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At a Pinellas Park mosque, Srebrenica is much more than a national headline

PINELLAS PARK — The men kneel in prayer, foreheads touching beige carpet, reciting thanks to God as ceiling fans whir quietly overhead.

It is Thursday night at the Bosnian Muslim mosque, much like any other, except that thousands of miles away, accused war criminal Ratko Mladic is spending his first night behind bars.

Mladic, 69, was arrested by Serbian authorities after a 16-year search. According to the United Nations' tribunal at The Hague, the former Bosnian Serbian military commander orchestrated the genocidal massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the village of Srebrenica in 1995.

To several men on the carpet, Srebrenica is not some headline or abstract history lesson about war's horror. Srebrenica was their life, their home. They were witness and victim when the bullets flew.

Kadir Avdic was 15 when Mladic's forces entered the city and began killing men and older boys over about a week. He was hit in 30 places by grenade shrapnel and nearly bled to death.

Now 31, he survived by sneaking onto a bus carrying women and children out of the city.

Miner Kadrija Karic, 51, fled to the forest, trekking six days without food until he reached safety. Twenty-two men of his extended family, including three brothers, disappeared.

Karic still suffers from depression and isn't keen on stirring memories, he said through an interpreter. News of Mladic's capture made him shake inside, he said, "but I get no satisfaction. What can I do? My brothers are gone.''

Imam Jasmin Latifovic also escaped through the woods. He lived in a village of about 200 on the outskirts of Srebrenica. Most of the villagers were killed, he said.

"Our religion forbids us to hate. God Almighty does not allow it, even after all these atrocities,'' he said. "But we will not forget.''

The killings at Srebrenica stemmed from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia into its constituent republics two decades ago.

Multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina had a Muslim plurality, but a sizable Serbian Orthodox Christian minority that identified with neighboring Serbia to the east. Those Bosnian Serbs formed their own army, with Mladic as chief of staff, and declared their independence from Bosnia, setting off civil war.

Srebrenica was a silver mining and agriculture center near the Serbian border. Much of the population was Muslim, though orthodox Serbs, Catholics and Jews also lived side by side.

In the early 1990s, Mladic's forces drove Muslims from outlying villages, swelling Srebrenica's population to about 40,000.

Srebrenica also came under frequent shelling and attack, prompting the United Nations to declare it a "safe area'' in 1993. At times, Muslim paramilitary units would venture out and attack Serb-held villages.

According to the U.N. tribunal on war crimes, the massacre occurred in July 1995 when Serb army units entered the city, intent on "ethnic cleansing.''

Women, children and more than 1,500 older men fled to a nearby U.N. base, where outnumbered Dutch peacekeepers turned the men over to the Serbs, who promised not to harm them. Those men were taken away and executed, the war crimes tribunal said. The women and children were bused to Tuzla, a Bosnian town about 65 miles away.

Most able-bodied men and older boys fled to surrounding forests, where the Serbs hunted them for days, executing some and burying others alive in mass graves. Muslim homes were destroyed or occupied by Serbs.

Before it ended, about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed, almost all men, the tribunal estimated. The Muslim presence in Srebrenica essentially vanished.

The Balkan wars displaced hundreds of thousands of Croats, Serbs, Muslim Bosnians and other ethnic groups from the former Yugoslavia.

Many spent years in European countries before gaining entrance to the United States as refugees, usually with nothing to their name.

The Bosnian Muslim mosque, a modest remodeled strip store in Pinellas Park, has about 130 to 150 members. For the first time, they feel safe, said Imam Latifovic, a car painter by trade. Children romped around gleefully Thursday, seemingly untouched by their parents' hardships.

"We appreciate the United States,'' Latifovic said. "After all our travels, this is where we feel as a second home. We are trying to do everything we can to give back to the community, by obeying the law, being honest and hard working and raising our children to be the best citizens they can be.''

Mladic's capture came up only once during Thursday prayers, Latifovic said. It seemed to fulfill a Koranic verse that someone who destroys God's house will be punished.

Whatever happens to Mladic at the Hague, "we are at peace with it,'' Latifovic said. "No matter what punishment he gets, it will never amount to what he has done and he will be judged, like all people, in the hereafter.''

For many in the mosque, Srebrenica never strays far from their thoughts.

Earlier this year, war crimes workers unearthed the remains of Kadir Avdic's older brother and identified him using DNA.

In June, Avdic, his wife, Mina, and their two young boys will return to their homeland to take part in an annual memorial service for Srebrenica's dead.

"Our story is the story of human suffering. It is for everyone to know what hateful things will lead to — anywhere,'' said Haris Ganibegovic, 30, whose wife came from Srebrenica. "Hatred leads to absolutely unimaginable things. This is our story.''

At a Pinellas Park mosque, Srebrenica is much more than a national headline 05/27/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 27, 2011 11:07pm]
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