After Westport refuge, Bosnian recounts surprising visit to homeland
An "amazing" tale of forgiveness was given a spotlight Saturday at the Westport Library as Kenan Trebincevic -- a refugee from the Balkan conflicts who found sanctuary in Westport two decades ago -- read part of his nationally acclaimed book, "The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return."
Trebincevic and co-author Susan Shapiro read parts of the book to about 70 people, some of whom remembered him as a12-year-old who arrived in Westport in 1993 with his brother and parents, their only belongings carried in plastic bags.
"It's amazing," said Leslie Bovi, one of those residents. The book is "an unbelievable story of forgiveness, to think that he could go through so much and be so forgiving."
Trebincevic said his family was the last Muslim family in the Bosnian apartment building he was growing up in as the ethnic war in the Balkans progressed, and friends became enemies. First, he was excluded from soccer games, although he was the best player. Friends talked excitedly about wishing the paramilitaries would arrive and attack the Muslims, and games became war games. Neighbors stole things from his parents until finally -- at gunpoint -- they were told to leave.
"For me it seem almost overnight, but now that I am older and understand the history and the region it was always one big boiling pot ready to boil over," he said. "My dad was I guess naïve. He didn't think the war would spread from Croatia to Bosnia even though it was one town over."
"When Kenan first told me his story I said you're like the male Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story in 1992," Shapiro said.
The book tells the story of Trebincevic's homecoming to the now-peaceful Bosnia in 2013.
"This vacation for me meant visiting the graveyards ... and confronting those who betrayed our family," said Trebincevic, who went prepared with a list of grievances.
Though Trebincevic went with thoughts of vengeance, he learned to recognize the kindnesses that had been extended to his family, which enabled them to survive. Looking back, he now realizes how lucky they were, he said.
The pair chose to read the passages concerning Trebincevic's life in Westport and then college, as he watched his parents go downhill and felt guilt. He agreed to go back to Bosnia to help his father, who had recovered from a near-death experience and wanted to visit one last time, he said.
Questions from the audience were mostly focused on Bosnia. One person wanted to know if he would ever return to live there.
He would not, he said.
The "country of 4 million has 12 political parties, 180 ministers, and every county and every town has its own police so nothing ever gets done. The three sides -- the majority doesn't play into effect like it does in the United States," he said, explaining that the minority can veto things at will.
Plus there's a certain lack of comfort for a man who is not in the "collective denial" others are in, he said.
"It was hard to walk down the street and run into war criminals who were pointing guns at us," he said. "Unlike the Holocaust ... there was never a public apology and there is a collective guilt, meaning everyone is guilty."
Criminals from that war are at the highest level of government, he said. And Serb politicians want everyone to apologize. "Imagine asking World War II Jews to apologize to the Germans," he said.
Another person asked about the way the book was written, where every person mentioned is framed in terms of their religion.
Shapiro said that Trebincevic and his brother always mention someone's religion and ethnic background. She therefore used it as a literary device, she said.
"I think that because they were the victims of ethnic cleansing and sort of a religious persecution, that he became more acutely aware, at least when he was telling me the story, of people's ethnicities and backgrounds," she said. "I found that fascinating so I continued that as a decision."
Jenna Maric said she knew the Trebincevic family when they came to Westport.
"It's incredibly moving," she said. "Just to see both of these young men grown up 20 years later it's very sad, but just to see how much they have personally grown and matured is very inspiring."