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Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Neither here nor there

Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Neither here nor there
Issue 95, I - 1994

1 March 1994
The tragic division of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been especially traumatic for mixed-marriage families, who no longer know where they belong.

The tragic division of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been especially traumatic for mixed-marriage families, who no longer know where they belong.

By Ron Redmond

Refugees Jadranka and Salih Bubric have lost everything but hope - a brave, defiant hope that is best illustrated by the bouncing, 4-month-old baby boy they decided to call Colin.

"Colin is not a Muslim name, it's not a Serb name, it's not a Croatian name. It's a European name," Mr. Bubric said in the cramped, 4-metre caravan that he, his wife and little Colin share in a converted holiday camp that now houses hundreds of refugees south of the Croatian port of Split.

"I'd never considered myself a Serb or a Croat or a Muslim until this crazy war started," said Mr. Bubric, a man of Muslim ancestry who married his ethnic Croat wife 15 years ago. "I consider myself a European, and that's Colin, too. He's a European. We gave him a proper European name in these difficult times."

Ethnically mixed families like the Bubrics were once common all over former Yugoslavia. Nobody paid much attention to the spelling of one's name - often the only way to tell a person's ethnicity - until the past two years when extreme nationalists began their ugly campaign of "ethnic cleansing." Today, hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes, in many cases simply because their names are spelled differently than their neighbour's.

The tragic division of Bosnia-Herzegovina along ethnic lines has been especially traumatic for mixed families like the Bubrics who no longer know where they really belong.

"We're not welcome now on the Muslim side, we're not welcome on the Croat side and we're not welcome on the Serb side," Mr. Bubric said. "And here in Croatia, it is also very difficult. I'm worried. I don't know where we belong."

Several countries outside former Yugoslavia have indicated to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that they will extend temporary protection to persons unable to remain in their homeland because their spouses are of a different ethnic origin or religion. But getting to those third countries in the first place is a major hurdle. And a mixed marriage does not in and of itself make a displaced or refugee couple in former Yugoslavia eligible for resettlement.

Mr. and Mrs. Bubric and their 14-year-old daughter fled their hometown of Jajce in October 1992 following a wave of vicious "ethnic cleansing" by Serb extremists all across northern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mr. Bubric, who spent nearly 20 years working in Germany, owned a restaurant in the Jajce area and had a substantial bank account in Belgrade. Now he and his wife have nothing but each other and their two children.

So why would a couple who have lost everything and who have no idea where they will be tomorrow decide to have a baby after 15 years of marriage? "Having this baby was a conscious decision - we wanted a baby," Mrs. Bubric said. "We made Colin on purpose. It's our way of saying that we have hope in the future. Life goes on."

"If I didn't have this hope, I might as well finish myself off," Mr. Bubric added.

The Bubrics both grew up in Jajce, went to school there, met there and married there. Life was good and everyone got along. "No one ever brought up the fact that she was a Croat and I was a Muslim," said Mr. Bubric. "It didn't matter at all. We all lived together - Serb, Muslim and Croat. But then outside extremists from the countryside came and everything changed."

Neighbour turned against neighbour and today Jajce is a Serb town, its former Muslim and Croat residents either dead or scattered throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

But for mixed families, even the flight to refuge does not bring peace. The Bubrics, for example, fled at night across the front lines and spent seven long days getting to the Bosnian-Croat town of Tomislavgrad, only to be denied shelter when authorities noted that Mr. Bubric had a Muslim name. At the time, Bosnian Muslims and Croats were supposed to be allies against the Serbs.

"I have never been a practicing Muslim - I've never been a practicing anything," Mr. Bubric said. "I was never brought up in the religious spirit. I was brought up to be a human being, and I despise those who have suddenly become nationalistic Serbs, Croats and Muslims because of this war."

The Bubrics now fear that they will never be able to return to their beloved Jajce. At the same time, they feel they cannot stay in Croatia, where there is growing anti-Muslim sentiment.

"Even if we end up going to a third country, we want to eventually go back to Jajce," Mr. Bubric said. "It will always be home."

Despite the strains, the Bubric's mixed marriage has remained strong. But that is not the case for thousands of other families who have been unable to withstand the hatred and prejudice of their former neighbours. Husbands have left their wives, children have been taken from their parents.

Edem S. was forced from his home in the Bosnian-Serb stronghold of Banja Luka in May of 1992 after being jailed and harassed for weeks. Today, he lives in the dark, damp May 1 Theatre in the Bosnian Government-controlled town of Zenica. Old film posters of Hollywood stars plaster the dirty windows in the front of the building, but the seats have been ripped from the theatre and hundreds of displaced people now jam the smoke-filled cinema, including its entrance and balcony. Four families even live on the darkened stage. There is only one bathroom for 238 displaced people.

Edem, 35, is a Muslim whose Serb wife died 12 years ago, leaving him to raise their daughter, now aged 16. Edem's father-in-law, however, became a strong Serb nationalist in late 1991 and slowly turned against his son-in-law. In the spring of 1992, when Edem was harassed, beaten and jailed by Serb radicals in Banja Luka, his Serbian father- and mother-in-law did nothing to rescue him, took his daughter into their home and refused to let her see him again.

"I was in a small prison in the Banja Luka area and was forced to prepare all the papers giving up everything we owned," Edem recalled. "I also prepared papers for my daughter, who I thought was going to be expelled with me. But one night before we were to be expelled, they destroyed the papers of my daughter. They told me I couldn't have her because she was a Serb. They told me I had to go. I never even got to say goodbye to her."

Edem has sent several messages to his daughter through the International Committee of the Red Cross, but each time his in-laws refused to accept them, saying the girl was not there.

"I know she's there. I will never give up trying to get my daughter," said Edem, who carries a photo of the girl in his passport. "They cannot turn her against me. I gave her a gold necklace and heart with my name engraved on it and I know she will always wear it."

Across the city, Slobodan and Vesna Jovicic and their two sons, Dario and Vladimir, live with hundreds of other displaced people in a former Zenica high school gymnasium. Mr. Jovicic, 41, is a Serb, and Mrs. Jovicic, 38, is a Croat. They are now effectively trapped in Moslem-controlled territory and they are worried.

"Most of the people here have been kind to us, but we sense a change in the air," Mr. Jovicic said. "Sometimes now people call us names. More and more, I fear that when we mention our name, someone who has become filled with hate by the war will hear us and try to harm us. We feel fear."

The Jovicics fled their hometown of Jajce after enduring six months of fighting, most of which they spent in the cellar of their home. "We escaped 82 kilometres through the forest at night, not knowing where we were going," Mr. Jovicic said. "Now we're here, but we don't know really where we are or where we belong."

The couple's oldest son, 11-year-old Dario, is a tall, pale boy who suffers from heart problems. "We are worried about him," Mrs. Jovicic said. "He doesn't talk much anymore and he is very distant from the other children. He has seen too much."

Mr. Jovicic is afraid to take his Croat wife to Serbia, and also worries about his future should they try to go to Croatia. Moreover, he fears that if they stay much longer in Zenica, authorities will force him into the Bosnian Government army. He has already been called up, but is on sick leave. "My worry is that they'll make me take up a gun and either shoot her people or my people," Mr. Jovicic said. "As a Serb, I'm afraid how I'll be treated in the Bosnian army. There are very few Serbs in the army."

Despite the hardships, the Jovicics say they do not regret their mixed marriage and will never separate. "I have had several chances to go to Croatia with my family, but I didn't want to leave him," Mrs. Jovicic said, nodding toward her husband. "He also had several chances to leave me, but he didn't want to. We know a lot of couples where the husband went one way and the wife went the other. We will never do that."

"We just want to go away from here," Mr. Jovicic added. "But it seems like the whole world is against mixed marriages."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (1994)