Five years ago an 18-year-old Serb named Sasa slit the throats of an elderly Bosnian couple and used their blood to write his name on the roof of a nearby warehouse.
Shortly afterward Sasa was critically wounded, and Esad Boskailo, a Bosnian Muslim doctor serving at an army hospital, found himself in a position to save the young man’s life. “My own soldiers were saying, ‘If you save his life, we’ll kill you,'” recalls Boskailo. “So I got my gun and saved his life. I had to ride in the ambulance and everything with him, because the nurse would have killed him or the driver would have killed him.”
Between March 1993 and August 1994 Boskailo was interned in nine different concentration camps, surviving mental and physical torture while nursing the wounds of other torture victims and talking fellow prisoners out of commiting suicide. Typically he lived on a cup of coffee and a plate of rice every other day. “There were days I couldn’t see because I was so dizzy,” he says, “days I couldn’t walk because I was so weak.” Exhausted, injured, and 75 pounds lighter than before, Boskailo was rescued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees; three and a half years ago he was reunited with his wife, his mother, and his two young sons in Chicago. Now 39, he retains a boyish face despite his ordeal in the camps.
Boskailo lived in Pocitelj, a hamlet where Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats had coexisted peacefully. But that changed in 1993, when members of the Croat Defense Council arrested the wealthier and more educated Muslims, about 160 doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers. Boskailo was seized outside a cafe as he tried to enter with his wife. While his status as a doctor led to his arrest, he says it also saved him many times. Prior to his arrest he had treated soldiers and civilians of all ethnicities, and in the camps he was reunited with many of his former patients.
“So many times I would hear my name called,” he says. “Out of 4,000 prisoners, if you hear your name called, you know you are dead. There’s no other reason for them to call your name. Many times I had a gun put to my head. But then some soldier would come forward, someone who I didn’t even remember, and he would say, ‘He saved my life. If you kill him, then I’ll kill you.’ And then no one would touch me for a while afterwards.”
But even people who had been friendly with the prisoners before the war were quick to turn against them. “At first the guards were all nice,” says Boskailo. “Anything we wanted–food, drink, cigarettes–they would get it for us. But then they brought in some soldiers with experience in torture, and every day afterward we saw someone good turn bad. Suddenly people who used to be my good friends were torturing me. Neighbors, people who I had helped, who would call me at 3 AM before the war and say, ‘My father is sick,’ and I would go and help and not even take money. And now they want to kill me just because of my name.”
One day when Boskailo was being held in a ground-floor barrack, he heard a German accent outside. The prisoners had been ordered to stay away from the windows, but he and a friend opened a window and saw a guard being questioned by a Red Cross investigator who was searching for the well-known group of 160. The guard denied their existence, saying the barracks were empty except for criminals. But Boskailo caught the eye of the investigator’s Bosnian interpreter: “When you’re a survivor your mind works quickly.” Boskailo says he held up a pack of cigarettes, a popular brand called “160.” The interpreter understood and relayed the information to the Red Cross investigator, who confronted the guard. “Once the Red Cross had found you, you knew you would survive,” says Boskailo. “So we were happy. But it turned out not to be true, because soon they started killing us.” By the end of the war, 30 of the 160 were dead.
“The torture was nothing compared to watching people die,” he says. In one of the camps Boskailo watched as a friend of 30 years, a commander in the Bosnian army, was put to death. “We were best friends, neighbors since elementary school–we even had kids the same age. He told me he knew they were going to kill him. I saw him come in from being tortured, all bloody, and then they took him away. I was the last one to see him.”
Death became such a constant in Boskailo’s life that it no longer frightened him. He describes with an amazingly even tone the many times he faced death, only to be saved once again. “The main guard in the prison called me out and says, ‘I’m going to kill you,'” he explains. “He fired a shot and missed. He says, ‘OK, I missed you today. I’ll kill you tomorrow.’ He did that every morning and night for ten days. I wasn’t afraid. I thought, ‘Go ahead and kill me so this will be over.'” Boskailo says he was completely calm and rational during his internment, so determined was he to survive. “I spent many nights trying to talk people out of suicide,” he says. “Then someone would come to me in the middle of the night and say, ‘You’re right, I won’t kill myself. My family needs me.’ That’s what kept me going.”
Boskailo says he lost his cool only upon hearing that his own family had been arrested. Five months after he was imprisoned, his wife, Aisa, and his two sons, ages two and four, were rounded up because of their relation to him. But a Croat guard, a former patient of Boskailo’s, helped the doctor’s wife and children escape to Italy. Another friendly guard helped them communicate with him: Aisa mailed photos, cigarettes, and food to the guard’s home, and the guard risked his life to deliver them to Boskailo.
When Boskailo was finally released, he faced the inevitable psychological backlash. “When you’re under pressure you can handle anything,” he says. “But when the pressure’s released, then you don’t know what to do. I had nightmares, got angry, very irritable. I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t understand why friends and neighbors did this to us.” He says that after his family was arrested, their car was stolen and their house looted by a man whose life Boskailo had saved. “He had a huge hole in his back–he was shot by a tank in the mountains,” says Boskailo. “He says, ‘You saved my life. I’ll never forget you.’ Then this same guy came back and took my car.” Boskailo heard recently that the man had died in the stolen car and that another man who’d occupied his house had drowned in a nearby river. “We have a saying in Bosnia, which I guess is the same here,” he says. “You reap what you sow.”
Luckily he was able to join his family, who had emigrated to Chicago after a cousin agreed to sponsor them. According to the World Relief refugee resettlement program, Chicago has the largest Bosnian community in the United States, 10,000 strong and growing every day. After his arrival Boskailo learned English and passed the U.S. exams to earn his MD. At the Heartland Alliance’s refugee mental health center he counsels other Bosnians and acts as a translator during their sessions with psychologists. The work has helped him deal with his own experiences. “It was secondary healing,” he says. “My story is nothing compared to what I hear in the program. When I recognized I could be helpful here and make a difference, that helped a lot.”
He’s eager to return to medicine and has applied for a residency in anesthesiology at the University of Illinois, but he’s open to any type of practice. “Before I was crazy about psychiatry,” he says. “Now anything will be OK, even dermatology. I just want to be what I was before.” Since his arrival he’s helped found the Galilee Medical Center near Lincoln Square, a free clinic for Bosnians. He recruited Naser Rustom to run the clinic on Saturdays and hired Aisa, a microbiologist, as medical assistant. Now the clinic has several Bosnian employees and operates every day, offering physical care to Bosnians whether or not they have insurance. “That’s the thing I’m most proud of,” says Boskailo. “A lot of concentration camp survivors are terrified of seeing a doctor, because people were killed by doctors in the camps. Here they can get care from other Bosnians.”
In his spare time Boskailo solicits donations for newly arriving Bosnians and indulges his passion for basketball. During high school, college, and medical school he traveled Europe as a pro with the Bosnian National League; today he follows the Bulls with a passion, and he still plays every weekend despite the pain in his knees caused by torture. Boskailo also edits and writes for the Bosnian-American magazine Zambak. When he joined the staff, Zambak was a newsletter with only two issues to its credit; now it’s a glossy, color bimonthly with poetry, stories about refugees, news from Bosnia, and information on sports, music, and entertainment relevant to Bosnian-Americans.
Occasionally he tries to make sense of the conflict that made him an exile and took so many of his friends and family. “You can’t call it war,” he says. “War is two armed states fighting over something. We had no arms. We weren’t fighting for anything but our homes. This was aggression, genocide. Why? I don’t know. All I know is there were 200,000 Bosnians killed in Bosnia, but no Bosnians fighting outside of Bosnia. Serbs and Croats were coming here to fight us. I had to fight to defend my family, but nothing could ever make me go to another country and kill people, nothing.”
These thoughts will always be with him, but the past doesn’t weigh too heavily on Boskailo. “You stay busy day to day and you don’t think about it so much,” he says. “I think about my family, the Bosnian community, medicine, my job. I don’t think about the past or the future.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Estad Boskailo photo by J.B. Spector.