Bosnia: A Decade On From War (Part One)

By Imran Garda**
Freelance Journalist – South Africa
Aug 18, 2005

In the first of a four part series chronicling his trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina with international relief charity Islamic Relief, Imran Garda describes his first impressions of life in Bosnia, ten years after one of the worst ethnic conflicts in post-World War II European history ended, and visits some of Islamic Relief's many beneficiaries.

Islamic Relief's Sarajevo office

Flying from South Africato Bosnia-Herzegovina is no simple task. It requires a total of 26 hours up in the clouds, mixed with cementing oneself to airport transit terminals, until you eventually disembark. Thankfully yet painfully, two of those torturous flying hours included a screening of "Hotel Rwanda," the factually based feature film that depicts one of the largest examples of ethnic cleansing in human history. That systematic destruction of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in the mid-nineties has left an indelible scar on our post-modern claim to living in the age of reason. This was supposed to be the age of fair and solidly placed human rights conventions, time-tested resolutions, freedom, liberty, and enlightenment.

The mere concept that a people who have historically shared a land and a culture with each other can so violently attempt to reduce their neighbors to the memory-dustbins of history by near extermination is indeed a chilling thought. Hitler and his Nazis' hell-bent attachment to his beliefs in the Aryan-master-race myth and the inferiority of the mysterious, unquestionably evil "other" had similar consequences in modern times.

But while the world licked at the gaping wounds of many of its inhabitant's sadistic crimes, Rwanda wasn't the only country of the world witnessing genocide—there was also the tragedy of Bosnia. Seen as the sacrificial lambs of modern Europe, the Bosnians, interchangeably known as Bosniaks and "the Muslims," were abandoned by those that they trusted to assist them, during the war waged against them by neighboring Serbia, and for a short period Croatia.

These people held honesty and integrity as the foremost components of their personality.

The world's powerhouses seemed too sedate for sanity. The likes of Britain, America, and France allowed the imperialistic, ultra-aggressive nationalism of the Serb nationalists, spearheaded by Slobodan Milosevic and his terror-generals, who included Ratko Mladic, to deliberately attempt the wiping-out of their Bosnian neighbors—and they almost succeeded.

Four long, arduous years of pain ensued. Those frightening years witnessed amputations of limbs, amputation of families, and the attempted amputation of an identity. A country was under siege, under the dictates of the snipers and artillery. This was the reality of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And this is the legacy that lives on in the hearts and minds of its people today.

The chance to travel with Islamic Relief into the heartland of Bosnia needed no consideration. Their Bosnian office was keen to showcase their work and the general plight of their war-ravaged people. Field workers labored tirelessly throughout my eleven-day stay to make life as comfortable as possible for us visitors, who hailed from Germany , England , Pakistan , and South Africa .

A Bosnian Islamic Relief microcredit beneficiary

Our first "tour guide" was Nermin, a war-veteran whose face told a thousand words, and whose character indicated many more life-experiences. A well-built man into his mid-forties, Nermin introduced me to the first crater I would see in Bosnia . It wasn't on the streets of Sarajevo or the outskirts of Banja Luka ; it found it's home on his forehead. A large chunk of Nermin's forehead looked chiseled out, just above his right-eye, a living remnant of a Serb shell that had exploded inches away from the then Bosnian fighter.

Nermin was a micro-credit loan officer, organizing and collecting loans from those seeking mainly housing and agricultural loans. Micro-credit in Bosnia was an ingenious plan sprung from the mind of Islamic Relief Bosnia's head, Dr. Ajaz Ahmed Khan, a doctor of economics, who saw the need to create sustainable solutions for those who were moving beyond the need for perishable handouts.

The concept provides the ideal solution for those widows, farmers, and returnees to the land, who generally wouldn't be allowed through the front door of a bank. Islamic Relief's loans operate on non-interest-based principles, which allow the beneficiaries twelve months to pay back the complete loan, with the option of a second, third, or fourth loan on completion of payment.

"Surely people miss payments and take some liberties with repayment?"

My question was naughty, but I didn't expect the answer I received.

"We have over 90% percent repayment. In fact, most of the beneficiaries, especially the widows, pay back three or four days before the due date every month."

"I have strong iman (faith); one must have iman." – Ismet Comor

My question had overlooked a crucial element; I had forgotten about the dignity of these people, forgotten that they were people who held their honesty and integrity as the foremost components of their personality, both as individuals and collectively.  

Ironically, the first beneficiary we visited was a Serb, a resident of the Republika Srpska, the strange, autonomous Serb state plugged into the Eastern heartland of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Almost the equivalent of a separate, post-Apartheid Afrikaner state within South Africa .

Nermin felt he needed to reassure us that the beneficiary, Jovo Kovacevic was a "good Serb… who didn't fight against us in the war."

"How could you determine that?"

"The neighbors and community inform us mainly who is reliable to lend money to."

Jovo had evidently made great use of the loan, with his first cow, courtesy of an Islamic Relief loan, ushering in more sustainable funds for her owner by finding some male company at one time or another. That meant more cows, more milk, and the chance for Jovo to focus on applying for a housing loan from Islamic Relief.

We would re-visit the Republika Srpska later on the journey, and it would be an emotional affair.

Ismet Comor walks through Lukomir village

The bumpy, mountainous roads that need to be conquered in order to appreciate the visual delights of Bosnia are a joy to behold. The glimmering goblin-green hills of the humid summer invitingly call to the outsider, asking to be experienced, calling for their stories to be told, begging for the ambivalent, impartial eye of the visitor to take its side, crying out for you to hear of the brave men and women that once trudged along their path, with little hope for food, water, or comfort, seeking refuge, escape, freedom in the cushioned embrace and endless splendor of their hilly enclaves… fleeing from an enemy that hated them for being different.   

The terrain's lush vegetation gave way to patches of gray rock as we struggled up Bjelasnica mountain to reach the village of Lukomir . One of the relief workers from the UK office mentioned that if what we previously saw resembled Kashmir in all it's mountainous glory, the landscape was slowly evolving to resemble rocky Wales .

In Lukomir, we felt we'd entered a time warp, where pointy straw roofs covered rickety stone houses, providing what seemed to be fragile protection for fragile old people. The women scurried to sell us their gems of knit socks, leggings, and gloves, woven in delightful criss-crossing colors. A great opportunity for a sale; hardly anybody comes here. Wherever we looked, we saw cows, dogs, chickens. The people were bent, thin, devoid of teeth for the most part. The homes we entered had ceilings a mere 1.8 meters high; the place could've been built as a set piece for "The Lord of the Rings" as far as I was concerned. I was expecting an old Wizard and some hobbits to make an entry at any time.

The majority of the villagers had been recipients of Islamic Relief's Ramadan food distribution program, and had also received meat from the sacrifice of the `Eid Al-Adha ['Eid of the Sacrifice] festival.

Only thirteen homes made up the village. It used to have a school nearby, but with less than a handful of its inhabitants under 20, the school was transformed into a sort of hotel, as there were hardly any pupils to teach.

In winter, the area becomes nightmarish for anyone trying to get in or out of the place. You have to make a quick escape to family or friends on lower ground before the blustery winds and white carpet of snow arrived, or else you were snowed in for the better part of three months.

Supermarket-type delivery services make hundreds of euros off these villagers during the winter, airlifting desperately needed supplies and doing door-to-door "drop-offs" for a small fee.

Eighty-year-old Ismet Comor, a widower left with no family and no income, told us how he feared the demise of the village, so prosperous in his youth, the only place he's ever called home.

Ismet was a rarity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for wherever we traveled we encountered the distinct absence of the patriarchal side of the family.

"How do you cope with the difficulties here?"

"I have strong iman (faith); one must have iman."

Move to Part Two

** Imran Garda is a freelance journalist based in South Africa .

    Muhammad Saley contributed additional research to this article.


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