Tuesday, September 28, 2021

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Rain and cold and dark were all that awaited the women and children riding the late night bus when they were ordered off into the rain and cold and dark. Terrified.

“The military men took all of us off the bus, and they put us in a line to wait for something. What for? No one is talking to anyone. They were just keeping us there. The kids had to go pee. A guy said, ‘You can just go behind those bushes.’ So I took my son and my niece, and we went behind the bushes. By the time we came back, I see my sister, absolutely petrified, just shaking, my mom next to her. My mom is holding my other son; my sister is holding her son. ‘What happened?’ I asked.”

Zeljka Krvavica sits across from me, gracefully leaning into the straight-back bench. Even 23 years later, in her comfortable living room on a sunny fall day in Des Moines, Iowa, this is still not easy.

“This is one of the experiences I really, really try to forget.”

Zeljka Krvavica was born and raised in Sarajevo in a time of peace and prosperity. A multicultural European city made up of Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, Jews and everyone else. She had family and friends, and was highly successful in her work. By the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, she was one of the leaders in charge of the opening and closing ceremonies. She met her future husband, and life was good.

Prep Iowa

“Sarajevo is a cosmopolitan town. Crossroads of East and West. It has always been a very politically involved town. In former Yugoslavia, it was a mixture of everyone. It was a very exciting city.”

The Olympics ended. People were so impressed by her work that she was invited to be on the personal staff of the ambassador to the United States. With husband in tow, off they went to Washington, D.C. Four wonderful years later, with a new baby, they were given a choice — return to Sarajevo or continue working in D.C. Zeljka and her husband chose Sarajevo, the home they loved. It was 1989.

Zeljka, smart, politically savvy, an intellectual, says she was oblivious to the dangerous changes taking place in her world. She, like many people living in Sarajevo, thought the violence brewing around the Balkans from the breakup of Yugoslavia could not possibly include them and their beautiful city. So they chose to stay.

“We were thinking this would never happen in Bosnia. Part of the reason we went back to Bosnia was to vote. We knew something historic was going on. We wanted to cast our voices for the independence of Bosnia Herzegovina. The majority of Bosnians, especially in urban areas, were people who were more laid back, and not homogenous like in the villages. They did not think anything was going to happen. Then, we suddenly realized something was happening.”

And the bombing of Sarajevo began. Zeljka’s world turned upside down. The men were trapped. She, raised as a Catholic, and her husband, raised as a Muslim, faced another choice — to separate and get the children out, or to stay together in a city under siege. They chose for her and the children to leave. Zeljka and her two babies, her sister and her two babies, and her mother, were allowed to leave on a night bus evacuating women and small children. And so they were on the bus, in the middle of the night, traveling in Bosnian Serb-held lands. Everyone was terrified. The bus was stopped. They were all ordered off the bus. They were told to stand in a line in the wet and the cold and the dark.

Then, the unthinkable.

“The soldiers announced that we had to leave one child there and just take one child with us. ‘No, no, no! You are not taking all your children,’ they shouted. ‘One child for one woman or family!’ ”

Zeljka pauses. Lost in the memory. Lost in the choice.

“And then we all started crying and screaming. And the soldiers were like, ‘We will kill you.’ ”

Zeljka’s words begin to tumble together.

“And then suddenly, another military man came up. We were standing there freezing. He told us, ‘GO GO GO!’ ”

Zeljka calms her breath.

“And we just all jumped on the bus with all our children and left.”

It was the beginning of her life as a refugee. Eventually she ended up in Croatia with other refugee women and children.

“There was a lot of solidarity and a lot of helping each other. My feminism really got stronger there, seeing these women being able to survive and be pillars for their families and save these kids. With all due respect, I have always been a strong believer that women are much stronger than men. In every aspect.”

Zeljka’s husband joined her (courtesy of a U.S. military flight out of Sarajevo because their first son was a U.S. citizen) and an offer was made for resettlement. Come to Iowa.

“I got a cable asking if I would accept a job in Iowa. I said, ‘Yes I would.’ I didn’t ask any more questions about what the job was.” Zeljka laughs softly.

Later, when they were approved and she asked the woman doing the resettlement paperwork for any information on Iowa, the woman paused and said, “Well, I’m from New York.” The woman paused in thought again. “Yes, yes, potatoes. You will be eating a lot of potatoes in Iowa.”

But Zeljka did come to Iowa and is presently a case manager with the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services. She has a special affinity for women refugees and runs several programs to address issues of mental health and domestic abuse and to teach diversity training to our kids in school. But the job is rarely easy.joes 1

“Over 8,000 men and boys were killed in three days in a tiny little village in eastern Bosnia, just because someone thought they were different and were of a different religion. So, can you imagine serving the mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters of these men?”

Recently, Zeljka Krvavica went to Washington, D.C., to collect an award from President Obama. She was honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees. What does that mean? Well, she saves people.

And so it sometimes goes with choices. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.


  1. Denise Day says:

    Thank you for writing about overlooked people. Zeljka is remarkable!

  2. clara hart says:

    I am honored to work alongside Zeljka. She is a strong woman who pursues her love to advocate for the rights of other refugees regardless of where they come from. She is one of the individuals who I respect and is honest about sharing her true feelings/opinions. She is politically savvy and yes, diplomatic. She is a true champion for refugees and she is one to have on her right side. Well done my friend, I know your work is still not done.

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