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Twenty years after massacre, Bosnians pause to remember lost loved ones

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As he talks about his father, Nick Sinanovic stops several times to compose himself.

It’s been 20 years since his father, Resid, was killed in the Srebrenica massacre, part of the Bosnian War.

But it wasn’t until five years ago that Sinanovic finally said goodbye to his dad.

“It’s hard for me to talk about it,” said Sinanovic, who now lives in St. Louis. “It’s just a horrible piece of time that I’d rather not remember.”

Each year at this time, Bosnians forced to flee their homeland in the 1990s as war tore apart Yugoslavia return to bury loved ones in a somber ceremony that brings closure and renewed pain. It has taken years to recover bodies in mass graves and identify them through DNA matches with relatives who are scattered around the world, including thousands in St. Louis.

“I had a great childhood before the war. Great memories,” said Sinanovic, 33. “That’s all been erased by all the bad memories. I can’t see past what has happened and what horrible acts have been committed on those grounds and how many people have been hurt.”

From July 11 to 13, 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were killed by the Serb Army in Srebrenica, which had been designated a “safe area” by the United Nations. The attacks, which came near the end of a three-year war, were declared by the U.N. as the worst episode of mass murder within Europe since World War II.

Around the world, including in St. Louis, Bosnians displaced by the war have planned events to remember those killed in the massacre 20 years ago. A series of events kicked off Tuesday with a program at the International Institute of St. Louis and culminates with a walk Saturday along Gravois Avenue near Bevo Mill, in a neighborhood commonly referred to as Little Bosnia.

It’s there where Bosnians first resettled, rehabbing long-forgotten dwellings and storefronts into a vibrant community. The region’s Bosnian population is estimated at 50,000, which includes those who came here as refugees and the children they have had since.

“What happened is very close to the hearts of anyone from Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Ibro Tucakovic, an insurance agent in the Affton area, originally from Sarajevo. “We felt like we had to do something to commemorate that date in the most honorable way.”

Tucakovic is part of a group that has been meeting every Friday for the past few months to plan a walk organizers hope will include at least 2,500 people. It’s being promoted through mosques, social media and Bosnian businesses.

The walk will begin at a pocket park in the 5000 block of Gravois Avenue where a sebilj, a kiosk-shaped wooden and stone fountain, was built last year. The monument is a replica of a 260-year-old structure in Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital.

After a short service, including comments from politicians, walkers will head south on Gravois, to St. Louis Islamic Center Nur, with a prayer and program at the mosque.

“For the non-Bosnian audience, it’s important for people to be aware of the circumstances that brought so many Bosnians here,” said Patrick McCarthy, author of “After the Fall: Srebrenica Survivors in St. Louis” and director of the medical center library at St. Louis University. “For those who are Bosnian, it’s a way to remember and respect those who were killed.”

For Sinanovic, the Srebrenica massacre is something he will never forget.

In 2009, with the help of DNA samples Sinanovic and his older brother, Irfan, provided, the news became official: Their father had been killed —a gnawing assumption the family was living with for 16 years.

In 1993, Sinanovic, then 11, and his mother, Senada, were put onto a U.N. truck that had just delivered food. The two of them sat in the cab, while others were crammed into the back and taken to the city of Tuzla, about two hours northwest. Irfan stayed behind at the request of a Doctors Without Borders medical team. The teen was needed to help with interpreting. We promise, a doctor told Irfan’s mom, we will get him into the next convoy when it comes in about a week.

At 13, Irfan was at a target age for the Serb Army, whose victims ranged from young men to the elderly. But the doctor had managed to get credentials for Irfan to convince soldiers at checkpoints that Irfan was part of the team helping transfer those needing medical attention.

“A lot of boys his age did not go in the convoy. They knew what was going to happen. A lot of those boys, 13 or 14, were killed,” Sinanovic said.

Men such as his father tried to make it to Tuzla as well. But they would have to do it by foot and through the woods. The father was never able to reunite with the family and was presumed killed in the 1995 massacre.

The surviving Sinanovics arrived in St. Louis in 1999, and the brothers run Vega Transport, a trucking firm in south St. Louis County. It has grown to 65 trucks, and many of the drivers are Bosnian. The brothers are married and both have two children, all born in the U.S.

In 2010, the Sinanovic brothers and their mother went back to Bosnia, specifically Potocari, a town near Srebrenica that has been turned into a memorial and cemetery for those killed in the Serb Army attacks two decades ago.

It was time to bury the man that had been lost to his family for so long.

Nick Sinanovic said that trip five years ago will likely be his last. Going back again to the country that no longer feels like home, to a place where his childhood was cut short, is not part of the plan. But it’s not completely off the radar.

After all, his mother still returns to Bosnia regularly to visit her elderly father. And there is now a designated final resting spot for his father, a place he may want to someday show his children. They will likely ask him at some point what life was like when he was a boy.

Commemorations like the ones this week in St. Louis will help tell the story.

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Doug Moore is a former reporter for the P-D. Currently, policy director for St. Louis County Council.

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