Bosnia's Star-crossed Lovers

Sixteen years after the war, mixed ethnic couples still face social stigma

News | Barbara Matejcic | October 2011

Stari Most, ('old bridge') in Mostar, a symbol of the Bosniak-Croat struggle. Here in 1974, destroyed in 1993, rebuilt in 2004 (Photo: Spackonaut/Wiki Commons)

For all the relaxed atmosphere, cool music and cheap beer, Club Abrasevic in Mostar, southwest Bosnia, is not just another youth hangout. As the main gathering place for children of mixed marriages in a city which is divided into Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croat sectors, the club is as infamous as the headquarters of a notorious sect might be. "The only thing Croats and Muslims have in common is hatred for people in mixed marriages," says Nino Zelenika, 25, who has a Croat father and Bosniak mother. "Both regard such people as traitors."

When war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, Mostar’s Bosniaks and Croats at first united to expel Bosnian Serb paramilitaries. However, the communities soon turned against one another and a bitter war-within-a-war erupted. At the time, Nino was only eight. Then mainly interested in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he did not have the faintest idea who belonged to which nationality. However, life soon taught him that nationality comes first in Mostar, and that different communities don’t mix. "People like us, living in mixed families, could only take the middle ground – and in the middle lies the river."

Violence and segregation

After the disintegration of the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state, nationalist politicians played aggressively on people’s national and religious feelings.

Previously, Mostar was well known for its significant proportion of mixed marriages. As the largest city in southern Bosnia, Mostar stood at the intersection of regions populated by Muslims, Croats and Serbs. Close to the border between Croatia and Serbia, Vukovar was another community with a high degree of ethnic mingling.

As a result of their important geo-strategic positions, both Mostar and Vukovar suffered appallingly in the wars of the early nineties. Vukovar was almost completely destroyed while Mostar was significantly damaged. Many of their residents were wounded or killed. New, invisible, ethnic divides now separated the survivors.

"Ethnic intolerance was not a precursor to war, but its consequence," psychologist Dinka Corkalo Biruski, of Zagreb University, says. Similarly, American sociologist Keith Doubt suggests that extreme violence was aimed at separating the communities. "The more integrated the people are, the more violence is required to separate them," Doubt writes in his book Sociology after Bosnia.

As such, "people entering into mixed marriages today in cities like Vukovar and Mostar are heroes," says Ljiljana Gehrecke of European House, an NGO working on interethnic reconciliation in Vukovar. "These are people with strong self-consciousness who have built a robust personal identity despite the pressure of the collective identity."

Mostar wedding needed UN peacekeepers 

According to the 1991 census, 10 per cent of all marriages in Mostar were mixed. Nine years later, out of the 176 marriages that took place in Mostar in 2000, not one Bosniak-Croat couple spoke the words "I do".

A modest increase was recorded in 2004, when approximately 0.7 per cent of marriages were between Bosniak and Croat couples. In 2008, the figure was again slightly higher, at 1.6 per cent.

Husein Orucevic, a Bosniak, and Tanja Miletic Orucevic, a Croat, married in devastated and divided Mostar of 1996. The situation was still so dangerous that wedding guests from the west of the city had to be escorted to the east in armoured UN peacekeeping vehicles.

"The path we chose was not easy," recalls Husein, the founder of the Abrasevic club. "We had to seek alternative jobs and find alternative places to meet our friends."

Theatre director Tanja Miletic Orucevic believes the issue of mixed marriages is not publicly discussed in Mostar because such marriages are seen as a threat to the ruling nationalists: "Whoever manages to live with someone from another flock undermines their concept."

Alenka O., 34, a Bosniak woman from Mostar, says a mixed marriage in the city is never a private, personal affair. As the wife of a Croat, she says other Bosniaks view her as a traitor.

When the war broke out, she was 18, living with her mother and two younger sisters in the western, mainly Croat district. A Bosnian Croat soldier hid them in his apartment. A year after the ordeal, the two were married.

"Many a time I’ve regretted it because, although we get along fine, we don’t belong anywhere," she says.

Their daughter, now 14, is a Croat, goes to a Croatian school and bears a Croatian surname. Alenka let her daughter be baptised, even though this was hard for her as a Muslim. "I don’t want my child to be of undefined nationality because I know what I’ve had to put up with," she says.

A report published in July 2009 by International Crisis Group, a think tank, claims there is some hope that relations may ultimately normalise. "The border between east and west Mostar is harder to spot these days but the city remains thoroughly divided, literally two cities, living side by side." Some children growing up on different sides of the divide have no idea what the rest of the city looks like. They attend separate kindergartens, schools and universities.

Seeds of potential conflict in Vukovar 

In Vukovar, 34-year-old Srdan Sijakovic subscribes to the same idea. "Take a Croat and a Serb in pre-war Vukovar and, if they were not religious, you would see no difference between their identities," says Sijakovic, the youngest Croat defender to have been on the infamous southern frontline in 1991.

However, despite the terrible things that he witnessed on the battlefield, Sijakovic married a Serb woman, and the couple have a child now.

Despite a modest recent increase, Croat-Serb marriages like theirs remain rare. In 1998, they made up 5 per cent of all marriages in the town. In 2003 this figure was only 1.5 per cent and in 2008, 8 per cent.

"I don’t know even today whether we were brave or just crazy," Vukovar resident Dijana Antunovic Lazic says of herself and her Serb husband, Sinisa. Both their parents were shocked when, in the middle of the war, they told them they intended to live together.

"Many people didn’t want to talk to us because they weren’t thinking with their own heads, but as politics and the church instructed them," she adds. Politicians in the town encouraged a state of apartheid amongst Vukovar’s children. "At three, children learned who the Croats and who the Serbs were and, when parents lacked the patience to answer all the child’s ‘whys’, then they cut it short and said, ‘you can’t go there because they slaughtered our people’."

Finding peace abroad

Many people from mixed Balkan marriages agree that, often, the only option left is to go abroad. That is how Sanja Mihajlov, Hari Likic and their children Anej, Lina Lena and Timon Likic found the happiness that had eluded them at home.

Sanja is a Serb from Belgrade, while Hari is a Bosniak from Sarajevo. In 1992, the couple left for The Netherlands and now live in the small town of Helmond. Lina Lena, who was born later that year, feels Dutch.

"A lot of people from all over the world are here, and no one cares where my parents are from and I couldn’t care less, either," the 17-year-old says.

Asked about his nationality, her brother, Timon, aged 14, is perplexed. "No one ever asked me that question before."

Nino Zelenika in Mostar was not so lucky. He had to come up with an answer to this question by the time he was 14.

"To reduce oneself to one’s mere nationality would mean wasting one’s life," he says, mentioning his plan to leave Mostar after graduation.

"I don’t want to spend the next 40 years discussing who is a Croat and who is a Bosniak," he adds. "I need a normal life, and I don’t see this happening, not now, not in the future."

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.

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