No peace for the war babies

A judge has ruled that, for her own good, four-year-old Edita Keranovic should stay in Britain rather than return to her Bosnian family. But who are we to say what's best for another country's children? By Emma Daly
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Edita Keranovic was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. When she was only nine weeks old, her father and grandfather sent her, with her mother, grandmother and other relatives, to hide out in a garage less than a mile from her home. Rebel Serb forces were advancing on the Bosnian Muslim village of Hrustovo, and the Keranovic men feared the worst.

Hrustovo lies amid the green, rolling hills of northern Bosnia, the pleasant, fertile swathe of land brutally and efficiently ''cleansed'' of Muslims by a Serb regime determined to carve an ethnically pure state from the patchwork villages that made up rural Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Edita was born within a few miles of the notorious prison camps - Manjaca, Omarska, Keraterm, Trnopolje - set up by the Serbs to process those who had survived into captivity and expel them across the Sava river to Croatia.

On that fateful day, 30 May 1992, the garage was to provide little shelter. The Serb soldiers threw in grenades and machine-gunned the building. The Keranovic men survived the attack on their village. The women were killed in the garage.

Hasan Keranovic lost eight members of his immediate family, including his wife, youngest son, and daughters-in-law. Edita and her six-month- old cousin, Melvina, survived, shielded by their mothers' bodies. The babies were picked up by a soldier who heard them crying, so the story goes, and were eventually placed in an orphanage in the Serb-held city of Banja Luka.

Six months later Edita, who has shotgun pellets in her head, was sent to London, via Zagreb and Ljubljana, for medical treatment, with the help of Alan and Deborah Fowler, a British couple moved by her plight.

On Monday, a High Court judge said Edita should remain with the Fowlers, despite the competing claims of Hasan Keranovic, her grandfather, who lives in a flat in Switzerland.

A happy ending to the story? Not for her family, nor for her country.

Hasan Keranovic and his son Rufad were separated from Edita's father by the Serbs; they never saw him again - but then no one has found his body either. Hasan was released from Manjaca in November 1992, his son Rufad a month later, and the men began to search for the two little girls. Rufad and Melvina were re-united in Zagreb in early 1993, and the Keranovics tracked Edita down to the Fowlers in Britain.

The judge, in Monday's ruling, accused the Fowlers of "appalling irresponsibility". In response to the Keranovics' requests, he added, "there was a consistent course of non-disclosure by Mr and Mrs Fowler to throw inquiries off the scent".

The Keranovics, who met Edita in January for the first time since that grim day in 1992, are considering whether to appeal the judgment. They are also hoping to arrange a visit from Edita as soon as possible - the judge said she must see her natural family at least four times a year, and that she must keep her surname and be brought up a Muslim.

For the Bosnian government, Edita's case is of great concern. It does not take a huge leap to see that a people who were attacked specifically because they were Muslim and whose Christian enemies sought to kill them or expel them from Bosnian territory might be upset by Edita's story.

"Giving people refuge is laudable, but does the process of adoption, especially where families are present, serve the purposes and objectives of those waging war?" asked one Bosnian lawyer. "Is the adoption process going to solidify the ethnic cleansing process?"

Mugdim Pasic, the Bosnian charge d'affaires in London, is also angered by the judgment. "Serbia's aim was to kill as many Bosnians as possible and to expel them," he said. "That's why we want our refugees to come back to Bosnia, to negate the results of the genocide, of the Bosnian tragedy."

Tens of thousands of children left Bosnia during its four years of war: pushed on to trains and buses, sent with friends or relatives or alone by parents desperately seeking safety, and, more important, convinced the fighting would be over in a few weeks. Children who had been wounded, like Edita, were flown out in medical evacuations, sent to a third country for treatment. But in the vast majority of cases, those handled by UN agencies, it was standard practice to send a responsible adult with the sick child to avoid exactly this kind of situation.

The international convention of 1960 governing inter-country adoptions states that in times of war, "special care must be taken to prevent hasty placement of children outside their own country". Both the Bosnian and Croatian governments banned adoption of their children during the war because, for example, they too had couples wanting to adopt.

The UN recommends that in the case of a foreign adoption, the state authorities (in Edita's case, Britain), should ensure "all reasonable measures have been taken in order to trace and re-unite the child with his or her parents".

"What's interesting is the very clear statement the judge made with regard to retaining her name and her religion," said Louise Williamson of the Refugee Council. "This is a crucial element: that if tracing [of family] proved unsuccessful, you would expect a child to be placed for adoption with a family of similar language, culture, ethnicity and religion, and that's a firm principle of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and of the Children Act."

In the former Yugoslav republics, Save the Children knows of around 9,000 children separated from their families during the war. There are no accurate figures for the number of unaccompanied children sent abroad; British officials, for example, did not count children travelling alone as a separate category.

"The figure I have for children known to be in the UK is 154, but we are pretty damn sure there are significantly more than that,'' said David Wright of Save the Children, the agency charged with leading the struggle to re-unite children and families from the former Yugoslavia. "From Save the Children's point of view, our position is very clear, that the child's right place is with its own family and in its natural country of domicile."

The governments of Serbia and Croatia, remembering a lesson of the Second World War lost on some in this country, made adoptions of children displaced by war illegal. They knew that it was quite possible for relatives to appear years after the event. I have a Sarajevan friend whose father lost his family in the Second World War, aged eight. His father was away fighting with the partisans, and the rest of the family was executed en masse by the fascists. It was not until he was a student at Sarajevo University, in the 1950s, that his father tracked him down.

My friend sent her one-year-old son to Germany to escape this last war, but she was lucky, she sent him out with his grandmother, who looked after him in Frankfurt for four years. Her son returned to Sarajevo, his birthplace, for the first time last year.

This is very Bosnian; Yugoslav, actually - society is still based around the extended family and there is still a strong sense of community (among those on the same side). In some ways Bosnian society is more child-friendly than British society. In wartime Sarajevo, for instance, you saw people keeping an eye on, or ticking off, their neighbours' children; you saw children playing together in the streets, in basements; you saw the environment whose passing we so often mourn. In Belgrade, too, neighbours in high- rise blocks are more likely to know one another, to chat, to baby-sit.

The aid agencies working in Bosnia during the war tried hard to avoid creating further trauma in the people they were supposed to help. That is why they adhered to strict guidelines when dealing with children, and why they enshrined a bureaucracy that sometimes stifled attempts to help. Many individuals got involved too, moved by the horrifying scenes on their television, motivated only by a need to change things for the better, unaware of the pitfalls ahead.

Ms Williamson, who heads the Refugee Council's Children's Division, is keen to avoid similar cases in the future. "There has been so much experience gained with unaccompanied children, but so few lessons have been learnt," she said. "It is better to keep children with their families, even under shellfire, but if they are separated, they must go with proper documentation with details of their names, ages and where their family is so that tracing will be easier later onn"

Comments