Nothing Can Stay Buried
Two decades after escaping the brutality of war, Bosnian forward Vedad Ibisevic has returned to his homeland to rebuild a shattered family legacy.
VEDAD IBISEVIC ACCELERATES his black Mercedes-Benz into Stuttgart traffic, almost outrunning the memory of his family crammed into an overcrowded bus, fleeing another home. His memories are always there, exerting both lift and drag. Today he is a star striker in the German Bundesliga. Twenty-two years ago, in a four-month period, the following things happened to him and his Bosnian family: Serb neighbors invaded his mother's village, Pijuke, and called out familiar names on a bullhorn, promising that no one would be hurt. They murdered everyone who emerged. The ethnic-cleansing militia tortured and killed as many Muslims as they could find, burning down every house. They split his grandfather's head open and carved a cross into the chest of a local shop owner, a man who kept chocolate in his store for children like Vedad. Eleven of the estimated 100,000 killed in the Bosnian civil war died on May 8, 1992, in a little town surrounded by rolling green hills and grazing white sheep.
The soldiers forced 7-year-old Vedad and his family from their nearby city of Vlasenica and sent them fleeing, from Bosnia to Switzerland to St. Louis. Vedad slept in forests and buses and refugee camps. He hid in a hole. Soldiers burned down his father's village, a place named Gerovi, which was where Vedad had always felt most at peace as a child. Soccer had taken hold of his imagination there, at a field next to the river, down a narrow path from the town. Gerovi was his favorite place in the world, and like everything else he'd known in the first eight years of his life, it was gone.
His fingers curl around the steering wheel as he drives away from practice. He is here and he is there. When the war started, there wasn't room in the family's two bags for him to bring a soccer ball or for his sister to carry her new doll, though she did squeeze the doll's shoes into their luggage. His past throws a poignant shadow onto his present, making something as emotionally insignificant as a doll's shoes or this car, an AMG-designed, twin-turbo, 577-horsepower E63 sedan, seem like a triumph of the human spirit. He once fled a war in a bus, and now his feet rest on stainless steel racing pedals. The distance between these things can be dizzying. An old Bosnian love song plays on his stereo. The music reminds him of home, which reminds him of the goal he scored against Lithuania last year, which sent his nation to its first World Cup. "People from other countries," he says, "they don't understand. To them, it's just another soccer game and the goal I scored is just a goal. But it's not just a goal. I think the people who know me and know my family members, they have the same feeling. It's not just a goal. It's much more than that. It's the whole story."
WHILE VEDAD BUILDS a new life in Germany, the ruins of his old life in Bosnia-Herzegovina remain, even 18 years after the war ended. It's easy to know when you've arrived at his mother's village. The destroyed stone houses, caved in on themselves with two decades of vines growing through the rubble, greet anyone who enters with an apocalyptic warning: Something evil happened here.
It's winter, a few months after Bosnia earned its trip to Brazil. His mom's younger brother, Mirsad Fetahovic, welcomes visitors who want to know the story behind the goal. Uncle Mirsad wastes no time with small talk. The urgency of the pain overwhelms pleasantries.
"Eleven people were killed here in front of the shop," he says through an interpreter. "My father and my uncle were killed. ... My father was a strong man. Stronger than his sons."
Mirsad drags on a cheap cigarette and exhales a cloud of smoke. A shrug is his only explanation for what happened here in Pijuke. Everyone scattered, and two decades later, of the 60 families who called this village home, only 15 returned. The rest of the houses sit just as they were left on that brutal morning. His across-the-street neighbors moved to the U.S., hoping the ghosts stay buried in the rubble. Mirsad doesn't know why he rebuilt.
"Something dragged me back here," he says.
It's not just a goal. It's much more than that. It's the whole story.
- Vedad Ibisevic
His family lives about 20 miles away, where his wife stays at home and his daughters attend school, making a future, while here on the farm, he is a prisoner of the past. Much of the time, he's apart from them, tied to the land, tending his sheep while they lead more modern lives. Today, Mirsad walks the short village road, with the handmade wooden fence to his right. The air blows cold, the tree limbs bare. He lingers in front of another destroyed house. The stone roof looks like it was hit from above by an enormous hammer, which makes about as much sense as what actually happened to this house and the man who lived in it. "He was killed here, at his door," Mirsad says, "and he was very good family to the Serbs. They were godfathers to each other's children."
Across a narrow valley, the roofline of a Serb village peeks through the haze. Mirsad points to the house where the man who killed his father lived before he died three years ago. After the war, Mirsad passed the man in the city on the valley floor, Vlasenica, where Vedad spent his early childhood. The murderer didn't recognize his victim's son, and Mirsad couldn't think of anything to say.
Smoke curls from the Serb chimneys.
"Our neighbors," he says.
Muslims and Serbs lived here for generations, sharing a land thick with centuries of brutal ethnic conflict and uneasy peace, until that morning in May. In this place, that history didn't prevent the communities from existing as one, working the fields together and gathering when the work was done. It's hard to understand what happened in 1992. Yugoslavia finally collapsed. Politicians convinced Serbs that their Muslim neighbors wanted to take their land and impose their religion and that only a pure Serb state would guarantee survival. The world went mad.
Mirsad climbs into a car and leaves Pijuke.
"Turn here," he says, giving directions through Vlasenica, toward the abandoned house where Vedad and his family lived before Serb soldiers forced them out. Mirsad uneasily approaches the locked back door, jiggling the handle. "I have to be careful," he says. "You never know. They may set booby traps. They are still capable of doing things like that."
Built into a hill, two stories of rust-red brick, Vedad's childhood home waits on a family that won't ever return. His father, Saban Ibisevic, did everything himself, from cutting and grading a road to the property to hauling up materials on horseback. The house remains unfinished, empty, and whenever he comes here, Mirsad feels empty too.
He turns and walks away.
Mirsad wants to find Gerovi, Vedad's grandfather's village, which isn't easy. Every few miles, he asks directions. It's a name from a past most want to forget, a ghost town tucked into a grove of trees at the end of a road, which twists up the mountain from the valley floor. The final 30 or so yards are taken on foot. Mirsad knows that of all the things his nephew lost, Vedad longs for this abandoned village most. After the war ended and everything was destroyed, Vedad would answer the difficult question about his past with confidence.
He was from Gerovi.
It no longer exists. Mirsad stares at a war memorial at the entrance to the village. The white marble is blunt and final. Twenty-one Ibisevics died. The oldest was born in 1932, the youngest in 1976. Mirsad sniffles and looks around. Some residents rebuilt, but almost none returned, so the chimneys stand cold and smokeless. Mirsad listens to the air and hears no noise.
"Not a single sign of life," he says.
Once the village vibrated with the music of playing children. Now silence shrouds the trees of Gerovi.
THE GROUND GIVES up its secrets in time.
That's the moral of a story Vedad's father likes to tell about his village. When Saban Ibisevic was a boy, his father instructed him to plant beans, three or four in each hole until all of the seeds were in the soil. The work went slow, dirty and hot, and Saban heard his friends playing soccer. He wanted to play too, so he rushed the job, putting a dozen seeds in a few holes, instead of the proper ratio. Finished, however shoddily, he hustled to join the game. Months later, the beans grew through the surface and everyone in Gerovi saw that Saban had disobeyed. His father was furious. Saban told this story to his own children, to show that nothing can stay buried.
Vedad keeps many secrets -- not just from the people around him, but from himself. He tells his wife, Zerina, more than anyone, sitting up late into the night. After games, he cannot sleep, mining his actions for mistakes. She knows him better than anyone, and he remains a mystery.
"I still have a feeling that I know maybe 20 percent," she says. "I swear."
The ground will give up its secrets in time.
VEDAD NEVER FORGETS the unhealed wounds back in Bosnia, but he says they are not the most important problems he faces every day. His career consumes him, and back in Stuttgart, he and his club team badly need a win. It's early February, and they've lost four in a row. In this industrial town where the smokestacks of the Mercedes and Porsche factories pump exhaust into the blue sky, that qualifies as a civic emergency. Fans rage to anyone who'll listen.
Vedo, as he is known to his family and friends, makes millions of dollars a year, so much of the expectation lands on his shoulders. He handles that stress with outward humor and hidden pain, just as he handles his memories, toggling between the public and private Vedad. He never seeks shelter in the sympathy his past would afford him. No one in Germany knows the whole story about his escape from the war. During his three years in St. Louis, he never told a single person at school, not a friend, teacher or coach. The most common answers he gives to any question about the war is "It's OK" or "We were lucky."
The closest his memories usually come to the surface is when he insists those memories no longer hold any power over him. "All of this stuff," he says, "helped me realize that you have to be happy in life. I had my childhood. It was fun. I would never change my childhood."
He sits in the driver's seat of his Mercedes in the team's parking lot. Outside, the temperature hovers below freezing. The weather prompts a memory from Bosnia. After first clearing three or four feet of snow off a patch of the field, he'd practiced soccer alone. Friends from school drove past with loud music blaring from their car, wheeling up to the pitch and screaming, "What is your problem?"
"That is the question," he says now, touching his chest. "I don't know."
His most dominating features are soft blue eyes and a strong Balkan nose. Every now and then, a shadow passes over his face, swallowing light, collecting in pools between those eyes and that nose. The darkness offers a rare hint at what might be hidden inside, as does the way he seems to check out when he describes his childhood, staring off into space as he talks with a flat affect. It's as if he's trying to purge all the rage he's felt, but of course, it's impossible to make things like rage disappear.
"He didn't," his wife says. "He has everything inside him."
The boy he used to be still lives inside the man he has become. One day, he looks around the interior of his car, measuring in his head, trying to use a piece of his new life to explain part of his old one. Yes, he says, after judging the space. The interior of his car, with its carefully engineered silence, is about the same size as the hole where he once hid from Serb patrols. His mother dug the hole herself. Vedad's job, still the most important one he's ever had, was to keep his 3-year-old sister from crying. If discovered, the two children would be taken to a concentration camp.
He has since returned to that house, and those trees. The verdant odor of dirt, leaves and grass overwhelmed him.
"It still smells the same," he says.
The memories broke out of their prison, and everything came rushing back. He felt proud, because he and his family had returned, and because he had emerged from an earthly hell with his psyche intact. He felt triumphant. He felt full, then hollow, then scared. The smell made him remember being a 7-year-old boy again, and then it went a step further: It made him, for a moment, become that child again.
The smell forced him back into the hole.
THE HOLE MEASURED about four feet square and two feet deep.
It looked exactly like a shallow grave.
That morning, his mother shook her children awake and led them into the bushes near their home. Rumors flew through the neighborhood: Today, the patrols of soldiers would reach their street. Bosnians all thought the war would end in a week, two at the most, so while the men hid in the woods, the women went to check in at their jobs. Employers required their staff to show up every day or be fired.
Vedo remembers seeing the hole for the first time, filled with blankets and pillows, and wondering when his mom had built this bunker of safety. Mirsada Ibisevic had either saved her children from the soldiers, or done much of their work for them. His sister quickly fell back asleep. He stayed awake, crouched down in the dirt, listening. Mostly, he held himself very, very still. "I wasn't the best baby sitter," he says. "I knew if she wakes up, she could make noise. I knew how serious the situation was."
The enemy soldiers arrived.
He heard them break into his house, heard the shouting, the hard language of armed men. With his mother far away at work, Vedad stared at his sleeping sister, holding his breath, looking for any signs she might be hearing the same noises. The soldiers searched room by room, and moved down the road, never seeing the terrified little boy who'd gone down into a grave and lived to climb out again.
His mother checked in with her employer and began the dangerous journey back. The soldiers wouldn't let her pass. She begged until a sentry relented.
The family packed in minutes, shoving only essential things into two bags. Vedad didn't take any toys. His childhood was finished. His mother took the children's hands and they walked about five miles to Pijuke, where her father had been murdered just weeks before. They walked through fields and over hills. When they arrived, Vedad and his mother found the village rushing to escape more approaching soldiers. Everyone hid in the woods. They lived in makeshift huts. Sometimes his grandmother would sneak back to the house and quickly cook. Enemy soldiers looked for smoke from the stoves. They killed his uncle in front of his home during a food run. After 10 days hiding in the trees, Vedad's mother took them to the bus station back in Vlasenica. These are his last memories of the place, bad ones, which dominate all the good ones that came before. "Vlasenica doesn't feel like home," he says. "I just remember being scared."
The Serb army kept a list of people who had permission to go toward Tuzla, an area of refuge for Muslims. Only a select few who'd worked out a trade for their freedom could leave. Everyone else would be shipped to Srebrenica, a name now synonymous with the murder and genocide visited on those living there.
"We were on no list," Vedad says.
The family snuck onto a bus bound for the safety of Tuzla. People pressed together. Vedad and his family prayed for the wheels to turn. A Serb soldier who recognized the family questioned them. Even at 7, Vedo knew everything hung on the next few moments. Mirsada tried to reason with the soldier, and beg, and finally, she offered him a trade. The soldier accepted.
"My mom gave him keys to our house," he says.
HIS MEMORIES ARE disturbing enough to hear, but the experience of hearing them becomes profoundly weird when it happens at a fancy Stuttgart restaurant. The civilized clink of silver on china, combined with his stories about a shockingly recent collapse of civilization, expose once again the distance between the life he escaped and the one he now lives.
That distance makes him think about his mom and dad.
Though he hardly ever tells the history of his journey, he relives it in detail for a week in February, sitting down after practice every day and answering questions. He does so stoically, never coming undone, except for one moment, sitting in this Stuttgart restaurant.
Hitting the table for emphasis, he describes his parents' broken plans. Saban and Mirsada imagined their future, and when it died, they kept going for their children. They laid down their dreams, and Vedad and his sister crossed over them like a bridge. That's how he traveled the space between a refugee bus and a shiny black Mercedes -- on their backs. He stares out the window for a few long moments, looking at the dark sidewalk for something that isn't there. His parents built a house, and a future, and they lost both.
"They really worked so hard," he says, his voice dropping to a whisper and then cracking, "to achieve these things in life."
A waiter, like an emissary from another planet, comes by the table with a shrimp scampi amuse-bouche. The disturbance yanks Vedo back to the present, even as he continues to tell about what happened after the bus left Vlasenica. His memories live more as flashes than as a cohesive narrative. He remembers the bus ride toward Tuzla. He remembers the Serbs forcing them to walk the final part of the journey, crossing the front line on foot. He saw his first dead bodies there by the side of the road. They slept in a school gymnasium. Sometimes he remembers a face. Other times he can only conjure a feeling. His story isn't about dates and places as much as it is about one perfect thing broken into a million pieces, wreckage spread before him, a splintered image of one family's hopes.
WHILE HIS PARENTS lived day to day as refugees in Tuzla, sharing a house with five other families, Vedad searched for a soccer field.
He found one, and a coach everyone called The Chief, whose real name was Nevzet Hasanbasic. A former semipro player, he'd never coached before. The Chief told stories about a magical place called professional football, where a man got to be a boy forever. This struck something with Vedo and his teammates, and pleased the adults around them. "They were very young," The Chief says now, "and our task was somehow to protect them."
All the parents worried about what their children had left behind in the war zone, and about what they had brought with them to Tuzla. For the first time, and not for the last, Vedad used the game to deal with all of the things he'd lost, and with the wounds those losses had cut in places he couldn't see.
While the children played soccer, the war ended. Adults struggled to find work. Vedad's father did odd jobs for a cousin and drove trucks for his company. He helped build his cousin's big house, doing for someone else what he had once done for himself. No matter how hard he worked, he couldn't make enough money.
Saban told his family they needed to move.
Both father and son grasped for the illusion of control. Saban swore he and his family would return to Tuzla once he'd accumulated a preset amount of money. Vedo and his teammates promised they would all reunite in Tuzla in 10 years, no matter what. He took a can of spray paint and wrote August 2000 and August 2010 on the electrical substation at the school, a public expression of their private pact. He knew it was an impossible dream, and yet believing it gave him the strength to leave.
Vedad, now 16, loved his friends and had just played his way onto the youth national team, an important step to success. He didn't know where they'd go, or what kind of life they'd find there. The Chief made him a mixtape, all motivational songs, with a message on the cover.
"I am absolutely sure that you were born to make it," The Chief wrote.
The family drove to the bus station, carrying the same two bags they'd packed in a rush all those years before. His friend Adel Zecevic watched the Ibisevics ride away. Vedo sat in the back with his mom and sister, and Adel saw his friend stare out the back window of the car, watching another home grow smaller until it disappeared.
Vedad carried a piece of advice from his coach. No matter where life took him, he should find the biggest and best soccer stadium and go meet the people inside. They would be his new family and the field would be his home.
THOSE WORDS sustained him.
Everywhere he went, he searched for the best soccer program. In Switzerland, the family lived in a series of refugee camps. The second camp wouldn't let them leave except for a four-hour pass in the afternoon. Vedo used his brief moments of freedom to punish himself, running for miles. He needed to be ready. One camp later, the family moved to St. Louis, which had an enormous Bosnian refugee community. Vedad thought about The Chief's advice. Everyone said the best soccer team in the area was at Saint Louis University. That became his goal, and even though he arrived in the United States with limited English, two years later, he graduated from high school early and earned a scholarship to SLU. Vedad's high school principal didn't believe him when he heard this; nobody could go from barely speaking a language to an elite university. Vedo played a season, scoring 18 goals in 22 games. That summer, he signed with the famous French club Paris Saint-Germain.
He played in France, then Germany, in the second division and then in the Bundesliga. An ACL tear didn't slow him down. "It's nothing," he says. "It is horrible, but it's nothing compared to hiding in those trees." Whenever he felt nervous, or stressed, about his past or money or his career, those things disappeared when he stepped onto the field. In a man's approach to work, in his craft, you can find the things he doesn't know about himself or cannot see. From Tuzla to Switzerland to St. Louis, Vedad has returned over and over again to the football pitch.
It's where he is today.
The Stuttgart players jockey for position during training. It's a Tuesday in early February. A defender grabs Vedo, and he throws an elbow, shaking clear, his legs pumping, driving toward the goal with the kind of focus that scares people who don't understand it. When the drill ends, Vedo wheels around and shoves the defender. The other players pause, but he keeps shooting at the goal, hitting a line-drive volley, then a header. Clearly, he is filling himself with joy and purging himself of something too.
Every day his intensity makes him the emotional center of practice. Sunday's game looms closer. On Thursday, coaches clap. Players windmill their arms. Everyone breaks for water, except Vedo, who lines up two balls just outside the penalty area. Every other player loafs as he drills the shots toward the goal. Both miss, and practice resumes. During the next break, he's repairing divots, obsessing about the poor condition of their pitch, anger rising as he works tufts of sod back into the ground. Practice begins again and he bowls over a teammate chasing a ball. Sunday remains three days away. He cannot tell you why he acts like this, only that something inside demands it from him.
THAT SOMETHING IS an emptiness, roughly the same size as the hidden bunker his mother dug all those years ago. He spends a lot of psychic energy, and money, trying to make himself and his family whole. When he searched for a house in Stuttgart a few years ago, he found himself drawn to one in a village half an hour outside of town. Picture windows cover the back, looking out on fog-covered mountains, just like his father's house in Gerovi. And like his father's childhood home, his house is also at the end of a dead-end road, last one on the right. Echoes fill his life.
After practice one evening in February, he drives the half-hour from Stuttgart to his home. His young son, Ismail, runs out of the house to meet him. In the house, his wife, Zerina, takes out a photo album and lays it on the dining table. Her enormous tangle of red hair makes her look exactly like the main character of the cartoon Brave. She points to a recent picture of Vedad's father, with his trademark white mustache, wearing the little smirk that, for him, indicates almost transcendent joy. He's got his arms around Ismail, who squirms in a Smurfs shirt.
"Tuzla," one of them says.
While Saban Ibisevic promised to come back to Tuzla, he never earned enough money. But Vedad makes enough for five lifetimes, and he wants to buy his father back those lost years.
"I am sure there are some things I just cannot fix," he says. "But I just know -- know for a fact -- what they've been through, and what they did for me and my sister, so I just try to be the best kid possible for him, and to just try to make his life a little easier. Just a little bit easier. And try to have him enjoy the years that are left for him."
Vedad searches for big gestures, to match the size of the destruction he needs to undo. In Tuzla, his father's old boss went bankrupt, and his big house came up for sale. That home had always been a symbol of what the war had taken, and of the financial stress that forced Saban to leave a country he loved. Vedad bought the house and gave it to his father, a dose of spiritual medicine. Saban's physical life remains in St. Louis, where his daughter raises a family with her husband, a policeman, and where he manages apartments owned by Vedad. But his heart lives in the house his son bought him in Tuzla. "That's the whole point," Vedo says. "It's the meaning behind it. Otherwise I would buy him another house in St. Louis, you know?"
Zerina continues the tour of their past.
The albums and laptop contain countless recent pictures from both of his parents' villages. He'd loved both those places as a child, spending weekends and summers helping with the livestock, running free through the fields, and over the years, a safe, warm feeling returned whenever he thought of those little towns. In his mind, the villages pulsed with life, full of people, perfect and whole. In reality, though, they remained unhealed wounds, open and raw. His grandfather's bones decayed in a hastily dug grave, carved out with picks and with hands the day after he'd been killed in front of the shop. They hadn't even held proper funerals for the 11 murdered that morning in May, trying to get the bodies in the ground before the soldiers returned. The greatest casualties of war are the small rituals that make us human, and so the dead got buried like animals, not like beloved fathers, sons and friends. They stayed like that for nearly 20 years, until the family returned and reburied their dead, surrounded by a beautiful memorial garden paid for by Vedad. Across the narrow lane from his grandfather's old farm, he built a peaceful pavilion, white with a green roof and a marble monument, for everyone they lost during the war.
Zerina flips pages.
She stops on a photograph of Gerovi. Vedo built a memorial there too, and a chapel for former residents to use when they return once a year to remember the dead. The stone marker lists the names of all those who died, including the 21 Ibisevics. Zerina moves on to another picture, then another.
Much of their life together is documented in the albums, but they remain more defined by what isn't there, by a hole. Both Zerina and Vedo have only two or three pictures of themselves as children. The rest burned, or vanished during the frantic journey to safety. Zerina looks at 2-year-old Ismail, who is watching a video on an iPad. Every moment of his childhood has been filmed and saved.
"He'll never miss out," she says.
TWO OF THE photographs mean more than the rest.
Together they decode the chaotic emotions, the intersecting lines of hope and despair that have marked both their exile and their dream of returning home. One shows Saban Ibisevic holding his grandson, and the other shows Vedad's parents in the moments after he scored his famous goal. The photographs, at their core, are of the same thing.
The first picture was taken during Ismail's first trip to Gerovi.
Vedo drove the car, and his father rode in the passenger seat. Zerina held Ismail in the back. Vedo and Saban told stories, happy ones, about making this mountain ride in Saban's old Fiat 750, which barely had enough power to reach the top, winding out the engine, looking for a few more revolutions of speed. A combination of good memories and the promise of a return home changed something in Saban. His excitement grew with each turn, and as they neared the final curve before the entrance to Gerovi, Vedad saw a powerful look in his father's eyes. He turned to his wife and asked her to hand Ismail to his granddad.
They entered the town like that. Zerina took out her camera and caught Saban smiling, with his grandson in his arms, looking redeemed. Vedo stopped the car, and Saban rolled down the window, still holding Ismail. A relative came out to greet them.
Saban swelled with pride.
"I brought my son and his son to our village," he announced.
The second photograph caught Vedad's parents a few moments after he scored the goal that would send Bosnia to the World Cup. Saban leans on Mirsada, his arms wrapped around her shoulders. She gently touches his arms and their faces are full of wonder. They seem spent, holding each other up, as if their son had briefly taken away all the toxic memories they'd carried for 20 years. For Saban Ibisevic, taking his grandson back to Gerovi and watching his son score a goal both felt like going home. Vedad has spent money and time trying to put a shattered world back together, and now he knows that the closest he's ever come to undoing the damage of the past was when that ball hit the back of the net.
MILLIONS OF BOSNIANS feel the same way.
The team left the stadium in Lithuania after Vedad's game-winning goal, bound for the airport. As the flight attendants tried to calm the full-throttle party, the pilots headed to Sarajevo. Vedad and his teammates sang the whole flight. When they landed, tens of thousands of their fellow citizens lined the road from the airport to town.
The airport remains a symbol of the city's survival.
For years, Serb artillery batteries and snipers ringed the hills around Sarajevo, lobbing howitzer rounds into apartment blocks, picking off civilians with high-powered scopes. It became the longest siege in the 20th century, and the people survived without power, or meat, or fruit. Fourteen thousand, three hundred and seventy-three people died, many while going to the local brewery's wells to get water. The only part of the city the U.N. controlled was the airport, although its control of the airport seemed like an illusion on many days. Serb snipers shot anyone who tried to run across it and sometimes shelled the runway to prevent international aid flights from resupplying the city. For a short time in 1994, the city even ran out of flour and starved until the cargo planes could land again.
Before the war, it was an educated city known for its cafés and bars, but when the shells began to fall, its citizens had to literally claw their way to safety. They dug a tunnel 867 yards long, beneath the runway, starting in a house on one side and ending in a garage on the other. This is how people brought in supplies. Water ran down the tunnel's muddy sides. Ambulances waited at both ends; the low beams gashed nearly everyone's heads. Zerina Ibisevic walked through that tunnel with her family as a small child. Her mother hunched over. Zerina stood upright.
As the team emerged from passport control, fans kissed the players. Many wept. A crying man explained his tears to Vedad.
"I made this tunnel with my own hands," he said.
An open bus rumbled toward the shell-pocked center of town. Vedad couldn't believe the size and energy of the crowd. Players looked into the black night, searching for familiar faces. From the shadows, fans ran from their homes to cheer the passing convoy. On the phone, Vedo asked Zerina if she wanted to join him and the team. She didn't. She had stayed in Sarajevo during the war. Her father was killed, and she doesn't remember him at all. That night, she wanted to celebrate with her friends from high school, all survivors of the siege. Later, Zerina's group joined everyone else at the Eternal Flame, which flickers at the end of Maršala Tita Street, a monument to those killed during World War II. She looked up to find Vedo as the team stepped out onto the balcony. He looked down and searched for his wife's mop of red hair.
"You are the country's pride!" the crowd chanted.
People who wanted a united Bosnia cheered them. But Croat and Serb nationalists did not. News footage showed empty bars in the mostly Serb city of Banja Luka, and in the streets of the still segregated Mostar, Croat hooligans stoned celebrating Muslim fans. The team's success, and Vedad's goal, exposed deep divisions that remain decades after the shooting stopped. The Bosnia he longs for, the one he remembers before the war, died 20 years ago. His new country is a place he frequently doesn't understand, and his team is a reminder of everything that has been lost.
The players are Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and they have found a way to do what the rest of the country cannot seem to do: be like they were before the war tore them apart. They work together. "I love my team," Vedad says, his voice low. "I love my teammates. Just the fact that we get along perfectly. We have no problems with each other. We have all kinds of different people on the team and everyone gets along. I love that fact. It's a proof for the country that it could work."
His wife says he keeps his rage inside, and he does -- most of the time. It comes roaring out when he watches the news from Bosnia and hears the political rhetoric, from all sides, continuing to divide. His anger isn't at the citizens but at the politicians -- Muslims, Croats and Serbs -- who maintain power by keeping Bosnia divided.
"When the war started," he says, "people just went crazy and started believing this bullshit. And in the end, none of it was true. They were left with nothing, with broken dreams and broken lives. From all sides, you know? That's what politics does. That's unbelievable. Nobody has that right -- excuse me for saying this -- to fuck up that many lives."
SUNDAY AFTERNOON ARRIVES, another game in a lifetime of them, no more or less important than any other time he steps onto a field, which is to say: It is the most important thing in the world. A cold February rain turns to sleet. Zerina leads Ismail up the stairs toward their seats, holding his hand. All the stadium people smile at Vedad's little boy. They find Section 5, going about halfway up. She whispers in Ismail's ear and points down to the field. He watches intently. A circus winds up around him, fans singing and banging on drums.
Ismail grabs the rail next to his seat. Zerina cleans his fingers.
On the field, his dad struggles.
Ismail stands up, bobbing his head. His mom scrubs his face with a tissue, and he looks around at the bright colors. Down on the field, Vedad starts a run toward the goal. Nothing goes right. A teammate unleashes a shot and Vedad intercepts it, trying to make a play. Replays reveal the shot might have found the net without him. The visiting team scores two quick goals and the crowd whistles, furious. As halftime begins, Zerina leads Ismail back toward the elevator. It's too cold for a little boy. They'll watch the second half from the family lounge, where children his age play together, ignoring the work of their fathers on televisions around the room.
Ismail finds a pair of safety scissors. Zerina keeps one eye on her son and the other on the television in the corner.
"I'm very nervous," she says.
A commotion in the game gets everyone's attention.
There's a scrum of angry Stuttgart players, then a close-up shot of Vedad screaming, then a replay of him throwing an elbow to the face of an opponent, at least 20 yards behind the action. The official raises a red card.
"Vedo!" Zerina screams at the screen. She gasps and whispers to herself, "Oh my god. Oh my god."
Tomorrow, league officials will review the play and suspend him for five games, the second time he's been punished for rough play. Nobody knows that yet, but she is sure the game will be taken away from him. She brings up the past all on her own. They survived ethnic cleansing, so they can manage a suspension.
"In the war," she says, "it was a disaster. We can handle it."
Obstacles comfort Vedad. Any time things go too well, he looks into the shadows, afraid that something bad will come to ruin his success. He is most himself when challenged. "He knows how to deal with those difficult situations," Zerina says, sounding proud. "He knows he's had so many hard times."
A few hours after the game, sitting in the driver's seat of his idling car, Vedad smiles and makes a joke, his voice soft and calm. Had a week of answering questions broken the delicate defenses holding back his anger? How could someone talk about all of these things and not relive them? He promises his swinging elbow had nothing to do with so many memories being pulled to the surface. Later, on the dark, slick streets, headlights pooling in the puddles, he thinks about the hours ahead.
"The night is long, man," he says.
THERE ARE LIMITS. The day Ismail was born, for instance, Vedad thought about his grandmother and the Serbs who'd killed three of her children. Genocide makes a new father look at his son for the first time and imagine someone murdering his child. Some broken things cannot be put right again. Memorials don't bring back dead relatives. His uncle's returning to Pijuke didn't repair the houses of his murdered neighbors. Vedad missed his 10-year reunion with his friends in Tuzla.
But right now, a reservation for a block of rooms waits at a São Paulo hotel. The whole Ibisevic family is going to the World Cup, all of them, even Saban -- who wanted at first to watch the games from Bosnia. He feels uneasy with new places, still dealing with the trauma of those forced moves. Vedad insisted, so Saban will be there, with his toddling grandson by his side. The trip is special for the boy. Ismail is at the age when the basis of memory is being formed. Years from now, the sounds of a soccer match will make him warm and happy inside, for reasons he might not even understand.
Like his father, he will always feel safe around the game. He might even remember Brazil, seeing his father and his team of former enemies work together on a lush, green field. In those moments, Bosnia will be unbroken for Ismail, as Gerovi always remains unbroken in Vedad's mind.
Year after year, he's tried to close the gap between the Gerovi he remembered and the one that really exists. Sometime after the World Cup ends, his latest attempt at healing will be finished, and he can already imagine the first time he shows it to his father and his son -- the first time they all see it together. It's so clear in his mind. They arrive in Gerovi and walk toward the last lot on the right, where his grandparents' burned-out house sat in ruins for years. A brand-new place rises out of the ashes, white, two stories, with an expensive wooden door. A terrace reaches out toward the mist-covered mountains and the rushing river below.
Vedad rebuilt his father's boyhood home.
Everyone goes inside. The chimney puffs smoke and the hills echo with the cheerful noise of Ismail playing in the trees. It is a miracle. They'd been thrown out into the world and managed to find their way back again. During construction, which Saban managed, Vedad made just one special request: the terrace. From his perch, everything is spread out below. That view is what he wanted. He can see the mountain and the river. Next to the river is the soccer field where he first played as a child, before the war took his childhood away. Both he and the field remain.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @wrightthompson.
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