Medina Spiodic was just 7 when her family left war-torn Bosnia for a new life in Chicago. Several years later, as a student at the University of Illinois, she and one of her professors had the opportunity to meet Zeljko Komsic, current president of Bosnia, in Chicago last spring, and they invited him to campus. He agreed to visit this fall.
CHAMPAIGN — Medina Spiodic was just 7 when her family left war-torn Bosnia for a new life in Chicago.
The University of Illinois sophomore doesn't remember much about her childhood in Bosnia, other than moving from place to place, but returned for a visit last summer. She was shocked at how little her home country had progressed since the 1992-95 civil war, which killed 100,000 people and displaced 2 million more.
Countless buildings still pockmarked by gunfire in Sarajevo, Mostar and Srebrenica. Her family home, like so many others, reduced to four walls with grass growing inside. More than 43 percent unemployment.
"I could not believe I was born there," she said.
Spiodic, 20, who played a key role in the upcoming visit to the university by Bosnia's head of state, is part of the Bosnian "diaspora" in the United States. Many Bosnians fled the country during and after the civil war prompted by Bosnia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. More than 1.35 million Bosnians live outside that country, in the U.S., Canada, Germany and elsewhere.
Spiodic was born in 1993 in Srebrenica, in the kitchen of her parents' house because they feared the hospital would not be safe. The war was in full swing and her father was a commander in the Bosnian Army. Her mom was on her own with three children and two other relatives.
In July 1995, Srebrenica was the site of a mass genocide against Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces, who executed more than 7,000 men and boys and expelled 20,000 others.
As Spiodic's family, which is Muslim, was being loaded onto a bus, her grandfather was pulled out by Serb forces, who told him the bus was too crowded and another would be coming soon.
"That was the last time my family ever saw him," she said. They discovered his remains 10 years ago in the small village where he'd been shot.
During her visit last summer, Spiodic tried in vain to find his grave at a mass burial site in Srebrenica that contained bodies of more than 8,000 people killed in the massacre.
Spiodic can't talk about it without crying. Seeing her last name and her mother's maiden name on so many graves, many of them likely related to her somehow, was just too much.
"They actually found the bones of a little girl, a baby, under a year old," she said. "That was probably the hardest thing I've ever done thus far in my life."
The family emigrated to the U.S. in 2000 seeking better economic opportunities. Her father's brother already lived in Chicago and helped them find an apartment and jobs.
Her parents don't talk in depth about the war or their life in Bosnia, except to remind their children to "remember where you came from and what happened to us."
Her father is a member of Survivors of Srebrenica, which raises money to help people in Bosnia, particularly those who lost one or both parents in the war. It also raises awareness so that "youth in Chicago don't forget their roots," she said.
Returning to Srebrenica was "eye-opening," Spiodic said. "It made me realize what they had gone through, what they had lost, and how life was before the war. I feel like I got a part of my culture back. It definitely made me appreciate where I came from. It made me more connected to Bosnia than I was before."
She is a Vekich Scholar, given to outstanding students of South Slavic cultures and languages, and works for the UI's Russian, East European and Eurasian Center. She is also taking classes in Bosnian to beef up her native language skills, and she wants her own children to speak Bosnian someday.
"It's where I come from," she said. "It's important to know where you came from and how you got where you are now."
Spiodic took a South Slavic Cultures class from Judith Pintar, then a visiting assistant professor in Slavic languages and literatures, which explored the culture and history of Yugoslavia. Through Spiodic's Bosnian connections, she and Pintar had the opportunity to meet Zeljko Komsic, current president of Bosnia, in Chicago last spring, and they invited him to campus. He agreed to visit this fall.
Spiodic said Komsic, the Croatian member of the three-person rotating Bosnian presidency, "wants Bosnia to be one nation. Instead of Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Serbs or Bosnian Muslims, he wants one nation that works together as a country versus how it is right now," she said.
Bosnia is preparing for its first census as an independent state, and thousands of citizens have joined a campaign to reject the ethnic and religious labels that still divide Bosnia two decades after the war. They adopt labels like "ethnically challenged" or "a citizen above all," according to a recent Reuters report.
The move challenges the delicate system of power-sharing created by a 1995 U.S.-brokered peace deal. The Dayton Accords defined the warring sides — Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Muslims) — as "constituent peoples," splitting territory and power between them but leaving out Jews or the children of mixed marriages who refused to pick a side and are excluded from public sector job quotas, the report said.
The last census was in 1991, when 43.5 percent of Bosnia's then 4.4 million people declared themselves Muslims, 31.2 percent Serbs and 17.4 percent Croats. More than 5 percent said they were "Yugoslav."
"I've always called myself Bosnian, not a Bosnian Muslim or Bosniak," Spiodic said. "It is my nationality.
"I think for Bosnia to develop and to progress from where it is right now, I think it's important to know what you are," she said. At the same time, Bosnians have to "leave a part of their pride behind and identify themselves as Bosnians."
Her parents still miss Bosnia and would like to retire there to be closer to family,
"That's where their hearts are. That's where they feel most comfortable," she said. "But it's really hard to live in Bosnia right now."