In the ethnically homogenised communities of Bosnia and Croatia, mixed marriages are stigmatised as a symbol of a discredited way of life.
By Barbara Matejcic
For all the relaxed atmosphere, cool music and cheap beer, club Abrasevic in Mostar, a town in southwest Bosnia, is not just another alternative youth hangout.
As the main gathering place for the children of mixed marriages in Mostar, a city 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, whose father is a Croat and whose mother is a Bosniak. “Both regard them 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, lasting for a year.
At the time, Nino was only eight. Then mainly interested in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other cartoon heroes, he did not have the faintest idea who belonged to which nationality.
However, life soon taught him that nationality comes first and foremost 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,” Nino says bitterly, referring to the waters of the Neretva that flow through the city, separating the Muslim Bosniak east from the Catholic Croat west.
War turns love to hate
After the disintegration of the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state, nationalist politicians played aggressively on people’s national and religious feelings. Fear and a feeling of being under threat grew and people began isolating themselves within their respective ethnic camps.
Mostar, the biggest city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, was well known for its significant proportion of mixed marriages. The high level of ethnic mixing was perhaps unsurprising, as Mostar stood at the intersection of regions populated by Muslims, Croats and Serbs.
Vukovar, a small town on the easternmost edge of Croatia, boasted similar characteristics. Close to the border between Croatia and Serbia, Vukovar was another community in which there was a high degree of inter-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 separated the survivors.
While some local and international officials and media maintained that the level of destruction reflected the historic hatred between the different ethnic and religious groups in the Balkans, statistics concerning Mostar and Vukovar suggest that this thesis is incorrect.
In Vukovar, surveys from the 1990s reveal that some 23 ethnic groups then lived in the town. Mixed couples made up 34 per cent of all marriages. Recent surveys reported 97 per cent of Serbs claiming to have had close Croat friends, while 84 per cent of Croats said they had had close Serb friends.
Mostar was home to about 20 different ethnic groups and was widely seen as one of most ethnically-tolerant environments in the country.
“Ethnic intolerance was not a precursor to war, but its consequence,” psychologist Dinka Corkalo Biruski, of Zagreb University, says. Her conclusion follows years of research into communities affected by war.
The views of American anthropologist Robert Hayden and sociologist Keith Doubt offer an explanation for the especially high level of violence experienced by Vukovar or Mostar, places where ethnic mixing was most pronounced.
“The more integrated the people are, the more violence is required to separate them,” Doubt writes in his book Sociology after Bosnia.
Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia left both towns heavily scarred and ethnically separated. People in inter-ethnic marriages and their offspring were left straddling new ethnic divides and facing hostility from both sides.
“People entering into mixed marriages today in cities like Vukovar and Mostar are heroes,” Ljiljana Gehrecke, of European House, an NGO working on interethnic reconciliation in Vukovar, says.
“These are people with strong self-consciousness who have built a robust personal identity despite the pressure of the collective identity.”
Mostar wedding procession escorted by UN peacekeepers
According to the 1991 census, 10 per cent of all marriages in Mostar were mixed. Nine years later, out of 176 marriages in Mostar, not one Bosniak-Croat couple spoke the words “I do”. These two ethnic groups made up 47 and 48 per cent of Mostar’s approximately 100,000 residents respectively.
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 the 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,” he adds.
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.
“They’ve been preaching for almost two decades that the only way to survive is to stick to the flock,” she says. “Whoever manages to live with someone from another flock undermines their concept.”
Alenka Ban, 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.
“We heard we were on some list and nothing good was happening to the people on the list: they were interned in camps, raped and murdered,” she says.
“If it were not for him, a normal person in the midst of that madness, who knows what would’ve become of us?”
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. Even the drastic act of conversion to Catholicism, Alenka feels, would not change the way in which she is regarded in the western side of town. In the east, her husband can expect similar treatment.
Their daughter, Ornela Ban, 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.
Although Alenka ponders why her child cannot take pride in her mixed background, ultimately, she already knows the answer. “I don’t want my child to be of undefined nationality because I know what I’ve had to put up with,” she says. “I’ll probably live with this division until the end of my life, but I don’t want her to live that way.”
A report published in July 2009 by leading international think-tank, the International Crisis Group, ICG, 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,” the report says. “Even this represents progress: residents now cross safely and easily back and forth.”
Meanwhile, some children growing up on different sides of the divide have no idea what the rest of the city looks like. Few mingle or date peers from the other ethnic group. They attend separate kindergartens, schools and universities.
The only significant kindergarten attended by children from both ethnic groups is financed by foreign funds and was originally meant for children with disabilities.
“The problem of school segregation is a major concern,” says Caroline Ravaud, the head of the European Council in Bosnia.
Local and international experts say fear maintains ethnic divisions like those in Mostar: fear of leaving the mono-ethnic group; fear of being shunned by one’s own ethno-religious group for mingling with others; fear over jobs and social security.
“When that fear fades away, a marriage between a Muslim and a Croat will become an issue of freedom of choice, and not a burden, stemming that choice,” says Mario Antonio Brkic, director of the Sarajevo Inter-Religious Institute.
“Then people will realise that mixed marriages are a societal category, testifying to the fact that they can live normally here irrespective of their differences,” he adds.
Seeds of potential conflict in Vukovar
A few hundred kilometres to the north, 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.
“Their alleged heterogeneity is imposed and politically constructed,” he adds, raising his voice against the rumbling background of a band playing on a stage in the town’s burnt-out baroque-style Cultural Centre. The building was destroyed by some of the 7,000 shells that besieging Serbs rained on Vukovar every day for three months in 1991.
Neither the Cultural Centre nor the pre-war tolerance of Vukovar residents has been rebuilt to date. However, despite the terrible things that he witnessed on the battlefield, Sijakovic married a Serb woman, and the couple have a child now.
The two of them have no problems with one another, but others seem to have a problem with them, he says. For example, he might pay about 75 cents for a coffee in a Croat cafe, whereas his wife would be charged twice that amount. “National identity means that, if you’re a Croat, then you hate Serbs, and vice-versa,” he says.
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.
“They objected to our choice to live together with the enemy while ‘our’ people were dying every day,” she recalls. “I think the biggest burden for them was what other people would say.”
They married in 1994, during the third year of Serb rule in the town. “Those were difficult years. 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.
Things may be changing in Vukovar, however. Zeljko Sabo, elected in May 2009, is the first mayor since the war to have sprung from the ranks of moderate political option.
Politicians in the town encouraged a state of apartheid amongst Vukovar’s children, from kindergartens to secondary schools, Sabo recalls. “You had to explain to a little child why it was impossible for him or her to go to the nearest kindergarten and why they had to go to another one,” he says.
“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’.”
Ljiljana Gehrecke, from the European House in Vukovar, says such attitudes have serious long-term consequences if they pass unchallenged.
“Not only does the segregation in Vukovar’s schools make it impossible for kids to get to know one another and eventually marry across the ethnic divide, it also may lay the seeds of a future conflict,” she warns.
Finding peace abroad
Many people from mixed Balkan marriages agree that, in such a divided ethnic environment, 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. Destiny brought them together just before the war started in the coastal Croatian town of Sibenik, where Sanja was on vacation and Hari was serving in the Yugoslav navy.
They briefly settled in Sarajevo, but had to escape as Serb forces tightened their siege. They then travelled to Belgrade, but soon decided to move again.
“In Belgrade, when I saw our alcoholic neighbour cleaning his rifle before going to the war [in Croatia], it was clear we had to leave,” Hari recalls. “It clearly depended on his mood whether he would point that rifle at me or not.”
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. If her parents belong to different ethnic groups from the former Yugoslavia, it is of no great relevance to her.
“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. He shrugs his shoulders and answers: “No-one ever asked me that question before.”
Nino Zelenika in Mostar was not so lucky. A child of a mixed Bosniak-Croat couple, aged eight when war broke out, he had to come up with an answer to this question by the time he was 14.
He is painfully aware that his identity is a combination of different ethnic and religious identities. “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.