Bender embarks on journey to Bosnia with native

Bickey Bender is no stranger to world travel. She has journeyed to Korea and Japan, Austria and Germany and South America. But when a Bosnian native invited Bickey to accompany her to her homeland, she admits to a bit of trepidation, initially. T...

Bickey Bender is no stranger to world travel. She has journeyed to Korea and Japan, Austria and Germany and South America.

But when a Bosnian native invited Bickey to accompany her to her homeland, she admits to a bit of trepidation, initially.

The invitation sent her scurrying for information, the War in Bosnia requiring a bit of study.

"Where was I?" she said of the international armed conflict that began in 1992. "Watching the OJ Simpson trial."

Bickey met the affable, although initially shy, Bosnian immigrant Nediha Kolakovic 10 years ago while working in the English-as-a-second-language program in Fargo.


The class assists people with understanding the US monetary system and other societal intricacies.

At first, they spoke via interpreter, Nediha hesitant to test her English skills.

But Bickey's barrage of questions on her family's journey soon ignited conversation - and a friendship.

"We became good friends," Bickey said. "We just connected."

But the pair lost contact for awhile, until Nediha, an art enthusiast, happened upon Bickey at a gallery, where she was displaying her watercolors and mixed media.

Bickey invited her and her husband and children to dinner and the families began to interact.

Nediha and husband Dabravko left Bosnia to settle in Germany before their son Damir, now 17, was born.

After six years in Germany, they were given a choice: go back to Bosnia or emigrate to the U.S.


Initially, they intended to return to Germany after gaining U.S. citizenship, Bickey said.

But arriving in Fargo, they soon forged friendships with other Bosnians - and found jobs.

The industrious Bosnian soon moved from production to a supervisory role at the Chrysler-Daimler plant. She also created "gorgeous cakes" for special occasions.

Husband Dubravko works in a window manufacturing plant (full-time) and part-time for UPS.

Bickey and husband Frank moved to Park Rapids in the fall of 2000, the friendship continuing despite concern distance would dissipate the relationship.

"I'm going back to Bosnia, Becky," (as Nediha pronounces her name). "I want you to go along."

The family, which now included daughter Karla, 7, had not been back to Bosnia in 18 years.

Frank Bender politely declined the invitation, but encouraged the intrepid traveler to make the voyage to southeastern Europe, departing in June.


Bosnia, once a Yugoslavian republic, has a complex mix of religious traditions, she'd learn. Forty-four percent are Bosniaks (Muslims), 31 percent Bosnian Serb (Eastern Orthodox) and 17 percent Bosnian Croat (Roman Catholic).

The government is a federal democratic republic, Bickey learned. Three presidents - Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian - are elected for four-year terms, rotating as head of state.

"Bosnia experiences war every 50 years," Bickey said, ethnic differences igniting conflict.

Traveling with Bosnian natives, who introduced friends and family, Bickey gained an understanding of the country the average traveler would never know.

"I was a tourist, but they accepted me - warmly," Bickey said.

She was soon to meet a couple who'd weathered the war. The Serbs told her the simple routine of "leaving the house was taking your life in your hands... Fighting continued day and night."

Nediha's uncle was killed in the mountains surrounding their city; his body was never found.

She met a woman tending goats who'd lost three sons in a week's time. Her husband took his life a short time later.


"War does devastating things to people," she said. "Older people do not smile...

"I can't say enough about what war does to people; they lose hope."

In Visoko, near Sarajevo, where Nediha lived with her grandmother while growing up, "people seemed to be genuinely trying to get along," Bickey observed.

But the beautiful rivers were tarnished "buildings in ruins from war and devastation on the banks.

The unemployment rate is 45 percent, reduced to 25 percent when the "grey economy" - farmers - is included.

Parents support children well into adulthood. A second story on homes is completed when children marry to serve as their residence. Bosnians receiving funds from relatives who've emigrated is common.

Bickey witnessed many young people sitting in coffee shops, smoking, which she found a bit rankling. "They should be out cleaning up the river."

The food, she said, was great. "I ate my way across Bosnia."


They headed into Sarajevo on four occasions, Bickey smitten with the cosmopolitan city and variety of languages.

All tolled, the trip, she said, was a fantastic experience.

Upon returning, a friend told her she'd prayed for Bickey after learning the destination.

"That's why I had a nice time," Bickey replied.

But after returning, she learned landmines still exist in the country.

"I still haven't shared that piece of information with my husband," she said.

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