Brutal enemies 20 years ago, they're learning to get along. In Phoenix.

Jul 9, 2015

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, when Bosnian Serb forces killed about 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

It was a key point in the brutal ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Two decades later, refugees from the region have built new lives in Phoenix.

Groups that had once been at war at home — Serbian Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Croatian Catholics — started their lives over in the same adopted city.

Phoenix welcomed more than 6,000 war refugees from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and early 2000s, according to data from the US State Department. Only Chicago and St. Louis received a greater number.

In the early years, there was tension among the groups. But 30-year-old Mladen Kuljanin says he believes the dynamic is changing. He’s a Bosnian Serb who came to Phoenix in 2002 as a refugee when he was a teenager.

“Once you see 10 people at a table from all the countries involved in a war, and they are still drinking and having a good time and sharing laughs, that’s when you know that people have forgotten about it and moved on,” Kuljanin says.

Kuljanin says he has observed those encounters at his own restaurant, the Q2 Café in northern Phoenix. He and his wife opened it less than a year ago with the goal of attracting all the ethnic groups and nationalities from the former Yugoslavia.

“That was the concept, to have a place where they can come in, enjoy the traditional items, talk to each other and socialize,” Kuljanin says.

One of the most popular dishes is cevapi, small skinless beef sausages served with homemade bread.

“Whether you were from Serbia, or from Bosnia, or from Croatia, you are looking at the same traditional menu items that you would find back home,” Kuljanin says.

He’s also added pizza and wings recently to the menu to draw in more Americans.

The restaurant has a distinctly European feel despite its location overlooking a large parking lot in a suburban strip mall. It has a front patio decorated with white columns and several outdoor tables welcoming smokers.

On a recent weekday, a group of men speaking Serbian enjoyed a leisurely lunch with a visiting musician from Montenegro. The musician, who plays an instrument called the gusle, was scheduled to perform a concert there that evening.

At another table, 55-year old Aslan Morina drank a cup of coffee.

Morina is an Albanian Muslim who lived in Bosnia. During the war he was held by Bosnian Serbs in a concentration camp. But now in Phoenix, he has Bosnian Serb friends.

Morina, who was the only Muslim in the restaurant that day, agrees with Kuljanin that tensions have been fading.

“Now, we all socialize,” Morina says in Serbian through a translator. “I come here, they are all Serbs and I am an Albanian Muslim, but nobody bothers me. Everyone respects me here.”

He says he doesn’t blame the Bosnian Serbs in Phoenix for his persecution during the war. But Morina would like to see justice for those who committed war crimes back in Bosnia.

“They need to be caught,” Morina says. “But not those who came here. They are completely innocent.”

Outside the restaurant, though, others say there is still distrust between the ethnic communities in Phoenix. For example, the head of Phoenix’s Croatian-American Club, Drazen Baricevic, says he avoids associating with Serbs.

Baricevic claims he heard a Serbian man at a concert in Phoenix brag about the Croatian homes he once burned down. Baricevic immigrated to the US in the late ’80s before the wars in the former Yugoslavia began in the ’90s, but he was still deeply affected.

“The war was over just 20 years ago,” Baricevic says. “And even though it sounds like a lot, there was a lot of killing, there was a lot of bad blood. That is what makes it so much tougher to forget.”

At the Islamic Center of North Phoenix, where Bosnian Muslims pray, Imam Sabahudin Ceman says many in the older generations still keep their distance from other groups.

Ceman says people from former Yugoslavia can usually recognize each other based on physical features. But he says there can be a hesitation to connect.

“I believe the reservation is there just because of the unknown,” Ceman says. “There is unknown how, even if you offer your hand, that will be accepted and welcomed.”

As an example, Ceman acknowledges that he has never met the priests who lead the two Serbian Orthodox churches in Phoenix.

“I have to be honest, I don’t think I personally made the greatest effort to make a communication,” Ceman says. “But I believe it hasn’t been done from the other side either.”

Ceman is connected with Bosnian Muslim communities throughout the US as the head Imam for the Islamic Association of Bosniaks in North America.

He was held by Bosnian Serbs in a concentration camp before he made it to the US as a refugee. His father was murdered by Bosnian Serbs.

Some of his congregants lost relatives in the Srebrenica massacre. A group of them plan to participate in a 20th anniversary remembrance walk and commemoration in downtown Phoenix this Saturday.

Ceman, who is in his mid-40s, says he’s doesn’t harbor hatred today for what happened — but he accepts that others might.

"If you were forced to watch your own wife being raped and slaughtered in front of you. If you were forced to watch your own daughter, 12 years old, be raped and slaughtered in front of you. You cannot say [to] that person, ‘Hey don’t hate. Yeah forget, let’s just go on,’ ” Ceman says.

For there to be true healing among the groups, Ceman says war criminals from all sides of the conflict need to be brought to justice so everyone else can learn to trust each other.

“All those who did bad — regardless of nationality or their side — they should be brought to justice so we have the opportunity to continue on,” Ceman says.

There is an international criminal tribunal in The Hague, and efforts in Bosnia, to prosecute these crimes. And US immigration officials are taking steps to identify and deport war criminals from the former Yugoslavia. But Ceman isn’t satisfied yet.

Back at the Q2 Café, there is a mix of perspectives on efforts to prosecute Bosnian war criminals. Some are for it. Others say these efforts have disproportionately blamed Serbs.

Marko Knezevic is a 33-year-old Bosnian Serb who came here when his family was forced out of a Muslim-controlled part of Bosnia during the war. Knezevic disagrees with US efforts to deport immigrants who may have committed human rights violations two decades ago. He says he believes it is interrupting the healing process.

“I just don’t see the point of that,” Knezevic says. “Even if they are a Muslim who killed a bunch of Serbs. I would not see the point of them trying to get them.”

Plus, he says many people on all sides of the conflict were forced to fight against their will.

“There is a lot of gray area and that is why the past should stay in the past,” Knezevic says.

Recently, there was a reminder that, even in Phoenix, the past doesn’t always stay in the past.

The St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church here was the target of a suspected hate crime this past Christmas. The church gate was spray-painted with symbols of a Croatian armed group that historically persecuted Serbs.

One of the parishioners, Alex Stojsic, says the graffiti particularly unsettled the church’s large refugee population.

“People were getting flashbacks and just bad memories from what happened to them 20 years ago,” Stojsic says. “And it helped them realize why they were here.”

No one has been arrested yet. But the vandalism suggests even decades and a brand new landscape can’t erase feuds this deep.


From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI