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Bosnian War Anniversary: Sarajevo’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Still Resonate

Image: The bodies of Bosko Brkic and Admira Ismic

The bodies of Bosko Brkic and girlfriend Admira Ismic in Sarajevo in May 1993 . Jerome Delay / AP

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Slain by snipers' bullets, the childhood sweethearts’ bodies lay in their final embrace for seven days.

By the time they were finally removed from Sarajevo's Vrbanja Bridge — still entwined — they had become symbols of enduring love caught in a senseless war.

Admira Ismic, 25, and Bosko Brkic were trying to escape the besieged city. But the Bosnian Muslim and Christian Serb were shot as they made a desperate dash together toward freedom and safety.

When Brkic was gunned down, Ismic crawled over to her sweetheart, hugged the 24-year-old's body and then died, according to witnesses.

The lovers were killed at the height of a conflict fought along ethnic and religious lines that was triggered by the breakup of Communist Yugoslavia. They came to be known as Sarajevo’s "Romeo and Juliet."

The Modern-Day 'Romeo and Juliet' Who Died for Their Love 3:32

The tensions that led to the war — which one of the three sides involved say started 25 years ago on Wednesday — still simmer in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country created by conflict.

After seven days trapped in "no man's land," the bodies of Ismic and Brkic were removed during a temporary cease-fire.

Brkic's mother Radmilla called the pair “a symbol of peace,” but rejected the comparison to Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Their love was never forbidden and the two families always respected each other, the 78-year old told NBC News. In fact, she still keeps in touch with Ismic's parents.

“We only learned about their death through an amateur radio operator two days later, [he] called us wanting to confirm a rumor that they had been killed,” recalled Nera Ismic, Admira's mother.

Image: Nera Ismic
Admira Ismic's mother Nera looks at old photos in her apartment in Sarajevo. Andy Eckardt / NBC News

Even now, the 70-year old finds it painful to talk about the “senseless loss” of her “two children.”

“Their first kiss was on New Year’s Eve of 1984,” she said. It was the year in which Sarajevo hosted the Olympic Winter Games.

As she looked at an old album with pictures of the two, Nera Ismic said she “would not even wish this bitter fate on the person who killed her daughter" on May 19, 1993.

She stressed that she does not feel “hate” towards any of the three sides — Orthodox Christian Serbs, Muslim Bosnians and mainly Catholic Croats — involved in the conflict.

Some 100,000 people were killed during the war that lasted nearly four years, including 14 members of Ismic’s own family. At least 12,000 are estimated to have been killed in Sarajevo alone.

“Every time I would leave home, I would turn around and wave to my family because I never knew if I would come back,” she said. “Every citizen had a bullet with his name on it.”

Image: Admira Ismic and Bosko Brckic
Admira Ismic and Bosko Brckic pose for a picture after their high school graduation in 1985. Chris Helgren / Reuters

Olivera Nikolic was one of those who managed to flee war-torn Sarajevo. In May 1992, the 54-year-old caught the last flight to Belgrade, a city that is now the capital of the independent country of Serbia.

After the war ended in November 1995 with the Dayton Peace Accord, the mother-of-two returned to her damaged apartment across from the river bank where Ismic and Brkic were killed in what was known as "Sniper Alley."

Nikolic calls her apartment building “a Swiss cheese that is now also home to bats,” referring to the many holes from shelling and gunfire — scars of the war that remind her of her own story.

“I am Serb, my ex-husband is Muslim, normal stuff” for nearly 40 percent of the population in Sarajevo that lived in so called “mixed relationships,” she said.

“For me, there are only good and bad people,” said Olivera as she looks down from her balcony to the bridge where Sarajevo’s Romeo and Juliet died.

According to experts and some of Sarajevo’s own citizens, the lesson of the couple’s death still needs to be taught in today’s Bosnia — a country riven by ethnic and religious divisions.

Political scientist Nezruk Curak has been trying to convince local politicians to introduce “a day of remembrance for the courageous people like Admira and Bosko." He calls them the “essence” of Bosnia.

The war ended with the creation of Bosnia-Herzegovina — in addition to Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia — but tensions that fed the conflict are reflected in day-to-day life today.

Curak and other experts worry that not enough has been done to promote reconciliation between the former warring parties.

The political relations between the different sides have hit new lows in recent months. Serbian leaders in Bosnia have said they are considering a referendum to secede from the country. Meanwhile, Muslim Bosnians have requested the United Nations' International Court of Justice reopen a case alleging genocide against today's Serbia.

Each of the three sides can't even agree on the exact date when the conflict began. Serbs see March 1, 1992, as the anniversary of the start of the war. This was a day after a referendum on independence, and the day the first Serbian was killed in Sarajevo. Bosnian Muslims say the conflict started on April 6, 1992, when snipers shot dead two women in Sarajevo. Croats, meanwhile, pinpoint Oct. 1, 1991, as the start of the war — the day the Yugoslav army demolished a village.

Image: Bullet holes and shelling damage still scar a building in Sarajevo
Bullet holes and shelling damage still scar a building in Sarajevo. Andy Eckardt / NBC News

The enduring divisions are drawn starkly in Bosnia's schools. While local officials deny accusations that the educational system in Muslim-majority Bosnia is still segregated, many so-called mixed regions separate students based on ethnicity or nationality.

Bosnia “is still deeply divided” and that the education system is “nationalistic,” said Curak, who worked as a social worker seeking to find reconciliation.

Still, he said, the younger generation largely “wants to connect.”

The U.S. — which during the presidency of Bill Clinton was a key player in the brokering of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that helped end the war — has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to help with reconstruction, humanitarian aid and economic development in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In fact, America's main foreign aid agency, USAID, helped to rebuild Sarajevo’s Treca Gimnazija, or “third high school,” where Brkic and Ismic earned their high school degrees — and fell in love.

That the school never erected plaque or a memorial for the couple may sound strange to some.

Principal Senada Salihovic explains that the school’s governors “did not want to single out any student among the many that lost their lives in the war.”

The school’s multi-ethnic staff and students know that despite living in peace they are still fighting the battle of the mind — proving to ethnic Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats that their future lies together.

A dire economic picture undermines these efforts.

Image: Map showing Sarajevo
A map showing the location of Sarajevo. Google Maps

The country continues to battle high unemployment, with more than 60 percent of young people out of work. Meanwhile, many companies are reluctant to invest there because of enduring ethnic divisions.

Despite years of funding and recent moderate economic growth, “the country is still lagging behind its regional peers in catching up with Western Europe,” according to September 2016 report report by the International Monetary Fund.

So peace in the region remains fragile, according to residents.

“When you look at the overall situation, with the polarization in this region it is difficult not to be afraid of war,” school principal Salihovic said.

Even relationships like Ismic and Brkic's have become dramatically less common.

According to AFP, at least 13 percent of marriages in Bosnia were mixed before the war, with some cities like Sarajevo and Mostar seeing 40 percent of marriages being between people of different ethnicities. Today intermarriage stands at 4 percent across the country.

Days after Ismic and Brkic’s deaths, legendary Reuters journalist Kurt Schork recounted: “In a country mad for war, Bosko and Admira were crazy for each other.”

Within a few years, Schork himself died while covering conflict again — this time in Sierra Leone. Meeting his last wish, half of his remains were buried in a grave next to Ismic and Brkic in Sarajevo.

For many people in modern day Bosnia, Ismic and Brkic’s story shows that only time will tell whether love or war will triumph in the long run.