by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage
UTICA, N.Y. – New Forest Cemetery in South Utica got a surprise today when a small group of community members and activists marched on its office to hand deliver a message from the Bosnian community, Muslim community and several community action organizations urging the management to stop desecrating the graves of Bosnian Muslims.
Asim Malcinovic passed in 2013 and was buried in the cemetery on November 1 of that year in a part of the grounds that Bosnian Muslims have reserved for themselves for years. Visiting the site after returning from a trip to Europe this past May, Asim’s son Asmir immediately noticed that the stones which had been laid ceremoniously across the grave site were completely gone from where they had remained for two and a half years prior.
“Why even bother?” he said. “It had been like that for almost three years, why touch it now?”
The family took the issue up with the New Forest management and were, according to them, met with rude remarks and an unwillingness to compromise or discuss the issue, with the cemetery citing their policy on grave site decorations.
Asim’s daughter, Sabina Malcinovic Dedic, recalls being told at one point to”dig [her] father up” and “get the hell out” of the office when she went to speak to the cemetery’s superintendent about what had been done to her father’s grave.
Other members of both the family and the Bosnian community also tried to reach out to the cemetery management to see what, if anything, could be done to reconcile the situation.
While Sabina recalls a notice of New Forest’s grave adornment policy, she said that she only ever saw it placed on a tombstone after she complained about the condition of her father’s grave site.
Friends of the family who also meet regularly with the Utica Activist Coalition learned of the situation and brought it to the attention of the broader group. The coalition began in the fall of 2015 with the purpose of building a more cohesive network among the various community action groups, citizen advocacy organizations and other activists in the Utica area.
Upon learning of what had happened to the Malcinovic family, and what seems like consistent targeting of Bosnian Muslim grave sites, members of the coalition moved to develop a strategy to approach the situation directly.
Through meetings with the Malcinovic family, and the comments of former New Forest employees, activists quickly learned that not only were Muslim graves dismantled without warning, but that employees in the past had been encouraged to desecrate them in the process, some even taking a certain zeal in doing so.
“They would just go out and kick the rocks around, and then they’d want me to join in. Those guys were crazy,” says Marco Martoccia of Utica and former employee with New Forest Cemetery.
“They would uproot flowers and dismantle displays on other grave sites, but they were especially ruthless with the graves of Bosnian Muslims. I don’t know why.”
As the group marched up Oneida Street to the door of the cemetery’s office, the superintendent on duty did not back down, repeatedly citing the cemetery’s policy, accusing the group of trespassing, threatening to call the police and at one point even demeaning the Bosnian immigrants in attendance.
“You know, you’re supposed to assimilate into our society and accept our rules and regulations, not break our rules and regulations.”
As activists and family members faced off with the superintendent, handing him a letter of demands, other friends and family members could be seen wiping tears.
“This is what it was like during the war, with the graves,” said Adina Selimovic, a family friend. “I’m not here because they are Bosnian, or because they are Muslim. It’s a human thing.”
That sentiment was not lost on those in attendance. The Bosnian War was a brutal conflict rife with war crimes and loss of civilian life. From the Siege of Sarajevo, to the Srebrenica Massacre, those in attendance were as much survivors as they were witnesses.
Just days after World Refugee Day, and celebrations in the “City That Loves Refugees“, this group of neighbors found themselves battling for their culture to be respected. They have their allies in the community, determined to assist until the issue with New Forest is resolved.