After war tore apart her homeland, Rasema Handanovic arrived in American as a refugee in 1996 and settled into a quiet life in Oregon. She became a lawful permanent resident two years later, and a U.S. citizen four years after that.
It seemed a relatively easy process. She filled out the required forms, told immigration officials that she was of good moral character and never mentioned anything about her role in the violence that divided the country where she grew up, Yugoslavia.
A decade later, that all changed.
U.S. authorities arrested her and extradited her to Bosnia-Herzegovina for trial in 2012. In court, she admitted to committing war crimes involving citizens and prisoners of war while a member of an elite unit of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She was sentenced to five years and six months in prison and branded a war criminal.
When her prison stint was complete, Handanovic returned to the U.S. and moved into a suburban neighborhood in Portland with her young son. She baby-sat, worked as a cashier at a Boston Market, did warehouse work at Nike and collected government disability payments for her fibromyalgia. She also changed her name to Sammy Rasema Yetisen.
Now, her past in Bosnia-Herzegovina has caught up with Handanovic again. On Wednesday, she was targeted by federal authorities who want to strip her of her citizenship and expel her from the country for failing to identify herself as a war criminal.
When she first arrived in the U.S., Handanovic hid her role with a special forces unit that attacked the village of Trusina on April 16, 1993, in what came to be known as the Trusina massacre.
The unit, known as the Zulfikar Special Purposes Detachment, targeted Bosnian Croats for their Christian beliefs and Croat ethnicity. Federal court documents identify Handanovic, who also used the alias “Zolja,” and other members of the group as being Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims.
Court documents filed in support of removing Handanovic’s citizenship described the attack on Trusina, a small village roughly 50 miles from Sarajevo, the country’s capital, as a planned-out “war within a war.”
Handanovic’s unit rounded up seven men and ordered them to stand against a wall, the document said. When one man tried to escape, he was shot and killed. The remaining six were then ordered to face the wall and were shot in the back, the document said.
After all six had been shot, Handanovic walked over to the bodies and shot each one again, court documents say.
“She murdered these civilians and prisoners of war because of their Croat nationality, ethnicity, and Christian beliefs,” the federal documents said.
Handanovic and others in the unit then used other villagers as human shields to escape Trusina. In all, 22 unarmed people,including women and seniors, were killed in the massacre.
At her trial in Bosnia, the court determined that Handanovic and a fellow Zulfikar soldier named Edin Dzeko, 46, played key roles in the massacre as members of the firing squad and that their actions were the equivalent of murder.
In addition to his participation in the firing squad, according to Portland U.S. Atty. Billy Williams, Dzeko also killed an elderly man and then shot the man’s wife in the back, killing her because she would not stop crying.
In the words of the prosecutor in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which maintains an extradition treaty with the U.S., the two “participated in a well prepared and planned attack on the village of Trusina, Municipality of Konjic, led by the Deputy Commander of the Special Purposes Detachment Zulfikar … who ordered before the attack that there must be no survivor … and then from a high ground overlooking the village, using a hand-held radio, led the attack by issuing orders to soldiers subordinated to him, members of the Zulfikar.”
There, Handanovic and Dzeko “held the village under attack from several directions, making no difference between civilian and military targets,” the prosecutor said.
The federal complaint for Dzeko’s denaturalization states that he and other soldiers in the village that day “captured several Croatian Defense Council soldiers by telling them that they would kill the soldiers’ wives and children if they did not surrender.”
Arrested and tried in 2014, Dzeko is now serving a 13-year sentence and also faces a federal hearing to remove his U.S. citizenship.
The federal government’s petition puts Handanovic on notice that she facesa denaturalization hearing, which could result in the loss of her citizenship and removal from the country.
Anderson is a special correspondent in Seattle