Surviving the Bosnian Genocide

Physician tells story of tragedy, survival, triumph

Jeremy Beren, Reporter

The first thing Esad Boškailo will tell you about himself is that he is a winner.

“I call myself a winner all the time. I win this game with a high score. I’m free, I have a professional career, a family life, everything,” he said in his thick Eastern European accent.

Boškailo is an attending psychiatrist at Maricopa Integrated Health System (MIHS), and is the System’s associate director of Psychiatric Residency Training. But beyond being a doctor, Boškailo is also a survivor of the Bosnian War, having lived through placement in six concentration camps over a span of one year.

I first met Boškailo when I was 12 years old. My mother is a social worker for MIHS, and knew Boškailo quite well. But the sheer magnitude of what this man has been through shocked me much more now than it did when I was in seventh grade.

His assistant led me to his office. Clad in a dress shirt and sporting spiked gray hair, Boškailo was working away at his computer. The walls of his office were a shade of aquamarine, and to his left hung two framed posters. One poster was a colorful advertisement for a fake Led Zeppelin concert, which would have taken place at the legendary Fillmore West in 1969. The other was an enlarged version of the Jimi Hendrix album cover titled, “Live at Woodstock.”

“I listen to Led Zeppelin every day. When I listen to them, it changes my whole mood,” Boškailo said.

Across from the posters, on the other side of his office, stood a tall mahogany-colored bookshelf that displayed two action figures still in their cases. One was an Albert Einstein action figure and the other, Sigmund Freud. Boškailo quipped with a hearty chuckle that these were gifts. Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara’s images were scattered throughout the office.

“It is not necessarily what he believed in, but what he symbolized,” Boškailo said, referring to Guevara’s long-standing association with rebellion and independence. Boškailo moved from the back of the office, where he was sitting and working on the desktop, to the front, where there was a much larger desk with a laptop on it. He pulled out a plastic container that held a meal of scrambled eggs and vegetables, which he plunged his fork into sporadically and took bites.

A complex man such as Boškailo came from humble beginnings. He was born in a small town near the Adriatic Sea. His father was a maintenance worker in a large factory, while his mother was a homemaker.

“I lived in a little town called Pocitelj in South Bosnia, and life was nice and easy. I had a large family, many friends, liked going to the ocean, playing basketball – I did play semi-professional basketball for four or five years,” Boškailo said.

After his time playing semi-pro ball ended, Boškailo spent six years at medical school in Bosnia. He was inspired to pursue a career in medicine after a conversation he had with a cousin.

“One of my cousins told me I had some kind of skills to talk to people, and I was always open. He kind of talked me into it,” he said. Upon graduating, Boškailo completed an internship and received a position as an emergency room physician. He held this job when war broke out in April 1992.

“One day, April 6, I think, I was going to work five kilometers from my home. I was stopped by five or six masked people with big guns,” Boškailo said. Boškailo defied their orders to return home and insisted he be allowed to proceed to work and tend to his patients who needed care. After a young man took off his mask and threatened to kill him, Boškailo relented and went home, where he devised a plan to send three of his friends and their children to safety in Croatia.

“I was thinking that they wouldn’t stop kids,” he said. However, instead of heading home, Boškailo worked on the frontline with little equipment, and the knowledge that six of his neighbors had already been killed. His neighborhood was a war zone and the conflict was escalating.

For the next year, Boškailo helped civilians and soldiers going from frontline to frontline until Croatians arrested him. “I was placed in a concentration camp and I spent over a year in six different concentration camps. I was tortured and almost starved to death. When I was freed by the U.N., I couldn’t walk,” Boškailo said with an eerie calm.

Boškailo lost between 80 and 90 pounds during his ordeal, living in terrible conditions, surrounded by people who were interrogated, starved, tortured and killed daily. Sadly, Boškailo knew several of those who were sentenced to death.

Because of his occupation, Boškailo was allowed to live, but his will and dogged determination also contributed to his survival. “I want to tell you something – it’s not only about physical freedom. Emotional freedom is much bigger,” he leaned in and declared. “I am free to talk about every single event because I didn’t do anything bad.”

Boškailo arrived in Chicago, IL. on Aug. 8, 1994. Several members of his family were already in Chicago, arriving via a settlement program. He began to learn English and became editor-in-chief of a monthly magazine titled “Zambak,” the Bosnian word for “lily,” and the flower of the Bosnian independence movement, a symbol to Bosnia much like Che Guevara is a personal symbol for Boškailo. The 50- to 60-page magazine, which circulated in major cities nationwide, was designed to help Bosnian refugees adjust to life in the United States. And Americans chipped in.

“I still remember how to buy a house and how not to buy a house, how to get your kid into college on a scholarship, how to protect yourself, how to buy a car,” Boškailo said.

During his time in Chicago, and for a while after he moved to Phoenix in 1999, Boškailo was told by many people to write a book about his life. After several years, he finally agreed to interviews with Julie Liebling, assistant professor of Journalism at Loyola University in Chicago. Eventually Liebling co-authored, “Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror,” with Boškailo which was published in April 2012. “I had to write about my experience. I felt it was almost my obligation as a human being to help others,” Boškailo said.

The 13th century poet Rumi is very influential for Boškailo, and he cited a portion of one of the Persian’s poems to explain why he held off in divulging his story for so many years. “I was ready to tell the story of my life but the ripple of tears and the agony of my heart wouldn’t let me.”- Rumi

On April 10, Boškailo spoke at SCC for Genocide Awareness Week and along with a book signing, he discussed the Bosnian War – but in an unconventional fashion. As Boškailo said, “I use the Bosnian War in my talks as a frame of events, a frame of trauma. I use war as a story. I can talk about these events without much hate, and it’s better I do it than someone who has hate.”