No matter how much my father tries to hide his accent, he still trips over the “th” sound. “They”, “them” and “there” become “dey”, “dem” and “dere” when he speaks.
His mouth has committed the rest of the English language to memory. He has learned how to weave local phrases and American slang into his near-perfect English to disguise the remaining traces of his mother tongue.
As if to combat the natural, open sounds of the Slavic vowels he grew up speaking, my father pronounces his letters with an exaggerated, nasal tone. That, combined with the way he unironically says “Da Bears”, tricks most people into thinking he grew up in Chicago.
His impediment has turned him into a caricature, the poster boy for the Chicago family man.
Except my father is a Sarajlija – someone born in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He spent 17 years of his life walking, talking and surviving like a Bosnian until the war forced him to flee.
In September 1995, he arrived in the United States on a refugee visa. By 2000, he would be married, have a child and have become a citizen. My father escaped the war and devoted the rest of his life to forgetting it.
War lives on
But war does not end just because the guns are put down. War lives on, passed down to future generations and disseminated around the world. About 40,000 Bosnian refugees came to Chicago between 1992 and 1995, each carrying a war story with them. Some of them had kids, and they became the next chapter in a story that is still unfolding.
I had no choice but to become part of a war story. In the US my father married my mother, an American-born Kosovar Albanian, now his ex-wife, in the same year that the Dayton Accords were signed, 1995.
Thanks to ethnic tensions, their marriage was – and still is – considered controversial.
Violence was simmering in Kosovo in 1995; it would erupt into full-blown armed conflict in 1998, when my mother was pregnant with me. The wars would haunt all of us even after the bombing of Serbia in 1999, which ended three days before my first birthday.
Sometimes, Balkan politics seeped into my parents’ arguments, and marital affairs became another unintended consequence of the war.