Esma Seperovic with her husband
Lifting the cigarette butt up off the cobbled road, while the flame burned, she took a drag off what little remained. She puffed the cigarette smoke until her lungs were filled. Esma Seperovic was 13 years old at the time of her first. She was fearless, determined and carefree. Nothing could stop her.
Growing up, Esma Seperovic would describe herself as a typical rebellious teen. She would go out with friends and become someone else–a completely different person compared to the one her parents knew.
“I was a really naughty kid, but I was quiet at the same time,” said Seperovic. “At home, I would listen to my parents, do whatever chores I needed to do, and act like a perfect kid. But when I was out (with) my friends, I was wild.”
At the age of 6, Seperovic set her neighbor’s car on fire. She climbed into the driver’s seat and continued to play with the buttons and the steering wheel, pretending to be driving. She sang and laughed until she was stopped by the smoke coming from the car’s engine. Bystanders ran over yelling, “The car is on fire, somebody get help!” But no one realized Seperovic was in the car. She managed to get out, but not without a punishment from her parents.
Even though Esma was secretly a wild child, she was still very much a responsible and mature teen. She kept up this persona with her family; a lot of pressure and burden rested upon her shoulders.
“She was my older sister, so she would always watch out for me,” said Zijo Gusic, Seperovic’s younger brother. “Whatever I needed, whatever I imagined, Esma would do it for me, no problem. She was my best friend growing up.”
Growing up, Seperovic spent a lot of time looking out for her younger brother. According to their parents, wherever she went, her brother had to go with her. So, unintentionally, they became really close, spending nearly every moment together.
“I couldn’t go anywhere without Zijo, it was annoying,” said Seperovic. “When we went out, we would lie and say we would stay together to our parents, but then we’d split up and go our separate ways. We had so much fun, I was always playing around and joking.”
Esma Seperovic (bottom right) and Zijo Gusic (middle) with their cousins
However, the liveliness and happiness Seperovic felt during her childhood was burned and destroyed during the spring of 1992.
“I went from having a great life, going to school with everything perfect to all of a sudden I’m in a war,” said Seperovic. “One minute I’m with my grandparents at a party laughing having a good time, to running for my life, questioning where I’m going to go, what’s going to happen to me.”
In 1992, Seperovic’s home country of Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, which no longer exists. Serbia and Croatia mobilized forces to secure territory and begin their ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ of Bosnian Muslims. The Bosnian War lasted from 1992 to 1995 and is known as the largest genocide to occur since World War ll.
“Why,” said Seperovic, “I can continue to ask myself still today, why did this happen, why did I need this, somebody destroying my childhood, along with everything else in my life?”
“War” was plastered all over the news and there was no running from the reality of the situation. One by one, Seperovic’s male neighbors became soldiers and were shipped off to their deaths.
However, Seperovic’s father was in a different scenario. At the beginning of the war, Seperovic’s father was taken every morning by soldiers to concentration camps. He would work all day until dusk with no food or water. He spent many months in these conditions and was one of the thousands of males who were forced into a life liek this where they were slowly decaying and diminishing.
“We had to get him out first, we had to get him out of there before he died,” said Seperovic. “They were going to kill him.”
Seperovic’s father could have gotten a passport and documentation to get himself out of the country legally. However, his condition wasn’t ideal, and time was greatly against him. Her father was not able to get a passport in time, nor would the government allow it.
So, he left in the middle of the night while no one was watching and crossed the border illegally, making it seem as if he had disappeared without a trace.
“My father found a man who would drive him and another group of guys to the border and get them over without anyone knowing,” said Seperovic “They crossed the Croatian border and from there he took a train to Munich, Germany. After that, he was able to find a job, a place to stay, and get himself situated.”
Due to their connections, Seperovic and the rest of her family were able to get out of Boasian. Seperovic’s uncle was a full-time police officer, who knew people and ways of getting passports in order to leave the country. But this came at a cost.
“You would have to have a lot of money in order to buy a passport, one passport could cost up to three or four thousand dollars,” said Seperovic. “Just one piece of paper meant…having freedom.”
Due to Bosnia’s declaration of independence, their previous passports were no longer valid. Seperovic, her brother and her mother needed new passports.
“We were trying as quickly as possible to get out of there, but if we all would have gone shortly after my father left it would have looked too suspicious, so we waited a month,” said Seperovic.
Once they finally got their hands on a passport, they left. The family traveled to the border and stood in line, waiting and waiting until they reached the front.
However, once they got to the front, they received they worst information and declaration in their lives.
“We found out they were stolen, they had a serial number belonging to the country of Croatia not Bosnia, which meant that the soldiers knew they weren’t ours and that they weren’t real,” said Seperovic. “They wanted to put us in jail… but they didn’t. I’m not sure why, they easily would have.”
They were sent back home safely, however, as they waited for another round of passports to come; they were constantly being interrogated by soldier about their father’s disappearance.
“After my dad left for Germany, we constantly had soldiers coming to the house asking where he went,” said Seperovic. “We told them we don’t know we’re looking and searching for him, we had to pretend as if we knew nothing.”
Week after week soldiers would come to their household questioning and interrogating the family of their father’s disappear. Every day was a new challenge they had to face, with unanswerable questions.
“We were terrified, my mom would always put Zijo and I in the back of the house in case they shot her because at least we could hide,” said Seperovic. “You never know what’s going to happen, so we had to be ready.”
Eventually, after a couple of months of straining interogations from soldiers and struggling to survive, Seperovic and her family made it out of Bosnia. They received another round of passports, which thankfully worked correctly and were not fabricated illegally.
“We were lucky, really lucky that no one got shot, no one died, nothing,” said Seperovic. “We all managed to get out of there, but other people didn’t. Other cities had it worse, thousands upon thousands of people were murdered, entire cities were destroyed to rumble. We were lucky, so lucky.”
“If it wasn’t for my brother’s connections, my entire family and I would be dead,” said Enesa Gusic, Seperovic’s Mother. “He saved our lives by getting us out of there.”
Once safe, the family was able to find a new life for themselves within Germany. But, Seperovic struggled to come to terms with her new situation.
“I felt freedom in one hand but in another hand, it was like slavery,” said Seperovic. “We stayed with my mother’s brother as house maids, while we tried to find a home and get settled. She would work us till we couldn’t function anymore. It was hard constantly being told what to do and how to do it. But, what’s worse is that my aunt she wouldn’t let it go that she and her husband saved us. She would constantly remind us that if it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be here. When your living in someone else house 24/7 who is constantly telling you ‘if it wasn’t for me, you’d be dead,’ it’s hard. Sometimes I would ask myself why we even come here, why didn’t we just stay in the war.”
Seperovic wrestled with not only feeling excluded and alone within her new home, but within her personal life as well.
“I never saw my school friends again,” said Seperovic. “I didn’t have any more friends when I came to Germany and I couldn’t make any because I started working.”
Seperovic’s father decided it would be best if she didn’t continue her schooling so she could support the family financially. Seperovic’s brother continued his schooling, while his sister spent her days cleaning toilets and slaving away under her aunt’s rule.
“I was upset, mad and sad seeing him every day go to school, having fun, while I go clean toilets or babysit somebody’s kids,” said Seperovic. “I hated him for that, I wanted it so freaking bad. I was so jealous of him. I promised myself when I got older, I would go back to school but there was always something in the way, I never got the chance.”
Seperovic lived in Germany for 8 years, she got married and had a child, it became a new ‘home.’ She believed she would continue to live there for the rest of her life, but her refuge was revoked from her.
“It’s was not fair because I lived there for 8 years,” said Seperovic. “I finial built a new life and was forced to go. I saw friends, cousins and other people paying tens of thousands of dollars to German people to get married so they could get papers. But my husband and I never wanted to do it that way, it wasn’t right. I’d rather be an immigrant than something like that.”
The country of Germany began sending back all of the refuges, however, Boasian was completely destroyed, there was nothing left for individuals to go back too. Seperovic was scared and worried about having to start all over again, the unknown rattled her.
“It was the hardest decision of my life, whether to go back to Boasian or not,” said Seperovic. “I just found out at the time that I was pregnant with my first child and I was no longer just thinking about myself.”
The pain of starting over again was too intense for Seperovic, so she kept her plans secrete. Her family had planned to either go back to Bosnia or fight for some more time in Germany, but Seperovic and her husband had other ideas.
“I remember thinking if we are going to do this no one will know,” said Seperovic. “I couldn’t say goodbye to my parents or to anyone, it hurt too much to come to that realization that this is in fact happening. I called my mom after we arrived and told her that we’re here, in America.”
Seperovic and her newly married husband made the tough decision to sign up to seek refuge to a first world country. They decided upon America and when the time came, they flew across the world with only a backpack and newborn in hand.
“I went to save my life because there was no other option,” said Seperovic. “How can I go back to Boasian when everything is destroyed? People are still running away from Boasian to this day, because there is no future there anymore. My husband and I didn’t care about ourselves, we only cared about our child. So, we did it, we gave up our lives, citizenships and home, again, to give our daughter a better life, citizenship and home. I spent my whole life running away from one issue to another. I’m never going to let my kids run away like I ran.”
Seperovic not only left her family in Germany, she left the any remanence of that wild teenager, who basseted in a carefree attitude.
“I wish I had more time to be a kid,” said Seperovic. “I wish I had more time to be a teenager, but then again, when I look at everything maybe all of this wouldn’t happen if it was different. I wouldn’t have the family I do now.”