Alma – The Believer

Alma – The Believer
story by Gorana Sekulic, photos and video by Elodie Armand and Maximillian Ulrich

Religion along with nationality is a prerequisite in Bosnia Herzegovina. You are either Orthodox and a Serb, Roman Catholic and a Croat or Muslim and a Bosniak. But what if you belong to the category labeled as “the rest”? There are not more than 300 of Hare Krishna in whole of Bosnia Herzegovina. Alma Bartula is one of them.

As she welcomes you at the door of a smallish cream-colored house in hills of Sarajevo, you immediately notice something is different about her. In front of you stands a woman dressed in sari. Intense blue color, red ornaments, delicate rich embroidery, you can tell this sari is Indian. But what about the women wearing it? Then she speaks in fluent Bosnian and you are puzzled once again.

If we follow that logic the pope is also Croat

The three dominant religions here in Bosnia, Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, were not enough for me. To my question Who am I, their answer was too narrow and single-minded. Alma Bartula starts her story. She joined Hare Krishna movement shortly after the war in Bosnia Herzegovina, when she was 19. Back then she couldn’t grasp all the horror around her. She was also shocked that after years of unity as Yugoslavs they were now categorized as Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks. “How am I going to take sides when I have friends from all over, I even didn’t know what my friends were in terms of their nationality, they were just a good friend, a great friend, an honest friend, that was my definition of friend and all of the sudden I have to think if somebody is a Serb or a Croat or a Muslim, I cannot think like that.”

As she explains Hare Krishna offered her comfort and an explanation: “We are spiritual beings, our bodily identity is unimportant.” Questions of nationality also amuse her. “If I have to sign some paper, I put Bosnian, because I was born in Bosnia Herzegovina. For me it is ridiculous to say that someone is a Croat because he is a Roman Catholic, if we follow that logic the pope is also Croat and Vladimir Putin is a Serb.”

Does she face discrimination?

She interrupts the story just to offer delicious vegetarian cake. Hare Krishna has strict rules: believer should not smoke, nor drink or take drugs and are only allowed to eat vegetarian food. Vegetarian in Bosnia, you think to yourself, must be difficult.” If I could do it in the nineties in the middle of the war, sure as anything everybody can do it now in 2012, when even normal restaurants serve vegetarian meals.” Alma is convinced.

Is this the only challenge she faces, being such unusual minority in Bosnia Herzegovina? The wife and mother of two doesn’t see it this way. “You don’t have to be a Hare Krishna to be challenged, you can listen to classical music to be challenged, because nowadays everybody listens to hip hop.” Married life and teenage kids are her top priority. “Even if you are a minority, when you have a strong family at home who loves you, who gives you attention,  time and good advice, then you will go through anything in life. That is why family is so important.”

We have been lucky so far

 When she converted to Hare Krishna, she had this support from her family. Father accepted it; and mother and the brother became Hare Krishna as well. Raising her children as Hare Krishna has not been a problem so far. “We have been lucky so far, there were no major negative comments, because we were always so open about it and they were what they were from day one in school. So, everybody knows that my children are Hare Krishna and vegetarians and they have particular hairstyle that Hare Krishna men wear and we have explained the meaning of it. My children are accepted and regarded as not different from the rest.”

Between her past and her present stands a firm bond. Alma remains that curious girl from the 90s who embraced long hours at the library reading instead of going out and parting endlessly. It seems her present self matured and grew into a person who is accepting and tolerant. And it is this part of her that shines through her in each gesture, word and act. Alma’s way of coping with things is Hare Krishna way.

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