So many voices, so many shootings," says Emir Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü, recalling the Serbian invasion of Br‚àÜí‚àö√üko, a Bosnian town 80 miles north of Sarajevo. It was on May 5, 1992, that Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü, 33, a former first-division soccer player in Yugoslavia and Turkey, began a terrifying odyssey that ended only three months ago when he arrived at his new home in Kirkland, Wash. "God save me, I was thinking. I am not guilty for anything—or kill me like normal dog," he says in heavily inflected English.
One month after Serbian forces attacked Sarajevo, Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü (pronounced GER-sech) and 16 other Muslims living in his Br‚àÜí‚àö√üko apartment building were rounded up by Serb militiamen, who were led by a man calling himself Hitler. "I've killed 75 people," said the man, waving his gun. "I will kill you all." He singled out Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü. "You have blue eyes. You are Usta‚Äö√¢√†¬¨‚àûa," the man said, referring to the Croatian fascist movement against the Serbs during World War II. "You are a sniper like me."
"I don't know how to shoot," Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü replied. "I am a sportsman, not a soldier." His protest fell on deaf ears.
Two by two his neighbors, all men, all civilians, were led into the street and shot. Six had already died when Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü was taken from the building to be shot. He thought about his wife, Enisa, and their two young sons, who had fled two months earlier to Split, in Croatia. "I think, O.K., no problem, I lived," he says. "Then a car stopped, and a man called my name. He knew me as a player. He said, 'Save this man. He's honest. He's a sportsman.' " The Serbs let Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü go.
In 12 years as a professional soccer player, he had teamed with players of every ethnic background in the former Yugoslavia and had made several appearances with the Bosnian national team. A hardworking midfielder, he had earned a reputation as a skilled, sportsman-like player. Then, just as he was considering a move into coaching or refereeing, the invasion came, forcing him into hiding.
Two months later Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü was caught again and spent the next eight months in a concentration camp in Batkovi‚àÜí‚àö√ü, where, he says, as many as 100 men were murdered by the Serbs. "Every five days they would shoot somebody to frighten us," he says. As Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü explained it, if a Serbian soldier lost his life in, say, Br‚àÜí‚àö√üko, a prisoner from the same town would be killed in retaliation. He lost more than 50 pounds during his imprisonment; others did not survive on the diet of bread and thin soup.
Upon his release last March in a prisoner exchange, Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü was put to work by the Bosnian Army digging trenches—a task he was excused from after two days because he was too weak to do the work. Then, fleeing the country in an ambulance driven by a friend, on foot and by taxi, he made his way to the Croatian border and into Split, where he was united with his family for the first time in a year. His sons, Amar and Adi, 8 and 5, respectively, did not recognize him.
But still he did not feel safe. The rising tension between Croats and Muslims, as well as his experiences in Br‚àÜí‚àö√üko and Batkovi‚àÜí‚àö√ü, convinced Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü that he and his family could no longer live among people "schooled for killing."
"I cannot explain such hate," he says, searching for words. "These are not human beings. They are animals. They are a motive without reason."
In Split, Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü applied to a U.S. government refugee-resettlement program designed for those who had been in concentration camps. When he was the last in the group to qualify, he realized that for a second time his life had been spared at the last moment.
Like their fellow refugees, the Grci‚àÜí‚àö√üs were sent to New York before being assigned to a local aid agency elsewhere in the country. Once in Kirkland, Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü was given some money, a green card and help in finding both a place to live and a job. Grci‚àÜí‚àö√ü still has the drawn look of someone who has returned from the dead. While he has regained most of the weight he lost in Batkovi‚àÜí‚àö√ü, he understands that no one survives an ordeal such as his without being marked for life in some way. Nevertheless, he has a ready smile, a quick laugh. "I want to find good things to remember and move on. I lost two houses and a car, but I am lucky," he says. "A lot of people lost everything, and now they are dead."
"I want to play again," he says wistfully. "I need one or two months to get in shape. But I have a lot of experience, and now I don't have to run as much."
Christopher Merrill is the author of six books, including one on soccer around the world.