SREBRENICA, Bosnia (Reuters) - To an outsider, there may be nothing strange in the love story between Almir Salihovic and Dusica Rendulic: boy meets girl, they fall in love, live together and have a child.
But he is Muslim and she is Serb and they are the first mixed couple in Srebrenica since Serb forces slaughtered around 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the overwhelmingly Muslim Bosnian town in 1995, Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two.
They say they are not bothered how people perceive them in the town, where Serbs now outnumber Muslims, and expect no problems for their son, whom they named Jusuf after one of Almir’s six uncles killed in the Srebrenica massacre.
“If I had six sons, I would name them all after Almir’s late uncles,” said Dusica, 24, pointing at abandoned houses that once belonged to her partner’s uncles.
For many in the impoverished country, their tale offers hope Bosnia’s Muslims, Serbs and Croats can learn to put their animosities behind them, even in places where the war still casts long shadows.
International organizations have spent more than a decade trying to undo the “ethnic cleansing” that split Bosnia three ways, but less than a third of those driven out for having the wrong name have returned to their pre-war homes.
The numbers are even lower in Srebrenica, where activists say Serbs and Muslims live in parallel worlds and there is no political will to bring them together.
“These young people are definitely our only hope,” said Dragana Jovanovic, the director of the Friends of Srebrenica non-governmental organization.
Mixed marriages were widely accepted, and even encouraged, by communist authorities in the former Yugoslavia.
Today, more than a decade after the wars ended, they are stigmatized by diehard nationalists across the Balkans, even though the ethnic and religious differences they play up are sometimes hard to spot in a broadly secular society.
Jovanovic, a Serb, said of the young Srebrenica couple: “They need to be supported to persist in actions they were brave enough to undertake, they are the Bosnian bravehearts.”
They are not the first to be portrayed in such terms. Reporting from besieged Sarajevo at the height of the war, the late Reuters journalist Kurt Schork described that city's "Romeo and Juliet", a Serb and his Muslim girlfriend shot trying to escape. www.ksmemorial.com/romeo.htm
For Almir and Dusica, the publicity surrounding their lives came as a surprise.
“For us, it was easy,” said Dusica, adding she was well received by her partner’s family and neighbors, and that they have not had any problems. They will formally marry once they make enough money to organize a decent wedding, she said, adding that Norwegian donors promised to buy her a white wedding gown.
“If you behave normally, nobody will harm you,” she said, watching over their baby boy as she sat on the porch of a new wooden house built for them by an Austrian charity.
Dusica was born in Croatia to a Croat father and Serb mother. She left for Serbia in 1995 with her mother and siblings, when Croatian government forces drove rebel Serbs out of the pockets they had occupied since 1991, and thinks of herself as Serb.
She first met Almir exactly two years ago this week, when she visited relatives in a northern Bosnian village where he was herding sheep. It was not long before they took off for Srebrenica to start their life together.
Almir was 15 when his family was forced to leave Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, when the Bosnian Serb captors separated women and children from men. The men were killed over the following few days and buried in hidden mass graves.
“Not all the people are the same,” Salihovic told Reuters. “We, the Muslims who returned here, need to live as before, we need to socialize with everyone.”
Marriages between members of different ethnic groups were especially common in multi-ethnic Bosnia, where Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats lived together.
But the brutality shown by all ethnic groups towards others in the wars has drastically reduced the number of those ready to venture out of the safety net provided by their ethnic group.
In Bosnia, for example, some Islamic clerics and Bosniak nationalists strongly lobbied against mixed marriages during and after the 1992-95 war, saying that children from such marriages were “bastards” with no identity.
Goran Penava, a sociologist at the Institute of Social Sciences in Belgrade, said the collapse of multiethnic Yugoslavia overlapped with “a sharp reduction in the number of ethnically heterogeneous marriages”.
According to the last census conducted in Bosnia in 1991, around 15 percent of Sarajevo’s half a million residents declared themselves as Yugoslavs and ‘Others’. Most of them were people either living in or born from mixed marriages.
A partial survey conducted in 2002 in Bosnia’s Muslim-Croat federation found the number of Others (Yugoslavs have meanwhile disappeared) shrinking to just 2.5 percent of the total of 2.3 million.
The trend is similar across the region. In Serbia, the number of mixed marriages fell to 9.2 percent in 2010 from 15.4 percent in 1991. Penava put it down to a rise of ethnic mistrust during the wars, which have made Serbia and Croatia ethnically more homogenous.
At the same time, such countries, clearly dominated by one nation, no longer stigmatized mixed marriages.
“In Croatia, the issue of mixed marriages was a consequence of the war,” said sociologist Drazen Lalic. “But it is no longer a political issue and has moved to the private sphere.”
But in Bosnia, once a prime example of multiethnicity, only Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks are constituent peoples. All the others, including Jews, Roma and ethnically undecided people from mixed marriages, are discriminated against.
“The biggest problem is that people are forced to declare their nationality through institutional mechanisms,” said Vesna Andree Zaimovic, the executive editor of the Radio Sarajevo website, herself from mixed marriage and in mixed marriage.
“Such insistence is not only discriminatory and humiliating but also rude,” said Andree Zaimovic, an activist for the rights of the “Others”, which some estimate at hundreds of thousands.
Meanwhile, Dusica, whose name means ‘Soul’, said things would improve in time.
“There will be more mixed marriages in Srebrenica, we just broke the ice,” she said.
Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Igor Ilic in Zagreb; Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Philippa Fletcher