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In War-Scarred Srebrenica, An Unlikely Love Story

Almir Salihovic and Dusica Rendulic, with their son, Yusuf, have put down roots in the war-scarred town of Srebrenica.
Almir Salihovic and Dusica Rendulic, with their son, Yusuf, have put down roots in the war-scarred town of Srebrenica.
SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- It's difficult at first to get Almir and Dusica to talk about their love story. "We're just ordinary people," Dusica protests. "Why should we talk about it?"

But their story is anything but ordinary. Almir Salihovic is a Bosniak (a Bosnian Muslim); Dusica Rendulic is a Serb. And they are the first mixed couple in postwar Srebrenica, a town deeply scarred by the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at the hands of ethnic Serbian forces.

The pair met three years ago at a market in the Bosnian city of Tuzla, where Almir was working and Dusica was visiting her grandmother.

Dusica, who has round, rosy cheeks and dark blond hair, says she deliberately dropped a milk bottle to get Almir's attention. The effect, she says laughing, was instant. "It was love at first sight. We met, we fell in love, and we got together. It was romantic," she says. "For both of us, it was good."

Soon afterward, the couple settled in Srebrenica, which Almir had fled as a teenager in 1995, and where seven of his uncles had died in the massacre.

Almir, a tall, lanky man with a boyish grin, says many of his friends chided him for returning to Srebrenica with a Serbian partner. But he says he's never had doubts about his choice.

"The two of us are together, and slowly we're starting to move forward in life," he says. "We've had moments of crisis, but hopefully there's something good awaiting us in the future."

Rediscovering Tolerance

The couple set up house in a snug, wooden home built for them by an Austrian charity that also provided the young family with goats and, more recently, a horse.

And last year, Dusica gave birth to a son, Yusuf, named in honor of one of Almir's slain uncles.

The couple set up house in a home built for them by an Austrian charity.
The couple set up house in a home built for them by an Austrian charity.

The couple has yet to legally marry, and is planning a wedding in May. But Dusica, who was born in Croatia and fled to Serbia during the war, says she's felt like a part of Almir's tight-knit family from the start.

"I wasn't afraid. I knew that the two of us could make it. Some people didn't react well, but no one in our families was against it," she says. "His family accepted me, and I wasn't afraid. They've never said anything ugly or offensive to me."

Mixed relationships were common in the former Yugoslavia, where communities of Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics frequently intermarried. But such couplings have become less visible in the years since the war, with its brutal ethnic divisions.

Dusica says she and her husband celebrate both Muslim and Christian holidays and that she made her first visit to a mosque during Bajram, or Eid, festivities last year.

Scraping Out A Living

With seemingly no personal or religious differences dogging the young couple, it's the region's economic difficulties that have dealt Almir and Dusica their greatest challenge.

Nearly half of all Bosnians are unemployed. Almir, who hires himself out as a manual laborer, has no full-time employment. But he hopes that with his horse and a charitable donation of raspberry-bush seedlings he can eventually start his own business.

"I'll do any kind of work. I take whatever job I can find," Almir says. Dusica adds: "My husband leaves for work, sometimes for 20 days or a month at a time. So that means I'm here alone. Then he brings back some money and we live on that until he can make some more. We pay for electricity and we only buy the most basic things we need for us and the baby."

Despite such hardships, the couple are still in the flush of early love, and say they hope Srebrenica will soon see more mixed marriages like their own.

Yusuf's first birthday, celebrated earlier this month, was a "solid" occasion, Almir says, with all of the couple's friends and families gathered for the event.

Between their struggle for money and lingering resentment between Serbs and Bosniaks, the couple might seem to be facing a steep slope. But Almir, sitting over a mug of hot tea as Yusuf sits placidly on his mother's lap, shrugs off such things as unimportant.

"Anything can work. When you get along with someone, everything works out," he says. "If a man and woman can get along, they can accomplish anything."

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