A last name spells death in conquered Balkan lands People change names, religion to escape ethnic cleansing

November 02, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ZAGREB, Croatia -- Thousands of miles from here, the leaders of forces that have been slaughtering each other in the former Yugoslavia for more than four years are discussing the large issues of their conflict.

But here, it is the little things that can get you killed. The way you spell your name, for instance, or the words you put on your calendar, or the kind of money in your wallet -- each can give you away as a Serb, Croat or Muslim who's in the wrong place.

And despite the apparent momentum toward peace, the importance of ethnic differences seems only to be increasing throughout the former Yugoslavia.

One result is that thousands of people have changed their names, their religion or even their conversational slang as ways of surviving.

"If the Serbs living here in Croatia -- those who have stayed loyal, who believe in this country -- if they have no choice but to change their names in order to remain and live as human beings, is this what we expect from a democracy?" said Milorad Pupovac, a parliamentary leader for Croatia's Serb Democratic Forum.

There is plenty of regional precedent for changing one's ethnic identity. Bosnia's large Muslim population exists only because of ancestors who converted to Islam during centuries of rule by the Islamic Ottoman Turks, often as a way of getting jobs with the governing bureaucracy.

The Serbian-Croatian distinction now so important to the region is mostly a geographic accident of history, in keeping with Christianity's East-West division between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

None of this, however, makes it any easier being part of an ethnic minority these days. Consider, for example, the perils of Slobodan Milosevic; not the internationally reviled president of Serbia, but the farmer in a village just south of Zagreb.

Living with that name in Croatia is like being called Saddam Hussein in Texas, except here the hotheads carry Kalashnikovs instead of hunting rifles. He got no peace and security until he legally changed his name to Ivan Gustra, and he no longer likes talking about the issue.

It is not only famous names that can be hazardous. Locals well know that a last name with an "aga," an "izet" or a "beg" is almost always Muslim.

Not foolproof

The first name Bogdan usually belongs to a Serb. An Ante is generally Croat, and a Mehmed is usually Muslim, although no name is a foolproof indicator, just ask the Catholic member of the Croatian national assembly named Mohamed.

In the eastern Croatian city of Osijek, a hotbed of nationalism near the front line of the rebel Serbs, 2,500 Serbs changed to more Croatian-sounding names in 1992 alone, according to the Slavonian Voice newspaper, and such requests still trickle in at the various municipal buildings.

A U.N. official who has traveled extensively in Bosnia tells of an interpreter who informally changed his first name almost daily, sometimes hourly, depending on which part of the country they were traveling in.

By also changing his slang and being mindful of the few ethnic vocabulary differences, the official said, "He learned to pass for either Serb or Bosniak [Muslim]."

Then there are those who change religions.

Despite increases of religious fervor and fundamentalism on all sides since the war began, for the most part this is still a land of Muslims who drink alcohol, Croatian Catholics who have abortions, and Serbian Orthodox Christians for whom the church represents nationalism more than faith.

Branka Seska, a Serb in Croatia who now works for the United Nations after being fired from her job with Croatian State television, has Serbian friends who have enrolled their children in Catholic religious instruction courses at school so they'll blend in with the rest of the student body, even when it has meant signing a denunciation of their Orthodox baptism.

Old identity cards

The flaw with these approaches, especially in Bosnia, is that most everybody still has the Yugoslav identity card from 1991, which notes ethnic identity and the name of the card holder's father. The new countries that sprang up as Yugoslavia fell apart have continued the practice on everything from voting registries to employment records.

This April Croatia plans to find out just how Serbian-free its become with its first national census. Dissidents such as writer Predrag Raos have suggested large-scale ethnic lying as a way of fouling the scheme, but such voices are seldom heeded.

When all hopes for assimilation fail, some ethnic minorities turn to people such as Samir Sefir. Mr. Sefir, based in the mostly-Muslim Bosnian city of Travnik, is one of a small number of "commissioners of exchange," who arrange through army and municipal officials for home swaps between ethnic counterparts -- a Muslim in Serbian territory, for example, exchanging deeds with a Serb in Muslim territory.

These episodes of voluntary "ethnic cleansing" have been arranged by the thousands, say U.N. officials, who neither sanction nor stand in the way of the practice.

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