One refugee’s journey out of the Balkan wars

Snjezana “Nina” Gligorevic isn’t quite sure what to call herself. “Serbian” doesn’t seem quite right, while she doesn’t feel that “Bosnian” encompasses her identity either.

Being born in former Yugoslavia in 1989, Gligorevic’s first encounter with the world was during the Balkan wars that swept the region in the early 1990s. Occasionally described as Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II, the wars are known by their genocidal character and incidences of ethnic cleansing.

When Gligorevic was only two years old, a family friend of Croatian descent approached the family to let them know their house was to be burned down. Gligorevic says the man was thought of as a “friend,” but given his Croatian ethnicity and Catholic beliefs, the friendship was altered by circumstance.

“He took the side that he felt he needed to take,” Gligorevic said. The family was then given ten minutes to vacate their house.

The family was eventually captured and taken to a concentration camp before being transferred to a different location. Gligorevic said one of her most vivid memories is of the house they were kept at. When kids would be out playing, she said, she would hide under the balcony.

“I thought that if we’re too loud or just get on their nerves, they’re going to kill us,” she said.

To this day, there are still parts of Gligorevic’s escape that she herself doesn’t understand. She said many people may have made agreements based on previous friendships.

As they were being driven to a safer area, Gligorevic said the only reason they were able to cross the border is because her mother appeared to be of Croatian descent.

“Some of our other relatives who were in that situation were not as lucky,” she said.

After escaping imprisonment, Gligorevic said that her family bounced from one location to another. Eventually, they found refuge at the home of her father’s relatives. There is where they met a Christian family that was “surprisingly” non-denominational, she said.

“They really lived out their faith,” she said. “Everything that they did helped other people.”

Gligorevic said that the Christian family made an extra effort to reach out to the war refugees. The family talked about their faith openly, she said, and inspired her mother to start reading the Bible.

However, when Gligorevic’s relatives found out that her mother was straying from her original faith, her family was kicked out.

“They just thought: this is something other than what we are,” Gligorevic said.

In 1997, Gligorevic’s family discovered a possibility to emigrate to the U.S. She said her uncle had been imprisoned in a concentration camp, and those who made it out alive were allowed to emigrate to a different country.

“It was some program that was being offered from the different world governments,” she said.

Because of programs that were making an effort to connect families separated by the war, Gligorevic said, her family was able to join her uncle and reunite with her father in the U.S.

Some people may say Gligorevic was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but she doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think of us as victims,” she said. The trials she faced during the wars, she said, are part of what helped her realize the value of life.

Much of Gligorevic’s internal strength and positive outlook is influenced by her religious beliefs. She said there were many “final moments” throughout the years that she felt her fate could’ve been different. She said these moments are what helped solidify her faith.

“I think that Nina’s environment is a product of Nina,” said Joshua Valdez, a close friend of Gligorevic, who has attended her church.

“I don’t know whether it’s her religion that gives her such a big heart, or it’s by nature of her big heart that she has the capacity to spread the goodness she sees in her religion,” he said. “I know religion can be cruel, but she’s the example of all the good religion can be, and truly is.”

The wars were political wars, Gligorevic said, and not nearly as faith-based as people think. The idea that the Balkan wars were merely religious wars was “a set-up,” she said.

“People were given a reason to fight for something that was important to them,” she said. And it worked.

Gligorevic said it’s what’s people do to each other, not God, that’s the real problem.

“It’s a very real world we live in,” Gligorevic said. “You wouldn’t know what was good if you didn’t know evil.”

Gligorevic says she still recognizes her Serbian heritage even without the religious aspect. The side of the Serbians doesn’t get told often enough, she said. But today, when you ask her what she identifies as, she has a different answer: American.

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