Your Ethnicity Is Not Written All Over Your Face

Ajla Lović (24) and Darko Karać (31) from Banja Luka have been in a happy relationship for five years now. (photo: Mitar Simikić)

Ajla Lović and Darko Karać are a young couple from Banja Luka. They are just like any other young couple in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Every day they try to get the best out of the society they live in and to build a life in a community that for years seems to have forgotten about its young people and their needs. But their kind of relationship is less and less common after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They are in the so-called “mixed” relationship. Darko’s parents are Christian Orthodox and Ajla’s are Muslim.

With a view from the Kastel Fortress over the parts of the city where they both grew up, we begin to talk about how their paths intertwined.

A First Kiss To Remember

Darko is six years older than Ajla, but from the moment they met, and almost five years later, he has matured more with her. They met in a club where they both went out regularly. Across the large crowd they noticed each other.

“Banja Luka is full of girls, and you come to the club and someone attracts your attention. Ajla was standing in her corner, and that’s how it started,” Darko recalls, adding that even though he considered himself a “real man,” approaching Ajla was not easy for him – the thought of her refusing him was scary. In the end, he did approach her.

“On one occasion, I had a gig, after which I went to the same club with a friend. Ajla was there again. When we headed home there were two ways to get out. It was easier for me to get out at the other exit, but no, I decided to talk to Ajla. Ajla still had the attitude of an untouchable girl. And in that moment, she looked at me, I looked at her. I said to her, ‘Hi, how are you?’ And she was like, ‘Hiii,’ and that was it,’” they recall.

A few days after that fateful “hi,” Ajla and her friend celebrated March 8th in the same club, and Darko was there as well. But this time he did not approach her due to nervousness, until Ajla’s friend intervened.

“My friend knew all about it and told me to say hi to him. I was full of myself, so I didn’t. At one point, when I bent down, a friend waved him over. And we actually always thank her for that,” says Ajla.

They thought why not have a drink together after that. They remember it with laughter now.

“And we had a drink and that was it. At one point I was with a friend, drinking, joking, and I turned around to look for Ajla – she’s nowhere to be found. I tell him to go home, as there’s no point in being there anymore. I am getting ready to leave when Ajla approaches me from the crowd and kisses me. She said, ‘Well, I can’t leave without saying goodbye to you,’ and turned and left. I was so confused,” Darko recalls.

Although they had a more casual relationship at first, they soon realized that they liked each other and wanted to be together. And so almost five years ago their story began.

Across the large crowd they noticed each other. (photo: Mitar Simikić)

“I Fell In Love With Him”

When they met, Darko exactly knew “what” Ajla was.

“Her name said enough about all that. If I had anything against it, I would not have wanted to look at her or meet her.”

“Your ethnicity is not written all over your face. I didn’t know ‘what’ he was. I saw him in the club. I saw a handsome guy. I fell in love with him,” says Ajla. She considers it lucky that she was born after the war, and is grateful to her parents for raising her the way they did.

“My parents stayed here after the war. I grew up with Orthodox friends and it was never said in my house, ‘he is an Orthodox you can’t be with him, or he is a Croat.’ We are all equal, and so that’s how we treat our friends. You can have your religion, but respect others,” she says.

They haven’t been in any awkward situations because of this. At the beginning of their relationship, a bigger problem for Ajla’s family was the age difference between Darko and her. Ajla was 19 at the time.

“My parents were worried that I was too young. And it’s different for your parents when you have someone by your side. I used to tell them many times that it was their fault that we stayed here and that we didn’t leave the country like everyone else. Again, as time went on, they now say that they would not change Darko for anything,” Ajla explains proudly.

Their families celebrate their own religious holidays. Darko and Ajla imagine what it would be like for them in the future.

“Ajla once said, ‘Well, Darko, for God’s sake, when we start our life together, how will we manage all of that?’ I told her that we will celebrate everything,” Darko tells us with a laugh.

”We will celebrate everything, all the time!” (photo: Mitar Simikić)

They Don’t Care About Comments

Until the war, so-called “mixed” marriages were very common. Now the situation is different. According to data from the entity statistical institutes of Republika Srpska and the Federation of BiH, in 2019 more than 18 thousand marriages were conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Of that number, only about 600 were “mixed.”

“It is impossible to comprehend what happened then. It left trauma to older generations of people who went through hell. My father’s best friend was a Muslim. And they, since the war, have never heard from each other again because he moved away. There were no social networks, there was no way for them to make contact, but my father still talks about him as his own brother. It is also insane to me that based on such stories, I should hate someone. People would ask me and Ajla how we can be together. Well, just like any other couple,” explains Darko. He adds that they are not bothered by those who label their relationship.

“It honestly doesn’t matter to me. What I have with him and what I will build with him are important to me,” Ajla tells us.

“I do not care about other people’s comments. I care about our future. Our kid will be whatever he or she wants to be. If he wants to be a Buddhist, be a Buddhist,” Darko says.

Whoever chooses to be a human, will always be a human. Ethnicity does not matter. (photo: Mitar Simikić)

We Are Not Divided By Ethnicity And Religion, But By The Wrong Ideals

“Whoever chooses to be a human, will always be a human. Ethnicity does not matter,” Darko points out, recalling some of the unpleasant situations he’s witnessed in Banja Luka.

A few years ago, he came across a guy from Croatia who was celebrating the New Year in Banja Luka. The guy got lost, and some people gave him wrong directions on purpose. Darko says that he doesn’t understand why people would do that, and that he celebrated the New Year with that guy and his friends in a cafe. They met a few years later at a biker rally and hugged.

He remembers going to Makarska with a friend when they met a girl from Croatia who was playing and singing because she didn’t have money for housing accommodations.

“She wanted to play there to make money and pay for a night. And we wanted to help her so we offered to play for her while she sang, and whatever we earned would be hers. And she earned enough for two days of accommodation. And at that moment, an old grandmother approached us, and she left us some money in the guitar case and there was a comment, ‘Are you all ‘ours,’ children?’ And I said, ‘Yes, we are all ‘ours!’” Darko recalls.

“We are not divided by ethnicity, religion. We are divided by people and wrong ideals and that is what is worst – the ideals of the older generations. Especially the ideals of the generation that lived in ‘brotherhood and unity,’” concludes Darko.

Ajla adds that a large number of young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina are leaving the country. When they move to Germany, for example, all their differences are forgotten.

“My friend, who went to Germany, told me that happiness you feel when you meet someone who speaks your language is indescribable – they don’t call it Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian but ‘ours.’ You only notice that when you go somewhere else,” she concludes.

“I fell in love with him, not his ethnicity,” says Ajla while smiling at Darko. (photo: Mitar Simikić)

The Neighborhood Kids Didn’t Want To Play With Her Because Of Her Name

Ajla tells us they are lucky to have “normal” people around them, who have always been supportive and have not made things awkward around them.

“I have two best friends, one of them is Muslim and we all get along just fine. They were always supportive and have pushed me forward. And when I think about our future, I just remember that I have amazing friends.”

But it wasn’t always like that. Ajla was born in 1996 and remembers that other children used to be rude to her just because of her name.

“I remember when I would go out in front of the building kids would run away from me because of my name and because their parents told them that we were Muslims. These situations were common in elementary school as well. I can tell you that it is much easier for me now. Sometimes I am thankful for such situations in my childhood, since they strengthened me,” says Ajla. She also says that she does not feel sorry for the older generations. “Their time is gone. It is the youth we should be worried about.”

She attended Orthodox religious classes in elementary school. She remembers that it was interesting for her to draw and color in those classes, and that her religious teacher adored her. Prior to that, she went to Mekteb.

Ajla had the attitude of an untouchable girl, but after her first ‘Hiii’ I knew that she is special. (photo: Mitar Simikić)

The Coronavirus Pandemic Strengthened Their Relationship

At the beginning of their relationship, Darko had just left his job as a professor and started working as a manager in a cafe in Banja Luka. Ajla was also working at the time, except for a short period when she did not have a job. They say that back then they had more free time to spend together than now.

Now Darko has fixed working hours, while Ajla sometimes works the morning shift and sometimes the night shift. Occasionally Darko comes to pick her up when her shift finishes, just to see her for at least 15 minutes.

“When we both have same days off, we mostly spend the whole day together, either hiking or on a trip out of town,” says Ajla. Darko adds that the coronavirus epidemic has strengthened their relationship.

“The pandemic actually helped our relationship. I had the opportunity to work from home. I do everything till noon and I have no more obligations. And then we spend the day together.” They were constantly trying to find new places to see, and during the first corona virus lockdown they say they refreshed their relationship.

“It gave us back the relationship we had when we first met. We had handfuls of time for each other again,” says Darko.

The Secret To A Successful Relationship Is Love

Looking at Ajla, Darko proudly points out that he has an honest, fair, hard-working and dedicated person by his side. Ajla says that Darko is a hard-working person too, but a big prankster. “He does not know how to give up. It’s love!” Through laughter they add that sometimes, of course, they annoy each other. As long as they have each other, they have love.

Darko jokingly says the secret of their successful relationship is that Ajla puts up with him. However, he agrees with Ajla that love is the most important thing there is.

“We have often commented that rarely could anyone endure some of things that we have been through. For example, my immaturity at the beginning of the relationship, as I was 19 years old. We have had to adjust to one another,” says Ajla. Darko says that it is important to have will, desire, love, and – Ajla adds – respect. Without that, no relationship can function.

“First comes respect, then friendship, then everything else. If you have no respect for someone and you are not friends, it is difficult to build anything, especially at the beginning of a relationship. If it disappears, then everything is in vain. If someone has no respect for me and who I am…then nothing makes sense,” concludes Ajla.

As long as they have each other, they have love. (photo: Mitar Simikić)

In Sarajevo I Feel At Home

Since Darko plays in several bands, Ajla goes to his concerts regularly. The only exceptions are concerts where accommodation is not provided or if she has to work. Through his music career, Darko met many different people from all over the world.

“We are playing in Sarajevo in the Under Club. We are playing the Peppers and 500 people from Sarajevo are coming to the concert. Of those 500 people, 300 are Muslims, 200 are Croats or foreigners. When I go there, I feel at home. There is no need to label people,” Darko says. “I can’t hide that I’m a Serbian Orthodox,” he adds.

The Government Will Not Initiate Necessary, Positive Changes

They both believe that we live in a time in which the wrong things are valued. Darko is a sociologist by profession, and he finds that you can’t convince anyone of anything, as everyone has their own belief about what is most important. For him, respect is a priority.

“I believe that respect is something you will [learn at] home. And if I manage to raise my kid with that sincerity and humanity, then that will be passed on to my grandkids, that trait will stand out. It will be tough, that’s for sure, but your dignity will help you to understand others more easily, to respect others, regardless of whether you will get anything at all in return,” he says. Ajla adds that it is important to have the will and strength to fight through life.

When it comes to Bosnian society and the country’s value system, the situation does not inspire hope for a brighter future. Interethnic tensions are strong thanks to the rhetoric of those in power, something which has not changed much since the 1990s.

“Everybody wants a piece of cake, only for themselves. It’s always been like that. Unfortunately, everything that was supposed to be better is getting worse for us and I believe it will stay that way. I doubt that much will change, as much as I would like it to,” says Ajla.

“One person who understands you is enough. That is enough for your world. You let go of the need to prove yourself to others. 6 years ago, I wanted to be good enough for everyone, so that everyone knew that I played well, that everyone knew that I drew well, but it doesn’t matter anymore,” concludes Darko.

To love is to not give up. (photo: Mitar Simikić)

Build A Wall Around Your World

They both believe that the most important thing today is to have people with you with whom you share the same value system, and to try not to pay attention to the negative influences that come from outside.

“If you have your ideals, you should build them yourself and with someone you love and who loves you. I don’t think that you should close yourself in, but you have to have your own wall around your world, so it does not break under outside pressure,” explains Darko.

Darko and Ajla are currently waiting for their financial situation to improve so that they can start living together. As a young couple in an unsettled state like Bosnia, they wage existential and systemic battles like most of their peers. Their love and respect for each other can serve as an example to all those who continue persistently trying to separate fellow citizens into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs.’

If you have your ideals, you should build them yourself and with someone you love and who loves you. (photo: Mitar Simikić)

 

Text editing: Balkan Diskurs team; Photography: Mitar Simikić; Photo EditorDr. Paul Lowe

This story is part of the “Love Tales” project implemented by the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) with a group of Balkan Diskurs youth correspondents. The project is implemented with financial support from the VII Academy, the BOLD program of the US Embassy in BiH, and PCRC’s core grants, with the aim of challenging the common narrative that real connections between Bosnia’s different ethnic groups are unattainable by documenting stories of successful interethnic relationships across the country. 

Anja is a Balkan Diskurs trained correspondent from Banja Luka. She holds a degree in Journalism and Communications from Banja Luka’s Faculty of Political Science and is a Masters in Journalism Studies at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Science. Anja writes for the eTrafika portal and Lola Magazine. Her primary interests include reporting on human rights and marginalized groups.

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Winner of the Intercultural Achievement Recognition Award by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs

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