Kenan Trebinčević thought wars were only fought between foreign countries; the way he saw Americans battle the Germans in such World War II movies like “Battle of the Bulge” and “Bridge Over River Kwai” with his dad.
But when he turned 12, the political unrest that had roiled Yugoslavia since the country became divided into factions in the early 1990s, descended upon the quiet Bosnian town of Brćko where he and his family lived.
“My family wasn’t very religious, and I’d barely noticed ethnic differences between my classmates,” said Trebinčević who is Muslim. “Balkanites all looked alike to me. I never imagined that our Serb neighbors and family friends would point guns at us and suddenly want us dead.”
That reality was brought home in a harsh and traumatic way when Trebinčević’s karate coach came to the door of their home holding an AK-47 and shouting they had one hour to leave or be killed. It was just one of many threats the family received from their Christian Serb neighbors and classmates.
“My father was too naïve to believe that his own countrymen would throw him in a concentration camp,” said Trebinčević who recounts not only his experiences during what is considered one of the worst genocidal conflicts in recent history but the surviving family members’ visit to Bosnia after years of living and prospering in the U.S. in his book "The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return" with Susan Shapiro (Penguin $16). “It still seems surreal when I think about it, like a nightmare I expect to wake up from."
Trebinčević and his brother, Eldin, took their widowed father back to Brćko because he wanted to reconnect with family, friends as well as visit the cemeteries where loved ones lay to pay his respects. But Trebinčević, a physical therapist in Greenwich Village and writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and the online magazine Salon, had a more bitter reason to return—revenge. He had his list and number one on that was Petra, their next door neighbor who outrageously came to their home, taking their possessions from them. One time Petra even said to his mother, “You might as well give me that skirt, you won’t be needing it much longer.”
“When I saw her again, I realized she was an older, frail 65 year old lady, and I was stronger and more powerful than she was,” said Trebinčević. “She was scared when I looked her in the eye and said, ‘Nobody has forgotten.’”