I had no idea of the hell that millions endured.

Looking back, I feel shameful and ignorant. I did not know what the Bosnian War was before meeting Velid Begović during the winter of 2010. At most, I had a vague notion of a bloody war in a distant land.

Velid and I perch outside our dormitory, 4909 miles away from his hometown of Gornji Vakuf. On this winter night, almost exactly 14 years have passed since the official close of the Bosnian War. The frostbitten air outside of Willard Residential College at Northwestern University is pierced by the hot cigarette smoke curving out of the Velid’s thin lips.
The 20-year-old’s accent is sharp, his English hesitant yet astute.  However, his unassuming demeanor masks his past, one defined by basement confinement, refugee camps, toy cars, and growing up through the Bosnian War.

“For a couple of years, I was basically sitting in a basement,” Velid recounts to me. Our conversations together blur across moments and months, seemingly into one fluid stream of dialogue.

While the war in Bosnia raged, Velid’s father, Reuf Begović, spent the length of each day attempting to establish some form of an institutionalized government for a crippled Bosnian state. While Reuf’s brother fought with an AK-47, Reuf utilized the weaponry of documentation to establish the Bosnian ownership of institutions, thereby preventing the Serbs and Croats from laying their own respective claims on the entities. In the meantime, Velid, his mother, and a few other women and children dwelled in their basement for weeks at a time. Endless days were accented by sounds of dripping water and sights of desperate faces. It was too dangerous with the bombing to stay upstairs.

Velid refers to the roughly 13 months in hiding as his “introduction to the world.” His first memories are from that basement.

For amounts of time that I cannot fathom, Velid was fascinated by his toy BMW M3 and consumed by petty arguments with his cousin. However, up a single flight of stairs, the threat of ethnic clashing was inescapable. A Bosnian-Croatian battle front was a 10-minute walk from his house, and Velid describes his small town of Gornji Vakuf as being “invaded on an almost every day basis” by the Catholic Croats.

Velid’s mother was taking him upstairs to the bathroom when a grenade landed 30 meters away.

“It was… a huge detonation that broke all the windows.  The whole house was shaking,” Velid says. “As a child I just started crying… [and] the bombing continued.”

When necessary, Velid’s father ferried his wife and child up the 6000-foot mountain to the sanctuary of a secluded cottage. Their car served as an escape mechanism to the safe-haven town of Bugojno. But long periods of time elapsed between his father’s visits.

“I would ask my mom [where my father was]… but she would tell me some stories,” Velid recalls. “I would just eat them, like a child.”

Velid would later learn that all along, his father “had papers” authorizing their family to move here, to Chicago. But the Begovićs still had extended family in the country. Fleeing the war would have symbolized embarrassment.And Reuf’s  Bosnian education would not be recognized in America. He felt his skills were direly needed in the homeland.

Rubble from the Bosnian War finally settled, but ethnic tensions still stood stubbornly erect. In the ensuing years, the stark ethnic and religious divisions between Velid’s Muslim Bosniacs and the Catholic Croats permeated all aspects of life for Velid.

“They [Bosniacs and Croats] lived in complete ignorance, as if the other didn’t exist,” Velid says. “I just saw normal people… for me it was like, wait, why are we not talking to them? I don’t get this.”

For a few years, Velid would volunteer in Croatian refugee camps, live alongside Croats in school, help form an NGO to integrate the ethnicities, and occasionally attempt to woo cute Croatian girls. The post-genocide anger that had blinded millions of Bosnian citizens could not penetrate Velid’s tolerant and unprejudiced grey eyes.

Since coming to Chicago for college in 2008, Velid’s experiences more mobile and spirited. We share inebriated walks through sleepy suburban streets, making pilgrimages to Evanston’s dive bars. Yes, we’re college boys in a fraternity, and yes, we get intoxicated together probably too frequently. But through it, our conversations become transatlantic. We discuss the European Union’s treatment of Muslims, the effect of the Euro on Eastern Europe, and the efficacy of NGOs in post-conflict zones.  Who would think that beer pong could inspire such talk?