Hiding Behind the Veil of a Name
Muslims in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina take on Serb identities to ward off ethnic violence
BIJELJINA, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — OLD friends will know him as Ferhat Terzic.
But on the official rolls, and to new acquaintances, he is now Filip. His wife, once Mirzana, is Mirjana, while their children, Ferid and Nevzeta, are now Marko and Nada.
The family is among the few Muslims remaining in the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Bijeljina who in the last four months have been adopting Serbian Orthodox names in desperate attempts to escape ethnic purges. Those who have changed their names disclaim any coercion.
``I was not compelled,'' says Mr. Terzic, the owner of a prosperous shop that sells burek, a fast-food patty stuffed with meat or cheese. ``I only changed my first name. My surname can be Muslim, Serb, or Croat.
``I asked myself, `Why am I Ferhat?' I had trouble pronouncing my own name. But I didn't change it under the old system,'' he says. ``Now we have a democracy. I can change my name. And why not also my family?''
But many Muslims and sympathetic Serbs assert privately that name changing is a direct consequence of stepped-up ``ethnic cleansing'' last summer, in which hundreds of non-Serbs were dispossessed of their property and driven from towns across Serb-held northern Bosnia-Herzegovina. The campaign slowed after much publicity. But human rights groups and United Nations officials say Bosnian Serb leaders remain determined to reduce to a politically insignificant 5 percent the non-Serb survivors of the ethnic cleansing storms.
In Bosnia, a name is more than an appellation. It is a badge of ethnic affiliation, and adopting new names is regarded as a demonstration of subservience to the ruling power. The current trend finds dark echoes in the turbulent history in which the present bloody hatreds are rooted.
The Muslims are descended from Bosnians who, after the onset of more than 400 years of Turkish rule in 1463, converted to Islam and took Islamic names to escape persecution and gain privileges denied non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire.
During World War II, many Serbs adopted Croatian names and converted to Catholicism to escape the Ustashe, Nazi quislings who pursued a macabre plan to create a pure Croat state through mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing of non-Croats.
Bijeljina, a two-hour drive from Belgrade, was the first town overrun in the Bosnian Serbs' conquest of the self-declared state they hope to unite with Serbia, Montenegro, and the Serb-held Krajina region of Croatia.
About 5,000 members remain of Bijeljina's 14,000-strong Muslim community, which constituted about two-thirds of the prewar population. Some 25,000 Serbs have resettled here.
About 400 of the remaining Muslims have adopted Serbian Orthodox names under civil law and received new identity cards. Some 100 others are waiting for local authorities to approve their applications, which include a disclaimer stating they were filed without duress. Trying to convert
Some have tried to go a step further and sought conversion by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Most have been turned down.
``By church canons, we cannot refuse baptism to anyone,'' says the Nedeljko Pajic, head Serbian Orthodox priest here. ``But here they have made a civil law against baptizing anyone from a purely Muslim family - only someone from a mixed marriage.''
Fr. Pajic says he has baptized 21 Muslims in the past several months. By comparison, the last prewar baptism of a Muslim occurred 25 years ago. ``All Muslims in this area used to be Serbs before the coming of the Turks,'' Pajic says. ``They say they want to return to their roots.''
But he adds, ``I can only believe that everyone who wants to change their name wants to do so because Serbs are in a majority and they will feel safer if they do. It might be a way to keep their property.'' Protecting the home
Most Muslims who have adopted Serbian Orthodox names, residents say, are well-to-do craftsmen and merchants eager to do whatever they must to save the homes and businesses in which they and their families have invested their whole lives.
``I am a private businessman,'' Terzic says. ``I only want peace. I'm not religious. I'm not in any political party.'' He is proud of his success, best represented by his comfortable three-story house.
``You may not understand why I changed my name. You can even criticize me,'' he says. ``But I am loyal to this country. Why shouldn't the Muslims here change their names?''
Suada, a young Muslim woman, can answer that. ``It's not because I hate the Serbs,'' she says, explaining why she would never take a Serbian Orthodox name. ``If these were different times, perhaps I might change my name if I didn't like it. But in this situation, I don't want to. Someone should like me for who I am.''
Terzic's son, who now introduces himself as Marko, says there was a practical reason for the change. ``I did it only to travel to Serbia to buy supplies like groceries and bottled gas.''
Non-Serbs are barred from leaving Bijeljina. Those who wish to go must pay local gangsters $300 to $500 to be ``guided'' across the border into Serbia on a one-way trip to Western Europe.
There also remains the question as to how much additional security a name-change guarantees. The ethnic purges last summer were spearheaded, according to residents, by Vojkan Djurkovic, the head of the town's ``State Commission for the Exchange of Civilian Populations'' and a self-styled major in the ``Serbian Tigers'' paramilitary group.
Every few nights, residents say, Mr. Djurkovic and his cohorts rounded up 30 to 40 Muslims, held them in a local school, robbed them, and then herded them across the mine-strewn front lines outside the Bosnian Army-held city of Tuzla. Their homes in Bijeljina were then sold to Serbian refugees. Djurkovic denies the allegations.
Residents say the major threat to Muslims now comes from Serbian refugees who have lost everything and are eager to exact vengeance on members of the rival ethnic group.
``We have a small problem with refugees who come from villages,'' Terzic says. ``They make problems for everyone.''
But he does not believe his family has a great deal to fear.
``This is my country. This is my state. I have my rights here,'' he asserts. ``In the end, everything will be okay.''