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Bosnian Women Repudiate Death by Giving Birth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Photographs of Halida Bojadzi’s two dead sons hang in her house like shrines.

Their toys, clothes and rooms have gone largely untouched since the springtime afternoon three years ago when a Bosnian Serb mortar blew Fajim, Mirza and their friends apart as they played basketball.

The boys Bojadzi had cradled as infants became scattered body pieces that she picked up, placed in plastic bags and rushed to the hospital, in a crazed, macabre gesture toward the impossible hope that they could be saved.

Now, in a war that has claimed the lives of an estimated 1,500 children in Sarajevo alone, Bojadzi has joined a small but significant number of older women who are replacing the children they lost.

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At age 45, Halida Bojadzi, a soldier in the Bosnian government army, decided to have a baby.

“I had lovely kids,” Bojadzi said in an interview in her home on a Sarajevo hillside near battlefront lines. “I never think for a single moment that they are not with us.”

Despite a 40-month siege that has left Sarajevo a city of physical and spiritual ruin and has depleted understaffed and overworked hospitals of basic equipment, women continue to have babies. In fact, doctors say the number of births has risen fairly steadily each year since 1992, although it remains well below the prewar rate.

The reasons, doctors and the mothers say, include a need to challenge a world full of death with life, as well as a need to reproduce as a means of survival, common in a community that sees itself being eradicated.

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Although statistics are somewhat fuzzy, about 3% of the roughly 2,000 births in Sarajevo last year were to mothers in their 40s, said Dr. Jadranka Didzarevic, a 20-year veteran of obstetrical medicine at Sarajevo’s Kosevo Hospital. Several of those women were older than 45; one was 52.

“The reason I hear the most is that they lost a child,” the doctor said. “They think a new baby will help them stabilize their mental state. I don’t know if that’s healthy, but every person is an individual. The woman thinks it is a great reason. A baby is something good, new and innocent--a new occupation for the mind, like therapy.”

For Bojadzi, the decision to have a child was a difficult one, primarily for the effect she feared it might have on her husband, Abdulah. Unlike many other women, Bojadzi did not plan her pregnancy, but she chose to go ahead with it when she learned of her condition.

When her two boys were killed, her periods stopped--from the shock, evidently, but she thought it was menopause. Then one day late last year, returning to Sarajevo over the treacherous Mt. Igman road, she began to feel weak under the weight of her army-issue knapsack. Eventually, she saw a doctor.

“They didn’t have the strength to tell me,” Bojadzi said. “They were afraid because they thought I might not like being pregnant. I was happy, but it was difficult to tell my husband.

“When I told him, he became depressed, psychologically weak. He just couldn’t come to terms with the fact he was going to be a father again, that someone was going to call him Daddy again.”

Bojadzi joined the army at its inception, when Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from the Serb-led Yugoslav federation in 1992, and she has been decorated with military awards. She was a front-line soldier until she was wounded three times in 1993. Since then, she has served as an army social worker, helping soldiers collect their pensions.

She continued making the rounds among front-line troops almost until the eighth month of her pregnancy and then stopped because her feet became so swollen she couldn’t fit into her military boots.

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The killing of her sons seems to have fueled her militancy. Born into a comfortable family with property, Bojadzi worked as a department-store cashier until the war. Today she vows never to leave the army, even after the birth of her baby.

She is convinced that the shell that killed her children was fired by Serbs who had been neighbors--and that they were targeting her Muslim family.

First interviewed in her eighth month of pregnancy, Bojadzi wore green maternity overalls and a camouflage jacket. She served her guests a kind of gelatin or jam made from rose petals, a highly nutritious delicacy that is especially popular this summer in Sarajevo, with other kinds of food so scarce.

She said she still has trouble dealing with the death of her two children--"the evil that happened to me"--and admits to a case of jitters when thinking of the new baby. Scarcely a month before the baby was due, she had not bought clothes or other items for it, a reflection perhaps of her inner conflict.

Having a baby in Sarajevo is no easy matter, and it is even more complicated for older women, said Didzarevic, the obstetrician. Before the war, women went to a modern, six-story maternity hospital with 400 private rooms, anesthesiologist teams and the latest screening equipment.

Today, that hospital is a shelled hulk destroyed by the Serbs and used by the Bosnian army as a firing position. Pregnant women are crowded into a smaller, older ward of the main hospital; they give birth in the cellar, the place safest from regular shelling.

Little anesthesia is available, and there are only 10 incubators. Sarajevo’s food shortages have left many mothers malnourished and anemic, and birth weights, as a result, are often low. Infant formula is scarce.

Bojadzi went into labor prematurely and gave birth in July to a four-pound boy. The delivery was extremely complicated because of Bojadzi’s age and a high-blood-pressure condition, and she almost died.

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Recovering later at a relative’s home, Bojadzi cradled her tiny new child, whom she named Muhammed.

“He felt like a rocket, but he was only a little mortar,” she laughed, recounting her difficult delivery. Her fears about her husband’s trouble accepting the new child, she said, proved unfounded, and she expressed a philosophic confidence that somehow, even amid war, her child will have a future.


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