The spectre of war hung heavy in the air in the early 1990s, but did not fully materialise until 1992, when Senada Crvk Pargan was a 17-year-old teenager living in Bosnia. Senada’s first book, A Sorrow for Silence, recounts the traumatic series of events that befell her between 1992 and 1995, and follows her from a lice-ridden, hungry teenager barely surviving in an internment camp, to a grieving daughter and refugee washing dishes in a foreign land.
Her story is that of the endurance of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity.
On the evening of April 12, 1992, her village, Žutica – near Srebrenica, Bosnia Herzegovina – was burned to the ground by Serbian Chetnik paramilitaries. She and her family managed to escape to her uncle’s village with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They lived with him and his six children, all of them crammed into a two-bedroom house.
In a three-day period (July 10-12, 1995) 99 members of Senada’s family were killed. Four of her uncles and two of her first-cousins were shot dead before her father’s eyes.
Narrowly escaping a similar fate, she and the other women in her village were rounded up and driven to a deplorable UN camp in Potočari, only for herto witness the murder of a childhood friend. His remains were casually thrown onto a pile of 30 other dead bodies as Serb paramilitary forces continued to kill and rape in full view of Dutch UN workers.
By 1995, an estimated 100,000 people–80 percent of them Bosniak–had been slaughtered, while an estimated 20,000 women had been raped.
Today, Senada is a wife, a mother, and a Bosnian community leader.
Faced with anger, sorrow, and disturbing flashbacks, she continues to struggle with the inner traumas of her past, especially after the pain the death of her mother caused her in 2001.
Senada says that her writing is not only a lamentation, but pays homage to the stories of the fallen – as well as those who were able to conquer death and persevere.
Her other projects include a book collaboration between herself, four other survivors, and genocide scholar David Pettigrew (set to be released in the next year), as well as her memoirs, in which she details her torturous journey, including her years in America – an unforeseen path she took as a refugee in 2001 with her in-laws, husband and new-born son.
All proceeds of A Sorrow for Silence will go to charities supporting the victims of the recent floods in Bosnia.
Today, she opens up to Migrant Woman about the horrors she witnessed in Bosnia, as well as how her life has evolved since the war. In our interview, Senada discusses her hopes, aspirations, and explains how home is not only a physical place, but also a state of being.
What was your first poem about? How has your work evolved since then?
I cannot recall the first one, because there were many, but one that I remember is The Dinner Table, which I wrote in the war under grenades, shootings, in candlelight, on a small piece of paper.
Years later, due to lack of money and unfinished paperwork for my green card, I was not able to return to Bosnia and say a last and proper goodbye to my mother, who passed away six months after I came to the US. She was very ill, and hospitalised in Bosnia for almost two months. I could only pray for her and suffer in pain. I lost her in 2001, on June 16, at 2am. My best friend was gone. I was deeply hurt, lonely, sad… I needed four years to gather the strength to return to Bosnia and face reality. After my visit, I wrote At My Mother’s Grave.
When someone reads your work, what do you hope they will grasp?
I want my readers to feel love. To recognise the real meaning of life, which is to appreciate it, learn from it, and enjoy it.
Do you feel any resentment towards any particular group of people?
I am a war survivor, and have lost many family members and friends, but I cannot say that I feel any resentment towards the people who committed these murders. I feel sorry for them, because they do not have a soul – those people live like they do not exist. I probably should feel hatred, or a desire for revenge, but I do not. I know one day karma will do its job.
Should more be done to remember the Bosnian genocide?
There is never enough to be done to remember the Bosnian genocide.
We have many “Remembrance Days” in Bosnia. In my town of Srebrenica, for example, it is July 11th, which is the day when the enemies killed about 10,000 people.
Also many books have been written and many are in the process of being published, all on the subject of war, with real evidence of genocide.
My plan for the near future is to have the opportunity to introduce a new book on the subject of genocide in Bosnia, which will be prepared by the American Philosophical Association led by Professor David Pettigrew, with input from a few genocide survivors and surviving inmates.
In this book, people will have the opportunity to become familiar with real stories and testimonies about the war in Bosnia. The Congress of North American Bosniaks, of which I am a director, also points to the genocide in Bosnia and creates a superb bridge of cooperation with many organisations of a similar nature around the world.
I want to emphasise that the memory of genocide in Bosnia should expand both in North America and around the world.
We need to educate younger generations about the consequences of war, and spread a positive message about peacekeeping.
What would you say to people who haven’t lived through war and really don’t understand what people in war-torn places go through?
We are hurt. We need to be heard. We need to be cared for. We need to feel safe. That is what people could do to support war survivors. Keep the peace — that is what I would say to them.
What do you like best about your life now, in the United States?
I have always dreamt about having a safe and reliable place to live. I am very happy that I had the opportunity to move to the US. This is truly a country where dreams can come true — we just need to put our minds to it. My children, Bilal (14), and Lejla (10), are safe here and are growing into wonderful people. They are learning how to appreciate and respect all of the great things that God has put in their lives, as well as to use their talents and gifts in a positive way. My husband and I teach them to never forget their roots: Bosnia, their motherland. Even though home is where the family is, I am still spiritually in Bosnia: I dream in Bosnian.
You obtained your associates degree in 2004, how did that moment impact your life?
I came to the US without knowing any English. My first years here were difficult. Over time, though, my desire to learn more pushed me back to school. To learn another language and keep up with schooling while being a wife, mother of two children, a volunteer for several organisations, as well as working full-time, and writing — was not easy. But next year, I will be graduating from Phoenix University, with a Bachelor’s of Science in Business Management, and I must admit that I am very proud of myself.
What are some of the words that you live by?
Be happy. Laugh as much as you can. Enjoy being loved. Feel. Respect those who respect you. Be positive, encourage others; lead by example. Spread love instead of hate!
A Sorrow for Silence is available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Ceznja-Tisinom-Senada-Cvrk-Pargan/dp/1494382741