‘Train stops here’ for Bosnian family who escaped war
Cameron Park’s new creperia, Crepe Town Café, perched behind the gazebo in Burke Junction is quickly gaining a reputation for delicious European café fare. Owner Alma Zildzo and her daughter Mirha Maslic can also serve up some abject lessons in recent European history.
They fled from their native Bosnia at the onset of the Bosnian War, a conflict that popularized the phrase “ethnic cleansing.” A mix of caution, luck and good timing prevented them from becoming victims.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, the gradual breakdown of Yugoslavia’s iron-fisted socialist regime, led by the totalitarian Josip Broz Tito from 1943 until his death in 1980, resulted in a fatal mix of nationalism, ideology and economic struggle that ultimately led to a series of bloody civil wars, the worst on the European continent since World War II.
Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia all seceded from the failing nation in 1991. What was left of Yugoslavia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina housed a majority of ethnic Serbs, controlled by Serbian President Slobodan Milošević.
The multi-ethnic former Yugoslavia tore itself apart before Alma’s eyes in March and April 1992, as ethnic tensions boiled over into armed conflict, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
Alma and her family lived in the north Bosnian border town of Brcko. The fighting began roughly 100 miles south. In March 1992 Bosnian Serb militias began attacking non-Serb civilian populations, often going door-to-door, capturing or killing non-Serbs, ransacking or burning their homes.
The family began to hear of atrocities by Serbians in early April. “These weren’t soldiers,” said Alma. “They were criminals with weapons. They go inside, kill you and take your valuables.”
Then Bosnian TV went dark, leaving only Serbian programs from Belgrade. Many incited Serbs to violence against other ethnic groups, according to the Bosnian Institute’s website.
On April 12, 1992, the family sent Mirha, then 9, and daughter Nina to stay with their uncle in Croatia, away from the fighting.
A week later Serbian troops famously attacked Srebrenica, 91 miles south of Brcko. The Bosnian Institutes reports that 23 civilians were publicly burned to death. A total of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims would eventually be killed in the region. The United Nations deemed it a genocide.
But Alma and her husband had no idea how bad things were going to get. They held good jobs and hesitanted to abandon them. She was a high placed account manager for a local bank. He worked at the Port of Brcko on the nearby Sava River.
Their nerves became more frayed as the gunfire and explosions grew ever closer through late April, but they continued to go to work every day.
On April 29 soldiers flooded into Brcko. The next day Alma insisted they leave the city, “just for one night,” she said, to stay with friends across the river in Croatia.
“We locked the doors and walked away,” said Alma, “never dreaming we wouldn’t return to our home for so many years.”
The banks were closed, leaving them with little extra cash.
They packed overnight bags and walked across what would later be called “the bridge of death,” an 800-foot span over the Sava River that connects Brcko, Bosnia, with Gunja, Croatia.
Late that night a car bomb exploded on the bridge, collapsing it while two busloads of unarmed Bosnian guest workers were crossing on foot.
The “bridge of death” was later rebuilt by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who renamed it the “Bridge of Fortune.”
In the morning Alma returned to the river, hoping to get across and go to work. When she saw the bridge was destroyed she tried to hire a boat.
Her daughter remains incredulous to this day. “There were snipers along the river,” said Mirha. “Many more people died that day. If she’d found someone to take her across they would all be dead.”
Alma offers up a meek defense: “It was a good job, especially in that economy.”
The family stayed in Croatia four months.
Serbian forces seized Brcko on May 7, a day that also claimed their close friends Mido and Amra Uzeirovic. Alma later learned that Mido was shot dead when he answered the door. Amra was also shot, but survived.
Two others in the house escaped harm by hiding in the coal bin.
The Serbs quickly turned the harbor where Alma’s husband worked into a grisly death camp, which hosted some of the worst atrocities in the war. The U.S. State Department estimates that 3,000 Muslims were killed there in May and June alone.
“It was our Auschwitz,” said Alma. “It was horrible. We would like to forget.”
A 1995 CIA report found that Serbian forces were responsible for 90 per cent of the war crimes committed during the conflict. The European Journal of Population estimated the loss of life at between 100,000 and 110,000, with nearly half of the country’s population, 2.2 million people, displaced.
Within months of their narrow escape, Alma smuggled her extended family into Germany, sneaking past German border guards and later paying what are now called “human traffickers” to bring her parents in.
“For us at that time, getting to Germany was the big goal,” she said. “We knew they would protect our children, and we could work, even if it was menial labor.”
The German borders, however, were closed to refugees of the Bosnian conflict.
Throughout the family’s 20-year odyssey, Alma repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny knack for meeting each challenge or disappointment. Her story contains a succession of Good Samaritans, including a German travel agent who offered to smuggle her and her children into Germany.
Her husband had already snuck in and established relations with an uncle who agreed to help the family. But first they had to get into the country.
Alma and her two girls piled their meager possessions into the travel agent’s small car, which had Bosnian license plates. A second car contained other friend-refugees. The trip required three border crossings.
The Italians were indifferent. An Austrian border guard didn’t want to let them in, but relented, after some concerted pleading, warning them not to attempt the German border.
Both Alma and Mihra recall the long line and bright lights as they approached the German border. They fell into a nervous silence as they crept toward the border.
Their plan involved getting into the “local” line, reserved for residents of the European Union, where most cars were waved straight through. They enlisted the support of the drivers in front and behind their two-car caravan to prevent their telltale license plates from betraying them.
The front car agreed to pull away from the border guard slowly, so Alma could slide in right behind him, blocking the guard’s view of her plates. The following cars tailgated similarly, blocking visibility to the rear plates.
The guard waved them all through without incident.
Just out of sight of the border crossing, Alma pulled over and wept.
The image is burned into her daughter’s memory. “They didn’t tell Nina and I that we were sneaking across the border,” said Mirha, who was given strict orders to pretend she was asleep during the crossing. “When I saw her reaction I knew for the first time what a big deal it was.”
Alma composed herself, pulled onto the German freeway and was immediately assailed by the high-speed traffic. “Everyone was roaring past me … honking … I could go no faster.”
The family paid dearly to have Alma’s father smuggled into Germany on a truck. He spent two days locked in a cramped cargo area with 40 other refugees. “They could hear the dogs sniffing outside, and worried that the children would cry out,” she said.
Her grandmother came separately by bus. The refugees were dispatched before the border and hiked several miles through the snow, said Alma. The bus picked them up on the other side.
Once in the country, Alma’s family was suddenly embraced by German social services, who issued the family work permits and assistance with housing.
Her husband found work as a mechanic, and Alma became a cleaning lady in a castle that had been converted to a luxury hotel. She soon graduated to the kitchen, where she washed dishes, then worked her way into food preparation, departing after a couple years to work for other restaurants, where she learning how to make crepes and other European fare.
“We were refugees and the Germans offered us asylum,” said Alma. “There was some discrimination, but all-in-all, they were very good to us.”
When the war was over, Germany started shipping its refugees back. Now five years gone from Bosnia, they knew that Serbs had likely taken up residence in their home, and heard from friends who’d remained that conditions were still harsh. They weren’t eager to return, “peace or no,” said Alma.
The family’s far flung network of relatives once more created opportunity out of crisis. “My Aunt Zumi came directly to America in ’92,” said Mirha.
“She was the smart one,” said Alma.
Zumi found a charity agency that helped Bosnian refugees, and within a few months the extended family landed in San Jose and packed into Zumi’s one-bedroom apartment.
With little money, no job history and an inability to speak the language, and the family struggled to find a place to live, especially since the tech boom made apartments scarce in San Jose at the time.
They ended up in a terrible neighborhood, but Alma insisted they seek out better digs. With no single family member proficient in English, the family drove around San Jose, often prevailing on strangers for directions.
One of them, a Persian named Reza opened his door and his heart to the bewildered Bosnians.
“He took us under his wing,” said Alma. “He found us a nicer apartment, and even got my brother a job. He was our first friend in this country, and we’re still friends.”
Alma eventually landed a job at Barnes and Noble doing customer service. “I could barely speak the language,” she said. “I don’t know how I did it.”
She parlayed the experience into a nine-year stint with the Bank of Santa Clara, starting as a customer service clerk, working her way into first the Accounting, then the Legal Departments, eventually tripling her starting wage.
In 2005 the family visited Bosnia and legally reclaimed their house back. Whoever lived there during the intervening 13 years expressed their dissatisfaction at being evicted by completely destroying the interior.
Alma remarried in 200X. In 2007 she started a travel agency, and still operates “Alma Travel,” primarily serving Eastern European clients, but happy to help anyone who doesn’t want to deal directly with airline reservation systems.
After Mirha moved to Sacramento, Alma and new-husband Edeey decided to follow her. They stumbled on Cameron Park and were smitten.
They bought a house in October, 2010, and started planning the café opening in 2011. The Crepe Town Café opened in January, 2012.
“This restaurant is for Mirha,” she said. “I’m helping her get it started then maybe I step back.”
Daughter Nina remains in the Bay Area, working and attending college, but Edeey is retiring soon, and Alma is counting on him to help out in the café.
Alma reflects on her family’s resiliency. “To tell you true, we are the lucky ones,” she said. “We had many friend’s who died over there.”
“Americans, if they lose a job or a house, they think life is over,” she continued. “What we learned… if you have everything and lose it, it’s not such a big deal. We walked away from everything, and now we are here, and it’s good. It’s a good place. For us, life goes on.”
She summoned an apt metaphor to describe her love of the community and her spot in the heart of the railroad-themed Burke’s Junction.
“My train, it’s stopped here,” she said. “This is the last station.”