Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bosnia The Beautiful

Bosnia Herzegovina (BH) is on my wish list of countries to visit for quiet sometime, so when Orison Charitable Trust (OCT) in the UK offers me an opportunity to join their group visiting June 8 – 13, why, I seize it.

The start, however, does not have an auspicious beginning. It is a wet morning of June 8 when Mohsinbhai Jaffer, Nazir Merali, Mujahid Shareef and I board an Austrian flight in London that will fly us to Sarajevo via Vienna. The highly German accented pilot informs us we have to wait 40 minutes due to inclement weather; just as we are to take off later, the aircraft runs into technical hiccups. We are deplaned 2 hours later; the flight is cancelled; I have to re-enter UK, retrieve my luggage and rebook. I am bushed, having flown overnight earlier this morning from Orlando via NY. The penalty of not being a EU national is an immigration clearance line that snakes all the way inside the airport terminal that takes 90 minutes to clear.

True to British love for queues, we are made to wait and wait and wait in lines to be processed for the next available flight. After waiting around for about 4 hours, we are given a flight next morning and a comfortable nearby hotel. But it is compromised sleep. I know not how the British manage waking up at 2:30M for fajr salaat; can you imagine a London Ramadhan in June?

Our flight next morning to Sarajevo via Vienna is eventless; we land at Sarajevo Airport and it is delight after delight that greet us after we clear immigration and customs. Shabbar Abdallah, Kamal Pejmanovic and Shareef from the Center greet us at the airport. BH is an astonishingly beautiful country, a piece of haven, I tell you Bwana; Switzerland, at 1/3rd of the cost. OCT has built a very well planned and cute little center for new Bosnian Muslims and it is a housing complex next to it that is our home for the next 3 wonderful days.

Basic infrastructure of roads, power, water, telephones are excellent. BH is blessed with incredibly green rolling hills; I go bananas reveling at all the blessings she has. Just looking at my surroundings is a delight and much comfort to the eye. There is a cherry tree right behind the house and all I have to do is walk up to it and pick the sweet, juicy fruit for a treat. We relax and meet up with the Bosinan Muslim community the day we arrive; enjoy lovely lunch that Abdullah’s wife has prepared us.

After an hours early morning brisk walk up steep surrounding hills by Abdullah, Nazir and I to burn off calories of yesterday, we drive to old Sarajevo the next day and take in the sights. Legend has it that water fountains in bazaars are in honor of Imam Hussein (A). What surprises me most is how much the city resembles Istanbul; steep mosque minarets, narrow winding bazaars, restaurants selling kebabs (pronounced Chebaab)…until I realize it was Turkish rule that held sway here for hundreds of years. We dig into a mountain of these Chebaabs for lunch, yummy. Except for Mujahid of course, he likes his meat further halaled by smothering of Indian spices, garlic, ginger…

Destination the second day some 95 miles away, is Mostar, much warmer and flatter than Sarajevo, but as pretty. It is a city much divided, with Muslim East and Croat, Serbian Christian West wary of each other after years of war and subsequent genocide of Muslims that ensued. Both communities operate their own civic amenities, hospitals, schools, municipal services, Although many war scars have been restored, repaired, I see many bullet ridden and bombed buildings intact. While the situation is normal for now, it remains tense, with Vatican meddling in and support of Catholic Croats a raw issue with Muslims.

The highlight of Mostar is a visit to Abdallah’s in-laws just outside the city. The house, nestled in a cove beyond the city is from a fairytale. Blissfully serene, with a garden full of fruit trees and a crystal clear river pregnant with fish, flow at the bottom of a ridge behind the house. Plum, apricot, cherry, apple, peach, kiwi, strawberry and pear trees dot the garden. Why, the scene is enough to drive even diehard fruit lovers nuts!

Our final day ends with a heavy heart; tears and sadness greet us in Srebrenica. After Yugoslavia fell apart, the country disintegrated into war, with aggressive Serbs hell bent on avenging their domination and rule by Muslim Turks for over 5 centuries. About 9,000 Bosnian defenseless Muslims, under supposed UN (and NATO) protection, were massacred in a genocide that stunned the modern world; the horror of it all hangs dense at Potocari, where 8,370 graves bear testament of the atrocities.

BH is a gem; in beauty and hospitality; visit it, if you can, it certainly beats any Western European country, but at a third of the cost. It is blessed with many resources that I suspect has a short life, once the country gets really discovered.

The Shia Muslim community of BH is small but with much potential, with proper guidance and support from groups like OCT that has contributed much towards their development. They need long term nurturing however, and continued support to OCT is essential. CAI will support English-speaking classes for the youths at our center; this will keep them together and support their struggle at schools and employment.

You may want to watch some startling, wonderful photos of my trip here.

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