Southeastern Europe has always been a cultural crossroads. Turks, Hungarians, Austrians, Macedonians, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks have all ruled the area at one time or other, leaving behind people separated by language, religion, customs, and political views. In 1918, however, King Alexander I of Serbia assembled six republics, including Bosnia, into one country: Yugoslavia.
After World War II, Josip Brox (known as Tito) became the leader of Yugoslavia. He set up a communist government modeled after the Soviet Union, outlawed free speech, jailed dissenters, and discouraged the practice of religion. Tensions between the ethnic groups were stifled and for 50 years the country was at peace. People began to marry outside their ethnic group, and many in the younger generation were not fully aware of the previous enmities.
When Tito died in 1980, however, economic problems led to competition between the self-governing republics; ethnic tensions were rekindled. In 1991, the Croats and Muslims of Bosnia voted for independence. The well-armed Serbs, not wanting to be a minority in an independent country, favored unity with Serbia. It did not take long for Bosnia to descend into chaos. At one point, all three factions -- Serbs, Muslims, and Croats -- were fighting against each other. Former friends and neighbors burned each other's homes and killed each other's families. Civilians were targets for armies.
The American Red Cross worked desperately to find homes around the world for 500,000 refugees. The Bosnian refugees who came to Rochester often arrived with virtually no possessions. Many had to leave their homes with no clothes, no family heirlooms, not even a toothbrush; but they were happy to find a place where no bombs were falling and no snipers were targeting them. They were grateful for a change to start over, and start over they must, often with limited English skills and no American professional credentials. The six to seven hundred Bosnians in Rochester, who are from all three of the ethnic groups in Bosnia, are working very hard to put their ethnic differences behind them; they look to the larger Rochester community to model acceptance and respect for other people.
Photo of Bascarsija/Sarajevo copyright by Robert Bremec