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Wartime Balkan Fairy Tale: There's Gold in These Gills

June 07, 1998| From Associated Press

JEZERO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Every Bosnian child knows the story of a poor woman who caught a golden fish, released it and in return gained wealth and happiness. It's a Balkan fairy tale--but it became reality for one poor family.

"What happened here is beyond good luck, it really is a fable," said Admir Malkoc, reflecting on how his fleeing relatives freed two goldfish and were repaid a hundredfold.

The 150 Muslim families in Jezero, a northwestern village surrounding a lake, lived a quiet life before the Bosnian war--except for holidays, when the men returned from jobs in Western Europe loaded with presents.

In 1990, Smajo Malkoc came back from Austria with an unusual gift for his teenage sons, Dzevad and Catib: two goldfish in an aquarium.

Two years later, war arrived. As Bosnian Serb forces advanced on Jezero, the women and children fled and the men resisted.

Malkoc was killed. When his wife, Fehima, sneaked back into the destroyed village to bury her husband and take what remained of their belongings, she spotted the fish in the aquarium.

She put them in the lake. "This way they might be more fortunate than us," she recalls thinking.

In 1995, Fehima Malkoc returned with her sons to Jezero to find ruins, nothing left from the idyllic past except memories.

Eyes misting over, she turned toward the lake and glimpsed something strange. She came closer--and caught her breath.

"The whole lake was shining from the myriad golden fish in it," she said.

Fehima Malkoc and her sons started feeding the fish and then selling them.

Now, homes, bars and coffee shops in the region have aquariums with fish from Jezero--some pure gold, others with black and white spots like the original pair Smajo Malkoc brought home.

The Malkoc house, now rebuilt, is one of the biggest in the village.

Other residents are welcome to catch and sell the fish. But most defer to the Malkocs.

"They threw the fish into the lake," said a villager who identified himself only by his last name, Veladzic. "It's their miracle."

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