Sarajevo's 'Romeo and Juliet'
03:39 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Bosnia marks 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the war fought largely on ethnic grounds

Message of peace from parents of Sarajevo's 'Romeo and Juliet'

'Romeo and Juliet' were a Serb man and Muslim woman who died in each other's arms trying to escape Sarajevo

Both sets of parents say it is time for those still harboring hate to start living without prejudice

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina CNN  — 

Two families scarred by the Bosnian war – and joined by the memories of a couple who dared to love across the ethnic divide – have the same message of peace as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the conflict.

In Sarajevo, Zijah and Nermina Ismic live in a plush apartment scattered with photos and a huge painting of their daughter Admira.

Half-a-day’s drive away in a Serbian village, Radmila Birkic lives in a comfortable home where the centerpiece is a TV stand converted into a photo frame of her smiling son, Bosko Brkic with Admira.

Bosko was Serbian, Admira was Muslim. They were childhood sweethearts before the war ripped Bosnia apart.

Together, they tried to escape the besieged city of Sarajevo but were shot as they tried to cross the Vrbanja Bridge, and died in each other’s arms.

As their bodies lay together for eight days – with no one able to safely retrieve them – they became known as the “Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo.”

Today they are in Sarajevo’s Lion cemetery still lying together, a symbol that defies the hatred of the ethnically charged war, and their parents have remained close friends.

See these amazing photos from the war

Both sets of parents said they blame the politicians, not the soldiers, for their loss, and both recognize ethnic resentment can simmer beneath Bosnian society

But they also said the time has come for those still harboring hate to start living without prejudice.

In Djunis, a small village 14 kilometers from Krusevac in Serbia, Radmila, a widow since before the war, lives with her son, Bane. She is recovering from a stroke and walks with a crutch.

Despite the passing of 20 years she remembers the deaths as if they were yesterday and photos of Bosko and Admira dominate her home.

The photos show the couple as teens learning to love and as adults in each other’s arms.

They had been together for nine years when they were killed on May 18, 1993, both age 25.

In Sarajevo, retired mechanic Zijah and Nermina live with their daughter Amela in a new apartment block – part of the construction program that has disguised many of the landmarks of the three-year siege.

Just like Radmila, the home has photos of their children throughout.

When they talk about their loss they are at pains to remember all 11,541 killed during the siege.

As Sarajevo rebuilds it is also trying to move on from the war. A plaque was erected on Vrbanja Bridge to commemorate victims of the war but amid the bustle most locals just walk past it.

The bullet-pocked walls are being pulled down. They have been replaced by new apartment buildings, American fast food shops and a 20-story tower.

Many people in the city now were born after the war and they are keen to look forward. For many that also means not talking about the war.

If they learn the lessons from their city’s Romeo and Juliet the future could be bright.