KARAVLASI, Bosnia-Herzegovina – The German teen was beaten, forced to sleep and eat with pigs, and whipped while pulling a horse cart, the villagers said. But every time Bosnian police responded to the neighbors' calls about her, they simply couldn't track her down.
It took years — her house was isolated, and the teen was usually out of sight — but finally, Sead Makalic managed to snap a photo of the teen using his mobile phone and convince police that she was not a mythical creature.
This helped lead to her rescue earlier this month in Karavlasi village, the detention of her stepfather and one of his female partners — and tearful denials from the 19-year-old's mother, who insisted her daughter was mentally disabled and had never been mistreated.
The case has riveted and outraged this nation of 3.5 million, especially the neighbors, who had long kept trying to help someone the police weren't sure was real.
"I could not watch any more what they were doing to her, how they were beating her," said Makalic, as he recounted his part in the case to The Associated Press.
He and other villagers said in interviews on Monday that the young woman was treated like a slave. Several villagers claimed the stepfather, 52-year-old Milenko Marinkovic, on at least one occasion forced the teen to pull a cart while whipping her like a horse, and that they also saw her eating raw pumpkin and pig feed.
Makalic, a big, burly farmer, who used a curse word in every sentence and offered a reporter plum brandy early Monday morning, was visibly agitated as he described the situation. He alleged that the woman arrested in the case, 45-year-old Slavojka Marinkovic, once hit the teen with a sickle, wounding her back and causing her to cry.
When he protested that, it seemed no one in the house really cared, said Makalic, who hails from the neighboring village of Gojcin. "They'd put something on the wound and behaved as if nothing happened," he said.
Makalic was the only villager who allowed his name to be used — the others fear reprisals from relatives of the detained couple.
The teen was known as Bedina, but villagers don't believe that was her real name and assumed it came from the German word Bediener, which means servant and is pronounced the same way. The teen had no documents and authorities are trying to establish what her real name was, said a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to agency rules.
The spokesman for the prosecutor's office, Admir Arnautovic, said the 19-year-old is recovering in a safe house after police found her on May 17th "disorientated and with visible injuries." Milenko Marinkovic and his partner Slavojka Marinkovic are in custody and face potential charges of illegal imprisonment and cruelty.
The young woman's German mother, Kristina Siegner, 54, was living with the couple as Milenko's legal wife. Siegner often goes to work in Austria for months at a time, and had arrived back home after a three-month work stint the night before the police probe that finally found her daughter. She has been questioned by police but not been detained.
Siegner insisted to the AP on Monday that her daughter — whom she referred to as Bedina — was happy and called the villagers' claims "all lies."
"Everybody here was good to her, my husband was good to her, (Slavojka) was good to her, she was happy here," Siegner said. She added that her husband treated the teen like his own daughter, bought her a horse because she loved animals, and that the teen spent her days playing and taking long walks in the woods.
Siegner said she had nine children in Germany but came to Bosnia in 2004 with three of her daughters to run away from her former husband. She married Milenko Marinkovic in 2006 and moved into the house with him and his romantic partner Slavojka, who had agreed that he could take in a wife.
Siegner said her daughter was mentally disabled and that that was why she was not attending school. The mother said she did not know there were special schools for such children in Bosnia.
"We were happy, we got along well, shared chores around the house," Siegner said, sobbing. "Now I'm alone here. My husband is gone, my daughter is gone. I miss her so."
The mother denied villagers' claims that her daughter had ever slept with the pigs. At one point she showed the AP a room in the house where she said she slept with her daughter on a queen-sized bed. Inside the bedroom's closet hung men's suits and shirts along with women's dresses.
The police official said his agency responded to calls about the teen numerous times — the first call was at least five years ago, according to villagers — but never found her, even when they staged a full-on raid. It was possible the family hid the teen in the woods.
Eventually, Makalic said that police told him a photo of the teen would help the case.
After getting the photo, the police again went to the Marinkovic house, the police official said. The teen wasn't there, but this time the police wouldn't stop pressing her stepfather. Finally, he went outside and brought her in, the official said. The teen looked like she was 40 years old, was wearing three or four sweaters, and was soaking wet.