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“Mixed marriage is not for the weak”: Interethnic couples in post-war Bosnia and Kosovo

Mar 28, 2022

In the countries  that emerged from the disintegration of the former  Yugoslavia, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, where ethnic Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats – and those who do not declare an ethnic belonging –  live, a mixed marriage is often seen as a “taboo“.

People in what is commonly referred to as “a mixed marriage” are often singled out in the community, and children raised in these  marriages are labeled as “children without a clear faith and identity.”

The share of ethnically mixed marriages in SFR Yugoslavia was 13%, with the highest numbers evidenced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Vojvodina. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the emergence of nation-states claiming to represent its main ethnic groups, the number of mixed-marriages between people of different faiths and nationalities decreased. In Srebrenica in particular, the pre-war percentage of 30% dropped to 3%.

Radomirka and Hariz Alić from Srebrenica

Radomirka and Hariz Alić got married 8 years ago. Radomirka is from Teslić and she met her husband, who is from Srebrenica, at the local Youth Center.

  “My husband and I worked in the NGO sector and I volunteered at the Youth Centre Srebrenica, as did he. We got to know each other a bit better and started hanging out through a project. That was in April, 2013. I’d come to Srebrenica to study. Everyone knew that I was someone new, but I really didn’t know anyone,” says Radomirka.

Radomirka and Hariz Alić at the pastry shop they opened in 2018 in Srebrenica

Asked about how the people react to their relationship, and her subsequent marriage to Hariz, Radomirka says:

“Honestly, I don’t think anyone was interested in that, but then again, everyone had their own opinions. Some expressed their dissatisfaction through social networks, they wrote various messages via Facebook. Regardless, I continued to greet those people. Today, 10 years later, those people talk to me normally.”

Raising children in a mixed marriage

Hariz and Radomirka are raising their children (a 3-year-old toddler and a 6-year-old) in the spirit of respect and understanding for all religions.

  “We celebrate both holidays, our children are growi up knowing both. We spend the holidays celebrated by my husband with his family, and the holidays celebrated by my family we spend with my immediate and extended relatives. The children spend a part of a year in Srebrenica, and the other part with my family in Teslić. They live normal children’s lives. There is a certain amount of insecurity and anxiety about how it would be tomorrow, when they grow up, how people could react. Our children are raised without any prejudices, but… There is fear.”

“It would be hard if my children came and said that nobody wanted to play with them because they were from a mixed marriage, ”says Rada Alić.

“Love wins in individual cases, but barely. So many people have gone through the Youth Centre and you talk to everyone, but then they go home and, you know, you are not with them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If the environment is sick, if it’s infected with nationalism, you can take one step forward, but it pulls you five steps back.”

“Some people, who were with me in the Youth Centre, became nationalists over time under the influence of nationalism, even though they may not have been in the past. Still, my husband and I did not have any major problems. The important thing is that we get along well and that our children are grow up in a large family “, concludes Radomirka.

 Marinko and Nermina Sekulić from Srebrenica

An example of a successful marriage by most people’s criteria – especially in a society where mixed marriages have become less commonplace – is the family of Marinko and Nermina Sekulić, which has being going strong for more than 37 years. Their five children could easily be a source of pride for every parent. 

Marinko says that even before the war, there were prejudices when it came to mixed marriages, but social circumstances were different back then.

“At the time of brotherhood and unity, people weren’t interested in who is what, but that unfortunate war did its thing. It is different for many people today, but for some it is not.” 

“I was brought up to separate people into two types – the good and the bad. I absolutely don’t care about the name, surname, religion or nation, because a human being, when he is born, cannot choose his father or mother, religion or nation, but he can choose the kind of person he will be. So, my children too have absolutely no prejudices.” 

“One son is in Germany, married to an Indonesian woman. She is Muslim, but that has absolutely nothing to do with anything. I believe there are prejudices today, because although almost 30 years have passed, the wounds of war are still fresh in a way, and these, our so-called politicians, igniting it every day to stay in power, not thinking about what they are doing to ordinary people they are pushing back into the past and evil,” says Marinko.

               * Marinko Sekulić Kokeza at his family house / office in Srebrenica

When asked about raising children, Marinko recalls how he was raised by his parents. It was unthinkable for a child not to greet his neighbour then, he says. All the elders were respected, and the young listened.

There was a lot more respect among people, and in the family in particular, you knew who did what and when, when to be home and the time until which you could stay out, where you could be, while today it is a completely different time. ”

                                *  The Sekulić family photo from the early 2000s

Sekulic says his children have never faced an identity crisis. They grew up in the spirit of multiculturalism and multiconfessionalism.

“For me it is important to celebrate things, and we have Roman-Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims in our extended family, so we celebrate everything. My wife is a Bosniak, a Muslim, and it is normal for her to celebrate Eid. So, what, I shouldn’t celebrate Eid, not sit and not eat baklava, right?” he says, laughing. 

“Or, how can we not celebrate Christmas or some other holiday?! Those holidays are there to gather the family and have us be together. Due to circumstances and Srebrenica being the way it is, none of our five children lives with us permanently; only the youngest son is currently doing an internship before taking the state exam, and then he will also leave. Two children are in Germany, two are in Sarajevo, they have all gone to seek their fortunes.”

 Religious instruction in mixed marriages

In the Republika Srpska schools, there is a practice of sending children to Orthodox religion classes if the parents are Orthodox, or if the parents are Muslim, the child attends Islamic religious instruction. Marinko explains how it worked in the Sekulić home.

“Since religious instruction is not a compulsory subject, children can, as mine did, choose a subject called Culture of Religions. The five of them decided to learn something about all religions. They didn’t have any issues regarding that … There were some at the beginning when we returned from Tuzla after the war, and the children (as children do) talked about who is what and there were some skirmishes. Even my older son once had a fight with a boy, and today they are both adults and friends. But I didn’t pay attention to it back then and it didn’t matter to me. I raised them the way I was raised them.”

During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Marinko Sekulić was in North Macedonia. He was a journalist, as he is today. He says that for his friends in North Macedonia, the war in Bosnia was meaningless – they cannot see the differences between its citizens.

Research on mixed marriages in BiH

A survey by PRIME Communications shows that 15% of BiH citizens fully agree with the statement that “they should not mix with members of other nations through ethnically mixed marriages”, while 23.7% generally agree, which makes a total of 38.7%. 28.6% are undecided. 12.8% of respondents generally disagree with this statement, 19.9% do not agree at all, which makes a total of 32.7% or one third of the population of BiH.

In Srebrenica, about 3% of the marriages are mixed marriages. In Bratunac, this percentage is much lower, it is estimated that about 1% of the total number are mixed marriages. According to the 2013 census, Srebrenica has the lowest number of Roman Catholics, only 17 individuals, while 26 live in Bratunac. Therefore, there are few marriages between Roman Catholics and other groups. Marriages between Serbs and Bosniaks are more common, due to the higher percentage of individuals belonging to these groups in the total population.

Suada and Rade Obradović

Suada and Rade Obradović, from the village of Brezak near Bratunac, are celebrating 35 years of a harmonious marriage. They have three children, two of whom were born before the war. Suada and Rade met in Lukavac near Tuzla and have not separated since.

*  An Obradović family photo from the late 90s

“Before the war, I worked for a field company that went from place to place – Višegrad, Tuzla, Doboj, the south and the north of Serbia, Priboj. We went everywhere. In 1985, I worked in Tuzla, Lukavac, where my wife is from. In Tuzla, I went out and hung out with people and I’ve never experienced a negative situation. The war found us here. My wife was a refugee in Serbia, but she didn’t have any conflicts or problems there either,” says Rade.

Asked if he has ever doubted his choice, Rade replies:

“Young people today, regardless of the side, get married for two or three years, then they break up. 35 years is no small thing. If I could go back to being 22, I would do it all over again, I would do the same thing I did the first time,” he says, laughing.. 

“There were a lot of mixed marriages in Bratunac before the war and we socialized normally and there were never any problems. “After the war, when we went to the Federation, we never came back without having a drink, sit down, spend the night, be at the fair,” Rade points out.

Prejudices about mixed marriages

Suada Obradović says that she never encountered negative comments or prejudices regarding their marriage. The important thing, she says, is that people are normal and get along.

“In my town, I don’t even know how many girls were in mixed marriages at the time. I never experienced any prejudices, neither regarding the war, nor after that. I have three children, my daughter graduated from the school of internal affairs and works as a police officer, inspector, my middle son finished high school of electrical engineering, and the younger one enrolled in the seminary, so, as they say, everyone has their choice.”

“As for whether we were sometimes limited by being in a mixed marriage, no, we didn’t have any advantage, but there weren’t any obstacles either. Indeed, the children did not have any problems at school either, and nobody conditioned them because of that. For example, I remember when my daughter was supposed to get married and she found a boyfriend, the first thing she told him was that she was from a mixed marriage, just in case it bothered him. But it didn’t, there really weren’t any problems at all. “

Suada celebrates St. Nicholas Day with her husband, but she also celebrates Eid and other holidays.

“We celebrate everything and socialise, we have lots of friends indeed, we and the children too.”
“I am involved in various reconciliation activities. It was difficult during the war, not only for us, but everyone. In the post-war years when we came back here… there were times when you couldn’t educate children, not because we were in a mixed marriage, but because it was such a time. I may have thought and regretted not leaving abroad then, but now that we have fitted out our household and live from agriculture, one can live nicely. I don’t regret it now, I truly don’t regret staying here.” 

“I hope the time will come, like before, that you don’t care who or what someone is, but that you simply have love and life and your own views,” Suada points out.

Data from the Republika Srpska Institute of Statistics and the Statistical Office of the Federation of BiH

According to the data of the Statistical Office of the Federation of BiH, in 2019, about 18,000 marriages took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 600 of which were nationally mixed. The Republika Srpska Institute of Statistics says about those 5,000 marriages took place during the same year, 250 of which were mixed marriages.

Psychologists and sociologists claim that the issue of mixed marriages is not exclusively a “problem” of the Balkan peoples, although it is very pronounced in that population – even when they find themselves in Western European countries. 

On the other hand, in recent years, marriages between Serbs and Albanian women have become more frequent in rural areas in neighbouring Serbia. According to the data published by Radio Free Europe, from 2015 to 2019, 365 marriages took place between members of these two national groups. In the same period, about 3,000 marriages took place between Serbs and Hungarians, and about 1,200 between Serbs and Croats, which further shows that when it comes to choosing life partners, although certain EU member states, such as Croatia, have the opportunity to “mix” with more peoples, preference is given to matching mentalities – in this case the Balkan one, which still nurtures the figure of mother and wife.

In Kosovo, the language barrier continues to be a major hurdle

Unlike Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even the rest of the former Yugoslav regions, the main hurdle between Kosovo’s two main ethnic groups – ethnic Serbs and Albanians – is the language issue.

During Yugoslavia, Kosovo Albanians spoke Serbo-Croatian and ethnic Serbs were taught Albanian in school, even though it was much more common for Albanians to speak Serbo-Croatian than vice-versa.

“I think there could definitely be more mixed marriages,” says Linda Gusia, a sociologist and professor at the University of Prishtina. “In sociology, marriages are a measure of the closeness of two societies. Considering there are little to no marriages between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs right now, you can draw your own conclusions.”

There are almost no statistics on mixed marriages in Kosovo, both now and during the Yugoslav period. During socialist Yugoslavia, those who belonged to mixed marriages would declare themselves as ethnic Yugoslav in the census, or list an unspecified or “other” ethnic background – and even in these cases there were barely 1%

“The largest number of marriages was seen in the 1970s and 1980s, and after that with the onset of the political instabilities and then the conflict, we don’t see them as often anymore,” explains Gusia.

A mixed marriage, in the classical definition, would be one between Kosovo’s Turkish and Bosniak community as well, but those tend to be less controversial and get less mention in public discourse – mainly because in Kosovo, language and not religion is seen as the main dividing line. 

“The biggest number is found among Bosniak and ethnic Turkish communities. There are no precise statistics on this, but the thing to keep in mind is that most of the mixed marriages are between Kosovars and foreigners, or non-Kosovo citizens,” said Gusia.

“The numbers and statistics on marriages of the Albanian community with the Serb community are relatively small, or almost non-existent, which I think is an indicator of how close Serbs and Albanians are and how much contact Serbs and Albanians have. Serbs in Kosovo live in their own cities and the integration of Serbs and Albanians is not so great and this I think is then reflected in marriage,” she concludes.

“We have mono-linguistic schools. We do not have integrated schools and this creates limitations in the fact that Albanians and other communities simply do not meet so much at the moment, when there is contact and interaction then there are also opportunities for marriage; in the context in which we are there is not much contact,” said Gusia.

Hana Kaja comes from a mixed marriage, and says the main reaction to her background is that of puzzlement and surprise. She is from the southern part of Kosovo, which tends to be much more divers – both ethnically and religiously. The Prizren area is home to significant Albanian Muslim and Catholic communities, as well as Serb, Bosniak, Gorani and Macedonian communities.

“It’s not as unusual as some people think – you just grow up in two different cultures and have the privilege of knowing more than two languages when you grow up. It makes you more open-minded and helps you understand other people and cultures.”

“People think it’s very interesting,” says Hana.

For Ilir Gashi, a media professional, born and raised in Belgrade, his professional identity has been more prominent in his life despite the fact that people constantly inquire into his ethnic background.

“I don’t have a clear sense of ethnic belonging. It’s quite fluid – sometimes I would feel more like a Serb and sometimes I would feel more like an Albanian, but most of the time I simply don’t feel like I belong to any specific community, nor I can easily understand the feeling of ethnic/national belonging. At the same time, I am somehow made of both and can relate to both communities. It’s a weird position to be in, but I got used it to some extent,” explains Gashi.

“Albanian – Serbian marriages were quite common in my family. My grandfather was Albanian, and my grandmother was Serbian; my father married my Serbian mother, and both of his brothers – my uncles – married Serbian women (one would later divorce and re-marry, this time with an Albanian). So the feeling of growing up in this kind of a family was at the same time that of embracing these differences as positive values, and on the other side, a feeling of increasing discomfort and later a growing rift between the two sides of the family, as it was becoming more and more obvious that in the outside world this was seen as very problematic.”

“Everyone was expected to take sides, and this reflected on my family too. I don’t think my family – or any other mixed marriage family in Yugoslavia for that matter – was really prepared for what was coming, nor that there was a way to prepare. I certainly wasn’t prepared,” he recalls.

Unlike in Bosnia, religious identity is a lot less important in Albanian culture. National heroes, politicians, artists and public intellectuals have been Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox and Albania has one of the oldest autocephalous Orthodox Churches in the region – a misconception often forgotten by those who assume the Albanian-Serbian conflict is of a religious nature.

Language, on the other hand, is the key separator. Throughout history, identification with the Albanian nation was highlighted by language, especially considering Albanian is in stark contrast to the Slavic languages in the region and Greek, the language found to the south of the country.

For Ilir, his seemingly exotic background is in fact mostly an issue of perceptions.

“I would guess it’s usually a very unique mix of things which largely depends on how the person handles the fact of being born in a mixed marriage, in relation with his/her social environment and political context, and how he/she reacts to all this, and navigates through it. It is a very complex and intense process, and you never really reach a point when you are finally settled. You keep discovering new aspects, and keep changing throughout. It is actually quite exciting, sometimes perhaps too exciting but that’s how it is,” said Gashi.

He is a prominent journalist and media rights activist in Belgrade, and was previously the director of the Slavko Curuvija foundation – a media freedom organization set up in honor of the Serbian journalist killed by authorities in 1999 as tensions reached fever pitch in Serbia. 

Ilir’s mere existence has been a problem for those who are not open-minded enough in their approach to identity. He has what many consider to be a very Albanian first and last name, yet is a native Serbian speaker.

“Yes I have been prejudiced  – it’s pretty much built into my experience of living in Belgrade ever since I was a kid, since Ilir Gashi is the kind of a name that can attract a lot of unwanted attention,” says Gashi.

“Still, as I grew up I would find more and more people that were completely free of prejudice – or would actively fight them. So it’s really not something I think about every day when I walk on the streets of Belgrade – I feel quite comfortable living there – although there is always a chance it can jump right at you from behind any corner. The trick is simply to ignore it, because otherwise you would probably go crazy.”  

“It’s really funny in a way that something similar happened to me in Prishtina some months ago. I was in a bar and there was a guy who had a problem with me speaking Serbian to my friend from Belgrade. It didn’t make sense explaining that my name is actually Ilir Gashi, because what would really be different if my name was Slobodan Petrovic? Would it be more acceptable to be discriminated against?” 

Milica Andric Rakic is a journalist and researcher who currently works for the New Social Initiative, an NGO based in North Mitrovica, the Serb-majority town that is considered the administrative center of the Serb-majority north of Kosovo.

Most of the activities of the NSI focus on issues such as nationalism, prejudice and political influence on the relationship between Kosovo’s ethnic groups.

“I could not say that I have friends all over Kosovo as many towns remain inaccessible to me in that social sense. Outside of Serb-majority areas there are only two towns in Kosovo I go to for pleasure – Prizren and Pristina. I was lucky enough to start my first job with USAID in ethnically very diverse work environment and this continued to be the case in my latter engagements with the civil society sector,” explains Andric Rakic.

“So all my friendships with people of different ethnic background were first work relationships that grew stronger. I however am an outlier, majority of people from my community work in the Serbian institutions in Kosovo and have rare opportunities to interact with members outside of their ethnic community.”

“And as for my work relationships they usually grow into friendships because of the mutual interest for political developments and strong common curiosity for the perspective of the other. If a person is intellectually fair and open to hear different positions on sensitive issues without getting offended conversations can become quite interesting, full of personal introspection and important self-realizations.”

For Milica, the fact that most Kosovo Serbs live either in the north of the country or in enclaves south of the Iber river – enclaves that are Serb majority and have barely any Albanians, and the opposite applies to other places in Kosovo where Albanians live and there are rarely any Serbs.

“Segregation is the main barrier to mixed marriages. Despite the popular mantra Kosovo is no longer a multiethnic society, in fact Kosovo’s multiethnicity is seriously endangered. There are only two truly multiethnic urban areas in Kosovo – Prizren and North Mitrovica, the rest are rural areas. And urban areas is where the most liberal parts of the societies live, where cultures coexist and where ties of social cohesion are created.”

“This is happening at a very low level in Kosovo’s urban areas. There used to be 30k Serbs living in Pristina, there used to be 12k Serbs living in Gjakova and so on in all major urban areas, now there are not and the likelihood of interethnic contacts and with it all social ties – friendships, marriages, etc. is decreased by just as much,” says Andric Rakic.

She sees friendships and relationships with other ethnic groups as a possibility for interesting debates and discussions, as well as learning more about others – and herself too – in the process.

“If a call them a friend that means that we have come to the point that we can be fully open about any opinion we may have. In fact sensitive issues are my favorite topic to open with friends from different community because they allow for a level of introspection and even therapeutic questioning of yourself which you can rarely reach with someone who fully shares your perspective, no matter how critical and objective they might be,” she concludes.

Ilir, who has lived in Belgrade most of his life but maintains ties to friends and family in Kosovo, says that despite the difficulties he faced, he strongly supports people discarding someone’s background when entering into relationships or even marriage.

“If I will get married, I cannot imagine that ethnicity would play any role in deciding whom I will get married to or with. I sometimes think about how my father and my mother made a really courageous decision, and it was a decision made out of love, and I came to this world as a result and physical evidence of that love. I would feel like I would betray both myself and them if I would ever let that get into my way.”

By Anđelija Arsić, Blerona Zariqi, and Vesa Avdiu

Photographs by: Darko Perendić