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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.
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. ( 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

RFE/RL Balkan Report


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