No matter how much my father tries to hide his accent, he still trips over the “th” sound. “They”, “them” and “there” become “dey”, “dem” and “dere” when he speaks.
His mouth has committed the rest of the English language to memory. He has learned how to weave local phrases and American slang into his near-perfect English to disguise the remaining traces of his mother tongue.
As if to combat the natural, open sounds of the Slavic vowels he grew up speaking, my father pronounces his letters with an exaggerated, nasal tone. That, combined with the way he unironically says “Da Bears”, tricks most people into thinking he grew up in Chicago.
His impediment has turned him into a caricature, the poster boy for the Chicago family man.
Except my father is a Sarajlija – someone born in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He spent 17 years of his life walking, talking and surviving like a Bosnian until the war forced him to flee.
In September 1995, he arrived in the United States on a refugee visa. By 2000, he would be married, have a child and have become a citizen. My father escaped the war and devoted the rest of his life to forgetting it.
But war does not end just because the guns are put down. War lives on, passed down to future generations and disseminated around the world. About 40,000 Bosnian refugees came to Chicago between 1992 and 1995, each carrying a war story with them. Some of them had kids, and they became the next chapter in a story that is still unfolding.
I had no choice but to become part of a war story. In the US my father married my mother, an American-born Kosovar Albanian, now his ex-wife, in the same year that the Dayton Accords were signed, 1995.
Thanks to ethnic tensions, their marriage was – and still is – considered controversial.
Violence was simmering in Kosovo in 1995; it would erupt into full-blown armed conflict in 1998, when my mother was pregnant with me. The wars would haunt all of us even after the bombing of Serbia in 1999, which ended three days before my first birthday.
Sometimes, Balkan politics seeped into my parents’ arguments, and marital affairs became another unintended consequence of the war.
For a long time, I refused to be part of any collective narrative. I was not religious, and I did not feel enough of a connection with my family’s culture to identify with it. I thought it did not matter, anyway. Not in the US, thousands of miles away from the tumult in the Balkans. In my native Chicago, I could live without ever having to acknowledge that part of me.
The more American my father became, the easier it was to forget that I was Bosnian. When I was little, he still held Old World sensibilities, distinctly Bosnian mannerisms and a heavy accent. I was well into elementary school when English began to dominate our conversations, both in public and at home.
The Bosnian language slowly faded from us both. When I was in college I noticed that my father’s accent was gone.
When I tried to conjure up a sentence in Bosnian after years of neglecting it, I could not. Suddenly, years of words, stories and jokes I had grown up with were gone, swept away to the inner corners of my mind where memories go to die.
I had hung up my war-torn background to be an assimilated American. I was one less witness if we were to ever disappear. I had become better at killing off my culture than any war criminal, simply by not caring about it.
That was when the panic set in. I became obsessed with the war. I would go on drawn-out ramblings about the Balkan conflict and my identity in front of my friends. It was a bid to make someone else care because I did not trust myself to be responsible for our mark on history.
But the message would not land the way I wanted it to. It is hard to get people to care about a war that ended decades ago, in a far-away place, that started because of convoluted notions of identity that do not translate in American terms. War cannot live on where most of the people have no stake in it.
I was 18 when my obsession first took hold. The same age my father had been when he resettled in America. For the first time, I asked him directly about it.
We were in the kitchen of the suburban home he now shares with my stepmother. My half-siblings, a product of my dad’s marriage to a Catholic-raised Michigander whose family arrived on the Mayflower, do not know Bosnian. Thirteen years younger than me, they are set to grow up as American as apple pie, with no memories of saying goofy things to our father in a foreign language just because they can.
My father did not hesitate. “We would’ve been seen as criminals if we stayed,” he said.
I tried to follow his disjointed stories about committing petty crimes in a war zone or making a pact to leave the country with his best friend. He stumbled from one anecdote to another, all loosely related by the war.
It was more than he had ever told me about his life then, but there were still pieces missing.
I could tell my father wanted to give me answers but something stopped him from being able to delve directly into the truth. It seemed like the only way he could think about the war was in short bursts that flashed by quickly enough to repress any emotions they might stir.
I watched the facade slowly chip away around him so that I could finally see through the stoic, self-made man – who had juggled multiple warehouse jobs to keep up with the American Dream, moving up in position despite barely having a high school education – to the traumatised refugee beneath.
It was then that I knew I had to go back to Sarajevo to try to put the pieces together myself. I would have to trace my father’s footsteps through the city with whatever clues I could gather about his life.
In Sarajevo, my relatives were ready to give me more, to regale me with their war stories. My cousin took me to a mall, the basement of which had served as her classroom during the siege. Over Turkish coffee, my grandma told me about dodging grenades on her way to work. My grandpa lounged in his chair as he showed me the scar on his arm from a piece of shrapnel. It was from the same explosive that had killed one of my father’s friends.
It happened in front of the apartment building my grandparents still live in today. My grandpa heard the sound of approaching shelling as my 16-year-old father and his friend, Haris, took turns riding a bicycle on the street below.
War stories tumbled out of them .... Here were my comrades in suffering. But the Bosnians I thought I had a shared history with, including my family, did not see me as part of their war story.
My grandpa barrelled out of the building to tell my father to come inside, and Haris turned to flee. Haris only made it about 10 metres before the shells made impact.
It happened so quickly that my grandpa and father were not yet inside. Three or four people died along with Haris in front of their building that day, my grandparents told me.
War stories tumbled out of them. It would start with one, and soon they would be caught in a time loop, reliving the worst years of their lives. As much as it turned my stomach, hearing my family’s memories from the siege sated a desire that had been gnawing at me. This was the source of the pain that had been echoing inside me since I realised I had given up on Bosnia. My angst in America was not for nought. Here were my comrades in suffering.
But the Bosnians I thought I had a shared history with, including my family, did not see me as part of their war story. After my relatives told me their anecdotes from the siege, they would abruptly sever the connection we shared with: “You couldn’t understand how bad it was.” To them, I was not a Bosnian. I was an American with a Bosnian father.
My family told me their stories because they wanted to educate me. In their eyes, I was shrouded in American ignorance, my place of birth negating the past that tied us together.
That is why my grandma drove me to Butmir, a nearby suburb of Sarajevo and the site of the Tunnel of Hope.
The tunnel was used to bring aid to the city during the siege and as a means of escape. Hundreds of thousands of Sarajevans fled through this tunnel, including my father.
Death was omnipresent in Bosnia in the 1990s, but it spared my father every time they met.
In February 1995, when he was 17, my father hitched a ride in a truck delivering furniture to Croatia with a driver named Zenga after traversing the tunnel to Dobrinja. The truck sped up the narrow roads on the Igman mountain as my father watched the tyres teeter over the edge of the cliffs from the passenger window.
Serb forces were stationed on the opposite peaks, ready to shoot at passing vehicles. As they drove dangerously close to Serb territory, Zenga blew the truck’s horn and screamed curse words at the soldiers. My father told me he was sure he was going to die before reaching the border, but he was lucky. Death was omnipresent in Bosnia in the 1990s, but it spared my father every time they met.
Zenga took him to the Croatian border, unscathed. My father hid in an armoire in the back of the furniture van as border police searched the truck. He heard the heavy footsteps of the officers as they investigated the trailer and slowly moved closer to the armoire. Then the footsteps trailed away. Zenga drove off, and my father would start the slow march towards normality in a new country, starting with his application for refugee status.
He had to hide his Bosniak identity in Croatia while he waited for his application to be approved. He wanted to resettle in Germany so it would be easier to return to Bosnia once the war was over, but the only choice he was given was to leave for the United States.
I was standing in the exact spot that journey began at the entrance to the tunnel. Most of the tunnel is now condemned, but visitors can still walk 20m of it and experience what leaving home might have been like for the one million or so Bosnians who escaped through it. Looking around at the other people snapping photos of the displays, I noticed that most of them were not Bosnian.
Locals do not need to visit a museum to know what happened during the war, my grandma told me. That is probably why a museum worker was pleasantly surprised when, after telling us the admission prices in English, my grandma said in their native tongue: “I’m a Sarajlija. You don’t have to talk like that with me.”
He followed us into the open courtyard that led to the tunnel entrance, exchanging war stories with my grandma. “My granddaughter was born in America,” she told him. “But her father went through this tunnel, and she needs to know what we went through.”
In most encounters with strangers when I was in Bosnia, my grandma took the lead, speaking for me. After just a few weeks surrounded by the language, muscle memory kicked in. I had regained near fluency in understanding Bosnian, but I was still hopelessly confused about grammar and sentence structure when I had to form the words myself.
That is my only “tell” in Bosnia. If I do not speak, or if I limit my responses to short, easy-to-assemble sentences, I blend in. But my language skills were still poor, so my grandma talked to the employees as I wandered around the courtyard. I could hear the guides leading tour groups, speaking in heavily accented English, unwittingly downplaying the severity of the war because they just could not find the right adjectives to describe it.
“Many people suffered during war,” one guide said. “I, too, suffered. My grandfather, father, brother, and cousin died. It was very bad.”
We eventually made it to the entrance of the tunnel, hidden inside a bullet-ridden house. A mortar shell was still lodged in the floor. The only way to enter the passage was through a set of rickety wooden steps leading into a musty, earthen tunnel that seemed to go nowhere. Signs warned visitors to be careful because of the cramped, still-decrepit state of the tunnel. The visitors in front of us held on to the walls for support and slowly walked over the uneven ground.
This was the passage between his old life and the one he was forced to create from scratch .... He was thousands of miles away back in America, and I was closer to understanding him than I ever was in Chicago.
I moved just as slowly, savouring every sensation. The cool, moist, underground air was a drastic change from the hot August day. I ran my hands along the wooden beams supporting the structure and slid my feet against the boards that formed the walkway. There were still cigarette butts crushed into the packed dirt. I followed the trail of orange lights above my head, imagining them lighting the way to Dobrinja.
I wondered if my father passed through the tunnel feeling what I felt then, this wad of emotions too tangled and compact to comprehend. This regret for a war that was not my fault. This fear of what was beyond the tunnel. Before descending into the darkness, did he take in one last glimpse of the city he was leaving? Did he watch his step or barrel ahead? Did he ever look back?
This was the passage between his old life and the one he was forced to create from scratch. A part of him was left here, rooted into the soil along with the stomped-out cigarette butts. He was thousands of miles away back in America, and I was closer to understanding him than I ever was in Chicago.
He and I had danced around each other as if we were cordial strangers for most of my life. After my parents divorced when I was nine, I saw him at most two or three days a week. We knew enough about each other to feign understanding but never ventured to know more.
I never told him about my obsession with Bosnia – not outright, at least. It felt too intimate to admit that I missed speaking his native language and that it felt like it was the only secret we had with each other. To tell him the hours I devoted to researching the war would reveal too much about what my heart aches for. But I learned to ask more from my father when I was in Bosnia, to know his history in order to know my own.
My family in Sarajevo coped with what the war did to them by making every wound visible, impossible to forget. My father buried the war deep down, only letting it bubble to the surface when he could not hold it back.
The way he talks about the war is similar to how his English evolved. For the most part, traces of any other life he had lived outside of America were scrubbed away. But sometimes he gives clues and hints to his past, knowingly or not.
Even though my father did not talk about the siege much, he made me watch movies about it. Under the thunderous surround-sound of sniper fire blasting from the television speakers, he would murmur: “I remember when that building was bombed.”
Or, when a missile shot through an apartment building on screen, he would say: “Once that happened to our neighbours.” Most of the time he would come up with a joke or sarcastic commentary – something about the set design being all wrong or the actors not being native speakers because they had butchered a line in Bosnian.
He was a Bosnian child who had no choice but to become an American adult.
In a bid to instil some appreciation for his culture in my half-brother and sister, my father had taken them and my stepmother to Sarajevo for two weeks just before I arrived. We had hoped we could be in Bosnia together for the first time in years, but our travel itineraries did not work out. Still, when I was in Sarajevo, we talked to each other on the phone daily.
It was during one of those hour-long phone conversations that he told me, with sadness creeping into his voice: “I can officially say I never want to move back. It’s just too depressing there.”
As far as we physically were from each other, those were some of the most candid talks I ever had with my father. He told me he had not planned to leave Bosnia forever. He was planting roots in America but still believed that one day he could go home. Except that home does not exist anymore. He could not stand how different Sarajevo was from his memories.
And it is not just that the country has changed. He has changed, too. Now in his 40s, my father has lived in America longer than he ever lived in Bosnia. He admits he has trouble speaking Bosnian now. Native speakers use countless words he was never exposed to because he was only 17 when he left. The Sarajlija in him never got a chance to grow up. He was a Bosnian child who had no choice but to become an American adult. Now our family in Sarajevo thinks he does not understand them, either.
“You’re different. You’re an American now,” is what our relatives tell him. They forget that he was born there, raised by them, and that the war affected him, too.
I could not help but laugh when he told me how hard it was for him to speak to our relatives now. Both of us are stunted. We are too Bosnian for America, too American for Bosnia.
“Exactly! You get it. They don’t understand us,” my father said.
We are in-betweeners, caught between one world and the next. I did not have to fight to survive as he did, but I am proof that he made it. I carry parts of him, even the pieces he thought he had to leave behind. To be part of a diaspora is to be homesick no matter where we are in the world, but at least we can be lonely together. This was our secret, a truth only people like us have the language for.
Still gripping the support beams, I had to will myself to exit that tunnel. I was not ready to part with the place where my past and my father’s future converged. This was a ruin left over from one of history’s darkest moments, but it has not yet caved in. It is still a symbol of hope. Ascending from the darkness, blinking back the sunlight that made the mountains surrounding the city glimmer in green and gold, I hoped my father and I could build something that sturdy together.