In May 1995, as war raged in the former Yugoslavia, a bomb shell exploded in the city square in Tuzla, Azra Sisic Aljic’s hometown. It killed approximately 70 young people who had come together for the Yugoslavian Day of Youth.
Aljic’s parents knew they had to get her out of the country.
The opportunity to save their daughter came through the Bosnian Student Project, a collaborative effort of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Jerrahi Order of America, an American Sufi Muslim social service organization, to bring promising students to the United States for an education that was otherwise not available in their country. “My parents felt they were giving me a chance to live by letting me go,” Aljic (GMcC02) recalls.
The project’s organizers expected that the students would return home after the war to help rebuild their country. After earning a master’s degree in computer science at Northwestern, Aljic went back to Tuzla, now in Bosnia-Herzegovina, married and had a child and went to work at a small software company. She was active in local refugee relief efforts, but felt she could be doing more.
She soon found her calling. Aljic answered an ad for a job with the International Commission on Missing Persons, which was established at the end of the Yugoslav conflict to determine the fate of the more than 30,000 Bosnians listed as missing when the war ended. “It sounded like a dream job,” she said.
The work “combines scientific, social and political techniques in addressing the issue of persons missing as a result of armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” she says. “It gives me the opportunity to help in the process of healing in society and to contribute to finding the truth about the conflict. Working for the ICMP also gives me a chance to be part of the force that is assisting in resolving this important human rights issue, which is the right to know the fate of your loved ones.”
Using her computer training, Aljic works with a team involved in collecting skeletal remains and matching them with the DNA of relatives to make positive identifications of the dead. It is painstaking work because of the huge number of missing people, the mass graves scattered throughout the country, the passage of time and the bureaucratic hurdles. In many cases the bodies have been moved to a different grave site, sometimes more than once, so remains may be found in multiple locations.
“The government is very slow in the implementation of legislation related to this issue,” says Aljic, “and it is not very efficient in setting up sustainable state-level institutions tasked to search for missing citizens, regardless of their national, ethnic and religious backgrounds.”
Still, Aljic finds great satisfaction in her work.
“This work is what we in Bosnia call ‘hayr,’ which means something that benefits everybody, working for a good cause,” she says. “The work I am doing gives me a chance to do something small that in the end will mean something big, not just for a person or for a community but for the whole country.” — T.S.