It was a sign of life from a boy reaching out to his long-lost mother. But in a country scarred by war, his words dug deep into wounds gouged more than a decade ago.
“Greetings to my mom ... from your son Rade,” read the scrap of paper the 13-year-old mailed along with his photograph.
There is something Rade had never been told: According to a social worker familiar with the case, his Bosnian Muslim mother became pregnant with him after being raped repeatedly at age 15 by an enemy Serb fighter — who went on to raise him.
Ten years after the end of the worst carnage in Europe since World War II, the focus in Bosnia is on jobs, investment and eventual European Union membership. While ethnic mistrust persists, Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims now share power in a federal government.
“What we have here in Bosnia is an amazing achievement if you compare with what was here 10 years ago,” Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic — a Serb — told The Associated Press. “We are still a divided society. But I am really optimistic that people here can live, if not together, at least side by side.”
Many mothers reject children
But the war is not over for children like Rade. As these war babies reach adolescence, they are beginning to ask questions about their past — and those with the answers are faced with the choice of keeping them in the dark or telling them the agonizing truth.
“The mother is now in Austria, is happily married and wants nothing to do with the child,” said the social worker, Bakira Hasecic.
Hasecic is herself a Bosnian war rape victim, and her sister died in a Serbian rape camp. She is now helping others to come to grips with their torment.
She showed the AP the photo Rade mailed to his mother on condition it not be published to protect his privacy, and said he bears a striking resemblance to her.
She said he was raised in the Serb village of Arilje and sent his letter to a village less than 10 miles away on the Bosnian side of the border where he was told his mother had moved after giving birth.
20,000 Muslim women raped
“The grandmother, who opened the letter, is devastated,” said Hasecic. “She is trying to screw up the courage to have the boy visit ... but then he would have to know the whole truth — that he was a child born of hate.”
While Serb and Croat women also were raped, Bosnia’s Muslims were the main victims. An estimated 20,000 Muslim women were raped during the 2½ year conflict that ended in 1995 with hundreds of thousands of people dead or missing and more than 1 million displaced.
Most of the perpetrators were Serbs, who often used mass rape as a weapon of terror.
Many women were dragged to concentration camps and raped repeatedly. Some were brought back to their homes and dumped in front of their husbands. Other women were violated in their husbands’ presence as part of a shock campaign.
The systematic use of rape led to the U.N. war crimes tribunal to recognize ethnically motivated rape as a war crime, part of the Serbs’ campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Ostracism and trauma
A just completed UNICEF draft report — the first to look at Bosnia’s war babies — says anecdotal evidence suggests many of them were killed at birth. It says the number that survived is unknown, and constitutes a “hidden population ... particularly vulnerable.”
The report, given to the AP ahead of publication scheduled for June, says many of these children remain unwanted and in state-run orphanages as they enter their early teens.
The children who remained with their families face ostracism in their home communities if their origins are revealed. Some suffer trauma because of the hatred the mother bears for the father.
“One family ... taught their daughter’s child to explicitly identify his existence as a mistake, forcing him to introduce himself to household guests as, ’I am the product of my mother’s shame,”’ says the UNICEF report.
However, most of those parents who adopt invent stories of fathers who died in the war or mothers who disappeared.
“As long as their origins are kept secret, such children are in the best possible situation ... they are neither at risk of neglect or attachment disorders, nor are they facing discrimination,” says the report.
'Who is my father?'
But sometimes parents feel compelled to tell the truth before the child hears it somewhere else.
“One girl I know has begun asking, ’Who is my father?”’ said Fadila Memisevic, head of Bosnia’s Branch of the Society of Threatened Peoples, who also counsels women raped during the conflict. “Her mother says, ’He was a hero who fell in the war,’ but she won’t accept that for an answer — in a strange way she is starting to sense her origins.”
Alen Muhic, a 12-year-old boy who was adopted by Muslims in Gorazde, appears to have recovered well.
“A Boy from a War Movie,” a 2004 Bosnian documentary of his case, shows him happily playing with schoolmates, tussling with his adoptive father and sitting contentedly at home with his two adopted siblings.
At age 9, “some kid told me I was adopted, that the family was not mine,” he says, a half-smile on his lips as he looks into the camera. “I immediately ran to my father and told him what happened — he put me on his lap and told me who my mother was and how I was born.”
'We went through hell'
But the film does not reveal the extent of the hurt inside.
Citing family acquaintances, the UNICEF report says Alen suffered through a suicidal period because of teasing at school, being called “Pero,” a typically Serb name. It says he tried desperately to contact his biological mother, who angrily rebuffed him.
Advija Muhic, Alen’s adoptive mother, cried as she told the AP of Alen’s schoolyard encounter with the truth.
“We went through hell after that,” she said, sobbing. “He ranted and raved for days, screaming and crying: ’Why have you betrayed me? Why have you lied to me?’ ’You said you carried me here!’ he screamed, pointing at my stomach.
“It was a trauma we will never forget.”