How a Bosnian grandma’s lawsuit became a symbol of resilience and hope
Nana Fata’s small victory is a source of inspiration and a symbol of justice for Bosnians in a period of rising genocide denialism in the region and beyond.
On Saturday, June 5, 2021, a church was razed to the ground in the village of Konjevic Polje in eastern Bosnia. Sound terrible? It’s not. It’s quite the opposite.
Unlike the culturcide carried out in Bosnia in the 1990s, when more than six hundred mosques were demolished, including the historic 1579 Ferhat Pasha Mosque in the city of Banja Luka, this church was not built as a genuine place of worship. Rather, it was built shortly after the war in 1996, in eastern Bosnia on the front yard of a genocide survivor, Fata Orlovic.
Orlovic, 78, known as Nana Fata (Grandma Fata), lost her husband and more than twenty family members in the genocide.
In Bosnia, there are some jokes with characters that have Bosniak names like Mujo, Suljo and Fata who are consistently silly, stupid, vain, jealous and greedy. But this Fata is no joke.
At the turn of the century, having returned to her village to find a big church on her property, she filed a lawsuit.
For two decades, countless forces, from top politicians to common crooks, tried to make her into a joke. They consistently cracked down on her, because she wanted this genocidal object to be removed.
No threats could sway her and no amount of money could buy her.
Speaking with the famous war reporter Senad Hadzifejzovic, Nana Fata relates the event when Bosniak politician Ramiz Salkic — who at the time was vice president of the so-called Republika Srpska enclave with the infamous President Milorad Dodik — visited her and offered to sell the land and split the money with him.
Grandma Fata describes how she grabbed her coffee pot, the traditional dzezva, slammed it on the table — wishing she had hit him instead, as she says — and told him to “piss off”.
Yes, Grandma Fata minces no words. She always strikes to the heart of the matter.
She cut short every attempt to make this a case of interreligious hatred, stating famously that if the then Reis-ul Ulema, the head of the Bosnian Muslim institution Rijaset, built a mosque there, she would have found it easier to fight for its removal.
It is, of course, interesting that there was one illegally built mosque in Bradina in 1994, which was removed in 2002 by the decision of Rijaset without any need for litigation.
In contrast, it took no less than the European Court of Human Rights to finish the process of the illegal church in October 2019. It ruled that authorities must remove the church and pay 31,000 euros ($37,000) in damages to the Orlovic family.
Balkan social media has exploded with a sense of hope. Though it is a small and hard-won victory over powerful ideological forces and the consequences of war, people overwhelmingly find this symbolic justice quite inspiring, especially given that so many war criminals are still free and working in places where they committed war crimes.
Even the ones who have been captured and convicted after years in courts often received sentences that feel like sheer mockery.
Nationalists on social media have, of course, spread lies, ignoring the fact that the church is being relocated by the Serb authorities, and has received the blessing of the current Mitropolit, the head of the Serb Orthodox Church.
Fata’s struggle has become a symbol of the common man’s struggle against the continued genocide, what Gregory H. Stanton called the later stages of genocide, which include distortions of history, genocide denial, continued culturcide and oppression of minorities.
The church that was built by the Serb authorities was a blatant misuse of religious symbols and a continued aggression in a place where bones from mass graves are still being identified and buried every July.
After more than two decades of staunch resistance, this old woman, who only wished to live long enough to finish her project and honour her family, lived to see the removal of the object that came to represent a murderous regime.
And yet, she expresses mixed feelings about it all.
She is sad that the regime made a farce of religious symbols and is happy to finally “sit down and have a cup of coffee in my yard without being chased out.”
“I have never done anything wrong to them.”