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Children of Bosnian war face secrets of their own roots 25 years after conflict

Alen Muhic kisses his son Rejjau beside his wife Dzenana in their home in Gorazde, Bosnia, on March 6, 2018. (Mainichi)

GORAZDE, Bosnia and Herzegovina -- A woman gave birth to a boy in Gorazde in southeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina on Feb. 20, 1993. The birth came at the height of a fierce ethnic conflict after the breakup of Yugoslavia a year earlier. The woman soon vanished, leaving the boy behind. "The kid wasn't born from love, I don't want him, I don't care about him," she said before her disappearance, according to people who knew her. The infant, Alen Muhic, now 25, was adopted by a male worker at the hospital where he was born, only to be dumped by his biological mother.

The woman who gave birth to Alen was Bosnian. During the conflict, she was abducted from her apartment by Serbian soldiers. She was then beaten and her clothes were torn apart as a gun was held to her head. She realized that she was pregnant at a detention center in a town controlled by the Serbs. In a prisoner-of-war swap, she was taken to the Gorazde hospital on the eve of the baby's birth.

The Bosnian War fought among Bosnians, Croatians and Serbians from 1992 through 1995 killed some 200,000 people. Each group committed ethnic cleansing in a bid to annihilate their enemies, and detained women from other groups. An estimated 25,000 women were sexually assaulted.

"The biggest war for me is the one I fight with myself," said Alen. He spent sleepless nights in anguish, tormented by the thought, "I was not born from love; I was born from hate." After he entered high school, Alen decided to go and see his biological mother, who had endured a tough time, and the biological Serbian father, who raped the woman. He eventually met with both of them.

Alen Muhic stands in front of the hospital where he works as a medical assistant, in Gorazde in southeastern Bosnia. He was born -- and abandoned -- at the hospital during the Bosnian conflict in 1993. (Mainichi)

Alen got married three years ago and now has a boy. "I want my family to be happy, above average," he said, indicating he is trying to overcome his past.

Like Alen, thousands of children are presumed to have been born between "enemies" in the Bosnian War. Many of them were forgotten after the conflict, but some of them have chosen to face the secrets of their births, and speak up against wartime sexual violence. Here are their stories spanning 25 years.

-- A search for biological parents

Alen was brought up under the tender loving care of the hospital worker Muharem, now 71, and his wife Advija. But he learned about his background when he was 8, after a quarrel with a friend. "You are not Bosniak! You live with people who are not your true parents!" the friend shouted at him. Shocked and confused, Alen went home crying and asked Muharem if what the friend told him was true, hoping that his friend had lied. Muharem answered yes.

The three ethnic groups that fought the Bosnian War -- Muslim Bosnian, Catholic Croatian and Orthodox Serbians -- had lived together for centuries. After the conflict began, each group killed men from their opposing groups, and raped and expelled women in a bid to establish control over their local towns. Ethnic cleansing left about 200,000 people dead and over 2 million homeless, turning the conflict into the worst tragedy in Europe after World War II.

A former detention facility in Foca in southeastern Bosnia is demolished in March 2018, more than 20 years after it was used to house many Bosnian women. (Mainichi)

Gorazde, Alen's hometown with a population of some 21,000, was not spared from the fighting, and there remain buildings with pockmarks from gunshots. The detention center in nearby town of Foca where many Bosnian women were said to have been raped still remained when I visited the location in March of this year -- the demolition work had just begun -- a visible sign of the terrible past.

Alen, when he was small, often wondered, "Why is my biological father Serbian? Why did my biological mother abandon me?" As he grew up, he came to learn about the tragedies caused by the Bosnian conflict, and his heart sunk into deep sorrow. He could not erase the feeling that something was missing from him.

Then he met Semsudin Gegic, a 66-year-old film director. "Why don't we look for your parents together? I want to make a film out of the search," Gegic told Alen. The director cooperated with Bosnian authorities searching for war criminals, and found the woman who had given birth to Alen. She had testified anonymously against the man who she said had raped her in his trial, after he was indicted for international human rights law violations. Alen's DNA type matched those of his biological parents. But the woman, who now lives in another country, initially refused to meet with Alen.

-- Emotional encounter

Gegic's film featuring Alen's search for his biological parents, "A trap of invisible child," was released in Bosnia in 2015 and attracted a lot of attention. Several days after its release, the younger sister of his biological mother contacted Alen, and told him, "Your mother is willing to see you." He called the number the sister gave him again and again, but someone on the other end always hung up. Alen assumed it was his biological mother's husband.

About two years later, in February 2017, the representative of Women Victims of War, a nongovernmental organization, contacted him to tell that the woman who gave birth to Alen was now in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Alen rushed to the city. "My heart was beating so hard I thought I was going to die," he said. He entered a house he was told to visit, and a woman was sitting on a sofa, crying. Alen broke down in tears right after he saw her.

"The feeling was almost unexplainable. The whole life was part of the feeling; I didn't know how to manage ... there was a combination of hatred and love," Alen recalls.

"Am I your mother?" the woman asked.

Lejla Damon says she wants to help children born out of sexual violence in an interview in Manchester, Britain, in May 2018. (Mainichi)

"No, you are not. My mother is the one who adopted me," Alen replied.

The biological mother, wiping her tears, repeated, "I wanted to see you, but I couldn't." The woman said she had visited Gorazde on multiple occasions to see Alen, and even waited for him in front of the elementary school he was attending. She chose not to talk to him because she thought that she shouldn't see her child she had abandoned.

The Women Victims of War collected testimonies from 2,707 victims of sexual violence during the Bosnian war and requested that the government recognize them as "war victims" in 2006. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is part of Bosnia, has since started providing female victims with about 500 marks (about 33,000 yen) per month in financial support. But there are only about 800 recipients. Many apparently fear that they would be ostracized if people found out they were victims of sexual violence.

Some victims have left Bosnia, being unable to find places to stay. Alen's biological mother, who was living in Miljevina in southeastern Bosnia before the war, ended up leaving the country as a refugee. She is now married and has two children, but the psychological trauma still torments her and she has to receive counseling frequently.

-- Finding a balance between hatred and love

Alen was able to meet his biological father in 2016, before his reunion with his biological mother. The man was found guilty of war crimes, but the ruling was overturned in an appeals court as the judge found "insufficient evidence" to prove him guilty. He was back in his hometown of Miljevina. The man agreed to meet with Alen after the latter made several attempts.

"I don't know your mother. I'm not your father," the man insisted. "I am not responsible, I didn't do anything wrong." When presented with the result of a DNA test, which showed their DNA types matched, the man kept his composure and said, "I don't recognize the test evidence. It's a false result."

Alen lost interest in asking questions. "Before I met him I felt some kind of hatred because of what he did," Alen said of the man. "When I met him I confirmed the same."

Alen's case is a rare one among children born out of sexual violence, because he was able to find both his biological mother and father. People like him are usually kept in the dark about how they were born. Mothers and adoptive parents often explain to their children that the father was "killed in the war." In the past, these children became "invisible," and often could not receive public assistance.

Alen said he felt relieved of the heavy burden he was carrying when he met both of his biological parents. Understanding how his biological mother felt about him liberated him from a nightmare. "I can see the world differently," Alen said.

Now he works as a medical assistant at the hospital where he was abandoned. He met his wife Dzenana at his workplace. Their first boy, Rejjau, is 1 year and 10 months old. When this writer visited their brand new home in March this year, Alen said gently, "Welcome to my home." Pictures of his wife and child were displayed in the rooms and a tapestry reading "Home Sweet Home" was hanging on the wall. The interior sent a clear message: Alen wants to fill his family home with love.

Dan Damon carries 1-month-old Lejla, in Ljubljana in Slovenia in January 1993. (Photo courtesy of Lejla Damon)

-- Coming to terms with secret roots

Another child born amid troubled circumstances is Lejla Damon, 25. She was born at Christmastime in 1992, eight months into the Bosnian conflict. Her mother, who is Bosnian, was detained in Foca for seven months, and raped by multiple soldiers. She gave birth to Lejla at a hospital in Sarajevo. "I don't want that baby. I told the nurses not to show the baby to me. If I saw her I would strangle her," the mother says in footage recorded at the time by British journalists Dan Damon and his wife Sian.

The now 68-year-old Briton and Sian, 55, were covering the war as freelance journalists. They were trying to leave Sarajevo as the city was under siege. The couple thought, "This baby has got no future. We can't leave her behind." They adopted the baby girl and left. By the time the family returned to Britain via Hungary, Lejla was 3.

Dan started working for British public broadcaster BBC, and he chose to inform Lejla about her roots, telling her when she turned 7 that she was an adopted child from Bosnia. The spelling of the girl's name is Bosnian, because, Dan said, "I wanted her to have a Bosnian name so that she would know where she came from. I supposed she felt secure in her identity as being a girl from Bosnia."

Lejla had no idea that she came from somewhere else. Her friends had no idea either. But when she was young she always felt at the bottom of her heart that she was different from her friends.

When she turned 18 and entered a college in London, Dan revealed a new piece of information to Lejla: that she was born from a mother raped by Serbians. Lejla was not terribly disturbed, though, because she had been studying the Bosnian conflict for a while.

Lejla never felt troubled about the circumstances surrounding her birth. "How is me being born from rape my fault? I didn't do the crime myself therefore why should I be blamed for something that isn't my fault. I am a product of where I was raised, not anything else," said Lejla. Her rational thinking surprised me.

Dan pointed out that Lejla was able to accept the facts objectively because she grew up in the U.K. "It would be more difficult if you were living in Bosnia. Hardly anything has been done to bring rapists to justice in Bosnia. The situation is different," he said.

When she turned 19, Lejla casually inquired with the Bosnian embassy in Britain about where her biological mother lived. Weeks later, she had the woman's phone number and address. When Lejla tried to contact her, Dan intervened. "It's not a thing you do once. You can't just turn up and say, 'Hi, I'm your long lost daughter and nice to meet you and goodbye!' Take your time, take your time. This is a situation that is full of emotional potential and you need to be careful," Dan remembered telling his daughter.

So Lejla settled with writing a letter to her: "Hello. How are you? You know I've tried to get in contact with you. Let me know you're well." Months later, a reply arrived: "I was glad I got in contact with you. I would one day like to meet you." Lejla felt that she was not ready to see her biological mother yet, so she continued writing to her. Letters carrying the thoughts and feelings of the mother and her daughter traveled between Bosnia and Britain every few months.

-- Supporting women and children in similar circumstances

Five years later, in August 2017, Lejla was in Sarajevo to talk with a Bosnian woman who was born out of wartime sexual violence. Until then, Lejla always felt a wall standing between her and other people. "People I never met before ask me, 'So where are you from originally?' I can either lie to make them feel more comfortable or I say I was born in Bosnia. But they never leave it just there. Then I tell them and it is instantly a mood killer. And then I think I should have just lied," Lejla said, explaining her mindset before her encounter with that woman. But Lejla was able to tell the Bosnian woman everything about herself, without hesitation. She felt confidence growing inside her, slowly. "I wanted to go and meet my birth mom and I thought it was about time," she said.

Two months later, Lejla, and her adopted parents, visited Lejla's biological mother at her apartment in Bosnia. Lejla focused on listening, fearing that her words might trigger a flood of tough memories from the woman.

"I hope you understand," the woman said, on the verge of tears. She repeated her thanks to the Damons for their effort to bring up her daughter.

The woman had led a tough, poor life. She was sick, had no source of income, and depended on her relatives. She didn't apply for government support because she didn't want to be seen as a victim of sexual violence. Lejla felt angry.

"I think her situation is extremely hard. There was no support (from the government) ... I hope that I can raise awareness into a lot more kinds of campaigning against situations like this," she said. Lejla began to feel that she wanted to help women who suffered from sexual violence in conflicts, and children like her who were born out of sexual violence.

"We are in a great time of change. Stigma is a big thing, whereas here, everybody is trying to speak out about things that happened years ago. People must expect rape to happen in war. It was kind of overlooked," Lejla emphasized in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in Manchester in Britain.

In Bosnia, a civic group was established in 2015 to support "children born out of war." The targets of its programs include children born from rape and youngsters born between local residents and United Nations soldiers deployed in Bosnia. As many as 13 young men and women who came from similar backgrounds are active in the group, and Lejla, who is in an MBA course, intends to join those young people someday.

-- War children seeking their place under the sun

"Children conceived through wartime rape often struggle with issues of identity and belonging for decades after the guns have fallen silent. Their mothers may be marginalized and shunned by their own families and communities," said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his statement on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict in June. He urged the international community to help those forgotten victims of war, who are often in dire straits.

Referring to the term "children of war," Alen told reporters at the U.N. headquarters in New York, "We are called by various names that are often inhumane and stigmatizing. This will not confuse us and prevent us from seeking and getting our place under the sun."

Alen, and Lejla, young people who carry the weight of the Bosnian War on their shoulders, have come this far, and now they are trying to move ahead to change the world.

(Japanese original by Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau)

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