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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
A man stands near a dirt road in the small farming community of Talovici, Bosnia. Serbs overran the village in March 1993.

TALOVICI, Bosnia-Herzegovina — When Serbs overran this tiny farming community in March 1993, the family of Suljo Talovic temporarily split up.

Many Bosnian men joined ragtag resistance units. "These people had no food, they had no right equipment to wage war," said Adi Sokolija, a translator interviewed in Sarajevo.

"Bosnia didn't have an army before the war," explained Nedim Hasic, a journalist from Sarajevo who translated for the Deseret Morning News in Talovici and Sarajevo, "and people get organized, just like this (snapping his fingers), overnight....

"They didn't have weapons or ammunition and everything, but they thought it was better to die during the fight to try to protect their families and villages. That was better than to be killed just like that."

Suljo Talovic, the father, had to leave his family and go into the mountains with other men from Talovici.

Other villagers went to Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia. The town was designated a "safe area" where refugees would be protected by the United Nations.

Among the thousands of refugees in Srebrenica were Suljo's wife, Sabira Talovic, who was about 24 years old and pregnant; their son, Sulejman, 4 at the time; Ajka Omerovic, Suljo's sister, and her son, Safer, 9 months; and the father of Ajka and Suljo, Neho Talovic.

Two other children of Suljo and Sabira Talovic, a boy and a girl, had died earlier. One died before the war while the other's death was blamed on lack of proper medical care during wartime.

"Civilians went to Srebrenica," said Sacir Cumurovic, a cousin of Suljo Talovic, interviewed in Talovici. A Jacksonville, Fla., resident, he went back to Bosnia for the funeral of Sulejman Talovic last month.

"Army was in the forests hiding, trying to find a way out," he said. "But civilian, children and women, went into Srebrenica."

Why did people leave Talovici? "Serbs attack them and everybody go to Srebrenica and Tuzla.... His wife and his kids going to Srebrenica and Suljo going to Tuzla."

Asked why the family split up, Cumurovic replied, "Because he's (Suljo Talovic) in army." He wasn't injured in the war, he added.

Monika — a 17-year-old Bosnian refugee who lives in Amarillo, Texas, and who carried out a telephone romance with Sulejman Talovic in the weeks before he was killed in the police shoot-out at Trolley Square — said he told her his little brother and sister died because of the war.

He may not have known that actually one child's death happened before the fighting. Or he could have exaggerated while talking with Monika.

Sulejman Talovic also told Monika that his grandfather was killed in the war, but did not say how.

Asked if Sulejman Talovic was afraid during the war, Monika — who has requested that her last name not be printed — replied, "Yeah, he was really afraid."

He told her "how tragic it was and how they didn't have anything to eat, and they were in the forest. They lived in the forest for three years.... They lived like off of wild food, like mushrooms" and drank dew from the ground.

Sulejman Talovic saw people shot in the head and stomach, including a mother and baby, according to Monika. "He saw dead people around them in these holes," she said.

A commander remembers

The day of the funeral in Talovici, Hasic located a man who identified himself as Suljo Talovic's military commander in a defensive unit during the war.

The man said his first name is Alija but did not give his surname. He refused to speak with the American newspaper during an interview attempt, although he did talk with Hasic.

"He was talking about the way they had to run out of here on March 16, 1993, when Serbs came into the village," Hasic translated. "So the family split up. Wife and the kids went on to Srebrenica, Suljo with the army."

Alija described Suljo Talovic as an ordinary soldier, not an officer. "He says that he was really good soldier, and says that he knows all his family.

"And he keeps asking himself, Why's this (the Trolley Square shootings) happen?" Hasic said.

Even during the worst days of the war, Suljo Talovic was a good, steady man, according to Alija. While he was serving, he did not know what had happened to his family, but he "never act in rage. He was always calm and peaceful man."

That was true "even in the most awful days of the wartime, when they were completely desperate, without ammunition, without weapons.... They were eating what they found in the forests, in the mountains," Hasic interpreted.

Ajka Omerovic said her brother Suljo Talovic wasn't in "the real army. He was just protecting the village and family, that's all." The men of Talovici tried to defend the women and children but may not even have had guns, she said.

The massacres

Suljo Talovic was right to worry about his family at Srebrenica while he was in the mountains.

In July 1995, two years after the Talovics had been evacuated from Srebrenica, outnumbered U.N. troops allowed Serb forces to take over the "safe area" and a terrible slaughter began. Men were forced onto buses, taken to killing fields, executed by machine gun fire and buried by bulldozer. The murders lasted several days.

Most of the Talovic family members were gone from Srebrenica by then. "The Holland convoy brought us food" in trucks, said Ajka Omerovic.

At Srebrenica, Sabira Talovic had given birth to a daughter, Medina, now 14. In 1993, refugees with newborn babies were allowed to leave the area.

"They just jumped into the trucks, go back to Tuzla," Ajka Omerovic said. The city was more secure than the U.N. refugee center.

She and her son stayed in Srebrenica. Her father, Neho Talovic, was killed there. "He was sitting there with his friends and somebody kill him," Ajka Omerovic said. The family doesn't know who fired the shot.

"He died after two days."

She and her child Safer were present during the 1995 massacre.

"Oh, I cannot tell you how that like," she said. "It's terrible."

After the town was overrun, Serbs rounded up the men and killed them, amounting to 8,000, she said.

"They occupied us and put us in one building," she said. People were taken from the building, a battery factory, and killed or raped. The Serbs could "do whatever they want," she said. Women were killed there, she said.

The Bosnian agony had an effect on her nephew, Sulejman Talovic, she believes. "I don't make any excuses, but it's terrible to suffer something like that."

Even though he was a young boy, he knew what was going on, she believes. She thinks his mother said that when they were traveling from Srebrenica to Tuzla, he saw women killed and women raped.

"The enemy can just stop the truck and take you and kill you or whatever they want," she said. "I think they said he saw some of that."

Hasic said Serb forces searched for people hiding in the forests. "The same moment they found them they just shot them, and they put them into the mass graves," the journalist added.

"Lots of people have been missing, nobody knows where they are. Lots of people have been eaten by wild animals."

He added, something like 50 mass graves have been discovered. "And right now ... we are finding the mass graves, but you don't know who is inside of the mass graves."

The World Court recently ruled that at Srebrenica, "Bosnian Serb forces killed over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men." Many Bosnians maintain the figure was 8,000 or more and included boys as well as men.

Last month the World Court placed blame on ethnic Serb forces from Bosnia for the murders at Srebrenica, but not on the republic of Serbia, saying only that Serbia should have stopped the genocide. Bosnians insist that the republic of Serbia itself was involved.

Becoming refugees

Hasic translated what Suljo Talovic said in his native language concerning the family's movements after the mother and children left Srebrenica. The refugees went to a suburban area of Tuzla called the Bare, he said.

"After few months they finally put the family together. They were living in those suburban area for two and a half years, but they were really poor."

Life was "awful" for refugees in Bosnia, he said. "They didn't have a chance to return to their homes. The homes were completely destroyed.... And during the war they were settled in the schools or in the gyms."

But once life began to return to something resembling normal, the school would reopen and displaced would have to leave.

The Talovic family ended up staying in a destroyed house that had belonged to Serbs, and they tried to farm. They had no job, Hasic said. The small house was without windows, water or electricity.

The Bosnian government brought some supplies and international humanitarian groups contributed food and other items, he said. "That was during the war. After the war the help started to vanish."

Ajka Omerovic summed up the family's war experience: "Only suffering from war. Like don't have enough food, don't have place to stay."

Hasic said relatives who were in America helped the family. "In 1998, they came into the United States completely legal."

War's impact

Sulejman Talovic seemed far younger than his years when he arrived in Salt Lake City around age 10, according to two who knew him, then-uncle Nasir Omerovic and Musto Redzovic, the landlord of the small home where the Talovics were resettled.

Nasir Omerovic, who was married to Ajka Omerovic and now lives out of state, added that the boy was unintelligent and that he sometimes engaged in brutal actions, like choking his son, Safer, who was nearly four years younger. He also packed broken glass in a snowball and threw at Safer's head, drawing blood, he added.

Other family members and Monika insist that Sulejman Talovic was a nice person and that they had no inkling violence would erupt from him on Feb. 12. His uncle Sacir Cumurovic, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., said, "I just remember him as a really nice kid."

Sulejman Talovic was emotionally disturbed, Nasir Omerovic thinks. He might have begun his murder spree not realizing he probably would be killed, he speculated; the youth may have believed he would go to jail, get out eventually and be a big man because of the crimes.

Redzovic, now a resident of the Tampa, Fla., area, recalled a telling incident from the family's first year or so in Salt Lake City. He was working around the small house he owned, where the Talovics were living. Sulejman Talovic asked something; he no longer remembers what it was, but said the boy didn't speak English.

"He had a knife in his hand," the landlord said. He speculated that maybe the boy thought he was protecting the home against an intruder.

"Somebody breaking in, who knows what he thought?" Redzovic asked. "Some stranger? Something very confusing."

The boy looked as if he were 5 years old, rather than about 10, and Redzovic simply took away the knife.

Remembering the younger Sulejman Talovic after the Trolley Square killings, Redzovic said, "You could tell in his eyes that something is wrong with him.

"He's unhappy, he's angry or bored.... You can tell this child needs help."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com