The Bosnia list A memoir of war, exile, and return

Kenan Trebincevic, 1980-

Book - 2014

"A young survivor of the Bosnian War returns to his homeland to confront the people who betrayed his family. At age eleven, Kenan Trebincevic was a happy, karate-loving kid living with his family in the quiet Eastern European town of Brcko. Then, in the spring of 1992, war broke out and his friends, neighbors and teammates all turned on him. Pero - Kenan's beloved karate coach - showed up at his door with an AK-47, screaming: "You have one hour to leave or be killed!" Kenan's only crime: he was Muslim. This poignant, searing memoir chronicles Kenan's miraculous escape from the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign that swept the former Yugoslavia. After two decades in the United States, Kenan honors his father'...s wish to visit their homeland, making a list of what he wants to do there. Kenan decides to confront the former next door neighbor who stole from his mother, see the concentration camp where his Dad and brother were imprisoned and stand on the grave of his first betrayer to make sure he's really dead. Back in the land of his birth, Kenan finds something more powerful-and shocking-than revenge"--

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  • The Bosnia List
  • Prologue: Marshal Tito in Astoria, 2009
  • Chapter 1. An Indelible Lesson in Self-Defense, 1991
  • Chapter 2. Pressure Cooker, 2011
  • Chapter 3. The Last Muslim Family in Brcko, 1992
  • Chapter 4. The Reckoning, 2011
  • Chapter 5. Daca and Her Uzi, 1992
  • Chapter 6. Days of Resurrection, 2011
  • Chapter 7. My Grandpa Murat's Karma, 1992
  • Chapter 8. Their Side of Town, 2011
  • Chapter 9. An Argument with My Mother, 1995
  • Chapter 10. Finding Amela, 2011
  • Chapter 11. My Father's Loss, 2001
  • Chapter 12. Crossing Enemy Lines, 2011
  • Postscript: In Dreams Begins Forgiveness, 2012
  • The New Bosnia List
  • Acknowledgments
  • Glossary of Names, Places, and Terms
  • Recommended Books
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

BETWEEN 1992 AND 1995, a war savaged the country that was once known as Yugoslavia. Violence and destruction ripped through the fabric of the society, tearing apart families, eliminating villages and laying waste to the innocence of children. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia estimates that 104,732 people died during the conflict, with many more forced to flee the country. Some eventually returned, but others were perpetually haunted by an Odyssean yearning for their homeland. One of those exiled was Kenan Trebincevic. He was 11 years old when his life changed forever. His home, Brcko, a northern Bosnian town, was one of the most dangerous places in the country. Overrun early by Serb and paramilitary forces, it became an important corridor that linked two pieces of Serb-held territory. By the end of the war, it was a skeleton: the picked-over remains of a once proud and ethnically diverse community. "Where we lived was the most religiously mixed," Trebincevic writes in his memoir, "The Bosnia List": "32 percent Christian Serbs; 17 percent Croats, who practiced Roman Catholicism; and 45 percent Muslim, like us." His only consciousness of being Muslim was that his secular family "had Ramadan and no Santa Claus." All that fraternity and brotherhood, preached during the Tito years, crumbles when the war starts. Kenan's soccer pals, most of them Serbian, turn on him. His beloved karate teacher - his former hero - tries to kill him. He is forced to watch as his parents are humiliated by their neighbors. His family becomes the last Muslim family in their apartment block, as well as in town. But the trials do not end there. In 1992, his father and older brother are taken to a concentration camp. This book is a primer to a war as horrific as any in the 20th century. But it is also the details that make "The Bosnia List," which Trebincevic wrote with the journalist Susan Shapiro, acutely painful to read. Through a child's eyes, he witnesses his world slipping away, and he is brutally aware of what it is that he is losing: normality. "The first sacrifice of war was her flowers," he writes of his mother. "We kept our shades closed to avoid being sprayed with bullets. Without sunlight, her cactus and hibiscus withered." He is forced to grow up fast. After his father and brother return, he must go out scavenging for food while they cower inside. On one occasion, a woman grabs the red peppers out of his hand, saying they weren't for Muslims. "Although I was only 11," he writes, "letting my family down made me feel like a failure." He watches as Serbs come and loot their possessions: a chandelier his father loved; a rug his mother treasured. Wedding presents and memories are carted away while the family is forced to make coffee for their robbers. On his 12th birthday, he "had no friends, no party, no cake," he recalls. "When Mom wished me happy birthday, I said: 'Who cares? The dead Muslims are better off than we are.'" But Trebincevic survives. He is not murdered with mortars while building a snowman, the way children in Sarajevo were. He does not end up in a mass grave like the 8,000 men and boys of Srebrenica. The family finally - with the help of sympathetic Serb neighbors - crosses the border after several attempts. But they leave Bosnia with nothing. Left behind are their apartment, their baby photographs and their status. His father goes on to work at a fastfood restaurant in Connecticut. His mother watches news of the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in 1995, on CNN, baffled at the English version of what is happening to her country. Even remembering old acquaintances back home doesn't provide Kenan with much solace. "All I could think was: Look what they'd taken away." TWO DECADES LATER, his mother dead, Trebincevic - who is now a physical therapist in Queens - makes the journey back to Brcko with his brother and their ailing, gentle father. On Kenan's arm is a tattoo of a medieval Bosnian flag, and in his pocket is a list of what he wants to do when they get there, which includes the names of those who betrayed the family. He plans to urinate on the grave of his karate teacher; he even thinks about how much water he will need to drink. The stillborn rage he feels abates only when he realizes there were, in fact, kindly Serbs, who helped his family survive - ordinary people who showed "flickers of goodness." Trebincevic eventually forgives, but there are still deep scars. Bosnia, while no longer at war, remains ethnically divided - more so than before the war started. It is collectively traumatized by the murderous events that racked the country. "They murdered people in this hotel," his brother remarks at one point. "I'd never stay in such a ghost-infested hellhole." Trebincevic dedicates this book to his mother, Adisa, who died in exile in 2007. She never saw Brcko after they left. At the height of the war, when the family was starving, trapped and desperate, this generous woman taught her little boy not to hate, to be resilient and to maintain his dignity. "The Bosnia List," which is the story of her family's survival, is her son's final gift to her. JANINE DI GIOVANNI is the Middle East editor of Newsweek and the author of "Madness Visible: A Memoir of War." She is currently writing a book about the Syrian civil war.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [April 6, 2014]
Review by Booklist Review

When Trebincevic was 12, he fled with his family from their small town in the former Yugoslavia, driven out at the threat of death by the ethnic cleansing of Muslims. His childhood buddies, even his beloved karate coach, turned against him. His father and older brother were briefly imprisoned in a concentration camp. The neighbors slowly stole precious items from his mother. From the safety of adulthood in the U.S., Trebincevic is reluctantly drawn back to his homeland when his aging father longs to return for a visit. If he must go back, he wants some revenge and some closure. On his agenda: confront his neighbor, stand on the grave of his former coach, leave flowers at his grandmother's grave. Trebincevic alternates memories of his childhood and of his life in the U.S. with its edgy attempts to get along with Serbian Americans. In Bosnia, he faces the jarring complexities of people, including himself, coping with atrocities as he finally begins to put away old resentments that have haunted him. A mesmerizing story of survival and healing.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Nearly 20 years after fleeing their war-ravaged country with his parents and older brother ("the last Muslim family in town"), Trebincevic returned to his hometown of Brcko, Bosnia with vengeance in his heart, yet he found there a different kind of reckoning. In this astute account, co-authored with Shapiro (Five Men Who Broke My Heart), is readably organized and evenhanded. Trebincevic alternates narrating his admittedly reluctant journey back to Bosnia with his father, now in his 70s, and brother, Eldin, in July 2011, with his reconstruction of the outbreak of war in March 1992-when the author was 11, Bosnia-Herzegovina had declared its independence from Yugoslavia, and the well-armed Serbs launched a bloody campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the majority Muslims in the country. Trebincevic and his family were blindsided by the violence, since the diverse ethnic groups had lived in harmony for decades, yet seemingly overnight had to contend with neighbors and teachers hurling ethnic slurs. The family eventually escaped to Connecticut, yet the bonds of loyalty and treachery were so complex and scarring that even after having made his career as a successful physical therapist in Queens, N.Y., Trebincevic, now 30, wrote out a list of scores to settle when he agreed to accompany his father and brother back to their hometown. The great instruction of this important work is the author's moral transformation that helped him replace hate with grace, if not forgiveness. (Mar) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Yugoslavia's descent into war and genocide more than two decades ago has been the subject of outstanding scholarship, journalism, and biography. Trebincevic''s account contributes to this literature in an unusual way. The author blends his childhood experience of Bosnia's tragedy with a return to his original home in Brcko after nearly 20 years in the United States. The titular list is of goals the author intends to accomplish. They include seeking out surviving friends and relatives as well as confronting Serbs guilty of crimes against Trebincevic''s defenseless Muslim family. The great irony of the narrative consists in the list's gradual transformation into an enumeration of Serbs who rendered critical help, enabling the family's survival and flight. Far from being a tale of exoneration, the author's story is one that reveals the power and limitations of memory, the poignant complexity of human relations in battle, and the catharsis of understanding past betrayal and sacrifice. VERDICT Combining themes of war, childhood, and return, this memoir is for readers interested in the human drama of brutal conflicts and social dislocation. Knowledge of Balkan history is not necessary.-Zachary Irwin, Behrend Coll., Penn State Erie (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

With the assistance of Shapiro (Journalism/The New School; Unhooked: How to Quit Anything, 2012, etc.), Trebincevic returns to the scene of childhood trauma during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. The author fled the bloody civil war in his native Bosnia in 1993 with his father, mother and older brother, Eldin, and settled in Connecticut. Just 11 years old when the war broke out, the author observed the sudden hostility of the Serbs toward him and his family, native Muslims, as ethnic tensions flared in their diverse town of Brcko and the Muslims were persecuted in the name of Serbian supremacy. His revered karate coach turned a cold shoulder to him, the family's bank account was depleted, his favorite teacher spat at him on the street ("Everything he'd ever taught me about brotherhood and unity was a lie"), the shopkeepers taunted them, and, most haunting for the boy who could not protect his mother, their neighbor, Petra, gradually appropriated their furnishings and clothes since, as she assured his mother, "You won't be needing that carpet." When the author's father, now in his 70s, a widower since his wife died of cancer, resolved to return to Bosnia in 2011 for a visit, the author and his brother had to swallow their pride and go with him, with enormous trepidation. At 30, the author was "startled by the intensity of [his] fury" when imagining how he would return to his tormentors. Indeed, he drew up a list of grievances to attend to during his visit, including confronting Serb classmates and friends who had turned the family in, especially Petra; peeing on the karate instructor's grave; and visiting the concentration camp where his father and brother were imprisoned. Yet immersion in his homeland and being bombarded by the new reality challenged his vendetta in surprising ways. An engaging memoir of war trauma and the redemption to be found in confronting it.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.