Bosnian Refugees Bring War’s Horrors Home to O.C.

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Fourteen-year-old Mirza sits on the sofa and does the translating, seeming way too grown up as he relays his parents’ words about war and despair. “My language is very bad, very low,” says his mother, Emira. “He speaks best in this house.”

So it is often left to Mirza to convey in English the family’s anguish about the war in their native Bosnia, a war that Americans apparently don’t want to think about very much. It’s almost as though, if we did think about it, we might be moved to do something.

Denial is not a luxury, however, in this household. Emira Pajevic, 38, and sons Mirza and Nedim, 10, have been in Orange County for the past year. A year before that, her husband, Mustafa, was brought here for treatment of his war wounds. Left behind in Sarajevo were Emira’s mother, sister and other friends and relatives.


The Pajevic family is living in a Costa Mesa apartment complex and thankful for the American generosity that rescued them from a life in Bosnia they couldn’t have conceived of just a few short years ago. Now the family is here through a refugee program and doesn’t know when or if it will return to its homeland.

Despite the steady stream of reports that the Serbs have violated U.N. agreements regarding “safe” cities and are perpetrating atrocities among Muslim civilians, the international community has been largely unmotivated to act.

“How was it in Sarajevo, you want to know?” Emira says, in broken English. “In Bosnia, before the war, it was very good. Education is very important. We had a good life before the war. In Bosnia, everything is like America. Standards are high. We lived together with other people, including Serbs.”

The family is Muslim and, as such, considers itself targets of the Serbian forces. “They [the Serbs] want to destroy everything,” Mirza says, translating his father’s Serbo-Croatian dialect. “They want to make a Greater Serbia. They want to kill all the Muslims.”

Mustafa, 40, was injured two years ago in Sarajevo during a brief break from front-line fighting. Doctors told him his leg was infected and might be amputated without immediate treatment. With Emira urging him to go, he left for America the next day, leaving his family behind.

I ask Mustafa if he sees an end to the war that began three years ago. He answers passionately, and Mirza translates: “What he says is we can end the war very fast if these people in the U.N. or every single country in the world understand what is happening there and lift the embargo [against providing arms to the Bosnian Muslims]. Because we don’t need any soldiers to fight for us. We have enough soldiers. What we need are weapons. We have to go on with the war because the Serbs have taken 60% of our country and already 300,000 people die, so we have to go on with the war and defend ourselves and get our cities back.”


Mustafa talks like a soldier, Emira like a mother. “I’m very happy I bring my children here,” she says. “For my children, here is very good. They are safe here; they have good food, good schools. Many American people help us for everything, and my children play sports, watch TV, everything that is normal life. But for me and my husband, it is difficult because we too much worry about our country, our family, our nation.”

Both her sons, she points out, have school certificates for being outstanding students. I ask Mirza how the war affected him. The family saw plenty of shelling, he says, and young Nedim sports scars on his left leg where a fragment entered above the knee and took a diagonal route before exiting below the knee.

“At the beginning of the war, it was like a joke to me,” Mirza says. “I didn’t understand anything. Then, when it came to Sarajevo, it stopped my childhood. I couldn’t do anything about it. I was so angry at the Serbs. It just stopped my childhood.”

The frustration of Emira and Mustafa is obvious. How to make the world feel what they’re feeling? How to make Bosnia seem like a real place with real families and not just a spot on the globe? How to square their safe lives in America with the danger facing loved ones left behind?

“I miss them, because I know for them things are very bad,” Emira says. “Every day, when I see on TV that something happen in Sarajevo, I think, ‘Maybe he, maybe she [referring to relatives].’ . . . Then, when I check out by telephone that they are good, I think, ‘For this time, they are good.’ Every moment, though, they can die.”

Wars that don’t involve Americans always seem like a long way away. A long way away, that is, until you sit in a family’s apartment and listen to them tell you about it.


Then the gap between cold geopolitics and warm human beings narrows in a hurry. “In Bosnia,” Emira says, “they don’t think any country can help. They think only America can help.”

I don’t know if she said that expectantly, as if help will come, or forlornly, as if no one is listening.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.