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Karate Chops: Friendship Fuels Success For Srebrenica Teens Living In Shadow Of War

(Left to right) Kristina Stanojevic, Aldijana Salihovic, coach Kristina Marinkovic, and Merjema Pestalic
(Left to right) Kristina Stanojevic, Aldijana Salihovic, coach Kristina Marinkovic, and Merjema Pestalic

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Winning at team kata, the tightly choreographed shadowboxing that's a staple of karate tradition and competition around the globe, takes unity of form and focus.

It's neither a dance nor some sort of theater, practitioners stress, but rather a powerful display of technique meant to intimidate with its devastating potential for impact.

For one trio of teen Balkan karatekas, that unity begins with ignoring the ethnic and religious animosities that fueled a genocide in their hometown just a decade before they were born and extends well beyond the tatami mat.

"I'm really happy how united we are," says their coach, Kristina Marinkovic, a former world champion who competed for the Serbian national team but has spent a decade at her own karate dojo, Zelja Ipon, in Srebrenica. "We're really just one big family, and when I say that, I'm not exaggerating."

Under her tutelage, Merjema Pestalic, Kristina Stanojevic, and Aldijana Salihovic have become three of Bosnia-Herzegovina's toughest, and most successful, young karate competitors.

Last month, they won a bronze medal in the team kata event at the Balkan Championships in neighboring Montenegro.

They see themselves less as teammates or sparring partners than as "sisters" who met through karate and happen to do martial arts very, very well.

"I know that I can always trust them," Stanojevic tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "We've never had a problem with religion, because we're the same in every way. We've never even mentioned it, because it means nothing to us."

'Never Thought About It'

Srebrenica's population of around 2,400 residents is fairly evenly divided between ethnic Serbs, who are mostly Orthodox Christian, and Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim.

The city and surrounding area were the scene of one of Europe's most devastating massacres in 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces rounded up and executed more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys near the end of the Bosnian War, amid a tragic failure of UN peacekeeping efforts.

International courts regard it as a genocide, although many ethnic Serbs still insist that while it was a tragedy there was no coordinated effort at ethnic or religious cleansing at Srebrenica.

Salihovic's father, Esnaf Salihovic, calls the karate club a shining example of coexistence.
Salihovic's father, Esnaf Salihovic, calls the karate club a shining example of coexistence.

Forensic and other experts are still uncovering remains from mass graves and other nearby sites, and the bodies of hundreds more victims still have not been located.

Pestalic, 17, Salihovic, 16, and Stanojevic, 17, were all born a full decade after the tragedy and go to the same high school. Pestalic and Salihovic are Bosniaks; Stanojevic is a Serb.

They met at Marinkovic's dojo soon after it opened in 2013 and say they have been best friends ever since. "It doesn't matter what religion she is. I just really love her," Salihovic says when asked about her Serb friend.

"Of course, I don't," Pestalic responds dismissively when asked whether she encounters problems because she hangs out with Stanojevic. "I've never even thought about those things. That's how my parents raised me, and we generally don't look at who is what religion. It doesn't matter to us, we're all the same."

But despite the teens' blithe treatment of questions about ethnicity or religion, their friendship hints at healing and forgiveness even among Srebrenica's older generations.

The dojo Zelja Ipon opened in Srebrenica in 2013.
The dojo Zelja Ipon opened in Srebrenica in 2013.

Pestalic's father, Damir Pestalic, is Srebrenica's chief imam, the head of the local Islamic community. He calls Zelja Ipon a place "that instills hope, strength, and optimism among all normal people, and I'm glad that many people have noticed that."

Salihovic's father, Esnaf Salihovic, calls the karate club a shining example of coexistence.

"We all dream of that, especially our children who were born after the genocide, who aren't burdened by all these things, who are different," he says. "They have better understanding, broader views. They know how to recognize what's evil and a crime. They know how to condemn it and fence themselves off and draw a line between what happened and those who were born later."

Our 'Best Ambassadors'

The tough-as-nails girls have been Bosnia's reigning national champs in the kata team competition since 2018, and in 2019 won the regional championships, too.

They've traveled to competitions in Finland, the Czech Republic, Turkey -- the list goes on -- bucking the unfortunate reality that most outsiders see Srebrenica as little more than an eponym for brutality and tragedy.

"Most people are surprised that three girls come from such a small state as Bosnia and do well," Stanojevic says. "We are here to prove that we can."

The Zelja Ipon dojo is funded in part by the city budget. The rest comes from private donations, according to coach Marinkovic.

She said recently that a single donor had mostly financed the $3,500 or so that Zelja Ipon needed for the girls to attend major championships in Turkey.

"Right now, they are Srebrenica's best ambassadors," Marinkovic tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Sadik Salimovic in Srebrenica