Angelina Jolie's directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, gets its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival this weekend. Her film gives viewers an insight into what life was like in Bosnia during the 1990s war. But 20 years on, have things changed?
Jolie's film fictionalises a wartime love story of a Bosnian couple from different religions. An historical drama it may be but the reality is that 20 years after Bosnia's brutal ethnic conflict, many families continue to break down because of inter religious relationships. Before the war such relationships were less of an issue but now intolerance is common.
Recently I met a mother called Hanna. Her baby, Emma, is living in an institution. This isn't what Hanna wants for Emma but when her daughter was just a few months old she suffered a stroke so severe that for a while she forgot she even had a baby. Emma was put in an institution because neither her father nor her maternal grandparents wanted to acknowledge her existence. The reason? Emma's father is Bosniak (Muslim) and her mother is a Serb.
When Hanna began her relationship with Emma's Dad, she knew she would not have the support of her family but she believed their love was strong enough to last. This was before Emma came along. Ahmed was in his late fifties, and did not want to become a father again.
As pregnancy progressed, he became distant and hostile towards Hanna. When she went into labour he told her to drop dead and did not visit her in hospital or come to pick her up. Hanna walked five kilometres from the hospital to her home with her new born baby in her arms. Her mother visited soon after the birth and told Hanna the baby should be stepped on and squashed or left on a doorstep. Hanna later discovered that Ahmed and her parents were plotting to get Emma into an institution.
Institutions are terrible places to grow up in. Without a loving family environment or adult role models, children do not develop intellectually or emotionally. They will leave the institution as young adults with limited life or social skills and many suffer from a lack of cultural and personal identity. For babies and children under the age of three, even a short amount of time in an institution causes lasting psychological damage. Studies show that every three months a child under three spends in an institution stunts their growth by a month. If a baby living in an institution is placed in a loving family environment before they are six months old they are more likely to catch up on their development but after six months they may never fully recover.
It is easy to wonder how Emma could be forced into an institution when both her parents are alive, but in fact 98% of children in institutions in Eastern Europe have at least one living parent. They are not orphans. They end up in institutions mostly because of poverty, family breakdown, disability and ethnic discrimination. In Bosnia the legacy of the war has aggravated the situation. There were six institutions before the war, today there are 15.
After her stroke Hanna was not found for nearly two days, by which time she and Emma were close to death. Hanna underwent surgery and endured months of hospital treatment, during which time her own mother tried to convince her that her baby had died. In fact without a willing father or grandparents to look after her the hospital had no choice but to place Emma in an institution.
Fortunately the hospital contacted Hope and Homes for Children. We specialise in placing vulnerable and abandoned children into loving family-environments, preventing children entering institutions and reforming national childcare systems. Because of our support, Hanna can now visit Emma five times a week and occasionally take her home for a night. After her next medical check-ups she is hopeful that Emma will be able to come home forever.
Jolie's film has been critically acclaimed and those in Bosnia who have seen the film say the story has been handled sensitively. But it's important to remember that for many families, the war was the start of problems that today are still being felt, and often most severely by children.