Grim tale of slain Romeo and Juliet
During the 1,335-day siege of Sarajevo, Serb snipers killed many people trying to cross the Vrbana Bridge. Among the victims were Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic. Their story, one among a great many personal tragedies in Bosnia, was particularly poignant, writes Peter Murtagh
VRBANA BRIDGE in Sarajevo today is a nothing sort of place. It's one of several crossings over the city's Miljacka river and really has no architectural or engineering merits worth mentioning. A thing of beauty it is not.
The bridge leads from the city proper to the more suburban area on the far side of the river. Over there is the Kosevo Stadium and the vast cemetery containing the remains of many of the 12,000 to 15,000 people who died during the city's 1,335-day siege in the 1992 to 1995 war.
Then, Serb snipers installed in the Trebevic hills overlooking the city had a perfect view of the Vrbana Bridge and picked people off at will if they tried to cross.
There's a memorial mounted on the handrail on one side of the bridge to two people, Suada Dilberovic and Olga Sucic, who died there in 1992.
Suada was the first person killed in the siege. A medical student, she and Olga took part in a multiethnic peace rally on April 5th, 1992. Serbian snipers inside the nearby Holiday Inn hotel opened fire and they died.
But there's no memorial to two other people who also died there, two people whose story in a whole heap of personal tragedies in Bosnia was particularly poignant. They were Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic and they became known to some as the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo.
They were both aged 25 when they died and had been going out since they were 16, sweethearts since school when they met at a New Year's Eve party. What seemed unusual to the outside world, but was not, and is not so unusual in Sarajevo, is that Admira came from a Muslim background, while Bosko's family was Serbian orthodox Christian.
Their families approved of their relationship. Nine months before their deaths, they moved in together. As Bosko's mother, Rada Brkic, said later: "I raised them without thinking about religion or nationality. I never said, 'You are Serbs, they are Muslims or Croats.' I saw her only as the girlfriend of my son, who loved her, and who I loved, too. I didn't regard her as a Muslim, as different."
As a report of their deaths noted, "In a country mad for war, Bosko and Admira were crazy for each other."
Admira's best friend at school, Tanja Bogdanovic, knew them both well. "The two of them were very, very different. I loved Admira because she was so different from me. She was very unusual. She was interested in things that were a little bit strange for a girl. She loved to drive motorcycles and she knew how to fix cars very well. She was a little bit of a wild character . . .
"Bosko was different. He was quieter and cooler. He had a smile all the time. He liked to play jokes on people, but in a nice way. He had a real charm that you don't see in people very often."
But life during the siege was horrific. People couldn't walk the streets freely because of the snipers; mortars were dropped onto shopping areas and into markets; artillery shells slammed into apartment blocks.
Through contacts with the Serbian military and the city's defenders, Bosko and Admira negotiated, as they thought, safe passage to a better life elsewhere. The deal was that at 5pm on May 19th, 1993, they would walk across the Vrbana bridge and no one would stop them. They would be safe. But as they crossed, a sniper's shot rang out, the bullet apparently hitting the ground in front of them. The next ones did not miss: Bosko died instantly, Admira fell, fatally wounded.
"They were shot at the same time, but he fell instantly and she was still alive," according to Dino Kapin, commander of a Croatian unit allied with Bosnian Army forces, quoted in the first report of what happened. "She crawled over and hugged him and they died like that, in each other's arms."
That report was written by Kurt Schork, a Reuters correspondent based in the city. He heard of the incident from an American photographer, Mark H Milstein.
"I was not conscious at the time of the importance of the photograph," Milstein told me. "Not even half an hour before I took it, seven children playing in a public park were injured by a Serb-fired mortar . . . I went to the hospital with a friend from the Washington Times and a gentleman from Japanese TV. The doctors wouldn't let us in… I went out again, searching for a photo."
He described a fire fight between Sarajevo defenders and attackers, presumed to be Serbs. He was in a building with other journalists and was taking photos. One of the others then said 'Hey, look at that' pointing to the bridge where two bodies lay.
"I took two frames and then some sort of tank shell fired from the Serbian side hit a building and the whole place shook like hell."
Back in the Reuters office, Kurt Schork's translator saw the photo and told him about it. Schork laboured for several days before writing his report. Bosko and Admira's bodies were still on the bridge, unclaimed.
Schork's report and Milstein's photo illustrated something particularly awful about the war and both were published all over the world. The Romeo and Juliet tag was applied almost everywhere. Later, a Canadian film maker, John Zaritsky, made a powerful documentary, Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo, for American TV. The script was subsequently used by an education authority in Scotland as a tool to teach children the consequences of ethnic hatred.
Bosko and Admira's bodies were eventually removed and they were buried in a Serb cemetery outside Sarajevo. In 1995, they were reinterred side-by-side in Sarajevo's huge Lion Cemetery where they lie today, in a well-kept grave surrounded by marigolds.
Admira's family find the legacy has its own burden. I had hoped to meet them in Sarajevo but, sadly though understandably, another daughter, Amela, declined on their behalf.
"I am afraid that I can not help you," she wrote to me in an e-mail. "My parents . . . are 64 and 60 years old, and I want to protect them. It is very hard for them to talk about Admira and Bosko, again and again.
"That is our tragedy and each time when we talk about it, it is like we going through it again. Believe me, it is very hard."
Instead, I visit the bridge where they died and their grave. And at the grave, I find a surprise, something I had not noticed in my research of their story. Kurt Schork died (along with a colleague) in an ambush in Sierra Leone in May 2000, shot dead by a young soldier. Half of Schork's ashes were buried next to his mother's grave in Washington DC. The other half lie in a grave at the feet of Bosko and Admira, his full name, Kurt Erich Schork, inscribed on a simple, low headstone.
It seems appropriate that the reporter whose diligence meant the story of Bosko and Admira's lives did not vanish with them, as did the stories of so many other lives, should also be so close to them in death.
Read Peter Murtagh's blog as he travels through the Balkans on a motorbike at irishtimes.com/blogs