How Islamist Extremism Destroyed a Bosnian Family

When Dino Pecenkovic was a child in Bihac in north-west Bosnia, his parents were not particularly religious.
“In my family, we did not practice religion until the war,” Pecenkovic recalls.
But after the conflict ended in 1995, his father started practicing Islam more seriously - a decision that would ultimately lead him to Syria, and to his own death.
After meeting what Pecenkovic believes were followers of the hardline Wahhabi sect in a mosque, his father began absorbing their teachings and learning Arabic, and ended up in “a quite radical group”, he says.
He first asked his wife to cover herself, and soon left his job as a prison guard because he had to shake hands with women and he could not pray five times a day.
Soon other members of the family started to become more religious too, and in 2008, his father decided to move them all - the young Dino, his mother, nine-year-old brother Harun and seven-year-old brother Osama Ahmed - to Gornja Maoca.
Gornja Maoca is the centre of the Salafi community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a strict, ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam is practiced. 
Pecenkovic lived there for three years, and describes it as a “closed community” in the middle of a forest, where people provide for themselves. 
“As far as religious life goes, it’s totally closed. Towards foreigners, they don’t trust them. They all follow Sharia law… Women are all covered and the kids learn Arabic,” he recalls.
Rebelling against Sharia
Pecenkovic had always been determined to follow his own path. When he was 19, he ran away from his home in Bihac, living in a tent and working in a carwash for the summer. He had a Croat girlfriend, and not long afterwards, he fled with her to Croatia. 
“We were there for 20 days when her Dad found us. He was a policeman and he came and brought us back to Bihac,” he recalls.
“She was shocked by this and she tried to slit her wrists. She ended up in the psychiatric ward… I was shocked… We stayed together for a bit, and then broke up.
“I was totally messed up… I just came back home and let myself go… I ended up doing whatever my Dad said and started going to those religious meetings with him.”
His family was quick to blend into Maoca and followed the strict Sharia rules. But Pecenkovic rebelled.
“They did not take me seriously since I always asked questions. That’s the kind of person I am, I cannot follow blindly… They don’t give reasons for some positions, they just say ‘this is the rule’, and that’s it,” he explains. 
While he was living in Maoca, his family’s religious connections led to him being arrested for allegedly helping a terrorist, a man called Mevlid Jasarevic.
He says he met Serbian-born Jasarevic in Maoca and knew him as a “small-time criminal” who had turned to Islam in prison in Austria and then come to live in Bosnia.
“Mevlid asked my Dad to lend him his car or for someone to drive him to Brcko. Dad could not, so asked me if I would. I said yes. In the morning, Mevlid came and another guy came with us and we were off,” he recalls. 
On the way to Brcko however, Jasarevic asked Pecenkovic to take him on to Sarajevo, saying he was going to catch a bus there to go and visit his mother in Serbia. 
“He acted normally all the time. He was calm; he slept through most of the way,” Pecenkovic says.
After he dropped Jasarevic off, he drove to Kladanj to have a coffee - “and there we saw him on TV shooting at the US embassy. We were in shock.”
On October 28, 2011, Jasarevic opened fire at the US embassy in the Bosnian capital with a Kalashnikov rifle. 
During the attack, he wounded a police officer guarding the embassy, but was then shot by a police sniper. He survived and is now serving a 15-year prison sentence.
The following day, police arrested Pecenkovic and he spent the next three months in detention. He cooperated with the authorities and was never charged with any crime, but on his release, he refused to go back to Maoca.
“My family came as soon as I came out and wanted to bring me back to Maoca. They were disappointed in me. I said I was staying in Bihac,” he recalls.
“That night my Mum made up a bed for my brothers and me, and Dad said, ‘Those two are not sleeping with that non-believer.’ We never spoke again.” 
Syria’s deadly battlefields 
After the fight, he didn’t hear from his family in a while. In 2013, however, his mother called and asked him to get his brothers’ papers together so she could get passports to go to Austria where his father was working.
Pecenkovic did as he was told, but what his mother’s explanation was a lie. They were going to join ISIS.
“She did not call for long and then all of a sudden she did. There was a huge number on the display. She said everything was fine,” he says.
“I typed the number into the computer and it turned out it was from Turkey. My head started throbbing; they had gone to Syria… I felt terrible, she lied! If she told me what the papers were for, I would never had sent them, I would have stopped them going to war.”
At first he heard from his family in ISIS-controlled Syrian territory each month, but his conversations with his mother worried him.
“She says it’s all fine but I can hear it’s not… My Dad and Harun, who was 15 at the time, they go and fight. We argued a lot,” he says.
Last year, his brother Harun was killed by Kurdish forces, and later his father was also killed. 
“Harun died in the summer, during Ramadan… There was a raid and as they were escaping on motorbikes, a guy opened fire with a rocket-propelled grenade and killed three or four,” Pecenkovic says.
“The worst thing is that they didn’t bother to collect the body. They just left him there. He got married at 16, had a baby at 17, and was killed at 18…”
He blames his parents for his family’s ordeal, but he also has harsh words for the state for not offering any help to fight extremism or reintegrate those who have been indoctrinated by religious radicals.
“I never had anyone to call, a shoulder to cry on; coming back from a radical community, you have to integrate into a normal community, but you are labelled a terrorist. You are like an alien… you have to do it yourself,” he explains.
Pecenkovic is now nearly 30, and lives in Bihac with his Serb wife. He has pleaded with his mother and brother to return to Bosnia, but they refused.
“I have not spoken to my mother and younger brother for two months. I do not know if they are alive,” he says. 
He believes that he only managed to escape the extremism that destroyed his family through his own sheer determination.
“My message to young people finding themselves in situations like this is to always ask questions and never give up,” he urges. “If I was not stubborn, I would be dead...”


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