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True Soul Food

April 7, 2006

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    David Snyder for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: David Snyder for Mercy Corps

Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Omer Spahic's culinary specialty is a savory bean dish called grah. Of all the meals I ate during two weeks in the Balkans, it is quite possibly the best.

And of all the stories I heard during that time — heart-wrenching tales that will forever haunt and move me — Spahic's was among the most inspiring.

As we sit around a white plastic table — one of seven in the tiny dining room of his ascinica, or short-order café — several people walk through the restaurant's front door. Some stay to eat, but most just come in to greet Spahic, catch up on news and get back on their way. He greets each like an old friend.

Spahic is a restaurateur by trade, but over the last 14 years he's been a refugee, a pioneer and a benefactor to war-torn families in the area around Srebrenica. His café is the focal point for Bosnian Muslim families who've received Mercy Corps aid to return to this small city, home to one of the 20th century's worst massacres.

Diminutive and wrapped in a white apron, Spahic seems an unlikely leader — until he starts telling his story.

Years away from home

Spahic has been in the restaurant business since 1958, when he worked for a state-owned hotel in Zvornik, a city about an hour north of here. In 1966, he decided to move back to his quiet, idyllic hometown of Srebrenica to try his own luck and open a small café. For 26 years, he and his wife Jamila operated the business on a tiny back street and enjoyed moderate success. He cooked the main dishes while she confected the desserts. They had dozens of regular customers that came in to enjoy a hot, traditional meal and easygoing conversation.

Then, in 1992, everything changed. As the Bosnian War started to rage and ethnic divisions turned violent, Spahic and his family were forced to flee Srebrenica. There was no time to pack. They abandoned their home, restaurant and the life they'd built for three decades and escaped to Tuzla, a predominately Muslim city two hours away.

They didn't even have a change of clothes.

For two years they lived in Tuzla, finding whatever work they could to survive as the front lines of a horrific war advanced ever closer. They were cut off from their children, who were going to school two hours away in Sarajevo, a one-time Olympic host city under constant siege and bombardment.

In 1994, Spahic and his wife made a brave decision to find their children and make their family whole again. They traveled from Tuzla to Sarajevo, hitchhiking and walking along mountainous roads. It took them more than 24 hours to traverse what is normally a two-hour trip. After reaching Sarajevo's outskirts, they made their way into the city through an 860-meter-long underground tunnel.

Reunited with their children, they rode out the remainder of the war in Sarajevo and stayed there until 1999, four years after the guns finally fell silent. At that time, Spahic decided it was time to go home to Srebrenica.

His was the first Bosnian Muslim family to return to a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina that was synonymous with death.

The courage to stay

Even though the war had ended, Srebrenica remained an inhospitable place for Bosnian Muslims, including Spahic and his family. This is the place where approximately 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred and thrown into mass graves. In many ways, Srebrenica was — and remains — the single biggest symbol for the cruelty and bloodshed of the Bosnian War.

To Spahic, though, it had always been home.

Unfortunately, the family returned to Srebrenica to find the city in shambles and, most painfully, their home and restaurant partially ruined. Two Bosnian Serb families had claimed those parts of the building that were habitable. Since Spahic was a returnee and a Bosnian Muslim in a predominately Bosnian Serb area, he didn't have any rights or recourse to evict those families from his house. To raise a grievance might have meant harm for him and his family.

So Spahic and his family moved into an apartment building that had been purchased and renovated by the U.S. Embassy for the use of Bosnian Muslim returnees. During his time there, Spahic made the acquaintance of not only other returnee families, but American and other international officials as well.

He became an advocate for the rights of returnee families and a voice for those who faced the challenges of trying to reclaim their homes and lost livelihoods.

In 2001, the families that had been squatting in Spahic's building finally left — but not before looting, trashing and burning what remained of the house and restaurant. Again, Spahic could only watch.

He continued to live in the space provided by the U.S. Embassy, and his reputation as a leader of returnees grew. He even met with the American ambassador to discuss the difficulties of once-displaced families returning to the area.

The ambassador listened, took notice and contacted an organization he was sure could help the Spahics and other families that had returned to Srebrenica.

A grand re-opening

The U.S. Embassy got in touch with Mercy Corps, which had been operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1993. The organization was working with returnee families in other parts of the country, helping them return to their homes and restore their businesses.

Mercy Corps came to Srebrenica to meet and discuss its assistance programs with Spahic and other returnees. Soon afterward, the organization began rebuilding Spahic's house.

The American Ambassador even came to Srebrenica on his own birthday to help with the rebuilding of Bosnian Muslim returnee houses. Spahic marked the occasion by cooking him burek, a flavorful meat pie prepared for special events and celebrations.

In 2002, Spahic and his family were finally able to move back into their home. They were also able to re-open their restaurant, thanks to new kitchen appliances furnished by Mercy Corps as part of an economic development grant.

Since then, business has steadily been improving. A popular saying among locals is, "If you don't eat at [Spahic's restaurant] while you're in Srebrenica, then you've never been to Srebrenica."

Queen Noor of Jordan must have gotten the message; she's eaten here in recent years, her visit commemorated with a picture on the wall. Countless national politicians and international diplomats have dined here, too.

Still, Spahic's most important clientele remains the families he befriended during his first harrowing months back in Srebrenica. They still come here for food and fellowship, to commiserate about the past and offer each other encouragement for the future. Mercy Corps often comes up in their conversations.

"Mercy Corps has supported everyone who's returned here in some way - farmers, carpenters, businessmen," Spahic says. "Small or large, the assistance you offered was always timely, thoughtful and important."

Something sweet

After I've sopped every morsel of grah from my bowl with warm, fluffy bread, Spahic emerges from the kitchen with a treat from his wife: apple baklava drizzled with local honey. It is ambrosial and soul soothing.

And then my Mercy Corps colleague Darko tells me something even sweeter than the dessert.

"At the end of each day, Mr. Spahic takes the restaurant's leftovers and hand delivers them to poor returnee families in the area," he whispers. "He will never say this, but we've heard it from a lot of the families we're helping."

As we pay the meager bill and leave the restaurant, Spahic hands me a to-go box, even though I'm certain I've finished all my food. He says something, and nods his head slightly.

"Burek," Darko translates. "He wanted you to try it."

I smile, shake the courageous restaurateur's hand and walk out into the chilly late-winter afternoon. Spahic calls out something else as we make our way to the car.

"He said to come back soon," Darko tells me.

I really wish I could.