Muslims are finding safety in names in Bosnia

January 03, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BIJELJINA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Two months ago, the police paid an unexpected visit to the home of a Muslim pediatrician and his wife, a dentist. They had bad news. The city wanted to take over their 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 Muslim 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 Serbian military occupation since April 1992. Muslims who want to preserve their homes and businesses -- not to mention their lives -- have found that &L 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 Muslim, Muslim 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," Captain 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."

Captain Javic's own wife is a Muslim, who uses the 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.

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 town's commercial life.

Some Muslim doctors still practice here, although under new names. And there's the owner of one of Bijeljina's two gravestone suppliers, a thriving business in wartime Bosnia. And one of Bijeljina's wealthiest citizens, Filip (formerly Ferhat) Terzic, whose restaurant downtown is known throughout eastern Bosnia for its excellent burek, a flaky pastry filled with meat or cheese.

"I am 61 years old," said one Muslim businessman who changed his name. "I love this place. I have a good business. Where else am I going to go?"

The businessman, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity, poured visitors cups of potent Turkish coffee, the last traces of a bygone culture, as he and his wife explained their decision.

The businessman said he had traced his family heritage and discovered his family came from Montenegro, a region allied with Serbia where many people were forcibly converted to Islam under the 500 years of Turkish occupation.

"I had Montenegrin roots," said the businessman. "My origins are Montenegrin. It is like going back to what we originally were."

His wife interrupted. "I was raised a Yugoslav. My father was a communist. We had no religion. What difference does a name make? It's meaningless."

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