Europe, Headlines

BALKANS: Mixed Marriages On Rise Again

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Jun 16 2006 (IPS) - Bozana Savicki (26), a Serb from Belgrade is about to marry Igor Dumic (28) from Zagreb in Croatia. They met at the Croatian coast last summer.

“We knew it was right the moment we saw each other,” Bozana says. “When he said he was from Zagreb, it didn’t mean a thing to me.”

That marriage means much to them, but it also means something to a region where mixed marriages had begun to fall apart with the former Yugoslavia through the 1990s.

According to recent statistics, the number of ethnically mixed marriages is on the rise, even if marginally. In Bosnia there were 712 such marriages last year, compared to 651 in 2004, according to the Federal Statistics Office in Sarajevo.. Those people tend to avoid religious ceremonies and go for civil marriages at city halls.

“It gives us hope that people have remained people and have not lost their human nature, particularly the young,” says Maja Kandido Jaksic, psychology professor of Croatian origin in Belgrade. “That can bring us closer to reconciliation in the region, so badly sought.

An earlier generation had known such togetherness.

With the last days of spring going by, 51-year-old Serbian language teacher Dubravka Gavric is entering the grades for her students at a Belgrade high school, and talks with them about plans to spend their summer.

“I never hesitate to tell them how I’m going to spend mine – in Croatia, in my home town of Makarska on the Adriatic coast. Most of them realise only then that I am not a Serb and that I must have come here through marriage,” Dubravka says.

“If they raise their eyebrow, I tell them ‘things were so different before you were born’, I’m happy to be spending my life in Belgrade.”

Like thousands of middle-aged Croats, Bosniak Muslims and Slovenes, Dubravka has lived in the Serbian capital for decades now, happily married to a Serb. She graduated in Serbo-Croatian language long before the war, and easily found a job in Belgrade.

Like so many others, she hates the expression ‘ethnically mixed marriage’ that came to be heard in the early 1990s when former Yugoslavia fell apart in bloody wars. “In the times when I got married, in 1977, it was not important. I brought up our sons Boris (28) and Marko (25) to think in the same manner.”

But if Dubravka’s family is a happy one, many others are not.

When wars started, violence and divorce entered the home in many mixed marriages. These families, once the recipe for cementing the unity of the big nation, became the target of open hatred in all the newly created nations (Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia), causing deep trauma among couples and their children.

Jaksic looked at these issues in her study ‘Ethnically-mixed Marriages and Social Distance towards Members of Some ex-Yugoslav Nations’.

“Children born in such marriages were particularly the target – they were under constant suspicion in the surroundings that became more and more ethnically exclusive, often despised for their ‘mixed’ or ‘enemy’ background, forced to choose and show their loyalty to Croat, Muslim or the Serb ’cause’,” Jaksic told IPS.

“However, they succeeded in remaining the core of the biggest resistance to nationalism, which gives us hope for the future.”

People in mixed marriages and their children were the first to get immigration papers during the wars to leave for third countries such as Australia, Canada or Scandinavian countries.

The decision to take such people out of war zones “was an absolute priority, as it was clear they had no chance to remain safely in their areas of origin,” a senior United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) official told IPS.

Between 1945 and 1991 some 800,000 ethnically mixed marriages were documented in the country. In 1990, 13 percent of all married people were in mixed marriages in former Yugoslavia, according to official statistics.

“It was and is hard to find someone who does not have a relative in such a marriage,” head of the former Statistics Office Srdjan Bogosavljevic told IPS.

The largest number of mixed marriages in 1991 was in Croatia – 27 percent, mostly between Croats and Serbs. Bosnia followed with 17 percent of such marriages that included all three ethnic groups – Bosniak Muslims, Croats or Serbs.

The two most prominent municipalities with such marriages were Sarajevo-Centar and Mostar, where 30 percent of newly weds did not come from the same ethnic group. Serbia had 13 percent mixed marriages, mostly in Belgrade.

Jaksic points out that religion, which entered the lives of hating nations in the early 1990s took its toll. Bosniaks are Muslims, Croats are Catholics and Serbs are of the Christian Orthodox faith. Their religious leaders remain engaged in campaigns against inter-ethnic marital relations more than ten years after the wars ended.

A large number of Bosniak websites claiming to support a proper Islamic life say that creating a lifelong bond with a person of a different religion is dangerous and against all rules.

“This goes particularly if the mother is not of Islamic faith, because she will certainly not bring up children in a proper manner,” one of the most popular sites says.

In Serbia, head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, said in a recent interview that “the Serb nation is losing its substance” when Serbs marry others. “They can easily fall under the influence of other religions, particularly when outside Serbia, abroad,” the Patriarch said.

The Catholic Church seems the most tolerant. A church official said it allows Catholics to marry others, after making a written pledge not to leave the religion, and to bring up the children as Catholics.

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