While preparing to write my column this week, I was reminded by the calendar on my wall that today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I have written many stories about Dr. King over the years so I will not do that today. However, I do want to take this opportunity to address the subject of racism and how powerful it can be in other parts of the world. While many will spend time remembering how terrible America was and still may be, I will share a story of racism on steroids.
We are now approaching the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of The Balkan War, Europe’s worst military conflict since World War II. The struggle officially lasted 43 months, took the lives of more than 200,000 people and left 2 million more homeless.
Although Serbian militia and Yugoslav troops, under the control of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, seized several towns and expelled or killed the non-Serbian residents at the beginning of April 1992, many Bosnians still believed ethnic harmony was achievable. However, the snipers in Sarajevo did not take long to change their minds.
During World War II, the Nazis brutalized the people of Serbia. But in contrast to the Germans, whose genocide was calculated and impersonal, many of the victims in Bosnia were butchered unmercifully, oftentimes by people they knew.
“We don’t waste our bullets on them,” a Serbian guard at a recently discovered concentration camp boasted to an ABC reporter in early 1993. “They have no roof. There is sun and rain, cold nights and beatings two times a day. We give them no food and no water. They will starve like animals.”
In 1996, a mass grave was discovered near Srebrenica, filled with the bodies of nearly 8,000 mutilated Bosnians.
Seid Zajmovic was a freshman at the University of Sarajevo when the Serbian war machine rolled into Bosnia-Herzegovina. Without a government to honor his academic scholarship and gunmen firing at pedestrians from the rooftops, his mother called him home.
Seid returned to Prozar, then a beautiful hamlet of about 13,000 people. “I spent my whole life in that town,” he told me. “It was like most small towns in America. Everybody knows everybody. I never thought I would live anywhere else.”
The former student was not home for long before he awoke one evening to the sounds of explosions and panicked screams. Serbian led Yugoslav troops were entering Prozar. Seid’s family home was one of only a few in the village with a basement and for hours, family and friends huddled in fear, listening to their world being destroyed above.
Eventually, Seid and his brother ventured out and witnessed soldiers randomly setting houses on fire. Suddenly, a shot fired in their direction chased the two back inside. After catching their breath, the brothers realized that if they stayed in the basement they would certainly be trapped if the invaders burned their home. It was the last night his mother would live in the house his late father built.
Just before sunrise, a German neighbor showed up and offered to help evacuate the women and children. The men then formed a makeshift defense near the edge of town that allowed many innocents to escape into the nearby woods. Then suddenly, a tank round exploded behind them, killing the German man and several others as their now inadequate line disintegrated. In the daylight, Seid saw many of the townspeople who were Serbs joining the soldiers in the attack on their neighbors.
“It took some time to believe this was really happening,” Zajmovic recalled. “These were regular folks not acting as they should. Some of them were people we went to school with. Now they were trying to kill us just because we were not Serbs. They shot anyone they caught that was not a Serb.”
United in resistance with the also victimized Croatians, politics soon betrayed Seid and thousands of his fellow Bosnians. Serb and Croatian leaders formed a corrupt alliance, inspiring the Croats to systematically turn their arms on and arrest the Bosnians who had been fighting beside them. Seid Zajmovic was then captured and sent to the infamous airport turned concentration camp at Mostar and imprisoned for more than a year.
“Nobody gave a damn about us,” he said. More than one third of the 900 prisoners confined there were killed or died from neglect.
Seid believes that if the Red Cross had not found the camp when it did, he and those left would have certainly met the same fate as those in Srebrenica.
This man’s true story is a frightening illustration of the insanity of racism that still exists in our time. It also establishes that to inflict injustice on anyone is noticeably more disgraceful than to suffer it.
Henry Piarrot is a Sevier County Resident on assignment in Nashville. Please send all story recommendations to email@example.com