Witness to Evil 

A Pinellas Park electrician braves a world stage to shed light on genocide's nightmares

The night he was thrown into the camp, Kerim Mesanovich thought he was a dead man. Already bloodied from a police attack, he found the walls of his prison spattered more than three feet up with blood from a mass beating that guards had given prisoners the day before. "I was 100 percent sure I would not see daylight," he says.

Mesanovich saw daylight, and the next night, and every day and night afterward for the next two months. Every moment was filled with the same fear -- that he might not live to see the next. He witnessed, and was subjected to, brutality that compares in its own way to the Holocaust of World War II. Still, he lived. Others imprisoned with him did not.

Mesanovich, 49, is a survivor of the war in the Balkans, the conflict that in 1992 and 1993 hurled friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor, relative against relative and that ultimately drew the intervention of NATO troops. Mesanovich was among several thousand Bosnian Muslims who were imprisoned, beaten and otherwise abused by Serbian troops at a concentration camp in the northern Bosnian town of Omarska. Many of the prisoners did not survive the experience.

Now, 12 years later, Mesanovich lives a comfortable and quiet life in the blue-collar community of Pinellas Park in central Pinellas County. Yet he isn't being quiet about what happened during his days in hell. He is telling what he knows about those terror-filled times before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in The Hague. In January, in his third appearance, Mesanovich testified against the man who fomented the conflict, Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia. In the Tampa Bay area, which is home to more than 4,000 Bosnian refugees, Mesanovich is one of the few Omarska survivors willing to tell what happened.

From Tampa, drive northeast on I-4 through Orlando to I-95, then north to Jacksonville, west on I-10 to Tallahassee, and back down to St. Petersburg on U.S. 19. You've driven the boundaries of a triangle roughly the size of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The region seems too quaint a place in which to shed blood. It's a succession of mountain ranges, with hundreds of villages nestled into the passes and along icy streams that flow down the country's crumpled topography. Where the streams reach the valleys and run together, centers of commerce sprout: Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Prijedor.Mesanovich was raised in Prijedor (pronounced pree-ah-door) from early childhood. His father was an elementary school teacher who, while raising Kerim and his brother, managed to put enough aside to buy a summer home in the countryside. After taking some college classes, the young Mesanovich got a job as a computer programmer for the Secretariat for National Defense where he handled top-secret documents of the Yugoslavian government every day. While attending the Center for Education for Young Communists, he was attracted to and later married one of his instructors, Nada Drakulic. Their daughter, Merima, was born in 1979.

He mentions Communism with no hint of political ideology. Membership in the party, he explains, was necessary to hold a meaningful job and receive a nice place to live. He and Nada had a "nice small apartment" with electricity and telephone. His salary was low -- about $700 a month -- but rent amounted to what an American might pay for a carton of cigarettes. Their standard of living "was better than East, but much worse than West." Still, "we didn't know for better."

Under President Josip Tito, any discussion of ethnic identity or religion was forbidden: "Everybody Yugoslav." Not that those things mattered much. "Nobody care about, especially in Bosnia," he says in heavily accented English.

Mesanovich is Muslim, his wife is Serb. Such "dirty marriages," as they were known, were commonplace. He estimates that in Croatia, about 80 percent of the families were of mixed ethnic heritage; in Bosnia, about one-third. Muslims there had nothing in common with those of the Middle East. Bosnian Muslim women "never took scarf," Mesanovich says. The Muslim population drank liquor, smoked and gambled, all practices forbidden by Koranic law. "I wasn't really that Muslim," he says, noting that he was never given any religion classes as a child and didn't attend a mosque. "We had only names" as markers of a person's ancestry, and his first name identified him as Muslim.

Mesanovich remembers the day when it all changed: April 30, 1992. Everything that was familiar became unpredictable; everything that hadn't mattered attained great gravity. That day, the Serbian army rammed its way into Prijedor. The month before, Bosnia-Herzegovina had declared its independence after a republic-wide referendum that had been opposed by Serb political and military forces.Prijedor, a city of about 112,000, was balanced in its population of Serb and Muslim residents, with about 39 percent Muslim and 40 percent Serb. But now it was the Serbian flag that flew everywhere in town. Serbs took control of the police stations, banks and post offices. "Over one night, you change your mind," recalls Mesanovich. "We working together, we live together, we laughing together. And only one night, you change your mind. I'm not your friend. I'm not your relative, I'm not your neighbor."

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