Bosnian Muslims pressured to baptize during Genocide in Bosnia
3 January 1994.
By Barbara Demick
BIJELJINA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Two months ago, the police paid an unexpected visit to the home of a Bosniak pediatrician and his wife, a dentist. They had bad news. The city wanted to take over their spacious three-story home for municipal offices.
But the pediatrician also had a surprise for the authorities. He pulled out papers showing that he had legally changed his traditional Bosniak name to a Serbian name.
“There was nothing we could do,” said Capt. Milorad Javic, one of the officers at the scene. “As long as he was a Serb, it was illegal for us to take that house.”
No wonder hundreds of Muslims here are shedding their names. It is the ultimate pledge of fidelity in this woebegone slice of eastern Bosnia that has been under Serb military occupation since April 1992. Bosniaks who want to preserve their homes and businesses — not to mention their lives — have found that changing their names goes a long way in assuring authorities of their loyalty.
As in all of the former Yugoslavia, a name here is not just a name. It is the primary means of distinguishing Serb from Bosniak, Bosniak from Croat. With most of the Bosnian Muslims descended from the same Slavic stock as the Serbs, their appearance provides no clue as to their religion.
Often, just one or two letters need be changed to convert a telltale Muslim name into a comfortable anonymity. Sabira becomes Sara. Mirzana becomes Mirjana.
“It is a simple process,” Javic said. “You just go to City Hall and fill out a few forms.”
“We try not to let too many people do it,” he said. There are some newer officers here in town and they may not know who really is a Muslim. We don’t want people to be able to infiltrate our organizations because they’ve changed their name. But then again, if we are sure someone is a ‘loyal’ Muslim, we have no objections.”
Javic’s own wife is a Muslim, who uses the [Serb] name Vesna instead of Mirza. The couple had their two daughters baptized in the Serbian Orthodox Church, and Vesna is considering getting herself baptized as well, the final step in conversion to Serbian orthodoxy.
“Her father was a good Muslim. He is buried on the other side, among Muslims,” Javic said of his wife. “But she goes to the Orthodox church every week to light a candle for him.”
Before the war, nearly half of Bijeljina’s 100,000 residents were Muslims. Many of those who have been permitted to stay are people whom the Bijeljina Serbs find essential to the commercial life of the town.
Some Muslim doctors still practice here, although under new names. And there’s the owner of one of Bijeljina’s two gravestone suppliers, thriving business in wartime Bosnia. And one of Bijljeina’s wealthiest citizens, Filip Terzic (former Ferhat Terzic), whose restaurant downtown is known throughout eastern Bosnia for its excellent burek, a flaky pastry filled with meat or cheese.
Town authorities estimate that 300 people in Bijeljina have changed their names since the war began. Twenty-eight others have taken the next step and had themselves baptized, according to Nedeljko Pajic, the head of the Serbian Orthodox church in Bijeljina.
“All they do is sign a form saying they are converting of their own free will, and then we baptize them,” Pajic said. “It takes about three days.”