Sarajevo's marriages founder under strain of war

Many couples who tied the knot to share the pain of life under siege are drifting apart, reports Emma Daly
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The Independent Online
"Perhaps we have stayed together out of spite," said Cazim Corovic, a Sarajevan Muslim who runs the Cotton Club caf with his Serbian wife, Snezana. "We decided we would leave together or not at all."

Life in wartime, in spite of the danger, tension, bloodshed and the desperate fight to survive, can be romantic. "Now we are even closer," Mrs Corovic said. "When you separate, even for an hour, you don't know if you will ever see each other again. That changes things a lot."

But the stress of war - the fear, the hunger, the search for food, water and fuel, and the long separations - can place an intolerable strain on a marriage that otherwise might survive. In Sarajevo, divorce rates are edging up to pre-war levels in a city where much of the original population has gone and the rest worry about bread.

"We had fewer appeals for divorce during wartime, but now that the war is ebbing away, more are being filed," said Aida Tupanjic, deputy president of the First Court, covering Sarajevo's New Town area. Her court granted 235 divorces in 1994, compared to 107 between April 1992 and December 1993 and 308 in the year before the war broke out. "Conditions made it very hard to file for divorce, so we are expecting a larger number this year."

The reasons are twofold. First, thousands of couples have spent almost three years apart, the husbands in trenches or abroad to escape the draft, the wives away as refugees or at home, minding the property. Second, many Sarajevans married in haste. Impelled by desire for a lover, a friend and a partner to share the fear and the drudgery, they are repenting as quickly as they wed. "It was important to have somebody, for protection, somebody to talk to and suffer with," said Isidora, an attractive 22-year- old who worked as a waitress and sold jackets that she made from sleeping- bags.

She married Vladimir three months after they met in June 1992. He was the first person she knew wounded in action and she nursed him back to health. Following their marriage and his army discharge, he refused to work, saying that was her job. "The war was the reason why we married so soon. We thought we had found each other and were made for each other," she said ruefully. "If I had had the chance to go out, I would have met his friends and been able to find out what he was like."

She soon learned. "In war, you really get to know each other. You learn who and what somebody is. Our arguments were terrible, also because of the war. We couldn't leave the house, go somewhere else, talk to somebody else and cool off. We had to stay together after a big fight, even when we were furious with each other."

In August last year, Vladimir left Sarajevo for Croatia and then Italy. By then, Isidora knew it was over. "Our marriage was like a plant that had no water any more." He asked for money; she asked for a divorce.

"In extreme situations, as in wartime, people look for a partner to share the misery. That's one pattern," said Zeljko Trogancic, deputy head of the psychiatric unit at Sarajevo's Kosevo hospital. "Or, problems arise when couples are separated. For example, the women and children leave and the men stay, and they can't, or don't want to, reunite."

Childless couples in particular find it hard to communicate after a long time apart, said the doctor, who fears the long-term problems that these separations will cause after the war.

"They experience different realities in a very intense way. Here it is war, there it is exile. Later, it becomes very difficult to reconcile the two and find common ground."

In the case of couples living apart, "what aggravates the situation is the lack of hope for a reunion ... if couples knew that they would be apart for another three months or six months, they could handle it better, but it's the uncertainty. It may be another three years and people just surrender to their fates."

Edhem's girlfriend, Selma, left Sarajevo in May 1992, alone and pregnant. "We thought it would be for 10 or 15 days, for just a short time," he said.

As the war progressed, Edhem joined the Bosnian army and Selma moved to the Croatian capital. "She was desperate: she was pregnant, I wasn't with her, Sarajevo was being shelled and we didn't have the slightest idea when it would stop. We could not see our future."

When Nalda was born in January 1993, the couple married by proxy in Sarajevo. Selma's cousin said "I do" on her behalf. In October, Selma visited Sarajevo and was shocked. "In April she sent me a letter, full of doubts and questions: 'How could our marriage ever work?' I had not wanted to leave Sarajevo, although I could have. We had never lived together," Edhem said.

He made a trip to Zagreb to see his child. "I immediately felt so much for my daughter and I was sorry I had missed so much of her life." But relations between the parents were cool, and one month later, Selma asked for a divorce.

"Things would have gone another way if it hadn't been for the war," Edhem said. "Sometimes I get furious with the war because it has prevented me from being with my little one. I don't care that much about Selma."

Social workers in Sarajevo encourage parents to stay in touch with their children abroad, in spite of the lack of international phone lines and postal services.

"Those who left Sarajevo three years ago are normal people with human emotions, but relations with their partners are frozen," said Mico Popovic, a social worker. "Marriages need love, but time and distance render it impossible."

Dr Trogancic said: "Many people have found new friends, because of the circumstances. They need someone to support them. I'm not necessarily talking about lovers. Sometimes it's just neighbours who get together to cook. The war is bringing people together and breaking marriages apart."