The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile and Return
When he received a brown belt from his karate coach it was the happiest moment of Kenan Trebincevic’s life. A year later this same coach arrived at his apartment building with an AK-47 to inform his family that they had one hour to leave or be killed. The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return, which Trebincevic coauthored with journalist Susan Shapiro, chronicles the war in the Balkans from the perspective of a bewildered 12-year-old boy and a 30-year-old former refugee.
Trebincevic grew up knowing Serbs and Croats as well as ethnic Muslims, like his family. Historically Bosnia was religiously and ethnically mixed. He was stunned when war erupted, Europe’s bloodiest since World War II, and suddenly “Most of my old playmates from Bosnia, along with my former martial-arts coach and former teacher, hated me and wanted me to die.” Trebincevic was unable to grasp how something so insignificant, celebrating Ramadan instead of Santa Claus, could trump a lifetime of friendship overnight.
Fleeing genocide the author and his family made it to Vienna, then Westport, Connecticut, where they were sponsored by a Methodist minister from Connecticut’s Interfaith Council. As a student at the University of Hartford, Trebincevic finally got to feel like a normal American teenager, an experience he had craved since his childhood was consumed by war. Today, Trebincevic is a physical therapist living in Astoria, Queens.
In his first book, he chronicles his return to Bosnia with his father and brother Eldin, his mother having since passed away, “I was vaguely conscious that in some ways, the war had never ended for us and we’d never left,” he writes. The memoir starts with a list of unfinished business like: “1. Confront Petra about stealing from my mother, 2. Stand at Pero’s grave to make sure he’s really dead.” This was the Bosnia list, a series of confrontations with the past, as if Anne Frank lived to revisit her apartment and face the soldiers who took her away.
The story is built around two interwoven narratives. As each item is experienced by the 12-year-old Trebincevic, it is revisited by his adult self in the following chapter. This structure provides a fascinating exercise in the nature of memory as the reader encounters each item on the list from two potentially conflicting perspectives. The task of the memoir is to reconcile these two versions of events.
The book’s most revealing encounter is the Trebincevics’ lunch with the Serbian couple Zorica and Milos. During the war, Zorica had brought them food by night while Milos fought for the Serb army during the day. “I didn’t want to take anyone’s life. I tried not to. I hated it,” Milos says over dinner. With some effort the author sees the situation from Milos’s perspective: “A law-abiding citizen, he believed those in power. So he allowed himself to be taken in by their deception.” This kind of self-awareness is what saves the memoir from being a chronicle of bitterness. Trebincevic crosses No. 10 off the list: “See if Milos will admit he regrets fighting against us.”
The ultimate confrontation is impossible since Pero, the karate coach he idolized, is dead. The author deconstructs his image of Pero by talking to his brother about who the man really was (inadequate and angry). Finally he confronts Pero in a dream, standing up to him and shaming him in front of their karate class. After the dream Trebincevic is able to write of Pero, “If you took a man already miserable and handed him a government mandate and a weapon, would he become evil? Would I?”
The Bosnia List rings true because it balances anger with a believable attempt at forgiveness. There are good Serbs to whom the family owes a great deal, but it is plain that what they suffered will always be with them. “In reality, there was no happy ending. […] The war was an open-ended, ongoing disaster, with no point, no positive outcome, no conclusive wisdom, no closure.”