Excerpted from The Embattled Innocence: Recollections of a Muslim Relief Worker by Suleman Ahmer
The first time I came across her was in the winter of 1992 in the Bosnian town of Mostar. She had long black hair, hazel eyes and a smile that lit her face. I soon realized that her eyes refused to laugh. They held the look of bewilderment and the fear of an uncertain future. Girls as young as Aida had started understanding the misery that wars so easily delivered. They call war 'raat' in the Bosnian language, sounding like the 'night' in my native Urdu. I wonder how two languages continents apart would have the same word depicting darkness. For Mostar and its daughters such as Aida, the Balkan war meant exactly that, a never-ending darkness.
The war had forced the Muslims to take a fresh look at their identity and religion. There was an eagerness, especially among the children, to learn about Islam. Wanting to learn the Salat, she had started learning Fatiha. We would teach Aida a part of the Salat in each trip with a promise of a 'Poklon' (gift) which would be candy, a rag doll or tits bits of that sort. The thought that a small girl eagerly awaited us in Mostar would warm our hearts many times over.3.
I remember one day as I hurried towards a town council meeting, some children stopped me and insisted that I accompany them. They took me to a school, which had been converted into a refugee camp. The lower floor hosted the office of the Merhamet (a Bosnian relief agency), the office of the Mufti of Mostar and some rooms for medical emergencies. I was led through the dark and damp hallways to the basement where some young girls were practicing Islamic songs for an upcoming festival. On seeing a stranger, they fell silent. I urged them to continue and left after a few minutes leaving behind my cassette-recorder.4.
With every spin of the recorder, the songs and the memories were electronically preserved. It was to become a prized possession and a great companion for many months to come. On our long drives in Croatia and Bosnia, Abbas and I would play the tape and sing along in Bosnian:
"O Allah, Bosnia bleeds today.
And we suffer.
But we have hope that you will deliver us. And we don't complain.
We know You will be with us forever."
A girl had burst into tears and before the tape could be shut off, her sobs had been recorded. On coming to this section, we would gently cry ourselves, the tears cementing our determination and pushing away thoughts of giving up. ‘How can we give up when children in Mostar are calling Allah and have their trust in Him (swt)?’
It was a typical day when the news came. We had delivered supplies to Mostar a day earlier and were preparing for the next trip. Never in our lives had four words held so much devastation: "West Mostar has fallen."5.
All roads leading to Bosnia were sealed. We frantically tried to find a way to get to Mostar, but to no avail. The memories of the town came flooding back: the faces, the long hours spent talking, the laughter, the mosques and the walks in the old town. The voices of the girls singing the Islamic songs and the words of Mustafa echoed, "You may not find us...” And then there was the sinking feeling of defeat and the heart-wrenching realization that we had failed Mostar in the final moments. Our promise of being with them had been broken. With the fall of west Mostar, we felt a part of us had died.
Had she lived, Aida would be in her teens. She would surely have completed learning her Salat.1.
Some say there is more to life than Bosnia. Some comment that I am hung up with all that went on. I wish they could have known that little girl and many others like her.
Aida may not be with us today, but the struggle for which she died so young continues. Bosnia is alive so are many Aidas and many lands like Bosnia. Our failure to keep our promise to Aida must not prevent us from making promises to others. For Aida, the help was too little, too late. It doesn't have to be the same for others. The understanding that we are Muslims is a promise to all the Aidas and all the embattled Muslim lands: a promise that we are with you and you shall never be deserted.
It was the spring of 1993 and the Balkan war was sending waves upon waves of refugees to the coastal villages where tourist traffic had died down. The Croatian Government had put up these refugees in tourist resorts whose owners were being compensated by international relief agencies.2.
Bashka Voda was 25 miles from Krilo, a village where Abbas and I had our warehouse from where we took supplies to the Bosnian besieged town of Mostar.
The war had opened the eyes of the refugees to their Islamic identity, sadly repressed through decades of Communism in Yugoslavia. They were eager to learn about Islam and relief workers like ourselves were struggling to do whatever we could.
Bosnian refugees who lived around our warehouse often came to us for assistance. On one such visit a little girl approached me with a magazine picture showing a person making Salat1. “Can you teach me this?” she said in broken English pointing to the picture, “I love Allah, I love Islam but my father Communist, not teach me this.”
We set up class where these children learnt Quran, Salat and the fundamentals of Islam.
The Muslims were very happy so were the Croat refugees as learning English held many promises like working for international organizations desperately looking for interpreters. We designed ‘Historia Islama’ to be the Seerah of our Prophet (sas). Along the way we would introduce the fundamentals of Islam starting with the Aqeedah and going on to the Pillars of Islam and beyond. The course would run for three weeks.3.
Next we found Aida, who used to teach English in Sarajevo. She readily agreed to teach the English class but ‘Historia Islama’ was a different story. “I am a Muslim,” she had protested, “but I don’t know much about Islam. How can I interpret something I don’t know.” We explained to her that we had no choice and all she had to do was to just listen and interpret. She finally agreed. We decided to compensate her with a modest salary.
As I was going through the hardship that Prophet Mohammed (sas) faced in Mecca, I said. “We should thank Allah (swt) for giving us the present of Islam for look how difficult it was to be a Muslim at that time.”4.
On hearing this, a young boy spontaneously spoke and the class fell silent. Since he had spoken in Bosnian, all had understood except me. Aida tried to ignore it. Others in the class waved, asking me to carry on. I refused. “Hold on!” I caught the sternness in my voice as I asked Aida. “What did he say?”
“He has said,” Aida was fighting tears, “if it was as difficult to be a Muslim at the time of the Prophet as it is for us today?”
Looking up I saw tears streaming down faces.
I said yes and went on to explain that Allah (swt) is watching all what is happening and that He (swt) would indeed establish justice on the day of judgement.
That day as I drove home, I wept.
It was on one of the last days that an unforgettable event occurred. As I started the class, I noticed that the students were uncharacteristically quiet.5.
“Why are you so quiet today?” I asked. Aida told me that there was nothing special and requested me to continue.
I put down the chalk. “I won’t continue until you tell me what’s going on.”
They had received a notice from the Croat authorities that they would be moved to Karlovac in just a few days. I was shocked!
Karlovac was a Croatian town near the Serb frontlines. It was not safe from the Serb artillery and had limited access to relief supplies. Croats wanted to move Croat refugees to safety of the coastal areas and had also started a dirty business of exchanging Bosnian civilian men detained in Croatia with the Croat prisoners held by the Serbs. Rumors were flying that something similar could happen to refugees being moved to Karlovac.
A woman said, “Yusuf, we have lost everything in this war. Our men have been killed and our homes destroyed. We have no future. Now we are being moved to Karlovac with these little children and these young girls. How will we take care of them? Yusuf, we have no hope.” She broke into sobs.
It was as if the rest were waiting for this moment. Soon all had broken down including Aida. Seeing the elders cry, the children also joined in.
As I stood speechless between them, I felt helpless, utterly helpless.
I walked towards one child and started patting his head but to no avail.
I felt rage rising within me. I was angry with the Croats and the Serbs for this terrible war, at the world that stood by, at the Muslim countries whose armies quietly watched while the whole nation was being slaughtered, mutilated, raped…
“Listen to me!” I shouted, my voice a mix of rage and sorrow.
All looked up surprised. “Let me tell you something today,” I was shouting as if my voice would drown all sorrow. I got everyone’s attention.
“You know that you are the most unfortunate people on earth today for you have nothing, nothing at all. You have lost your homes, your towns, your villages, your loved ones.”
All were nodding.
“And you don’t know if you have any future or if you would ever be able to go back to Bosnia.”
“And,” I continued, “ the people in America have everything that you can imagine. Peace, homes, cars, wealth, food…They have everything that you don’t have and everything that you have lost. Everything!”
“But do you know,” I lowered my voice to barely an audible whisper, “ that a day will come when many in America would wish, and wish hard, that they were Bosnians like you!”
I saw eyes widen in wonder, disbelief, shock.
There was a silence for a few moments before one said in a hurt tone. “ Yusuf, are you joking with us today?”
“No,” I replied, “I am serious.”
“Are you all not Muslims?” I asked. They were away from the practice of Islam but they were Muslims all right. I had their testaments in writing.
“When a calamity befalls a Muslim,” I continued, “Allah (swt) forgives his or her sins in compensation. You have suffered so much that I believe that your sins would have been forgiven by the Day of Judgement and you will, inshallah16, enter Paradise. And at that time many Americans will wish that they were Bosnians like you.”
I paused. My words were sinking in as looks of bewilderment started changing into ones of understanding.
“I would like to ask you a question today,” my voice was again rising, “ who amongst you would like to choose to be an American and who would like to choose to be a Bosnian as you are?”
The response took me by complete surprise. Everyone raised their hands instantly, some even rising from their chairs. “ Yusuf,” they shouted in almost unison, “ we are happy as we are! We choose to be Bosnians! We shall not complain!” Their tear-streaked faces had lit up with smiles.
We continued the class that day as if nothing had happened.
That day they truly won my heart. While many still question why I risked my life for people who were so far away from Islam, I am and shall remain ever proud to have stood up for them.
Excerpted from The Embattled Innocence (pp. 20-32) by Suleman Ahmer
Source : Musaafir