Bosnia: A Decade On From War (Part Two)

By Imran Garda**
Freelance Journalist – South Africa
Sep 27, 2005

In the second part of's Bosnia series, Imran Garda witnesses pain and loss, as Islamic Relief introduces the author to the emotionally scarred survivors of the war, the countless widows and orphans of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Prophet Muhammad said "I and the one who cares for an orphan will be together in Paradise like this," and he raised his forefinger and middle finger (Al-Bukhari).

Refugee housing in Sarajevo

Dalisa is a 13-year-old girl. Her features are startlingly similar to her mother's, Sakiba, in her mid-thirties. But Sakiba's face is engulfed in pain, wrapped in years of hurt. She looks 50, maybe older. Decades of sorrow have the unnerving tendency of adding decades of age to a face. Maybe Dalisa will look just like her someday.

The pregnant Sakiba and her husband lived and worked in Kadalice when the war broke out. She plied her trade as a seamstress, and he worked in a radiator factory.

"He was protecting our village when the Serbs attacked. They took him away. He's still missing."

Dalisa, whose older sister was absent during our visit, doesn't bat an eyelid at the thought of her father being buried in a mass-grave somewhere, anywhere. She was only two months old when he was taken. More importantly, she's had 13 years to get used to the idea.

Sakiba makes a haphazard income, from those rare occasions when she gets to exercise her tailoring skills for the all-too-rare client. Like most widows in Bosnia, she receives a shaheed (martyr) pension, a miniscule stipend of just over E150 per month. And like most Islamic Relief beneficiaries, an overseas sponsor's generous donation of over E40 a month is a Godsend, but it's still not nearly enough. A basic food package to feed a small family for a month costs approximately E200. For Sakiba and her daughters, life is a perpetual struggle for survival.

Dalisa wants to be a fashion designer. I said, "In ten years time I want to have your label on the back of my T-shirt!" and Adissa, the coordinator for Islamic Relief's Orphan Sponsorship Program who was accompanying us, translated. Dalisa gave a nervous laugh, a disbelieving chuckle. Maybe she only wants to make women's clothes; she's only ever known women in her life, and the men in Bosnia often seemed to have been erased from the face of the earth. I have to remind myself: most of them were.

Leijla's house was an oasis in the middle of a desert.

The tattered, damp refugee building she lived in bore no relation to the luminous, fresh presence we felt when we entered the apartment, like a healthy heart in a leper's body. There was something special about this home. It wrapped you in its pleasant embrace, and never let go—it still hasn't let me go.

As we entered we said the regular "Asalaamu `alaikum" and proceeded to take off our shoes at the door, something we did in every Bosnian home.

Leijla's mother was tall, slender, and athletic. She reminded me of a Scandinavian athlete, sprightly and assured in her walk. She extended a firm handshake to each member of our group, not unlike a greeting preceding a business meeting, and gave us a glowing smile.

In the periphery was an equally tall, older woman, covered in a flowery hijab from head to toe, with only her face visible; Leijla's grandmother. Leijla stood next to her, grinning merrily at Adissa, visibly happy that her friend had arrived. And a friend was what Adissa was. Widowed, Adissa had been a refugee during the war, and she understands the people she works with, something we would see in every relief worker we encountered in Bosnia.

Leijla's blonde hair, Nordic features, and above-average height for her nine years, made looking at the three women a generational slide show.

Leijla was confident and all smiles when we wanted pictures taken, and all too keen to give us colorful drawings from her own collection. She spoke of her desire to become a pediatrician.

Leijla and her family

During the siege of Srebrenica, Leijla's grandfather disguised himself as a woman to escape with the rest of the women and children. He was identified and captured by the Serbs. With his escape foiled, Leijla's grandfather became a statistic in a massacre that will resonate in the most grotesque chapters of human history for all time to come.

For Leijla's father, there was a brief respite; he escaped Srebrenica, only to die in a Serb ambush along the escape route.

The bodies of both men have not been found. They could be in any one of hundreds of mass graves around the country.

Leijla, like Dalisa, never met her father. But she wanted the remains of her father and grandfather to be found, so that it would make her mother and grandmother happier. "I pray for them every night before I go to bed."

Leijla's donor, through Islamic Relief, was generous enough to donate an extra four thousand dollars to the family in 2005.

Of course, the money would add a gloss to anybody's mood. But there was something special here. Although mum and grandma related their emotional stories poignantly, with many minutes of reflection and the occasional tear, the women possessed a dignity I had never seen before.

They related their desire to give a third of most of the financial aid they receive to those they deem less privileged than themselves. Their sentences were often ended with "Al-hamdu lillah [all praise be to Allah], we have nothing to be ungrateful for."

The effect of their belief in the unseen, a sincere belief in the destiny that had been handed to them by the Creator, permeated everything they said and every second we spent with them.

Driving off, still recovering from the conflicting emotions of wanting to help Leijla's family… but wanting to be like them, Adissa turned to us and said, "Those who have the least always give the most. They are also the happiest."

We didn't argue.

Fifteen-year-old Samir and his mother

Fifteen-year-old Samir lives in a dark, gloomy home. He didn't want to see the foreign visitors, but his mother coaxed him into giving us a few minutes. The atmosphere was the antithesis of what we'd experienced during our visit to Leijla's house.

We felt like we were intruding, and the environment was restrictive and overbearing. Samir's lithe physique and delicate features were clouded with a somberness that overwhelmed me. His mother told us of their pain since her husband was killed. She spoke of the hopelessness in the country, and of her inability to try to look forward to the future. Her pending operation to remove a cyst didn't help, and I could see the worry in her son's eyes. He'd lost a father he hardly knew—what if he lost the mother he did know?

Adissa told us, "We had to try very hard to get Samir to come to the Orphans' camp last year. His mother was afraid that the other children would tease him because he only has two sets of clothes, and his shoes would get dirty because he only has one pair. Thankfully, I convinced them that I'd only wear two sets of clothes too… and he really enjoyed himself, throughout the camp."

Adissa's insight painted a clearer picture for us.

"What are Samir's dreams and aspirations for the future?" I asked.

"He says he wants to become a footballer, but he can't practice because his mother cannot afford a football for him to play with."

Samir's mother had a blotchy face, underlined at the eyes with huge, unavoidable dark rings. She was stocky, with strong hands and unkempt hair. She brought out her treasure chest of pills that put her to sleep every night. I couldn't accurately count, but I managed to estimate that there must've been at least twenty, nearly all antidepressants.

Not everyone copes with loss well. I learnt from Bosnia's orphans that I could not even begin to understand loss.

Move to Part Three

** Imran Garda is a freelance journalist based in South Africa. 
    Muhammad Saley contributed additional research to this article.


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