In her exclusive interview featured in the February issue of Boca Raton, the director of luxury sales at Douglas Elliman opens up about living as a teenager in war-torn Sarajevo as a young teen. Here are bonus excerpts from our “Behind the Biz” story:
Editor’s note: Adžem was born in Goražde, in what was then Yugoslavia, and later moved to Croatia. But when war broke out there in 1991, her parents moved the family to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina—which had declared independence from Yugoslavia. In April 1992, the Army of Republika Srpska (comprised of Bosnian Serbs trying to create a new state) encircled and blockaded the city, the start of an almost four-year siege that would claim, by some estimates, nearly 6,000 civilian lives—and wreak untold psychological havoc.
• “I remember my father coming home one evening with a busload of people. We had a big home. They were refugees; their homes had been taken away. There was shooting in the background. You couldn’t make sense of it; why would your own army turn on you? It would be the equivalent of the U.S. Army attacking its own citizens. There was such confusion.”
• “Your first instinct is to leave. Where do we have family? Austria? Italy? America? You start packing the basics and planning an escape. ... But then we heard that the bus station was closed. The train station was closed. The airport, shut down. The whole city was shut down. ... Word spread that the national army had surrounded the perimeter of the city. But there was no way to [confirm] information; we had no television reports. It was just what other people said.”
• “Two days after the shut down, snipers started shooting at people. Mortars were being launched from the mountaintops into our valley. You’d spend your days in the basement, huddled, sitting for hours on end. Once the shooting stopped at night, people would venture outside and try to find food and water.”
• “It was like how people prepare for a hurricane. Whatever dry food you could gather, you’d bring back. After that ran out, we had to get creative. We ate a lot of rice and beans. ... Six months into [the siege], humanitarian aid started coming in. ... A lot of the different religious and caused-based organizations sent food. But even the Red Cross was stopped at checkpoints by the Serbs; they’d take half and let some come in. Their goal was to control the flow of the food. We were dealing with psychological warfare, emotional warfare—and real warfare, where your life was in danger.”
• “[Then-Serbian president Slobodan] Milošević’s goal was to make it seem like a religious war because then the international community would say, ‘We’re not touching that. It’s a time bomb.’ In the end, it was a grab for territory. He didn’t want Croatia, Bosnia or Slovenia to separate; in terms of natural resources, they’re extraordinarily rich. He wanted to keep that as part of his domain. ... He was crazy. He wanted to ethnically cleanse what is now Croatia and Bosnia and have that become greater Serbia. ... At the time, we were asking ourselves these questions. It made no sense. In the basement, where we were huddled waiting for the shooting to stop, you had people from all walks of life. It wasn’t just one group. ... And yet the Army started taking people to concentration camps and killing them. Mass executions. Stuff that was censored; you didn’t see this on CNN.”
• “My father was wounded during one of the massacres in Sarajevo. ... He managed to survive for about six years. He had eight surgeries on his back and brain, trying to remove all the shrapnel. But he finally died after I came to the United States.”
Editor’s note: Adžem’s humanitarian work would lead her to John Menzies, then the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Menzies would help bring Adžem to America in 1996—on a full academic scholarship to Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa.
• “I came out of the war feeling like I got a second chance at life. Plus, I got an opportunity [in Iowa] that people would kill for. I was so grateful, so humbled. ... The people in the Midwest, oh my god, were the nicest. It was such a comfortable, safe environment, which was so important since I was going through such post-traumatic stress.”
• “Survivor’s guilt is something very powerful. It hits you on a subconscious level—why me? Why do I get to enjoy this life in America? I do see myself as a survivor. Whatever you put in front of me, I’ll handle it. But at that time, there were nights when I couldn’t sleep because of the images replaying in my mind. ... Thankfully, I had help. I could talk to people, and they listened.”
• “I can quickly differentiate good people from bad people. I’ve seen so much evil, and I’ve seen humans at their best. I’ve seen people throw themselves in front of a child and take a bullet to save that youngster. ... So trust me when I tell you that I will fire a client. I don’t want to be surrounded by negative energy or bad intentions. Life is too short.”