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Orhan Spahic — The Bosnian Nightmare

February 29, 2012

By Tyler Wooten
Saluki Media Services

His nickname on the Saluki men’s tennis team is The Bosnian Nightmare. That’s a pretty good description of the childhood that Orhan Spahic experienced growing up in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Spahic lived through the entirety of the Siege of Sarajevo (May 1992 – Feb. 1996), the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare. The blockade was part of the Bosnian War that occurred in eastern Europe following the Fall of Communism. Approximately 110,000 people were killed when nationalism, racism and religious anxieties between Bosnians, Croats, Serbs and other ethnic groups tore apart Yugoslavia.

Atrocities such as ethnic cleansing, rape and genocide were commonplace, and in the years since, many of the perpetrators have been charged and sentenced.

Orhan was born Dec. 3, 1990, just as warfare in the region was brewing. His parents, Salem and Mevlida, safeguarded him and his older sister, Selma, throughout the war.

“I was really well protected by my parents,” Spahic said. “My mom was an accountant, and she could feel the war coming because of inflation and some things that were happening in the markets, so she was well prepared. She bought a lot of food, and that’s what helped us, because a lot of families were starving.”

On May 2, 1992, Serbian forces, with one of the largest armies in the world, encircled Sarajevo and completed a strategic blockade from the mountains and hills that surround the city, cutting off all supplies and escape routes. The citizens of Sarajevo were starving and ill-equipped to combat the Serbians.

For the next four years, the Spahics – along with aunts, uncles and grandparents – huddled together in one house. Orhan’s father joined the resistance.

“It wasn’t a regular war, it was just aggression,” Spahic explained. “There was no strategic planning from our side. Everybody had to protect their own neighbor and their own street.”

A building burns in Sarajevo during the siege.

Living conditions were spartan, as running water and electricity were cut off.

“The fathers were going to fight, and mothers had to fight in the house to supply everything,” he said. “Everybody had to fight.”

Spahic was lucky to make it out of Sarajevo alive. More than 10,000 people were killed and nearly 1,500 of them were children under the age of five. He was nearly struck by a grenade that injured several of his friends and cousins.

The Spahics were Muslim and thus prime targets of the invading Serbian forces who wanted to push them from the region and create a larger Serbia. However, Spahic said difference were far more complicated in Sarajevo than Serbian vs. Bosnian or Christian against Muslim.

“We were all targeted as a city,” he said. “People think it was just Serbians attacking Muslims in Sarajevo. They called (Sarajevo) the European Jerusalem because there was a mix of all religions. It wasn’t just Muslims dying – it was everybody dying.”

After the war, life in Sarajevo began to settle down, and Spahic went to school at the prestigious Druga Gimnazija. He excelled at tennis and eventually caught the eye of Saluki men’s tennis coach Dann Nelson.

“I was on YouTube one day and I came across this video of this really tall, fast, big guy who was running all over the place, getting balls back and he had a huge serve,” said Nelson. “I just thought there was a huge upside for this guy.”

At 6-6 and 215 pounds, Spahic is known as one of the hardest workers of any of sport at SIU, especially in the weight room where he sometimes lifts with the football players.

“He’s probably the fittest guy on our team, you can tell just by looking at the kid,” Nelson said. “He works extremely hard. The weight room staff is constantly telling me that they’re amazed at what he can do, and that translates into tennis pretty well. He never gets tired and he’s built like a brick.”

Orhan Spahic — The Bosnian Nightmare

Spahic is also a star in the classroom with a team-best 3.91 GPA. The finance major credits his parents for both his safety and his eventual success in life.

“I never had any idols or role models that I wanted to be like, even in tennis,” Spahic said. “My father was the only person I ever looked up to, and my mother was my foundation.”

His mom and dad taught him the difference between right and wrong, the value of human life and education.

“There were people who used the war to work for themselves instead of working for their community and protecting their families,” he said. “My parents did an extraordinary job of keeping their life on track. They both graduated college before the war. After the war, when everything collapsed, the only thing that was valued was knowledge.”

Spahic feels humbled by his success.

“I was born in Bosnia and grew up through the war and the transition after, but I still got a very good education and came to the U.S., which is the top of what I could reach,” he said. “I can only be proud to know that I managed to get here.”

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