When Marriage Is Sleeping With The Enemy

When they married in Sarajevo six years ago, Misha and Hika seemed to represent the multiethnic Yugoslav ideal. He was a prosperous Serbian businessman, she a Muslim accountant who worked at the same electronics factory. Friends and family celebrated their union; the couple had two daughters and ran a successful restaurant and stores in a Sarajevo suburb. Today, Misha, 38, and Hika, 35, are social outcasts. They are refugees now in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, nearly penniless-and hopeless about the future of their half-Serb, half-Muslim daughters in a society that has become obsessed with ethnic purity. Asks Misha, "What problems will they have because of us?"

In a civil war of limitless cruelty, people like Misha and Hika (who don't want their surname used, out of concern for relatives in Sarajevo) face difficulties they never could have imagined when they stood at the wedding altar. "Even if the war ended tomorrow there is nowhere for us to go," says Misha. "If I go back to our old Muslim neighborhood, they'll point at me. In a Serbian neighborhood they'll point at Hika, and the Croats won't accept us at all." In the meantime they have been trying to rent an apartment in Belgrade, but "whenever a landlord hears my Bosnian accent they hang up the phone," says Misha. The couple's dilemma is common. In Bosnia, where the prewar population was 44 percent Muslim, 31 percent Serb and 16 percent Croat, up to a third of all marriages joined people of different ethnic groups, according to census data. In Sarajevo, that figure was closer to half. "We were brought up not to think about religion and nationality," says Misha, whose brother is also married to a Muslim woman. "It was perfectly acceptable to think of ourselves as Yugoslavs."

Although Misha and Hika's daughters are still too young to understand their parents' worries, their future is likely to be troubled, even if the war ends soon. A 1991 Belgrade University study of mixed marriages and the war found children in torment. The report cites the case of a teenage girl who had a Croatian grandfather: she wanted to "release one quarter of the Croatian blood from her body so she could become pure Serb." The son of a Croat father and a Serb mother "asked his mother which part of his body was hers, since he wanted to cut it off." In Petrinja, a city in Croatia where the population is about half Serbian, officials attributed seven out of 10 divorce cases last year to tensions within mixed marriages.

Such families fare no better in Croatia. Dusan, a 44-year-old architect, who has lived most of his life in Zagreb, is an ethnic Serb. His ex-wife is Croat. Dusan was crushed when the couple's 13-year-old son, no longer allowed to identify his nationality as "Yugoslav," chose to declare himself a Croat. "My son was troubled because I am a Serb," says Dusan. "I told him I was the father he had known all his life. Now he is the citizen of a foreign country." Dusan does not qualify for Croatian citizenship, even though he has lived in Zagreb since he was 6 years old. Dusan's 72-year-old Serbian mother was also refused citizenship and will now lose the pension and the apartment of her deceased husband, a Yugoslav Army officer, who was also a Serb. "I understand why my son wanted to avoid these difficulties," Dusan says, "but it has been very upsetting."

According to another recent University of Belgrade study, as many as 4 million people in the former Yugoslav republics are the offspring of mixed marriages. They face a future in which they may well have to hide a part of their heritage from others-or perhaps from themselves. Bosnia's "ethnic cleansers" may be almost finished with their brutal campaign to destroy a once tolerant society, but they have left behind enough hatred to nourish generations.