A Family's Survival Tale from Bosnia to Minnesota

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN, Aug. 18 -- Even today, Muharem Dedic wonders what happened to Joni.

Muharem, a slim young man with jet-black hair and a wide smile, runs the day-to-day business at the Sanus Bosnian Restaurant, which opened exactly one week ago in Rochester in the Broadway Commons shopping area.

The restaurant is a family business with Muharem's father, Smajil, a former grocery store and restaurant owner in Bosnia, doing the business strategy and bookkeeping; his mother, Sahiz, holding down the home front; and his two younger sisters, Murahema and Murisa, doing the daily shopping, waitressing, sweeping, cleaning and everything else.

Joni was the beloved pet dog they had to leave behind in 1992 when, warned by a Serbian neighbor that they must all leave within a day or be killed, the entire Dedic family joined a tractor caravan out of town with several thousand other Bosnian Muslims fleeing for their lives.

Besides Joni, the Dedics were forced to abandon the grocery store and the restaurant the family had spent several decades building; their two-story home and every chair, bed, table, and appliance in it; nearly all the family photographs and albums and memorabilia and legal papers; their two cars; a cow; and several chickens and cats. With the family's bank accounts frozen on account of the war, they were also penniless.

"One day, two guys came and simply said 'Just leave. If you don't you will be killed,'" Muharem remembers. He was 11 at the time. Twenty other families in the Dedics' extended family joined them in the exodus.

European Trek

It was the beginning of what came to be known as "ethnic cleansing" -- the Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic's modern-day version of Hitler's "final solution." Milosevic saw his dream of a Greater Serbia as thwarted by independence-seeking and territories and republics like Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Above all, Milosevic saw Bosnian Muslims standing in his way.

His sick answer was to try to kill them all. His paramilitaries swooped across Muslim territories conducting sieges of entire cities, house-to-house arson, and shelling and executions of Muslims.

More than 200,000 were killed from 1992 to 1995, and more than 2 million refugees were violently uprooted.

After long journeys through safe houses, relatives' homes, United Nations shelters and refugee camps across Europe, about 100,000 Bosnian refugees resettled in the United States, according to the 2000 Census. Of these, more than 2,000 came to Minnesota and more than 300 to Olmsted County.

The Dedic family journey traced a giant Zorro-like "Z" across Europe.

Starting from their home town Sanski Most (the Sanus Hotel there is the namesake of their restaurant), the family traveled by tractor, bus, car, animal, freight car and on foot through the Bosnian towns of Bosanski Novi, Banja Luka, Doboi and Brcko. The family wound through the Croatian towns of Slavonski Brod, Pozega and Zagreb. Then they were off to a German military base on the Dutch border with the unlikely name of Shopping. Finally, they made it to the German city of Gelsenkirchen, where they spent the five years living as refugees.

No Money, No Life

In 1997, with the war in Bosnia over, the Dedic family returned to Sanski Most to try to start life anew. But they couldn't return to their old home, which had been ransacked and destroyed by fire.

The city's economy was equally ruined. Within months, the family's savings from several years of work in Germany was gone.

"There were no jobs, and, therefore, no money, no life," Muharem said. An uncle who had fled Bosnia for Arlington, Texas, and then to Rochester told them that the Minnesota winters were cold, but the economy was warm. So Rochester it was. The family arrived here in 1999.

Since then, everyone in the family has worked constantly, even as the children attended Century and John Marshall high schools. The jobs haven't been glamorous -- mostly hotel cleaning and grocery store night stacking.

But they are jobs, and after four years, they've now led to the restaurant.

When I interviewed Muharem in a booth at the restaurant, he spoke calmly about all of the terrors his family has lived through, becoming emotional only once. That was when he talked about his father.

"He's my life, he's my everything," Muharem said. "Through these years, there was no life without him. Whatever we needed, no matter how hard it was for him, we just asked and he said 'Here.' I am so proud of my dad.

"My dad owned his own grocery store in Sanski Most, which was very popular. Today he is stacking at night at Hyvee South. When you see him there at night, you see he is not happy. All of his children see that. We would like life to be easier for him and for our Mom. So we will work hard."

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report