A History of Restoring Family Links: Finding Family in the Former Yugoslavia

I am new to volunteering with the Restoring Family Links program at the American Red Cross and have been digitizing old paper files from the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990’s. I see many thank you notes, pictures and hand-written messages in hundreds of foreign languages and many different beautiful scripts. I have been so moved by some of the cases and amazed by the global work of the Red Cross network, and wanted to share these stories.

One case I recently stumbled across came as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. This series of conflicts has been called the deadliest since WWII. Many of the actions that took place during the war were genocidal, and it’s now infamous for the war crimes that took place.

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A Moment of Truth, a Life Altering Choice: Red Cross Volunteer has more than one Reason for Dedication

Stari Most is a bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was destroyed during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Its reconstruction in 2004 symbolizes the rebuilding of communities across the Balkans.

Stari Most is a bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was destroyed during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Its reconstruction in 2004 symbolizes the rebuilding of communities across the Balkans.

Story by Susan Fuchs, Volunteer, Phoenix, Arizona

Virtually all humans – regardless of wealth, culture, power or poverty – will sooner or later experience a decisive moment that shapes the way the rest of their lives will be lived. 

It is not our abilities that determine who we are. It is the choices we make that show our true natures.
— Albus Dumbledore

Almost always, such seminal occasions come with tragedy or terror, and the resulting life altering decisions understandably are shaped by anger or a bitter wish for vengeance.

But some whose tribulations are equally traumatic experience a moment of grace, an instant when they consciously resolve they will never be like those who inflicted their ordeal. Instead, they choose to devote their lives to making the world a better place.

Such a person is Red Cross volunteer Nejra Sumic.

When she was still a small child, powerful men came and took her father from their small Bosnian village of Ljubija to a series of hidden concentration camps. Her family lost their home, and they were hunted, starved and left to die.

Their unconscionable crime? Their faith was different from that of those in political power.

But after a year of terror and tribulation, a miracle happened. Nejra’s family was saved and reunited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who got her father out of the camps and provided food, clothing, shelter, safety and, most of all, a path for rebuilding their lives.

“That’s when I decided if I ever got the chance, I would do all I could to help the Red Cross continue to make the world better,” Nejra said.

Now a lovely and vibrant 28-year-old who earned her Master’s degree in Public Administration, Nejra has the poise and serene maturity of someone decades older.

Perhaps that’s because – not by choice – she has packed away more life experience than most of her new American countrymen who are several decades older. As they say, it’s not the minutes that make a person, it’s the miles.

Although there are always exceptions, the vast majority of Americans with their terror-free lives in unbombed suburban neighborhoods cannot imagine what Nejra has lived.

Today, even for Nejra, it seems far away. But she cannot forget.

“I remember it well,” she says quietly. I was only five, but I was very aware. We would hear the bombing. We could see explosions like lightning at night.”

Lasting from April 1992 to December 1995, the Bosnian War caused massive destruction.

Lasting from April 1992 to December 1995, the Bosnian War caused massive destruction.

Her father’s arrest wasn’t related to political activism, Nejra said. Far from being a rebel, her father was an Electrician who quietly designed construction blueprints for electric systems in the area’s rich iron ore mines.

But he and his family were devout Muslims in an area that was being overtaken by Orthodox Christian Serbians. His arrest was part of the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing that forced the eviction of tens of thousands of indigenous Muslims from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia.

The time of her father’s arrest, June 17th, 1992, was seven months into the Bosnian War and just five months prior to the notorious Srebrenica massacre, the killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys by Serbian army units. Deemed genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, the massacre reinforced the ethnic cleansing campaign.

It was a cold morning, almost winter, when men with rifles came to the door looking for my father, Nejra remembers. “I knew they were dangerous.”

“My grandmother opened the door and the men took my father away in a van. My mother told us he would not be coming back, and he never did come back to our house,” she said. “He was taken to a series of concentration camps where he was beaten, starved and tortured. At one time he was held prisoner by men who had worked in his own office.

“We knew we had to get out of there,” Nejra says. “My brave and courageous mother wanted to save us. And so we fled from Bosnia to get to Croatia.”

Soldiers were stopping fleeing families and confiscating their belongings. “So we left with our money sewn into our overall straps.

“My mother sent my cousin and me to the bus station and said she would meet us there,” Nejra says. “But I got separated from the family. I was so scared. When my mom finally found me, I felt such relief and that I never wanted to leave her arms.”

Together, they got on to “big semi-trucks with cloth side flaps,” she remembers. “It seemed like we were on the semi-truck for weeks, but we finally got to Croatia.”

There they lived in refugee barracks, 20 to 30 to a room. “I come from a clean family,” Nejra says. “The conditions were disgusting, even to a little girl.”  To support the family, Nejra’s mom, a hairstylist, would cut hair for food.

Then a British journalist wrote a story about the Serbian concentration camps, describing how prisoners had been taken to secret locations where they could be hidden.

“The Red Cross responded to the British news story, Nejra says, and they opened a dialogue with the Serbs so they could bring food and clothing to the prisoners.

“It was snowy and temperatures were below zero. Prisoners who hadn’t already been tortured and killed were just skin and bones,” she says. “The Red Cross got them more meals and started bringing warm clothes.  In addition, the Red Cross opened communication lines between prisoners and their families by being able to send letters to each other.”

Finally, the Red Cross brokered an agreement between the prisoners and their Serbian captors: If the prisoners agreed to give up all property and citizenship rights, they could be released to their families outside of Serbia.

Eventually, through the Red Cross, refugees began to get word about prisoners who’d been released. “We’d go every night to the Red Cross headquarters to get news.”

Then one night, just before midnight, six and half months after her father’s abduction, buses started coming to the refugee camp with hundreds of people aboard. “I saw my dad in a Red Cross jacket,” Nejra said. He had lost 60 pounds.

But Croatia was no longer a safe haven. The war had spilled over its borders.

“The Red Cross gave us a list of countries we could go to,” Nejra said. “First they sent us on a Navy ship across the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas to southern Spain. We stayed in a refugee camp there for almost a year.

“Then a family in the city of Hellin took us in and my dad worked for a construction company. My aunt and cousin joined us and we lived there for three years, and we all learned to speak Spanish.”

Spain’s economy was tanking, however, and there was barely enough income to support the family. “We applied through the United Nations to go to the United States, and with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, we were brought to Arizona in August 1995,” she says.

Nejra was eight years old and in elementary school. It was time to learn yet another language. “We learned English,” she says. By 2002, her parents had become U.S. citizens and Nejra, then a teenager, was automatically grandfathered in as an American.

Now 28 and a 2009 Arizona State University psychology graduate who’s earned her Master’s degree in Public Administration, Nejra is an enthusiastic Red Cross volunteer.

“If it weren’t for the Red Cross,” she says simply, “I would not be here. And neither would my family. My father probably wouldn’t be alive and my family could have starved. We wouldn’t be together in a safe place with a future full of hope.”

But it’s not just because she feels she owes the Red Cross for her life, her family’s lives, their collective safety and hopeful future that she wants to work with the international aid agency.  

Nejra is absolutely sure of one thing: “I never want anyone else to experience what we went through. I would do anything to prevent that from happening. And I want other refugees who are currently living through similar circumstances to know that there is hope and they can create new lives for themselves.

“We should not allow the bad things in our lives define us and overshadow the goodness of humanity. In order to have peace and harmony in the world, we can no longer afford to react with hate and violence. But by touching every human being with kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and love. And the Red Cross is a representation of that.” Nejra says. “By working with the Red Cross, I can help transform the world.” 

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 8/23/2014-8/29/2014

Do you follow @intlfamilylinks (Restoring Family Links’ account) on Twitter? See an interesting article but just don’t have the time to read it? “This Week in RFL News” is a weekly blog segment that highlights and summarizes some of the news items posted by RFL’s twitter.

International Day of the Disappeared: It’s rare that I only cover one news item that was shared on social media during the week, but this is an extraordinarily important topic! International Day of the Disappeared is recognized every year on August 30th. It is a day set aside to draw attention to those who have gone missing because of conflict, disaster, and migration; and the work of organizations around the world to learn their fate and support families of the missing. Its impetus came the work of Latin American organizations actively working against enforced disappearances in the region, but has grown to honor those who have gone missing around the globe, from conflicts in the Western Balkans to disasters in the Philippines.

Many organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), now work on issues of the missing. International humanitarian law dictates that states are obliged to clarify the fate or whereabouts of people who have gone missing. The ICRC supports this work in many places around globe, from Colombia, to the former Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka.

Due to the unique circumstances in which people go missing, their work varies from place to place. In Colombia, the ICRC works to trace those who have gone missing as well as improve national systems for identifying remains found in anonymous gravesites. In Bosnia, they have helped advocate for legal mechanisms to honor families of the missing. Regardless of their level of involvement in uncovering the fate of the disappeared themselves, the ICRC works to support and advocate on behalf of families of the missing.

Other Red Cross Red Crescent societies also work on issues of the missing through the Restoring Family Links program. The Canadian Red Cross often works with its refugee population to search for loved ones who went missing while fleeing conflict in their home nation. The American Red Cross and its partner organizations work with families of missing migrants to determine the fate of those who have disappeared within the US-Mexico borderlands.

Outside of the Red Cross Movement, many other organizations and family associations advocate on behalf of the missing. In Turkmenistan, families continue to pressure their government to release information concerning the fate of people disappeared over ten years ago. Similarly in Kashmir, protests have been organized around the International Day of the Disappeared to learn the fate of those who have gone missing in relation to conflict in the region.

And the stories shared here are just a drop in the bucket. For this year’s day of recognition, please take the time to learn more about issues of the missing and the incredible work being done to support families who continue to suffer from not knowing the fate of their loves ones.

More resources:

Amnesty International’s work against enforced disappearance

International Commission on Missing Persons work with governments on issues of the missing

Read about all of ICRC’s work on missing persons

Life’s Unexpected Journey

Michael Pfeifer, Greater St. Louis Region, International Services Volunteer
Nermana Huskic, Greater St. Louis Region, International Services Intern

One of the first things we learn as children is that we don’t always get what we want. A child believes, for a time, in a world where desires are always met, but as adults we learn that things don’t always turn out the way we planned.

Children also believe that they are protected from all of the world’s injuries. Perhaps we have to believe this in order to explore the world and grow. But at some point we also learn that our environment and human beings have the capacity for unexplainable evil and cruelty, as well as unexplainable kindness and compassion.

The mission of the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links (RFL) program is to help people who have been exposed to unexplainable evil and horror recover the essential family connections that make us human. Sometimes that connection is a reunion. Or a message. Or closure concerning the fate of a loved one and an opportunity to honor them with respect and dignity. Or, sometimes, simply to bear witness. In some sense, the Red Cross promises to try to tie the loose ends of life however we can.

Too often that first hard lesson, that we do not always get or achieve what we want, asserts itself. Too often that illusion of a peaceful world is shattered, as it was shattered for Merima in Bosnia.

In 1995, Merima and her family were thrust into the maw of genocide committed by Serbs against Bosnian neighbors and fellow human beings. The unimaginable deeds done, inexplicably, by human beings -- a story repeated throughout our history.

In the chaos Merima was separated from her husband, Salih, and her son, Ado. The killing squads swept up Salih and Ado. In Bosnia, she reached out to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1996 for help in finding her husband and son. She hoped they would be found safe, that they had escaped and hidden somewhere. She feared that she would only discover the truth of their death and be given the opportunity to honor them.

In time, Merima made her way from a refugee camp to the United States. Like many Bosnians she ended up in St. Louis.  Red Cross RFL in St. Louis contacted her to let her know that the search continued and to keep her informed of any progress.

As a volunteer with RFL, you learn that patience is a great virtue. Answers require time. The more unimaginable and inexplicable the circumstances, the more time required. It is almost a universal law.

The Red Cross contacted Merima periodically as the search for the truth wore on. Usually the news was, “No word, but we we’ll continue to search. We haven’t forgotten. You are not forgotten.” The intervals between contacts with Merima grew, but the Red Cross kept faith with the search. Fifteen years passed.

One day in 2011, news came that the remains of Merima’s son had been found. The Red Cross would be able to close the loop of sorrow for Merima. She could know the truth and honor her son. As often happens, phones are disconnected. People move. Now it was Merima who seemed lost, but someone - a volunteer, a staff member – kept looking for her.

Finally, Merima’s own truth was discovered. Unfortunately, Merima had died two years before news of her son arrived. She never knew his truth. No family remained from Bosnia to whom the truth could be told. The ending was not what the Red Cross or any of the many people who worked on Merima’s behalf wanted. Their goal was not achieved. But there is another lesson. Perseverance. And, in perseverance, to bear witness and honor people.

The truth is that Merima is not her real name. I have disguised it to protect her private sorrow. The truth is that I am telling the story on behalf of many others to honor her and her memory.