SARAJEVO — When Amela and Srdjan saw the headlines out of France about a lovestruck young Bosniak beaten and shamed over her love for an Orthodox Serb, they saw a bit of their younger selves.
“We got married in the middle of the [Bosnian] war,” Amela says of the unlikely pair’s decision three decades ago when their city, the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, was under a deadly siege.
Blushing bride Amela is Bosniak, a mostly Muslim ethnic group that is a majority in most of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her groom, Srdjan, is an Orthodox ethnic Serb, a group that animated Yugoslavia’s formation in the early 20th century but became a minority in several parts of that country as it dissolved in the early 1990s.
Many of their respective co-ethnics were locked in conflict to carve out swaths of the erstwhile socialist patchwork that communist leader Josip Broz Tito so famously tried to keep stitched together for four decades.
Sarajevo, a proudly polyethnic metropolis of over half a million people when it declared sovereignty in 1991, was encircled by Bosnian Serb military forces in what ended up being the longest siege of a capital city in modern history.
Amela and Srdjan’s courtship was discouraged by many of their neighbors and loved ones, who were even more appalled at the idea of a mixed marriage at the height of an ethnically and religiously fueled conflict.
“My family sulked a little, and there you have it,” Amela, a mother of two, says matter-of-factly, adding encouraging words for others who are similarly scorned. “Now we don’t care who says what. We don’t pay attention anymore. We live our lives.”
Three of Amela’s friends married men of other religious faiths at the time, too.
“When they have only one thought on their mind,” Amela says, seemingly as much about them as about last month’s news of the star-crossed lovers in France, “it’s up to them — where it’s normal [in a country] for you to marry into another religion.”
France ‘Deeply Shocked’
French Foreign Minister Gerald Darmanin described being “deeply shocked” by the August incident in eastern France, in which police were called as a 17-year-old Bosnian-Muslim girl was “shaved and beaten because she ‘loved a Christian.'”
The woman — whose family had been in France since 2017 and had been denied refugee status — was taken to a hospital with a broken rib and other injuries inflicted on her by her family.
Her parents and four other members of the Zahirovic family were deported to Sarajevo on October 24 for what the French Foreign Ministry called the “unacceptable behavior of the family.”
The woman will remain in child protective care in France until she is 18, authorities said.
The families of the couple had lived in the same building in the city of Besancon and their relationship “wasn’t a problem,” a French prosecutor said, until “they started talking about marriage [and] the girl’s parents told her, ‘We’re Muslims, you can’t marry a Christian.'”
Bosnia’s ambassador to France, Kemal Muftic, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that the Bosnian emigres’ case had particularly resonated among the French because it echoed postwar abuses there after the defeat of the Nazis.
“It was all reminiscent of French history when, after World War II, French women who had had contact with the [occupying] Germans had their hair cut,” Muftic said. “The whole case caused harm to the Bosnian community in France.”
Unpopular In Bosnia
In their native Bosnia, which is still governed along ethnic lines 25 years after the Dayton accords that ended the war, the Zahirovic family won’t be alone in rejecting mixed marriage.
A study in 2018 concluded that nearly 38 percent of Bosnia’s 3.3 million or so citizens oppose it.
That number included negative views among 55 percent of Bosnian Serbs, most of whom are Orthodox Christians; 43 percent of Bosnian Croats, who are mainly Catholic; and 33 percent of the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks.
That suggests that Bosnia’s main ethnic minorities — Serbs and Croats — are more guarded when it comes to marrying outside their ethnicity or faith.
“We can even say that these ethnic groups that consider themselves vulnerable or minorities are somehow more opposed to mixed marriages,” says psychologist Srdjan Puhalo, who worked on the study.
“Maybe it’s their fear of disappearance somewhere. That is to say, maybe [they believe] it’s a guarantee — if they stick to their ethnic groups — that they will survive in Bosnia.”
Ethnicity is still a prickly issue, and statistics in the Balkans can be elusive.
Unions among Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs in prewar Yugoslavia accounted for 13 percent of all marriages in what is now Bosnia.
In Sarajevo specifically, a whopping 1 in 3 marriages was mixed.
But just some 3 percent of the roughly 18,000 marriages throughout Bosnia in 2019 were registered as ethnically mixed, in a country where Bosniaks make up about 50 percent of the country’s population, Serbs some 31 percent, and Croats 15 percent.
A Wartime Toll
The wars of Yugoslav succession of the 1990s were notorious for an ethnically fueled ferocity that Europe hadn’t seen since World War II.
More than 100,000 people died — some of them in concentration camps — and millions more fled or were displaced by the violence.
Many of the region’s inhabitants still reject historians’ painful conclusions and remain ill-prepared for reconciliation.
“When you look at who fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina, you see that Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks fought each other; you see that Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims fought each other,” psychologist Puhalo says.
The resulting animosities, he adds, “are things we have to think about and question and talk about.”
After the traumatic and tragic experiences of World War II a half-century earlier, there was enormous pressure in the form of propaganda encouraging the “brotherhood and unity” that had existed between the two world wars, according to Tamara Dzamonja Ignjatovic, professor of psychology at the University of Belgrade.
Recent generations of Bosnians lived through “an experience of ethnic conflicts and wars of the 1990s that, unfortunately, still have an echo in our region,” she says.
She says those painful traumas are the main reason for the continuing unpopularity of multiethnic marriages. Media and ongoing personal prejudices feed resentment against such marriages when they do take place.
“We are living the consequences of these conflicts in the 1990s and today, and as part of these daily political events the same issues are being raised every now and again,” Dzamonja Ignjatovic says.
Back in Sarajevo, Amela and Srdjan remember a time before the Balkan conflicts when they rarely noticed the ethnic implication of someone’s name, much less the historical baggage it carried.
When he talks about the prejudices that preceded France’s internationally reported expulsion of the Zahirovic family, Srdjan says he thinks one of the legacies of the Balkan conflict is that many of its survivors, at home and abroad, have spent decades “living in some of their national clans.”
Even when they’re living in the same building, like those two young people at the heart of the dispute.
“Worst of all, there are [practically] no more of these mixed marriages,” says Srdjan, “nor will there be.”