Fata Orlovic: a Bosnian mother’s courage by Hajrudin Somun*

Fata Orlovic: a Bosnian mother’s courage by Hajrudin Somun*

Fata Orlovic gestures on a balcony of her house near a Serb Orthodox church located in her yard, in the village of Konjevic Polje, 100 kilometers northeast of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, October 2007 (Photo: Amel Emric, AP)

July 31, 2013, Wednesday/ 15:46:00

One more holy month of Ramadan is coming to an end. A pious Bosnian Muslim country woman is approaching 72, but she's still forced to look at a small, white Christian Orthodox church that was illegally built in her green garden in Konjevic Polje, a village near Srebrenica and the Drina River.

The case of fata orlovic, who has been called a heroine of post-war Bosnia for her struggle to restore her essential human rights -- which were cruelly violated during and after the Serbian aggression -- is much more than it seems.

More than an issue of religion, the construction of the church on the Muslim family's private property and the persistent failure of Bosnian Serb authorities to remove it has broader political, legal, social and human dimensions. The 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom, issued last May by the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, mentions Orlovic's problem. "In these cases, observers stated that the purpose behind the construction was to send a political message to members of minority religious communities about the dominance of the majority ethno-religious group in that area," the report says.

Just on the eve of this Ramadan, the new head of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mufti Husein Kavazovic, sent an open letter to representatives of international organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina regarding violations of Orlovic's property rights. “Before Fata Orlovic's colossal struggle,” he writes, “all proclamations have been surrendered and soulless discriminatory characters of domestic and foreign governmental and nongovernmental institutions that tolerate and ignore violence against that abandoned and weak old woman have been bared.”

The mufti was right in saying that “Nena” (Granny) Fata, as she's called by her neighbors, was abandoned. She has sometimes been helpless as well, but nobody can say she was weak in any moment of her struggle, which has lasted more than 15 years.   

Life before the war

Before the 1992-1995 war, the Orlovic family had four houses and four stables in Konjevic Polje, whose population was 100 percent Bosnian Muslim (the term was later officially changed to Bosniak). Fata's husband Sacir and 28 of her other relatives were killed in the war, and she left the village with seven children.

After spending the war as a refugee, she decided to return to her home. Arriving at Konjević Polje in 2000, Fata found that her house had been completely ruined. But she was more surprised to see that a small, white-painted church stood in its courtyard. She decided first to retake control of her property, but immediately met obstacles put in place by authorities of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian entity to which the area pertained as per the Dayton Accords of 1995. After four years of legal struggle, she obtained a document officially declaring her the owner of the property. That decision, however, also made the Bosniak returnee the owner of the church -- which she didn't want at all. In the meantime, she also succeeded, with her own money and some donations, in building a new home on the burnt remains of the old one.

Real problems started, however, when Fata began a legal procedure to remove the church from her land. Despite a 2004 decision by the Republika Srpska's Ministry of Urban Planning in favor of the church's removal, local Serb authorities and the Orthodox Church continued their obstruction. Bosniak politicians, the Islamic Community and the media in Sarajevo supported Fata's demands, making her a figure of international interest. Serbian political parties, the Orthodox Church and the Bosnian Serb media, however, regarded the removal of the church as an attack on freedom of religion. How could it be an attack on religion when there wasn't a single Serb resident in the village to attend the services that the local Orthodox bishop has held alone in the church every year?

While still on the subject of Serb religious authorities, let me remind you that Bishop Vasilije Kacavenda, the leading Orthodox priest in Tuzla and northeastern Bosnia at the time, accused Orlovic of being “a disseminator of national hate.” This was his comment on Fata's complaint to authorities that she was beaten by a local Serb policeman after she quarreled with him and tried to prevent him from approaching the church.

Besides regular harassment, intimidation and humiliation by local Serbs who scolded her, threatened to kill her and even spit at her, yes, she was beaten as well. The last time it happened was in September 2010, right in Eid al-Fitr, at the end of the month of fasting Ramadan. And it was done by a local Serb Police officer, Zdravko Uzelac, a man who, during the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, participated in the separation of Muslim men who were to be massacred and buried in mass graves. Orlovic saw him when he was doing it.

And what is situation today?

In June 2012 the Republika Srpska's Supreme Court suspended a 2011 verdict from the Bijeljina District Court that had rejected a lawsuit filed by Orlovic demanding the removal of the church. The former ruling returned the case to the Srebrenica Basic Court. Orlovic's lawyer argued that she couldn't get a fair decision at that court and requested that the case be transferred to another. My last information is that lawyer Fahrija Karkin, one of the best in Bosnia, is still waiting for such a decision.

However, my feeling -- and it's not only mine -- is that the central authorities of the Serb-controlled entity will say that responsibility rests with the local municipalities. But the Serb municipal authorities have the unwritten approval of the former to prolong the status quo as long as possible.

Orlovic's story, a metaphor

Bosnia and Herzegovina faces bigger political, economic and social problems than the construction of a Serb church on a Bosniak family's private property. However, Orlovic's story might be used as a metaphor for many things being done in the country that continue the collective post-war trauma, deepening divisions and impasses caused by nationalist elites and the state structure imposed by the Dayton Accords.

First: Ethnic cleansing and discrimination based on ethnic and religious criteria continue, particularly in the half of the country belonging to the Republika Srpska. The old idea that all lands once occupied by Serbs in wars should belong to Serbs is continually revived by extreme nationalists. Thus, the church in Konjevic Polje was built to show that a new ethnic and religious group now owned the land.

Second: The return of non-Serb refugees, i.e. Bosniaks and Croats, to their pre-war homes is being obstructed by various official and unofficial means of the Republika Srpska. Most of the returnees to places and villages like Konjevic Polje for a long time lived without electricity and water, and their houses, rebuilt with foreign donations, were subject to robberies.

Third: The major political and military war leaders were charged or are still on trial at the Hague Tribunal. However, Bosniaks object that many of those who participated in war crimes are still at large and even working in the police forces, as is the case with the policeman Uzelac. Konjevic Polje and the whole area were in a way connected to the Srebrenica genocide. For example, the school at Konjević Polje was used to hold detainees before execution.

Fourth: The “war ghosts” are still alive in the Serb Orthodox Church. Kacavenda was only last spring dismissed from his post, but this was over allegations of sex scandals and not his role in the Serbian aggression. He personally blessed the carnage and persecutions of Muslims and Catholics during the war. Besides, it was decided recently to build a new Orthodox church on top of the hill just above the area where most of the Srebrenica genocide victims were killed and buried.

Fifth: Politicians, including Bosniak ones, don't care much about the situation of their people in Republika Srpska and the problems of returnees there. The story is similar with the international community and rich Muslim countries. High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Valentin Inzko, a kind of international protector, denounced the attacks on Orlovic by the Serb police and said that the Serbian Orthodox Church and Republika Srpska had an obligation to remove the church from her private property. But three years later nothing has been done to ensure that this obligation becomes a reality. It was similar with the US Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It nominated Orlovic for the international "Woman of Courage" award, given to brave women who fight for their rights in a nonviolent way, but this didn't help solve her problem.

That elderly Bosnian woman, though a self-supporting mother without an education who has experienced only the hardships of rural life, has not lost the strength and spirit to fight for justice and her rights. This is the story of a “Bosnian Mother Courage,” or, as Al-Jazeera said in December 2012, “one of the most intriguing and dramatic war stories of modern times.” And Orlovic herself has often said that she doesn't hate anybody, that she respects other faiths. However, she doesn't hide that the bitter experience of aggression, expulsion and post-war treatment has damaged her ability to trust. When asked for forgiveness by those who accused her of spreading national hatred in the past, she said: "They massacred to the last, killed everyone, burned all of it, and now they ask me to forgive them. I shall not!"

*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.

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