WAYNESBURG – Twenty-one years ago, three little girls were playing outside on a bright sunny day when they heard a sound they had only been warned about. A siren wailed.
They knew this meant to run and seek cover. Inside the basement of their nearby apartment building, gathered along with family and neighbors, bombs, grenades and gunfire came from all directions. There would be no more playing outside, at least not there, not in the place they called home, Tešanj, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“I remember the day the siren went off. It was super loud, like a big loudspeaker. There was not a single cloud in the sky. We just ran to our apartment building, and I heard a grenade go off. I was scared to death,” said Waynesburg Borough Police Officer Sanja Smailbegovic, 28. Adding to her fear each day after, Smailbegovic’s father, Zoran, would leave the apartment building as the war waged on.
“We were barricaded in for over a month in the basement,” Smailbegovic said. “My dad would go out and get what we needed. I was scared for him. The bombs were flying from both sides, and they didn’t care where they were going.”
Zoran worked as quickly as possible to purchase bus tickets for his family – Smailbegovic’s sister, Daniela, 6; Smailbegovic, 7; brother, Srdan “Serge,” 11, and their mother, Vesna –to escape to Croatia. Vesna had friends there. Zoran, a professor, came through but had to stay behind, taking any work he could find to save money and reunite with his family.
On the six-hour bus ride to Croatia, Smailbegovic, her mother and siblings had just six bags of clothing with them and nothing else.
It would be six months before Zoran joined them in Croatia, and then he left for Germany in search of work and to find a place for his family to live.
“After my dad went there he was struggling for like seven days without food or anything, trying to find a better opportunity for us. Eventually he found a job and one for my mother, and we joined him there,” she said. “We lived on a farm. My brother, sister and I loved our school there. We went horseback riding, and Serge played soccer. In Germany was the first time we owned a house. Life was amazing.”
Their happiness was cut short after just five years when the Dayton Agreements were signed to end the war. The German government began deporting the estimated 700,000 Bosnians who fled to the country. The war may have ended on paper, but the circumstances refugees faced if they returned were dire.
Zoran presented Vesna with two choices – go to Australia where he had friends or to the United States. Smailbegovic said her father hoped she’d choose Australia, but Vesna believed in the “American Dream.”
Zoran made contact with a friend living near Pittsburgh, and St. Sebastian’s Church in the North Hills agreed to sponsor the family’s move.
“We had just a couple of suitcases. We didn’t know anybody or where we were going,” she said.
The friend in Pittsburgh was supposed to pick them up at the airport and take them to his home. He didn’t show up.
“There were two nuns and all these other people standing there holding all of these different signs, (written) in Croatian, saying, ‘Smailbegovics, welcome to the United States and to Pittsburgh,’” she said. “Dad and mom were crying. They were so grateful. We had nobody here. All these people were saying we’ll help you, we’ve got a place for you.”
Smailbegovic was 14 years old. Fortunately, she and Daniela learned English in their German school, helping ease their transition.
“We had a place in Bellevue. It was a cute little town. It was comfortable and it was close to everything. We went right into school,” she said.
Daniela and Sanja quickly made a name for themselves playing basketball at Northgate High School, and Serge wowed his soccer coach there with skills he picked up playing in Germany. All three would graduate from colleges and find careers in the area.
Smailbegovic followed a dream that started in Bosnia when she was 10 years old, that of becoming a police officer. It stemmed in part from what she witnessed in Tešanj but was primarily driven by a deep desire to help people and make a difference. She earned a degree in criminal justice at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and then she attended the Allegheny County Police Training Academy, where she earned Top Gun honors for her marksmanship.
“I accomplished the goal I set for myself since I was 10, and I’m glad that I did. But, I never thought of a backup plan. It has turned out to not be as much helping others and more dealing with people in a negative way, not a positive one,” she said. “I want to be doing something that I feel like I’m actually serving a greater good, where people look at me like, ‘she’s respected.’”
Smailbegovic said she has also started to think toward a future with a family of her own.
“I don’t want to do this when I have kids, a family. I’m looking long term. Life’s too short to not be happy,” she said.
For a moment she considered law school but realized it is the same type of work, just a ‘different uniform,’ she said, adding, “The justice system is flawed.”
Smailbegovic knows she is looking at life through the eyes of someone who has seen a different way of living, where family is most important and things are not taken for granted. She sometimes thinks about what it was like before the upheaval in Tešanj but knows there is no going back. Her family witnessed first-hand the lack of economic opportunities when they’ve visited the extended family who stayed behind. Smailbegovic said there was no money to rebuild and fix war-torn buildings. Their old apartment building remains riddled with bullet holes.
Waynesburg Borough Police Chief Rob Toth said if Smailbegovic changes professions, he will consider it a loss to law enforcement, but he understands her need to find a different path.
“I respect her for whatever decision she makes. She works without premium pay, no benefits, no overtime and drives over an hour to get here. And yet she never complains,” Toth said. “She does everything that’s asked of her and never asks why. I give her all the credit in the world.”
Toth said Smailbegovic was the first female officer hired by the department, and she was well received in the role by other officers and the public. “She has a way about her,” he said.
After college, Daniela and Serge found careers with BNY Mellon in Pittsburgh. Smailbegovic is looking into options to possibly join them there. For now, she will continue her part-time jobs in law enforcement with the Waynesburg Borough and Crescent Township police departments.
“I am thinking about looking into doing some volunteering, and I need to find a hobby,” she said. “Other than that I haven’t really decided. I look back (to Bosnia) and I think, ‘Why did you have to break into a war and destroy a country?’ The beauty of life is you get to choose what you do. Why did they choose that?”