Sarajevo's New Boom In Babies

THERE'S A SNIPER WORKING THE corner near the Njemcevic family's apartment. Five-month-old Enisa and her parents sleep together in the living room, on the side of the building, away from Serbian guns that have left shell holes in the nursery walls. The infant was conceived 14 months ago in one of those lulls that hinted peace was almost at hand. During Nesveta's pregnancy a Red Cross message arrived from her mother-in-law, Enisa, who was dying in a refugee camp in Croatia and would never see her first grandchild. Enisa had a last wish. If it was a girl, would they name it after her? "We didn't think this war would last so long when we decided to have a baby," says her father, Fahrudin, a social worker. "But we haven't regretted it for a moment."

Their upstairs neighbors have no complaints either. The Pijevics, a mixed Serbian and Muslim couple, had their own baby, a boy, a month earlier. They made up the name Mak, which means "poppy," because it has no ethnic associations. Senad, the boy's father, mused recently about having a second child. His wife, Zana, turned to him and scoffed, "We'd have to be crazy."

There's a lot of that craziness going around. Shattered by a 21-month siege, Sarajevo is in the middle of a wartime baby boom. Last winter the city's population was decreasing more from lack of procreation than from Serbian gunnery. The city's only maternity hospital was wiped out in an artillery barrage; stress prevented conception; exploding shells caused miscarriages. Fear of the future and lack of food sent women to abortion clinics rather than prenatal ones. By early 1993, only a couple of babies a day were being born in a city of 300,000. But all that is changing. Two hospitals have opened new maternity clinics, and the beds are so full that healthy mothers can stay only a day. Births are up two and a half times since last February, despite a diminished population, and increasing by 10 percent a month--a quiet and improbable protest against continuing ethnic violence. On a good day in Sarajevo, women create as many new lives as the Serbs manage to take by shelling and sniping--and the mothers are gaining. "Every woman who has a baby now is without a doubt a hero, says Senad Mehmedbajic, an obstetrician at the Kosevo Maternity Clinic.

The whole city seems to agree. Relief food for pregnant women provides as little as 10 percent of their needs, so neighbors and friends pitch in to help. "When people know we're pregnant, we get everything," said Gordona Kitic. 31, a bank administrator who is eight months pregnant with her first child. Gynecologist Mirsad Puzic, who does pregnancy exams at the State Hospital, warns uncertain parents-to-be of the risks of war pregnancies--and then encourages them to try anyway. "I tell them that somebody is watching over them, whether God or our society. In a population so mutilated, the act of giving birth is the most beautiful thing we have." Bosnian mothers are fond of quoting an old saying: "Every baby makes his own good luck."

The choice to have a baby is often tinged with politics. "We want Sarajevo to stay alive," says Mrs. Kitic. "We will shoot at them each year with one child. Whatever they do, they can't stop us." As hope for an early end to the war faded this year, another kind of hope took its place. Tina Bajraktarebic, 28, an economist now nine months pregnant, said she and her engineer husband delayed pregnancy for a year. "Now I really don't think this war will end soon. We are completely aware of the difficulties, no food or fuel, the danger, but we want to be stronger than all of that. With each child, we are fighting back with our love of life."

Many of the war babies are conscious replacements for children who were killed. "We have women who didn't have a baby for 10 years, and now they're getting pregnant, usually for this reason," says nurse-midwife Kenada Cengic. Sometimes the new baby is insurance against future calamity. "I myself have two sons, and I'm thinking of a third," says Cengic. Jasmina Razanica's 14-year-old son, Irfan, was killed a year ago by a shell that exploded in their doorway; her other son, Jasmin, 18, is a medical student who walks to school down Sarajevo's notorious Sniper's Alley every day. Now Razanica, 39, is six months pregnant. "I forgot how hard it is, but after a while it wasn't bad. I was doing fine, until yesterday," she says, referring to Dec. 15. That's when her husband, Izet, a civil-defense worker, stepped onto the balcony on the Serbian side to get some onions for supper and was shot through the neck by a 7.62-mm sniper round. "I'm very scared," Jasmina says, weeping over her gravely wounded husband. "I have one more son and I don't know what will happen to him and I'm afraid to end up alone." She had only a single doubt about getting pregnant again: "First I asked my son if he would be angry." "I don't mind," the boy replied, displaying a picture of his little brother. "But I would prefer that Irfan were still here."

Milada Vezovic, 27, a new mother from Hrasnica, on the other side of Serbian lines outside the city, had it harder than most. Her husband, a Bosnian soldier, has been hospitalized for most of her pregnancy with multiple wounds, fractures, and stomach and lung injuries. When she suffered premature contractions, she fled into Sarajevo through the Bosnian army-controlled sewer tunnel under the airport. Hunched over at the waist, she had to stop every couple of minutes from the pain, retching from the fumes of leaking jet fuel. But she made it and had a preemie who has just come out of the incubator. Soon Milada will take her back through the tunnel to join her husband. "War marriages, war pregnancies, war babies," she says. "It just seemed natural. The baby gives me more will for life, and when I'm with her, I forget the war."

In a city where death can strike at any moment, parents rarely decline the opportunity to learn the sex of the fetus. Razija Malicevic, 30, scheduled her ultrasound for the last day her husband, Dervis, was on leave. He went back to the front lines knowing he would be the father of a boy. Razija is glad at least that he left with that knowledge. The same day her husband was killed in combat by a shell from an antiaircraft gun (a weapon banned by the Geneva Convention on War from infantry use).

Raising a war baby is a struggle against shortages of everything. A new UNICEF program provides substantial supplements to pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, and supplies most of the formula, baby food and clothing needs of infants up to a year old. But the agency can't eliminate the health hazards of a war zone. Drugs to regulate hormones are in short supply. Even with extra food and help, mothers have difficulty maintaining sufficient weight gain; pharmacist Dijana Milic has gained 17 pounds in her first eight months--exactly the amount her husband has lost, and new babies have low birth weights and high rates of defects. Stress also takes a toll. During her pregnancy, Amina Mehremic's husband served on the first front line and her father was taken hostage by the Serbs. Her 6-month-old son, Adis, was born with hydrocephalus and spina bifida and is paralyzed from the waist down.

Breast-feeding presents a special challenge. Aida Selmanovic managed to keep up her punk hairdo and deep-purple eye shadow even in her hospital bed, but without plastic receptacles, she had to express breast milk into Pepsi bottles for her twin girls. New mother Diana Tokic is nursing for two. She moved in with her husband's family because they usually had running water. When her sister-in-law became too ill to nurse, Diana began occasionally breast-feeding both of their month-old infants.

What their babies mean to the new mothers of Sarajevo can often be discerned in the names they give them. Some recall normal times--a famous skier or singer. Many carry a sad burden. Razija Malicevic named her 5-month-old son, Dervis, after his dead father. Some parents choose the name of a murdered sibling. But Jasmina Razanica couldn't imagine doing that to the memory of her dead 14-year-old. "I can never give birth to Irfan again," she says. "I could never call my baby by his name."

These Bosnian war babies have some unique characteristics. Most are pale, because their mothers usually refuse to take them out into streets tattooed with "Sarajevo roses," the wry designation residents give to the scars mortar shells leave on asphalt. And there seem to be none of the complaints of parents elsewhere about infants who cry too much. Sarajevo's war babies are good babies. That's partly because the parents are with them nearly all the time. But mothers have a different explanation. "He's such a smart baby," Aida Alibalic says of 5-month-old Imran, who lives with his mother, aunt and grandparents. "He's the happiest baby, he hardly ever cries. The only time he cries is when he sees one of us go outside. You see? He knows everything."

Join the Discussion