The parents of nine-month-old Faruk Salaka have become the first to register their son’s nationality as ‘Bosnian’, defeating a system that insists on strict ethnic definitions.
Newborn Faruk Salaka from Sarajevo was blissfully ignorant of the public debate he triggered when his parents won their victory against Bosnia’s ethnically-divided system.
As the first-ever child to be registered as Bosnian, he set a legal precedent which now allows other parents and their newborn children to follow suit.
The news didn’t only inspire media reports in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but all over the world – generally as a ‘believe it or not’ story.
“First Bosnian born 22 years after independence,” said one globally-syndicated article by the French news agency AFP.
When Faruk was born in April 2014, his parents Kemal and Elvira Salaka wanted him to be registered as a Bosnian. But in a country whose constitution recognises only three constitutive ethnic groups, newborn children can only be registered as Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs or ‘Other’.
Faruk’s father, 39-year-old Kemal Salaka, told BIRN that he mounted a legal challenge because he was a patriot.
He said that he volunteered for the Bosnian Army at the age of 16 when the war started in the early 1990s for the same reason – to prevent the country from being ethnically divided.
“I defended Bosnia and Herzegovina from ethnic exclusivity when Serbs were doing that. Now when Bosniaks are doing the same, I have to fight it,” he said.
“Is it possible that we who were born in Bosnia do not have anything in common?” he asked.
The Salakas have been married for more than ten years and their two older children, son Tarik, now nine, and daughter Lamija, aged six, do not have any registered nationality because this only became obligatory in 2012.
After Faruk was born last year, the Salakas were obliged, like all other parents, to go to the municipality office and register his birth.
During the process, parents are asked whether they want to declare their child’s nationality or not.
Kemal Salaka recalled that when he said yes, and wrote down ‘Bosnian’, he was told that it was not acceptable and that the rules demanded that he must put Bosniak, Croat, Serb or ‘Other’ – the category usually used by ethnic minorities or those who reject being labelled by ethnicity.
But the Salakas persisted, and sought help from an attorney who specialised in constitutional law.
Eventually, at the end of January this year, Sarajevo’s Center municipality decided that there were no legal restrictions preventing anyone from being registered as a Bosnian.
The municipality said that in the weeks after this ruling, there had already been five more requests from parents for their children to be registered as Bosnians.
The story has highlighted how, 22 years after Bosnia gained international recognition as an independent state, many people in the country are still sensitive or confused about national, ethnic and religious identities.
Kemal Salaka said that over the past few months, he has received dozens of supportive emails – but there have also been many critical reactions.
“I don’t see Bosnians as a nation, but as a geographic description,” said one reader who commented on the story on Radio Free Europe’s website.
After his nine-month-old-son was registered as Bosnian, Salaka filed a demand for his own nationality to be officially changed, and now plans to submit applications for his wife and two other children.
He insisted that he was right to fight a system that is based on ethnic divisions.
“They [the authorities] agreed to divide our country, and they think that we are all fools and we don’t see that,” he said.