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Missing Bosnian Baby, Now Serbian Teenager, Searches For Identity

Senida Becirovic returns to the Bosnian village she was born in, 16 years later.
Senida Becirovic returns to the Bosnian village she was born in, 16 years later.
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By Nenad Pejic
One morning in May 1992, a teacher in Bosnia-Herzegovina named Muhamed Becirovic had driven 20 kilometers to the town of Tuzla, where he taught in a high school. He had plans for the evening, but couldn't return home to his village after work.

During the day, Serbian forces occupied the village, cutting Becirovic off from his wife, two daughters -- 2-year-old Saida and her 9-month-old baby sister Senida -- and four other close relatives.

He heard loud explosions, on TV he saw that tanks were moving in, and he heard a TV anchor saying that Muslims there were running from Serbian troops and "fleeing to the hills and forests." His village, Caparde, was one of the first villages to be overwhelmed. When he finally returned home, he house had been demolished and his family had disappeared. Some villagers were killed on the spot and others were taken away and never seen again.

By 1996, after four years without any news of his family, Becirovic lost hope and fled the war-torn country after being injured. He ended up in Germany.

That same day in May 1992, a Serbian soldier -- no one knows his name or fate-- heard a baby crying in a burned-out house in the Bosnian village of Caparde. He took pity and saved the child, handing her over to a local ethnic-Serbian family.

That family, though, could not afford to keep the child and she ended up in a local Red Cross center. The following year, in 1993, she was adopted by the family of Zivka and Zivan Jankovic, moved to Belgrade, and was given the name Mila Jankovic.

But the Jankovics were elderly and poor, and in 2006, Mila found herself once again in the care of the Red Cross. And that was when the 14-year-old girl, who had always known that she had been adopted, began a two-year search to find her real parents.

That quest ended six months ago, in May 2008. Exactly 16 years after Muhamed Becirovic lost his family, the phone rang in his home in Germany. DNA tests, he was told, had established that Mila was his missing daughter Senida. He wept for joy that his daughter was still alive, even as he wept with grief for the other six family members who remain listed as missing, presumed dead.

Mila Jankovic or Senida Becirovic? Either way, she also feels confusion and mixed emotions. "I am happy and I am sad," she says. "I still have so many questions and no answers. I need to be strong and go through this."

Closure For The Missing

This is the first time in recent memory in the Balkans that a missing person from the 1992-95 Bosnian war has been found alive, local Red Cross representative Safet Sahmanovic says. Usually, if they are identified at all, it is only by their remains. But at least that gives relatives closure and the chance to give their loved ones a decent funeral.

Senida Becirovic embraces her aunt in Caparde.
Of the approximately 40,000 persons missing in the region, an estimated 30,000 were from the Bosnian conflict. In 1996, after the war ended, the international community established the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). It became proficient through its experience matching the DNA profiles from skeletal remains in hundreds of mass graves to DNA profiles of surviving relatives in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars.

During that time, the ICMP had collected some 86,000 blood samples, representing more than 23,000 people who disappeared in the former Yugoslavia. More than 11,000 of the 17,000 bodies exhumed from mass graves have been identified in Bosnia alone.

The agency says the example of its work in Bosnia should serve as a model for other countries. Today, the number of missing persons in the region is approximately 17,000, of whom 13,000 are still missing from the Bosnian conflict.

More than a decade after the guns fell silent, the families of those 17,000 still missing persons long ago gave up hoping for a miracle like the one that reunited Muhamed Becirovic and Senida. The names of the missing have already been placed on the monuments of missing people.

Finding Identity

After RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service posted Senida's story on its website, reader comments came flooding in from across the region. (http://www.slobodnaevropa.org/content/Article/1367129.html#relatedInfoContainer). Most of them saw the story as an example of how the region's bitter ethnic divisions can be bridged. "We need to treat people based on humanity, not religion," one reader wrote. But others took the story as a chance to continue the old arguments. "She should forget her father," one reader commented, "because she has been baptized."

Senida Becirovic points to her name on the list of the disappeared.
"Wrong," responded another. "Blood is not water. She belongs to her original family, even if she was baptized." In a region where people have been categorized by ethnicity and religion for the last 20 years, rather than appreciated for their intelligence or character, such comments come as no surprise. This is a region where most media outlets still make judgments based on nationality rather than accomplishment.

But Senida faces tough questions. Is she Senida Becirovic or Mila Jankovic? Is she the Bosniak she was born as, or the Serb she was raised as? How can she honor the Serbian soldier who saved her knowing that his comrades -- and maybe he himself -- participated in the destruction of her village and the killing of her family? Should she be angry at the Serbs for taking her away from her homeland or grateful that she was given a peaceful life?

"My father is still a stranger to me and cannot replace my foster parents" she has said in an interview.

Should she stay in Belgrade or return to Bosnia? If the former, the Serbs will lionize her, while Bosnians will view her has a traitor. If she returns to Bosnia, the Serbs will vilify her as ungrateful.

But however these issues play out, she is an individual whose life has been twisted beyond recognition by the enmities and conflicts of the region. If only Serbs and Bosnians, Muslims and Orthodox, residents of Belgrade and Bosnia, could all stand back and give her the chance to resolve a struggle that many people in both countries have already lost. A chance to be an individual human being, instead of a religious, ethnic, or national specimen.

With luck and help, she will come to terms that help her deal with and overcome her suffering. And if she does, she will be more fortunate than the two divided countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, whose citizens are arguing over her fate.

Maja Nikolic in Tuzla and Zoran Glavonjic in Belgrade contributed to this article
RFE/RL Balkan Report
 

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by: Brazilian Guy from: São Paulo - SP - Brazil
January 14, 2009 17:10
“She should forget her father," one reader commented, "because she has been baptized.”

That is the biggest problems of the Serbo-Croatian-speaking Balkans: they determine religion as being the national fundamental characteristic of a human being, despite anything else…

by: Ida
January 16, 2009 04:02
Another write up of this mentioned her mother and sister did go with her to Serbia. There were actually quite a lot of Bosnian Muslims who refuged in Serbia and were given aid by the Red Cross and such. I'm wondering if the mother left her behind and went back to Bosnia or went to another country. No mentioned that either she or the other daughter met a bad end. Also, the mother could have remarried as did the father.
I wish the reporters/investigators would say more what happened to her mother and sister.

by: L from: USA
January 17, 2009 02:28
I am glad that girl survived. Western media and politiciens convinced the world that serbs were wild animals killing everything in site. No one ever wanted to hear serbian side. It was not politically correct to listen to serbian tragedy. Shame!!

by: abdul majid from: Germany
January 18, 2009 00:00
Incredible. I've never heard of such a thing. Oh God, if my own daughter were taken away from me and returned years later as a perfect stranger, I don't know what I would do. Should I thank the man who saved her even though I know he committed horrible crimes and maybe only let her live in order to soothe his bad conscience? Or should I damn him to Hell for robbing me of my child and turning her into their war booty? I mean, they could have kept her on purpose: See, we have turned her into one of us! If not, knowing tghat she was a Bosniak child, the Serb authorities should have returned her to Bosnia (to the Bosniaks!!!) many years ago. A monstrous war propaganda ploy. For me as a Muslim, even though I consider myself to be very moderate, it is an outrage that, being born a Muslim she was baptized and therefore "should forget about her father". That act is invalid. It would also be very unfair if the Bosniaks consider her a traitor. I mean she was never asked about anything. The whole thing is incredibly tragic and unfair to her, to her true family, and even to her foster family. Everyone stands to lose here. No matter how she will decide on which side to live. Because that's what she is entitled to. But then no one who was born into Islam has the right ever to resign from it. Even though we no longer live in the Middle Ages (but many Serbs seem to have unsurmountable problems with abandoning that notion.)
Let her see what Serbs did to Muslims in not only her own village, but in Prijedor, Foca, Visegrad and Srebrenica, and then let her decide. Show her the testimonies of the survivors, the confessions of the perpetrators, the infamous "Skorpioni" video and whatever else there is of evidence of the monstrous aggression of which she herself became a victim.
And that many Bosniaks found refuge in Serbia is a propaganda lie. They were more often than not imprisoned, tortured, or handed back to the killers. Why should her mother leave her behind? No, more likely she and the older sister were murdered. How then can she be grateful to the murderers of her mother and sister? That's what they would like. And if somebody took my child away from me and his countrymen kept her from me, I would never forgive them - never! I would curse their whole nation, that's what I would do! and I think most people faced with this situation would too.
Unfortunately, whatever she decides it will be criticized and she will be damned for it. So all sides should refrain from criticizing her, and let it be up to God to judge her, and since she really has done no wrong, He will certainly show her more mercy than any human beings might.
The Serbs should never try to use this case to show that they are not so bad after all. There was clearly an aggressor and a victim here, and to turn a Muslim into an Orthodox would certainly be a propagandistic victory for them. This whole thing does not seem to me an act of mercy and humanity, but a diabolic propagandistic plot. I mean, I have heard of a similar case, where Bosniaks found a little Serb girl in a village that the Bosnian army had conquered, and a Bosniak family had her living with them for maybe two and a half years. But they did not try to turn her into a Muslim. Granted, she was a little older than Senida. It was maybe a little easier for her. And after the armistice, her actual parents came to find her, and she went with them.
I only have pity for the father. If this happened to me and were not resolved in my favor, who knows what I would do in my suffering, anger and despair. And I have pity for Senida too. No matter what she chooses, there will be people who will not leave her in peace. But if she decides to be a Serb, she must pledge never to bad-mouth the Bosniaks or Muslims in general, nor to ever raise a hand against them.

by: Daniel from: Chicago
January 18, 2009 03:26
To Ida : Her mother and sister were murdered by the serbian forces, Her mother did not leave her, she was raped and killed. How do I know? we have a small Bosnian community in Chicago and we have Bosnian newspapers which go more into detail. The serbian soilder who saved her is a hereo. As before western media leaves out alot of blankes to what happend to her yet, everyone knows even the survivor of that village said serb soilders raided the house to find the 4 year old and her mother. What makes me mad how can they rape a 4 year old and the mother? are the sick or animals? wait not even animals rape kids.

by: Sani from: USA
January 19, 2009 21:19
I don't understand why the reporter believes she'd be shunned in Bosnia. As a Bosnian, I would embrace this girl (and others like her). There's no need for hate, whether she identifies herself as a Bosnian or Serbian. I have a lot of hate left over for those that ruined innocent people's lives, including my own, but that hate is reserved for those people only.. not for all Serbians. That's what people need to learn - one person does NOT represent others. Twenty people don't represent others! We are individuals that have our own opinions and beliefs - and we can't judge a nation because of a corrupt few.

Anyway, I wish her and her father well. I hope that he is a good person and that she gets to know him and feel like he truly is her father one day. She may be baptized, but the man never willingly gave her up. She's so lucky to have (had) families that cared/care about her.

by: Zlata from: Canada
January 20, 2009 17:28
No one is born a Serb...a Bosnian, Christian or Moslem. We are born A PRIORI..and just simply...human beings.
It is how we're raised...that ultimately makes us what we are. (Need I remind you...that at the moment...Obama is being inaugurated as the president of the US...and not Kenya...his other ancestral homeland)
The DNA we inherit...makes us descendants...children of our birth parents.
This girl should have been returned to her birth family a LONG time ago. Not because she IS something...or she isn't other...but because (as she eventually found out) her birth father and her relatives were living...alive and well...while she was being shuffled around...
I mean...who cares if her father is or isn't Moslem. How many Moslems or Christians are pious anyway.
Come on folks. We're not living in the Middle Ages. Ultimately...the war in Bosnia was least of all...about religion. It was about "identity", "lebensraum", conquest, and territory!

by: Lana from: UK
January 21, 2009 02:15
@Sani - the authors wrote that she would be perceived negatively by some ppl in Bosnia IF she chose to stay in Serbia and also negatively by ppl in Serbia if she chose to go to Bosnia. I think the authors were just trying to illustrate that people still view things there in terms of nationality and religion, which is understandable but quite sad.
@Ida, what an ignorant thing to say - that her mother left the baby and moved somewhere else. Senida's mother and sister remain on the missing persons list to this day and one can only hope that their remains are found so that their family can finally put them to rest.
I think this is an amazing story and a very rare one. On one hand, Senida's life was spared, but this is counteracted by the very probable deaths of her mother and her other sister who was only 4 years old at the time. My heart bursts thinking how anyone could have killed children, women, the elderly and civilians in general. I hope that after so many years of pain, Senida's father has found some comfort in finding his daughter.

by: Jenny from: London
January 21, 2009 05:33
Very sad story indeed. How sad to think that her mother and other sister had horrible fates. I hope that her father found at least some comfort given that he found her.

by: Pierre from: Paris
February 04, 2009 20:12
These so-called 'Bosnjaks' never cease to amaze me with their outright hatred !!!

You are fooling nobody and your hatred will come back to you like a boomerang !!!
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