Growing up without a father: A Bosnian Story

Nikola Hajdin

During the war in Bosnia, both children and adolescents experienced: ‘wounding of one’s father’, ‘father loss because of killing or missing and loss of immediate or extended family member(s)’, ‘unwillingly leaving home’, ‘separation from family and friends’, ‘forced expulsion from home’, ‘living in collective refugee settlements’, ‘refugee problems and life in a small room in foreign countries’.

Moreover, children experienced: ‘severe fear’, ‘shelling and firing very close to children and firing their houses, devastation and ruins’, ‘killing of close relatives and other people’, ‘mother’s crying and severe sadness’ as described in a 2011 study entitled “Psychological consequences of war-traumatized children and adolescents in Bosnia and Herzegovina” by Hasanović.

There are many more similar instances, each of them certainly deserving sufficient attention. However, what strikes me the most is the fact that after more than 20 years there has not been even one serious discussion about the issues of the children who have lost their fathers during the war. Apart from futile attempts for legal remedies by national legislation, this group has been constantly neglected by the society in which they live.

A life without a dad

Children who lost their father suffered different trauma than other children who were also affected by war. The majority of them did not fully recover even almost 20 years after. Their problems are spanning from the lack of self-esteem to the high unemployment rate within this group.

In 2002, Hasanović conducted a study on children traumatized during the war. The findings showed the presence of war trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The study concluded that children who had lost their father and lived with the surviving parent showed a higher prevalence of PTSD than other children who lived in the orphanages or with both parents during the war. After being in exile, when war came to its end, some of the displaced people returned to their homes. Children who returned and had lost their father were considerably more often sad and depressed. Losing a parent increased their trauma to a higher degree. They had sleeping disturbances more often than the children without such loss. Even the children who lost both of their parents coped better with problems of sleeping disturbance and digestion problems.

A mother’s and father’s love in a patriarchal society

One of the reasons for having a very high degree of PTSD symptoms is the fact that those children lived in ‘vulnerable families’. Those are the families that were grieving the loss of a family member on a daily basis for a long period of time. An interesting part of study relates to depression. Symptoms of depression were similar with children who did not lose their fathers and those who did but lived with their mothers. A mother is capable to some extent to supplant the role of a male character and, as this study proves, can alleviate the sadness of a child caused by the war.

Notwithstanding the importance of the mother’s role in one’s childhood, growing up without a father can be not only traumatic, but it can also affect the social aspect of a child’s life. Overall, both mother’s and father’s love equally affects their children’s behavior and emotional stability. However, in patriarchal societies — as in the case of Bosnia — ‘the withdrawal of a father’s love seems to play a bigger role in kids’ problems with personality and psychological adjustment, delinquency, and substance abuse,’ says study co-author Ronald P. Rohner, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Parental Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Growing up without a father in Bosnia can mark conspicuously one’s life and leave him with a lack of social skills and proper mental health.

This begs the question of where do the children who lost their father stand now in society, 20 years after the armistice?

Bosnian broken dreams

The vast majority of them are unemployed; lack of social skills remarkably influenced their unemployed status. Moreover, since a high percentage of corruption is mired in every post-communist country where Bosnia, unfortunately, is not an exception, it is almost impossible to find a job if you do not have relatives that are in a position to provide you with required connections. How can a person in a patriarchal society have such connections and maintain a job, if he or she does not have a father? Who is going to advocate for him or her in a system where everyone is preoccupied with its own problems?

In a way, and I do believe that most of the children whose father died would agree on this with me, one could argue that they are discriminated as a group! No wonder that they still struggle with the PTSD and the feeling of depression because they cannot fit into society. Many of them are drug addicts and alcoholics. There is a grant of approximately 100 euros from the government which they receive every month. But, can money compensate their loss and far-reaching consequences on their personalities?

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