My first response upon hearing of Alija’s death was: NO!! Then, again: NO!! Then this 68 year old man just cried. I could not believe that I would not again be seeing Alija and his wonderful smile and hear his joyous greeting: “MIKE!!”
There are few true heroes in this world, very few, but Alija Muratovic was one of those precious few. His life, as I knew him, was lived with grace and honor, humor and generosity. I first met him in 2006 in Tuzla as George Hough and I came to BiH to help assess some of the trauma issues and rehab. programs in the northeast, the Tuzla and Srebrenica areas. Ever wonderful and patient, Emina, was our guide and translator and she soon introduced us to Alija. He was an immediate friend even though we spoke different languages. His involvement with Fenix was unique, caring, and creative. The new center, near the Tuzla hospital, was carefully cared for from the yard, the art work (inside and outside), the home for some of the men that he cared for and worked with, to the care and support he gave the men themselves. They all, including Alija, had gone through unimaginably tragic and horrific trauma magnified across the entire population of Bosnia.
Alija was “officially” the transportation person when I was around so we went to Divic, Zvornic and other locations to visit women’s cooperatives – the work of the Widows of Srebrenica. He was always warmly welcomed so I could see I wasn’t the “only one” to be on the receiving end of his care and compassion. Alija was a hard worker, putting in many extra hours on behalf of Fenix or of people like me – taking up his valuable time to be transported this place and that place always safely and graciously. We would even try conversation, or hand signals, or whatever in order to communicate information about our lives, families, hopes and fears. I really wish my son, who is now 43, could have met him – they, too, would have been instant friends. In fact, I wish all of my children could have known him and, to me, that is the highest form of admiration I can think of for a friend of mine. I remember in 2006 as George, Emina, Alija and myself, hopped in the van and drove northeast toward Srebrenica, stopping at several places along the way for deliveries or to visit the Potocari cemetery where we all shared more tears and grew closer together. We drove further into the “shadows” of the town of Srebrenica having been told two things: 1) Don’t use either Emina’s or Alija’s name out loud; and, 2) Be ready to leave quickly. We had coffee and cokes at a café run by one of the only Muslim families to return to Srebrenica by 2006. This was obviously a dangerous trip, not for me, but for Emina and Alija. But it was Alija’s strength, courage, and love that carried us into and out of Srebrenica safely – he was so calm! There was a kind of fearlessness, NOT revenge that I am so grateful to have witnessed.
The same foursome (George, Emina, Alija, and I) drove over the mountains, back roads that Alija negotiated with great skill, to Sarajevo. I mentioned how beautiful it was and also how grateful I was that Alija was driving. Emina translated to Alija. He said, thru Emina: “Mike, I would carry you in my arms by foot over these mountains.” I did not know how to respond. So I rubbed his shoulders from the back seat. The last day I saw Alija he was driving my wife and I to the train station in Doboj in 2010. On the trip, the three of us were trying to gather some Bosnian and English words together for some kind of communication. It was funny and fun. After a short time of quiet, Alija said to me with great energy and using arm gestures and English: “Mike! I am Bosnia and you are Herzegovina! Yes?” “Yes,” I said, with a heavy and happy heart as we pulled into the station parking lot. In some wonderfully strange and generous way, Alija had created a new nation! We gave each other a strong hug as we muttered something about seeing each other again soon in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I waved to him thru the window of the train thinking how thankful I was to know such a brave, intelligent, and gentle man. To me, that was Alija…in a few words. Mir!