dirt.

Refugees could only take to the camp what they could carry. Humanitarian trucks came once or twice a week with food, water and other supplies.

"It was not as bad as some people imagine it to be, but you get really scared," Alma said. "We could hear fighting from the camps."

While they were free to go wherever they wished, Alma said it was safer to stay at the camp.

"We could go visit others, but it was a long way to go through the wooded area where soldiers were at," she said.

Alma and her aunt were shot at once. Her aunt was hit in the arm - Alma wasn't hit directly, and only had a scrape on her chin.

After six months at the camp, Alma and her mother moved into a house with an older couple. "The war was almost over and dad came home," she said. "Then my aunts and uncles came home next."

Finally one of their mother's cousins in Des Moines was able to send enough money for Alma's family to get passports and come to the United States.

They moved five years ago. "It was hard to move here, I didn't want to leave my friends," Alma said. "But I didn't have a choice, my parents made it."

She said it is different living in the United States, but said she does not worry about soldiers fighting right outside her house.

But it also took some adjustments. Since the war started when she was so young, Alma had only been in preschool. At the age of 7 she was going to school for the first time in Iowa and only spoke Bosnian. However, she learned English in six months. Now Alma is a fifth grade student at Windsor Elementary in Des Moines.

Alma said she enjoyed the opportunity to speak with students at St. Mary's, which was a first for her. "I was a little nervous," she said.

St. Mary's teacher Kathi Benz, who arranged for Alma to speak at the classes, said Alma could provide an interesting view on a conflict. "I asked if she wanted to talk about what it was like for her when she lived in Bosnia," Benz said. "She did an excellent job."

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