matter of chance
When things go right in spite of it all
Almost three years have passed since Elma Babalija was born
prematurely in March 1992 and placed in an incubator in Foca
hospital in south-eastern Bosnia with only a slim chance of
survival. Elma’s mother was discharged and returned
to her home in a village outside Foca.
As the atmosphere throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina grew increasingly
tense towards the end of that month, roadblocks sprang up
seemingly overnight. One of them made it impossible for Elma’s
mother, Mevla, to reach the hospital to visit her daughter.
The men guarding the roadblocks were Mevla’s neighbours.
It was the first time that she had seen them in uniform. “We
used to work together,” says Mevla. “We were friends
a month before, and then they started to hate us.
“I was begging, pleading, ‘Please let me through,
I only want to fetch my baby girl’,” she recalls
as tears run slowly down her face. But the neighbours-turned-soldiers
told her: “Save the children you have and get out while
At first Mevla refused to leave. But when soldiers took her
husband, Habib, from their home, she decided to abandon the
village — and Elma. “I never enquired about my
baby after being told that all the patients at the hospital
had been killed. I was convinced she was dead.” After
13 months in collective shelters in Trnovo and Konjic, Mevla
finally reached relative safety in the central Bosnian town
It is still a mystery how Elma survived before finally arriving
at Igalo orphanage in Podgorica, Montenegro, in September
1993. There the ICRC tracing team registered the unaccompanied
child and her name was entered into the ICRC’s database.
Mevla would regularly visit the ICRC tracing office in Zenica
for news of her husband, never thinking to mention her lost
baby. It was purely by chance that on one of these occasions
a tracing officer noticed that Elma was registered under the
same family name as Mevla and asked if they were related.
The day they were to be reunited last February, Mevla was
excited but anxious. “It will be difficult,” she
says, looking repeatedly at the photo of Elma sent to her
by the staff of the Igalo orphanage. “I wonder if she’ll
Two days later, Elma plays with her sister in the family’s
two-room apartment. There’s an occasional smile amidst
the more frequent screams of protest, “nichta, nichta”
(I don’t want , I don’t want), especially when
her mother tries to cuddle her.
Although she has still not found her husband, Mevla’s
hope is rejuvenated. “Finally, I feel that my heart
has fallen into the right place,” she says. “If
God could give me back my daughter, another miracle might