Imran Garda's sojourn in Bosnia-Herzegovina continues with visits to Sarajevo and Tuzla, where he reflects on the causes of the war and what it means to be a European Muslim, and visits some of the widows of Srebrenica.
The bulk of our stay was in Sarajevo. The city is a sumptuous visual treat. When I first set my eyes on the it, I remember thinking, "No wonder the Serbs wanted this place so badly."
During the day, the city echoes with an industrious buzz, Sarajevans hard at work earning their daily bread. It was in the evenings that I usually got to walk the streets and catch a fascinating glimpse of a people for whom eclecticism formed the core of their identity.
The Sarajevans I encountered were friendly, hospitable, and always willing to talk about their experiences of the war. At least 70% of the city's population is Muslim, and many found it bizarre that I was a Muslim, like them, and that I hail from South Africa and yet am not black. Perhaps many were far more removed from the "global village" than I had presumed, but then again, I don't know how clued in I would be if I was besieged for four years, severely lacking water and electricity for two of those years.
I was in love with the "old city," that part of Sarajevo that still boasted stone roads, classical Ottoman mosques, gothic Eastern European churches, and side streets littered with tiny antique shops and small cafés.
We ate "burek" almost everyday, the spiral Bosnian pastry filled with meat, cheese, or spinach. One couldn't find much fish or chicken in Sarajevo, and when I asked a waiter if the restaurant served chicken, he replied candidly, "We don't have chicken here, we only have cow."
One of our waiters, Hairuddin, massively built and in his late twenties, ecstatically showed us his living remnant of the war, a 5-inch scar across his right calf. The scar was so distinct it seemed like he had a zipper built into his calf.
"Chetnicks!" he said. "I was shot by a Chetnik sniper."
Those who suffered through the war loathed the Serb army, particularly the snipers, who hovered on the hills and preyed on the civilian population. Anne Marie Du Preez Bezdrob, a UNPROFOR worker during the war, describes them in her memoirs of Bosnia:
"I detested the satanic sniping bastards: cowards, who hid behind high walls and murdered children and women in cold blood."
* * *
"If the situation was reversed in Bosnia, and a fanatical Muslim regime in Belgrade was slaughtering thousands of innocent Christians in Sarajevo, then America would have reacted by now. We would not watch Christians get killed by Muslims in Europe. Period. But we can watch Muslims get killed by Christians. The problem for Bosnia was larger than the fact that George Bush was getting clobbered by Bill Clinton in the polls. Bosnia was Islam."
- George Kenney, former US Press Officer for Bosnia
It was the summer holidays for schools and universities, so from Thursday evening until Sunday, the city burst into life. Young boys and girls streamed through the streets of Sarajevo hand in hand. Teenage girls strutted in micro-mini skirts, leg-choking jeans and low-cut blouses. Make no mistake; these were young Europeans, and passing a busy street that housed a popular nightclub, you'd think that Sarajevo is as Muslim as Los Angeles is Christian. I found things were similar in Tuzla, the other city I spent time in.
The many mosques we visited provided a stark contrast, with the devout both young and old, male and female. There, women were clad in colorful hijab, and children pitter-pattered around the Ottoman courtyard. Bosnia is one of the few European societies where the Muslim population is indigenous, at least for over 500 years. The non-immigrant, modern Eastern European Muslim identity is a distinct one, but one that needs time and intellectual effort to uncover.
Over half a century of communist rule certainly didn't help the cause of any of the region's religions, particularly Islam. Then came independence in 1992, and the promise of a Bosnia more aligned with Islamic principles, according to then-President Alija Izetbegovic, who died recently. And then came the war.
Some Bosnians believed that the possibility of a modern democratic Muslim "heartland" in the middle of Europe (coupled with the Serbs' alliance with the likes of Russia, which made powerful nations fear intervention) was the deciding factor in the powerhouses' reluctance to help. Hence, a disarmed nation was left to face a powerful Serb army, aided by the Croats for a time as well.
Can we find a definitive answer to the causes of the war? I'm not sure we can. Perhaps it was a combination of elements, cooked together at just the right time to combust into an awful tragedy. Some Bosnians believe they were attacked solely because of Serb imperialism. Some were vehement that they were attacked, then sacrificed by the world, only because they were Muslim.
But what kind of Islam do you find in Bosnia? I'm not sure. A medley of things, perhaps, from a people who've been through a lot. The pious are pious in Bosnia. Some observe the requirements of the religion, some don't. Some have Muslim names, some don't. Some are completely secular and agnostic, many aren't. Observing Bosnia is a unique religious experience, where you can see the fingerprints of Turkey, the faded remnants of Arabia, but in a paradigm that is, ultimately, entirely European.
* * *
Larbie was Islamic Relief's regional head in Tuzla, about a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Sarajevo. He had arrived in Bosnia as the War was winding down. He made the country his home, found a Bosnian wife, and fathered four gorgeous children. Traveling with Larbie was like accompanying the town sheriff in a Hollywood western. Although he spoke Algerian-accented Bosnian, had a caramel complexion, and cropped curly black hair, all of which made him stand out in a crowd, he was deeply respected by the people of the city.
Wherever he drove men, women and children flung their hands into the air or nodded their heads in a merry greeting. Larbie was going to collect repayments on this particular day, and I was interested to see how timely the payments would be, and what the atmosphere would be like.
Along the way, Larbie informed us that his car's license plate was stolen the day before. "We were taking other guests around the country to visit beneficiaries, and when we were inside a Muslim house in Republika Srpska, I think some of the Serb neighbors were upset with us being there, so they stole my license plate!"
Today being the due date for payments, Larbie was obviously expected by all the beneficiaries in the area. He worked smoothly, like a loan shark without the shark part, if that's possible.
One of the many beneficiaries we visited was Mirsada. The area around her garden was green, muddy, and messy. Apparent were the remnants of maize crops that were destroyed in the preceding 48 hours by flash floods that caused havoc in all the Balkans. Mirsada wasn't upset that the floods would set her back a few months; like many people we encountered in Bosnia, she took everything on her chin and moved on.
At least a dozen people arrived outside Mirsada's house, mostly housing-loan beneficiaries, and the odd business-loan client. Once these loans had been promptly paid, Larbie was invited into Mirsada's house, and all the widows of the area arrived.
Larbie dictated the flow of our conversation, translating and coordinating. While sipping what was probably our sixth cup of strong, muddy coffee for the day, having been offered one at every home we visited, Larbie collected Mirsada's monthly payment. And then another, and another. All the women's payments were made; not one was missed.
The widows huddled together in a communal sisterhood that made it clear that they sought refuge in each other. This could easily have been a knitting club, or a cooking club. Except this club wasn't formed on the basis of a common social interest. This sisterhood came from a condition thrust upon them, a thread of similarity instantly brought about through murder and genocide. Each one of these widows had lost their husbands in Srebrenica. After the war, they sought refuge here, in Tuzla.
Larbie speckled his words with encouragement and some lightheartedness that made the "sisters" laugh, but ten years on from Srebrenica, no matter how hard they tried to be optimistic, the pain in the eyes of those women we met in Mirsada's home looked ten minutes old. Once again we heard their stories, we ate their snacks, we moved on. I feared we were becoming immunized to the situation with every new story we heard. Desperation was becoming normal.
Larbie said goodbye and thanked them for their timely payment. We thanked the widows for their conversation. My colleague turned to me and said, "These are what you can truly call 'Desperate Housewives.' This is not TV."
It was time to say goodbye to Larbie. Now was the time to embark on the final leg of my adventure. The majority of Islamic Relief's guests had already jetted out of the country by now, so it was just down to a couple of us, on our way to Srebrenica.
Imran Garda is a freelance journalist based in South Africa.