Memento Mori; A reflection on the life and loves of a Bosnian Refugee

Dr. Adnan Zubcevic


We were alone, sitting in his living room, as we discussed his future visit to his village-Turovi . “Next year, I will go with you to Bosnia. We must hike up to the Silver lake and visit  Djokin Toranj on the top of Treskavica . You must remember how on those clear summer days one could see all the way to the Adriatic sea from there. ” His green eyes became even greener and softer when we last talked. In his 16 years in US, Hamza never went back to Bosnia. He was afraid to fly.

 Hamza loved to tell me stories –about days of  his childhood spent riding horses or of rare and unique forms of life found only in this part of Bosnia like the frogs which grow as big as tree trunks, and of legends passed through generations  of  people and times long gone. On a summer morning during his childhood, while on the Treskavica plateau he had once crossed paths with the  huge “king snake” more than 15 meters long.

His stories  would carry him away to a land and the time far, far away from Chelsea. His life as a refugee, and problems in modern day would fade away as he narrated, while I would sit back and listen. He could make me laugh in the way I used to laugh when I was a child. We would get forever lost in the images reborn from his stories. Images filled with shadows of Treskavica’s forests. His memory was a train, taking us away to a simpler time. With just a short trip on this train pleasant memories and images would grow everywhere around me. I would see myself sitting on a stump of a huge pine tree, picking small blueberries, full of juice. My body remembered fresh and sharp  misty mountain mornings air mixed with the scent of freshly cut timber.

Hamza loved to talk about days when he would, as a young shepherd, bring his father’s heard to the highlands’ pastures in the early Spring. There, he camped in an old log cabin. All the way from late spring until the time when mountain peaks would begin turning white with the first and early October snow.

 Treskavica was the first thing Hamza saw when, on one late day of September 1969, his mother, a strong but soft Bosnian village woman brought him to the world. As a young student, I remember, we, the adventurous and reckless city youth, would go hiking on Treskavica. It was usually during winter or summer vacation. In our search for the excitement only the wilderness can bring, we would pack our gear and hit a bus to Trnovo.

Trnovo is a small town, 1-hour ride from Sarajevo. Not even 20 minute’s walk from Trnovo was Turovi, a village of mills and legends, which was tucked comfortably under the skirt of Treskavica mountain. With scattered red roofs peaking behind orchards, a strong smell of manure coming from stables nearby and the sound of running streams around, it looked like a place from a fairy tale.  We would pass through Turovi village on our way up, and often, stop at his father’s home, to get milk, or buy handmade socks. Those were woolen, knee-high socks made by his mother out of wool shaved from their sheep and the best for hiking. Wool would be shaved and spun in early spring and then turned into sweaters, socks or blankets.

 Hamza was a young kid then, a troublemaker from the start, but one of those who knew how to make life meaningful and and, to my full astonishment, Hamza was on the other end of the line. He just said :”Ado, this is Hamza from Turovi”.

He had somehow made it possible for his family to come to Boston. I went that same day to visit him in Chelsea. I found him and his wife, who was very ill at the time with their 2 young boys living in a one bedroom apartment on the 4th floor of the rundown Chelsea building. The only restroom was attached to the only bedroom. I remember how his wife Rasema, although ill, spent days trying to wash the whole place with bleach.


The whole thing felt almost surreal. Hamza did not speak any English. Neither did his wife-Rasema, nor his boys-Senad and Sanel. His wife was so ill that she could not talk (thyroid pressure on her voice cords) nor walk up the stairs (swollen and enlarged legs-lymphedema). Within the next few weeks, we connected the family to services, did all we could. For Rasema, as her condition was our primary concern, we had scheduled numerous medical visits. Hamza started working and boys went to school. With Rasema scheduled for thyroid surgery on March 11 1998, boys’ school, financial struggles and else, no one really had time to pay attention to Hamza’s health. On the day of the surgery, while on the op. table his wife went into toxemia. Medical personnel   figured out (after 5 months of her visits) that she was 5 months pregnant.

  On March 25 1998 she gave a birth to a baby boy weighing 250 grams (8.8 ozs.) and said ”I do not understand what went on and where did this child come from.” On the day of discharge, I took Samir out of the hospital. He comfortably fit in the palm of my hand. I became his Godfather..

Then, life went on and the family bought a little house with a back garden in 2006. I was the first one to be invited and give my “expert opinion” as to whether this was a good investment. Hamza was so proud to show me around. There, he built a big stone grill, a smoke house and planted a vegetable garden. It was not easy life at all, but slowly, things started to improve over next few years.

All until Hamza fell from the scaffolding at the construction site, where he worked and barely survived. This left him unable to continue working. He became disabled. We found a lawyer to sue the insurance for his injuries. As too often things worked for Hamza, his lawyers could not prove with the medical evidence on hand that his back and other injuries were resulting from the accident. In my mind, one does not have to be an expert to prove the obvious in a situation like this. However, nothing came easy to Hamza. After several years and various experts giving their “opinions”, in late 2012 we were coming closer to the final stage of his law suit. Hamza began day dreaming-how he would build a house in Turovi (his own was destroyed in the war), leave some money for his youngest child to finish school and “become somebody” as he would say and give the rest to Rasema.

Hamza got a nickname from me-a Bosnian Rambo. A man of steel, with a heart of cotton. December 6th 2012, was a quiet and a sunny day. Hamza took his truck he fixed recently and drove away to Saugus to see his friend there. That is what Rasema recalled later. She called me around 10 am to tell me, that Hamza has just been taken to the hospital. Rasema was beside herself and, for the first time since I knew Hamza, I felt a stroke of fear that tore through my stomach.  15 minutes later Rasema called again crying and said “Adnan, Hamza died”.

Hamza, I just hope you can now freely roam over your mountains. Watch first violets break through the receding snow. Chase deer and follow steps to Dedo’s cave that only you knew about. I know I miss you. And if it makes any sense now, I want to thank you for all you were to me. Thank you for building the house for my cat Soccer when he got ill. Thank you for building walls in our new office in Lynn.