The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Local News

June 4, 2013

20 years later: Selimbegovic reflects on experience during ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Croatia

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 — Mirsad Selimbegovic gets emotional thinking about America.

When asked to give his definition of this country, his eyes tear up and words become difficult to speak.

It proves that a full heart can obstruct the vocal cords.

Mirsad has come a long way in distance and in perseverance from his home country and its horrific period to making sure students at Pfeiffer University have a good nutritious meal and a smile.

He lived in Tuzla, Yugoslavia with his wife Sajima, son Mirza and daughter Melina.

In March of 1992, that country was divided and war broke out between the Croatians and the Serbs, who set about on an ethnic cleansing mission of the Bosnian people.

Mirsad became a major in the Croatian Army and in May of that year, he found himself a captor of the Serbians.

He was separated from his family and shifted from one concentration camp to another for the next seven months.

Mirsad was one who testified in the International Court of Justice at The Hague about the conditions and treatments of the Croatians.

Nothing can describe what he went through better than the words he used when telling the world what happened.

The first place he was taken to was called Kertaerm.

“Many of us had already been beaten. I was interrogated, too,” Mirsad testified. “Interrogation lasted a long time, four or five hours. When they paused, I was beaten in the hall by the reservists who were my guards. One of them grabbed me by the hair and pushed my head against the wall.”

Mirsad says he spent two days sitting or standing until he and others were placed on a bus headed for a destination unknown to them.

After not eating for two days, the unknown destination was Omarska, which was a mine.

“There were a hundred of us on a floor in a hall,” he said. “We were not all able to sit on the floor. We sat and stood in shifts. We begged for some water, but didn’t get any. They didn’t allow us to go to the toilet. We were hungry, thirsty, had no air or space.”

In the morning, the Serbs offered a few bottles of water after Mirsad had spent two days in what he described as “horrible pain.”

When his name was called, those around him had tears in their eyes, perhaps wondering if he was soon to be killed.

He was instead taken to a military interrogation court where an officer and three policeman took him through cells where he was undressed and all possessions were taken from him.

“They told me to turn to the wall and then beat me with bars. I didn’t feel any pain,” he said.

He was then taken to a cell with one blanket, but had to stand all day long.

Mirsad spent what he called “18 days of Hell” at the mining facility where he was questioned many times without mistreatment.

“But in the cell it was Hell,” he said. “The guards entered the cell a couple of times and each time beat us.”

His hand was broken and treated with gypsum, but never x-rayed.

“I had no right or liberty to ask them anything because every question meant more beatings,” he said. “Whoever came in tortured us in whatever way he chose.”

He says he had gotten used to the torture. Food was scarce, but the tortures made it difficult to eat anyway.

At one point, he says he found his peace.

“Maybe it is better if they kill me and stop this torture,” he thought.

On June 16, 1992, another bus journey rolled to a camp called Manjaca.

But, this journey touched in a personal way.

“We went though the town of my youth, Banja Luka. I had finished my high school there,” he said. “As we were driving through, with tears in my eyes, I thought of my wife and children. I wondered where they are.”

This new camp was made from cow barns surrounded by wire.

“On your arrival, they beat you until you fainted so that you remembered the day you got to the place,” he said. “After they beat us with bars and kicked us with their boots, they took us to the barns. Before they took us there, they used DDT on us.”

Mirsad describes the days there as “waiting, being beaten or tortured and excessive work.”

“For them you were an animal, not a human being,” he said.

But, while there he was able to find out his family was alive.

“I cried out of happiness,” Mirsad said. “This gave me more strength to live and I kept thinking I had to stay alive because of them.”

He was also hopeful the International Red Cross would take his name and perhaps save his life in some way.

Mirsad remained in that camp until Dec. 13, 1992 when he was taken to Batkovici where after seven months, he was deported  on July 21, 1993 and was reunited with his family.

From there, with the assistance of the International Red Cross and a cousin in the states, the family made it to the United States and he found his first job washing dishes.

It was through hard work and being kind to people Mirsad says was the key to rising from staying in a refugee apartment to having his own home.

He rose through the ranks at Sodexo, a company which provides food services to various companies and educational facilities.

Twenty years after leaving the captivity of the Serbs, he is now a successful general manager for Sodexo in charge of the food services at Pfeiffer University.

“I’ve had offers to go to other places, but I like it here,” Mirsad said. “These are good people here. And, Dr. and Mrs. Miller have been so nice to me and the students are wonderful to me,” he said showing what was only one of a file full of cards he has received over the years.

He looks at the picture of his wartorn house in the old country and the one of the new first new home he bought here.

“I look at that (old) house and cry,” Mirsad said. “I lost everything in my life and after I came to the United States I was sick and was happy just to live because a lot of the prisoners who had been with me were dead.”

He said he never thought he would see his grandchild, a photo of whom sets proudly just behind his office desk and a particularly big smile comes across his face when he mentions the impending arrival of a second.

“God saved my life several times,” he said. “I don’t know how else I survived.”

He also notes the ironic humor when talking about the lack of food or the poor and limited qualities forced upon him during his time in the camps and prisons.

“I prayed for water, food and anything to survive. And now, look where I work and what I do working in food services,” he says with a laugh.

Mirsad says it had been suggested he could do engineering work, which he has some experience building roads and bridges.

“They say it’s more money. I say I don’t need money, I need a good life for my children,” he said.

“I’m proud with what I do for my children. My children have good lives and good educations and good families. We are American citizens and this is my country now.”

But, he says when asked who he would cheer for when the U.S. plays Bosnia, he says with a hearty smile, “Both!”

When he left Croatia, he said he was offered the chance to go to any country. So, he called someone to ask about America.

“He asked what I wanted to know and I said I only needed to know would Mirza and Melina have a chance to finish college,” he said. “He told me it is no problem here.”

He recalls working two and three jobs when he first got here just to send his children to a good school.

“If you want to work, you can find job here,” Mirsad said. “I’m a hard worker and my boss recognized good workers. I was in the street and he said, ‘I have a job for you.’”

Mirsad still works hard and even though he wears the title of general manager, he still readily puts on an apron, serves up a dish, grabs a broom or helps out doing what he started with — washing dishes.

“I am so proud of these people,” he said.

“There are some who have already moved on to bigger jobs ,and I am so proud.”

His assistant at Pfeiffer, Sandy Rhodes, actually helped Mirsad get some of his first jobs when he got to America and they have become the closest of friends over the past two decades.

“He is one of he kindest most companionate people you will ever meet,” Rhodes said. “He has helped out so many people in so many ways that they’ll never know.”

In fact, Mirsad  thinks that may be a reason for his survival.

“When people work for me and make mistakes, I give a second chance, and a third, fourth and fifth. Everybody makes mistakes. And, they always thank me and do better,” Mirsad said.

“It’s helping people and being good to people.”

Mirsad Selimbegovic has certainly fulfilled that mission.

He has taken care of his family, found success for himself, and passed along smiles and hope to friends, family and a new generation all the while reminding them of the evil in the world hoping it never happens to them.”

He sums it up with one sentence:

“I am so happy here.”


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