Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bosnia's Killing Fields

Kamal Pejmahovic, at first glance, looks intense, a loner, angry, even. A tall, handsome, sturdy man of about 40, Kamal works for the Islamic Center in Sarajevo as a handy man, responsible for everything between required repairs to cleaning and general maintenance; he is very good at what he does, a dependable man to have around. I was told he suffered atrocities under the Serbs and lost a lot of family. This was an opportunity for me to know and understand the pain of these victims, so I requested, and Kamal agreed to talk to me on June 13. Here, then, is Kamal’s tragic past, as translated to me.

I am one of 12 children, the youngest. Growing up, my family practiced a very strict tier system; the older sibling to you got the same respect accorded to a parent, no question asked. So Hassan, the eldest, was obeyed and respected blindly, as were others older to me.

Under Marshal Tito, childhood was carefree, spent raising sheep, playing and frolicking in the beautiful countryside. Each sibling had a few animals that (s)he was responsible for. The family unit was generally happy, practicing Sunni Muslims. I experienced little or no trouble with Serbs or Croats, except for minor discrimination at school. Life was generally good.

At age 21, I worked as a maintenance mechanic in Serbia. Increasing aggression of Serbia, aided by Bosnian Serbs, followed Bosnian independence in 1992. When the Bosnian war with Serbia began in earnest, Hassan decided that I would stay away from it, as all rest of men in my family were already serving actively in the Bosnian Army. I married and ended up living in Tuzla, constantly fretting about my siblings but was ordered by Hassan to stay away from the front lines.

When shelling from the Serbs got too intense and excessively close for comfort, Hassan’s family and other siblings escaped into the jungle where they lived for almost a year, foraging for food; coming to join me Tuzla was not possible. Hassan knew the terrain very well, so he used to go scouting surrounding villages in search of food and other survival musts. It was during one such trip that the Serbs caught, tortured and executed him; his body was dumped with thousand others into mass graves. The Serbs, fearing international penalties for their criminality, tried scattering remains of mass graves all over Bosnia. But DNA techniques prevailed and thousands of victims have been identified this way with 99.95% certainty the remains are of the person in question.

Ahmed, closest to me due to our minimal age difference, simply vanished one fine day. His remains were matched using DNA technique most recently. Both Hassan and Ahmed are laid to rest next to each other at the massacre memorial in Potocari. (Kamal had bitterly wept during our yesterdays visit with him there).

My siblings and other families fled to the ‘safe havens’ set up by the UN and NATO at a massive abandoned vehicle battery factory at Potocari. Urged and arm-twisted by the UN and NATO, who assured the refugees and us Muslims total safety, the Bosnians Army handed in their arms. According to numerous witnesses, the Serbs were seen chortling with the Dutch UN battalion, who were supposed to be protecting our mainly Muslim refugees.

The UN contingent closed the ‘protected’ camp to additional refugees after 6,000 but there were at least 40,000 Muslims between Serb front line and the ‘camp’ that offered refuge. The Serbs targeted these; all men over 12 were separated from the women and eventually executed and buried in mass graves. I lost 40 members out of 46 from my extended village clan. Many of our women were raped. All these atrocities were committed under the watch of UN / NATO forces.

When I eventually returned to Srebrenica, I came back to a broken community. The EU and US offered opportunities for a better, safer life in the West but I preferred staying back to care for my aged and emotionally devastated parents. There was also at this time, a lot of garbage being printed by the Salafits and Wahabees about Shia Islam that intrigued me. Research proved otherwise, so I happily became a Shia Muslim and now live very close to the Islamic Center in Sarajevo with my wife, 2 children and aged parents.

I put the blame of the Bosnian Muslims genocide squarely on the shoulders the international community, especially the UN. I believe the UN failed the Bosnian Muslims miserably, especially the Dutch contingent that was, at best, tacit bedfellows with the murdering Serbs.

As translated to me on the morning of June 13, 2011 at Sarajevo, Bosnia.

There is, at Potocari, a nice war memorial for those felled by Serb atrocities, partly, ironically, funded by the Dutch Government, a haunting testimony, perhaps, of (some) guilt?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bosnia The Beautiful

Bosnia Herzegovina (BH) is on my wish list of countries to visit for quite some time, 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 canceled; I have to re-enter the UK, retrieve my luggage and rebook. I am bushed, having flown overnight earlier this morning from Orlando via NY. The penalty of not being an 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 greets 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 heaven, 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.

The basic infrastructure of roads, power, water, telephones is excellent. BH is blessed with incredibly green rolling hills; I go bananas revealing 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 Bosnian 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 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 die-hard 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 Serb's 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 densely 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.