The stories of two couples who overcame family and social strictures to form lasting relationships. From Oslobodjenje.

[Transitions editor’s note: This article is one in a series of five examining the phenomenon of “mixed” marriages – joining couples of different religions or ethnic groups – in North Macedonia and Bosnia, each a country whose demographics reflect both the diversity of the former Yugoslavia and of migration patterns in recent years. The stories were published in the Skopje daily Nova Makedonija and in Sarajevo’s Oslobodjenje.]

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country where time is measured “before and after the war,” marriage between different nationalities and ethnicities is not uncommon. Yet, despite this, “mixed” marriages are still stigmatized and subject to a powerful social taboo. The reason behind this is the ethnically motivated war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a conflict that set a “trend” of divisiveness regarding how people lived when the country was a republic of Yugoslavia.

Dzeneta and Boris

Uncertain Ground

In urban areas, marriages between different nationalities and ethnicities are not rare. In smaller communities, the situation is different; people here often are reluctant to express their views on this subject openly.

Smaller towns and rural areas are difficult places to come to grips with the phenomenon of interethnic relationships. For one thing, it’s very hard to find such marriages, which makes people extremely reluctant to talk about this issue.

The mere mention of mixed marriages caused great discomfort among those we spoke with for this article. Many members of such couples declined to share their stories with us even after previously agreeing to talk. Some couples agreed to share their stories on condition of anonymity because they did not want to reveal their identities for fear of being judged by the community for openly discussing problems they faced as they built their relationship.

Individuals who, in the name of love, crossed the barriers in their minds and souls, who disregarded what society and their surroundings told them and formed a family with someone of a different nationality, religion, or ethnic groups – these are the heroes of our five stories. They are couples who had to defend their life choices and find ingenious ways to organize their lives together and reconcile differences.

Shock in the Family

The first married couple we met told us how difficult things were at first.

“My family was shocked at my relationship with Boris and did not approve of my choice in the beginning,” Dzeneta says. This phase seemed endless to Dzeneta and her partner, yet despite the obstacles, their love remained strong and they consider their decision to live together and start a family as one of the best they ever made. Experts confirm that couples who were exposed to pressure from their surroundings grow even closer together.

Assailed by open disapproval and conflict, they tried to find a joint solution to quell the opposition from Dzeneta’s family. Even after marriage, they still faced difficult choices, including naming their children. They made a simple agreement: the wife chooses the name for a girl and the husband for a boy. “The children’s names were never a problem for us. It was important that they would be beautiful, modern, and that we like them. My wife Dzeneta and my mother came up with our daughter’s name, and I had the privilege to choose the name of my heir,” Boris says.

Their home is built on an atmosphere in which all holidays are celebrated. “Both religions are observed in our home, we celebrate both Catholic and Muslim holidays. Our children benefit from getting to know all customs and differences,” Dzeneta says.

In the social context, “there was a certain critical minority that used petty provocations and ambiguous questions to try to stand in the way and to get involved in things that a person of common sense should never get mixed up in,” she says. Dzeneta took her husband’s surname, and this too raised questions. After the birth of their child, the municipal official in charge of registering births called Dzeneta and asked if there were not some “mistake” with the child’s name. Still recovering from childbirth, Dzeneta asked the official to explain. The response was that “the name does not suit the surname.”

Dzeneta responded by telling the official “she should be ashamed of such statements and of harassing a mother with such poorly thought-out questions.” There were also official barriers to cross when registering the nationality of the child as “Bosnian,” because such declarations are by default treated as part of the constitutional category of “others.”

[Transitions note: The Bosnian constitution adopted in 1995 at the end of the Bosnian War distinguishes between the three main constituent groups of Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (or Bosnian Muslims), on one hand, and “other minorities,” who are not eligible for some high political offices. The “other” category includes Roma, Jews, and anyone who chooses not to align with the three leading groups.]

Boris’s family accepted his girlfriend from the very beginning. “Although there were disagreements and problems on the part of Dzeneta’s family, in the end, love won, along with the desire to build a life together.”

He continued, “It doesn’t matter to me what a person’s name is, what nationality or religion they are. I grew up in a Catholic family, but in our home, we celebrated Eid ever since I was little.”

“I don’t know how it would have been if our relationship was accepted from the start, but the situation is ideal now. The families got to know each other; they visit each other for the holidays, and there is regard and respect,” Dzeneta adds.

“Our home was always full of people; we respected everyone and we brought people together with positive energy. I try to raise my children in the same spirit – to celebrate every holiday, to respect everyone, and to not allow someone’s religion to be an obstacle to friendship or a reason for conflicts,” Boris says.

Neven is Not a Muslim

The struggle that Suada Tripkovic waged with herself about her choice of partner lasted about six months. The internal turmoil arose because Suada comes from a traditional religious Muslim family, and Neven is not a Muslim.

The situation was further complicated by her family history. Suada’s brother was a victim of the war in the 1990s. In the beginning, Suada tells us, she tried to end the relationship when she realized it was turning into something more serious; she “tried to avoid the complications arising from different nationalities and the family disappointment due to instilled fears and prejudices.”

“When I finally made the decision to live according to my beliefs, I knew that it was the right decision. I couldn’t let a name become an obstacle to the honesty, respect, and selflessness with which Neven gained my trust, and I put essence and character before nationality and religion,” she says proudly.

It was not all smooth sailing at the outset, she acknowledges. She had to overcome her parents’ disappointment and the disapproval of her extended family, who “because of all the trauma and pain caused by the war, thought that we should not unite through marriage with another religion.”

When she told her father she was marrying a person who is not a Muslim, he only said, “it is not the same here as in Austria or Slovenia; here in Bosnia and Herzegovina it is a problem to marry someone of another faith.”

Suada’s mother worried that her daughter would not be accepted by the family of her future son-in-law. But as it turned out, his family still cherished Yugoslav values, unburdened by issues of religious or national identity. Accustomed to mixed marriages in the immediate and extended family, they attached little importance to matters of religion.

Suada says her parents suffered greatly at the beginning of her relationship with Neven.

“At first, my mother tried to intimidate me, saying that if I did it, if I marry a person of a different religion, I will no longer have parents.”

After the initial shock, and the thoughtless questions and statements by the neighbors, it took time for her parents to work through the situation. Eventually, they understood that their daughter’s choice was made, and they accepted it, wished her luck, and started to get to know their son-in-law.

When it came time to choose names for their babies, not wanting to “rub salt in the wound,” they rejected an old Biblical name that they both liked, and found appropriate alternatives. They say they are raising their children to respect human values and be accepting of others’ views.

“We do not burden them with religion; instead, we teach them that they are Bosnian and Herzegovinian. We are aware that such a qualifier in a society like this represents ‘others’ and a minority, so we join with them among those people who are fewer in number, but greater when it comes to understanding and feelings,” the Tripkovices say.

“We are Bosnians and we feel that way, but in our country they want to put us into one of three available nationalities and at every turn we are expected to declare to which of these three peoples we belong,” they say, highlighting an issue which, although often talked and argued over, even adjudicated in favor of the “others” by the European Court of Human Rights, remains unresolved.

“In our home there are people of all nationalities and ethnicities from Bosnia, and also people from abroad that we are friends with. At Eid, we visit one side of the family; at Easter we paint eggs; at Christmas we visit an uncle and the other part of the family; we celebrate New Year holidays and birthdays with close friends,” the Tripkovices say.

“The only people who do not enter our home are priests and imams because religions as institutions are rigid, exclusive, and explicit. We, on the other hand, are open to diversity.”

It is not nations and religions that divide people, the couple believe, rather, it is fear, prejudice, misunderstanding, politics that feed off divisions and gives rise to strongmen. The real problems in this politically and economically disorganized country, they feel, are the struggle for existence, the cost of living, and the rights of working people.

This article originally appeared in Oslobodjenje. Reprinted by permission. Transitions has done some editing to fit our style. Translated by Aleksandar Stojcev.