An extract from ‘Missing Lives’

Mila Jankovic

Sarajevo is synonymous with survival. The Bosnian city resisted the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. Over three years as many as 500 shells a day were fired on it from Bosnian Serb positions on the steep, surrounding hills. Every spare plot of land was used for growing potatoes or burying the dead. The football stadium’s training field became a cemetery. Yet its people were determined to survive, staging a spontaneous Woodstock rock concert in a shattered apartment building, returning to the Markale marketplace the day after a mortar shell killed 68 morning shoppers, publishing the newspaper Osloboenje – Liberation – throughout the war, even as the building was being destroyed floor by floor by tank fire.

Within its barricades some Bosnian Serbs fought alongside the Bosniaks, determined that tolerant, cosmopolitan Sarajevo – which had boasted more mixed marriages than anywhere else in the former Yugoslavia – would not be lost to nationalistic bigots.

Today shell holes still mark the city’s fabric and long shadows are cast on the souls of the survivors. Among its many remarkable residents dwells a pretty, soft-skinned teenager with a raw determination to live, no matter what the circumstances.

‘A biological father is not necessarily your real father,’ stated Mila Jankovic, folding her arms around herself as if in an embrace. ‘Your real father is the one who raises you.’ Mila was born Senida Becirovic, a Bosniak. She was 15 months old when her village of Caparde was attacked by local Serb paramilitaries. At the time her father Muhamed was away from home in Tuzla. Her mother – and possibly her older sister Sanda – were murdered by four soldiers, who then set the family home alight. One of the killers heard Mila’s cries. He took pity on the child and rescued her from the flames, giving her to his own mother.

As the father of the poor, Bosniak orphan could not be found, an article appeared in Politika, one of the main Belgrade newspapers, asking for help. An elderly, childless couple Zivka and Zivan Jankovic adopted the child, giving her the name Mila. She grew up happily in Belgrade, in the former enemy’s capital, with a Serbian name, becoming a Christian, not knowing if any of her blood relatives had survived the war. ‘The Jankovics were so good to me that they were like real parents,’ said Mila, pushing back her long, bleach blonde hair, a wide, gentle smile on her lips. She wore a white hooded sweater and had painted her nails in softest pink. ‘But I knew that I was adopted so I called them grandmother and grandfather.’

In time the Jankovics grew too old to look after Mila and social services took her into care. At the age of 14 she found herself at the sos Village for orphans at Novi Sad in Serbia. Out of the blue she was notified that she might have living relatives. She gave a blood sample and two weeks later met her father Muhamed. ‘It was so sudden,’ said Mila, gripping herself tighter, recalling the shock of reunion after more than 15 years’ separation. ‘My father came to the sos Village, along with his fifth or sixth wife. She was a nice German lady and they live together in Düsseldorf. They have another daughter themselves. I recognised something in his face, something familiar, but right away I didn’t feel attached to him.’Mila had been found by her family not because her father had given blood, but because her aunt – along with her mother’s five surviving siblings – had opened a tracing request.

‘If I was a parent, and I lost my daughter, I would do everything I could to find her. Why hadn’t he come looking for me?’ demanded Mila, unable to understand why she had been abandoned, forever scarred like her father by the cruelty of war. ‘He took me back to the old house where my mother had been killed,’ she recalled. ‘He had rebuilt it for his retirement but I felt unhappy there. I couldn’t stay. He refused to talk about my mother. He wouldn’t even admit that she was dead. He tried to take me to Germany. I wouldn’t go to him.’

Instead Mila moved to Sarajevo to live with her aunt and uncle, sharing her cousins’ room. Here for the first time in her life she saw a photograph of her mother, standing alone, laughing at the camera.

‘That was so different. The sight of it moved me heart and soul.’ Mila’s mobile sprang to life, its ring tone playing a sugary ditty ‘My sweetheart, my honey bunch, you are so dear’. She answered it, making plans for a weekend trip to the country. When she finished she said with shocking casualness, ‘I’ve found the soldier who saved me, and who probably killed my mother. He’s in prison for war crimes here in Sarajevo. I’ve asked for permission to see him.’

Many people still live in fear in the western Balkans. To find the soldier Mila had made calls, visited Serbian neighbours in Caparde, even spoken to the man’s mother, but no one would help her. All were fearful of retaliation from their own side. So Mila turned to the internet and, after long hours of searching, located him. ‘I simply want to ask him for the truth,’ she said, rocking herself from side to side. ‘I always think about that day. I don’t remember it of course but I can’t stop myself from imagining it. I need to find out what really happened. I also have to ask if he saved my sister as well. I believe there’s one certainty in life, that truth prevails. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or even in one hundred years, but one day the truth will be known.’

In a month Mila will turn eighteen. She’s planning a big birthday party with dancing – she is crazy about the samba – but she can’t decide whether to hold it in Sarajevo or Belgrade. ‘It doesn’t matter to me if you are Serb or Bosniak. What matters is that we respect each other. I was born into a Muslim household. In Belgrade I went to church and became Orthodox. Now I am with my Muslim family again. All I ask is not to be called Senida for it reminds me of the war.’

Her allegiance is less complicated when she watches handball matches on television with her cousins; Mila supports the Serbian team while the boys cheer on Bosnia. ‘I want to go to university, to find a job and to have my own apartment so as not to be dependant on anyone.’ Mila laughed again, flashing a wide smile. ‘You know, since my childhood I’ve dreamt of being a journalist. It’s the subject I’ve always planned to study. Then last month I found out that my mother was a journalist before she married my father, and left Sarajevo to live in his closed, little village.’