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For evening after evening, month after month, TV screens brought scenes of shelling on Sarajevo and Bosnian women and children fleeing towns and villages. Here was a tragedy unfolding in Europe, traumatizing a Muslim people for no reason but their religious identity. Like the Rushdie Affair, it was a compelling wake-up call for British Muslims.
There was disgust with the Government policy of denying the supply of heavy artillery to the Bosnians while at the same time turning a blind eye to the involvement of the army of the Republic of Serbia in aiding the Serb rebels in the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The British Foreign Office’s line was that all the warring factions, Bosnian, Serb and Croat were equally culpable. To anyone with first-hand knowledge such neutrality was morally unacceptable as it overlooked the savagery of the Serbs and Croats.
The Government’s disregard for the plight of the Bosnians was in marked
contrast to the heroic initiatives from well-wishers within the UK, Muslim and
non-Muslim, individuals and charity bodies. This section presents some of these
as yet untold narratives – the story of young men and women who went to
help in the front-lines, as well as the well-settled professionals and pensioners
who eschewed comforts in order to do their bit.
British Muslims faced the Bosnian war with a sense of foreboding and powerlessness.
But for Asad Khan, a talented and dynamic electronics engineer from Finchley,
North London, it was a call for action: with the
support of his wife and friends, he founded a UK-registered charity,
Convoy of Mercy (CoM) in 1992.
CoM was responsible for over 80 land convoys to the Balkans transporting medicines, medical equipment clothes, books and aid workers. On most occasions Asad was a driver in these 32-hour journeys from London. CoM maintained a presence on the ground throughout the Bosnian war, one of the few British Muslim aid organisations to do so.
Such first-hand experiences transformed Asad into an impassioned advocate urging British Muslims to do more for the plight of the helpless in the Balkans – Europe’s Muslim holocaust he called it. Over the 1992-99 he organised trips for over 500 volunteer aid workers to help in the refugee camps and distribution of aid, ranging from students at the University of Oxford, to pensioners willing to rise to the occassion.
On his sixteenth trip, in February 1993, Asad’s convoy of trucks was
advised by UNHCR to follow a route that led to his capture by Croat forces:
Asad’s escape from prison is the stuff of novels – freedom came after he was able to smuggle a note out of the barracks and one of his prison wardens eventually became a most devoted helper. The epic stories of British Muslims who sacrificed so much for their co-religionists in distress was an echo of the feelings that stirred Indian Muslims to send aid convoys to the Turks eighty years earlier. After the end of the Bosnian War, CoM went on to provide aid in Kosovo and other crisis spots.
The hero of Mount Igman
On 25 August, 3,000 people were present in Glasgow Central Mosque on 25th August 1994 to pay their respects to Neil (Ibrahim) Golightly, killed when his truck went over the edge on Mount Igman on an icy night after being distracted by Serbian tracer fire. A native Glaswegian, Ibrahim stood six feet two inches tall, and weighed about fourteen stones. He was a man who “would give way to nothing” and a determined trucker responsible for about three thousand tons of humanitarian aid being transported across the confrontation lines, into the war zone in Central Bosnia. His friend I. Leadley has left a flavour of the man in this account:
We made the comparatively safe downhill ice free run towards the checkpoint. Down the long exposed straight above the Serb held part of the city, our vulnerability partially covered by the sniper screens that lined the road. As we rounded the hairpin bend at the bottom, we were less than one hundred kilometres from Serb guns, and they gave us a hasty and inaccurate welcome!
Within two minutes we were at the checkpoint, and the astounded guards told us that Neil had gone on to Hrasnica, to organize secure parking for the night. They had been surprised when Neil had turned up, but when the rest of the convoy was lined up waiting to cross into the Muslim enclave, they could hardly believe their eyes. I imagined them discussing the Trojan Horse as they checked our trucks!
We followed in Neil's tracks, and found him at the Police station. We were taken to the Chief of Police, who welcomed us to Sarajevo, and thanked us for coming! He then informed us that we could not cross the airport at night, (into the city) and that a guide would take us across to the French UN control post there in the morning.
We parked our trucks in the Police Station compound, and set about cooking dinner! I shall never forget it. Baked beans and sardines, washed down with coffee, whilst we listened to the evening symphony of 30 mm guns, punctuated by the odd mortar.
Every few minutes one of the strings of tracer would arc over our heads, sometimes rattling off the tower block next to which we were parked. I climbed into my cab and spread my sleeping bag across the seats. The Battle of Armageddon itself wouldn't keep me from my sleep that night!
The next morning we made our way to the airport and here with much discussion
and examining of papers, the French kept us waiting for quite a while before
letting us cross the runway. No one believed our story. One conversation went
Eventually they let us through. We were escorted by a French armoured car across the airport runway, and into the besieged heart of that now infamous city.
We had made it, the first non UN convoy to enter the city for six months. We had broken the Siege of Sarajevo. We had paved the way and many others would follow in our tyre marks over that brooding mountain. The fighting that ensued over that tenuous link with the outside world would soon become headline news and the name of Mount Igman become known around the Globe. No more would that city be held to ransom under siege!
Of our eight trucks only six made it through. Of the forty tons of food we delivered thirty five. Two thousand one hundred and eighty parcels of food. Enough to feed eight thousand seven hundred and twenty people for a week…
A caring heart
Mrs Saida Sherif, a retired Bank of England employee living in London, set aside her own health problems to care for Bosnian children in refugee camps in Croatia and later in Bosnia. Her accounts below are a unique eye-witness testimony and inspiring example of personal bravery and determination.
The Nemira rehabilation centre was 80 km away from Split airport . The big three
storey house belonged to Marion Sabic situated very close to the Dalmatian waters.
The view was absolutely magnificent. But when I arrived inside the centre, and
saw some seventeen beds cramped in 6 rooms and the young people some without
limbs, some without hands and some trauma victims, I realised that this is war
and not all the beauty in the world can hide the sufferings of the injured.
I was told that the International Red Cross hospital in Split only gave the
minimum help possible and since some of the victims were wearing uniforms (they
did not have any other clothes of their own) they refused to treat the wounded
soldiers. In any case the Croat staff was not very sympathetic to the wounded
and injured if they happened to be Muslims. So now I saw why this centre was
opened. I had assumed that the International Red Cross would automatically look
after the wounded. How wrong was I in my assumption!
Memories of Jablanica
This time I had come with my mind made up to go inside Bosnia as that was where the help was needed most. Many refugees were evacuated from Bosnia and had come to live in London. We managed to meet them and provide support in whatever way we could. Yusuf Islam notably helped along with other Muslims. He provided accommodation and later opened a centre for them in Cricklewood for the refugees from Bosnia. They told us the horrifying stories of the atrocities. We organised a mail service to and fro so that they could get news of their relatives. Some Bosnian families worked very hard and sent whatever they could to their families back home and so it became another task of the convoy to pick up mail and packages and deliver them into Bosnia. This contact further increased my desire to go and serve inside, though I knew the conditions were not going to be like on the beautiful Dalmatian coast.
I arrived in Jablanica in the end of February, 1994. There were only two or three poundings near the Jablanica Dzamjia. A couple of bombs fell near the high school making deep craters in the road. The bridge was quite poorly, but manageable. But the beautiful bridge where the little train stood, in the foreground of the museum, was bombed down into the river. There was also a grenade that landed ten meters away from the Jablanica mosque.
I fell in love with the lofty snow-covered peaks of this little town and its children, who were to become my best friends later. The Imam, Senad Velic welcomed us but there was no room for us to sleep as almost all the houses had taken in refugees that had come from the war-torn areas. There were three refugee camps, Unis, Sunkura and one near the cinema. There were refugees filled everywhere, in the museum as well as in the schools. The shops were shut and little to eat. The muncipal bakery and the Opstina managed to bake enough bread, which went around the camps as well as for the local people. So nobody starved. Thanks to the baked bean cans and the aid convoys who brought in spaghetti, rice and sugar. There was extreme shortage of cooking oil. The fuel was a luxury and only a few could afford. Malbat (Malaysian Battalion) was doing a good job and helped us when we needed help with the fuel. The convoy vehicles were loaded in London and Bristol. They came to Split warehouse and after obtaining permission from the Croat authorities at Sroki Brije, were only able to proceed. Their second halt was Jablanica and then from there on to the little pockets, where evicted Bosnians sought shelters and who seldom received help as not many would venture to go there - in to the dangerous, treacherous mountain areas covered with blood and snow.
The local Jablanica people were happily amazed to see that there are some Britishers who are not their enemy. They are some friends also, who are risking their life and taking food to places like Bugogne, Hrasnica and other pockets. The local Jablanica TV gave us coverage and we told them why we felt compelled to help.
The schools and colleges were shut and refugees occupied most educational buildings and gymnasium. The youth was confused and did not know how to fill their time.
I started to teach after consulting the Opstina of Jablanica. I had met the school director who told us that there were no school-notebooks and even Opstina did not have any paper, photocopier or computers. Convoy of Mercy brought a lot of stationary along with food aid and medicines which was gladly accepted by the local people as well as the refugees. There were three refugee camps and the museum was still filled with refugees.
Gorazde was heavily shelled and the news in general were pretty bleak. We used to gather children in the local Dzamjia (mosque) in Jablanica and teach English. Later on when the schools opened,the Director of school provided classroom facilities in the evening. After long absence of schools, the students were not only glad to return to their normal school but were also keen to learn English and also attended English classes held by CoM.
I had the privilege of experiencing Eid in Bosnia, as I was invited by the Director of Islamiska Society in Jablanica. The invitation card was beautifully decorated with Islamic greetings. I was happy to see that the commanding officer of Mal Bat and some officers were also invited for the ceremony.
The Eid function was held in the grounds of the museum and the whole population of the town was there to partake in the activities organised for the day. Five imams dressed immaculately in their cloaks and headgears (red and white Turkish style hats) were seated on one table and they worked in conjunction with the Islamic society to present the Eid programme. The main speakers and a group of young lady qaseeda singers assembled at the other end of the stage. Huge loudspeakers and full TV camera team was present. Luckily the sun was out and the day could not be more perfect for the occasion. Sun shone brightly and the snowcapped hills gleamed. The festival opened with the most beautiful recitation of the Qur’an and the leading Imam welcomed all, first with thanks to Allah for His blessings that they were alive, and then a whole message for those who were martyred and killed in this terrible war. The tributes were paid to the shaheeds and the solace and comfort to their families. Many tears quietly rolled down many faces.
The speakers spoke fluently and briefly and in between, the valley echoed with qaseeda songs and kalima. A perfectly beautiful setting for the glory of God! The surrounding grounds were filled with children, women and men, each greeting the other with a polite smile. At intervals, freshly baked buns and kebab sandwich was also distributed among people. The whole atmosphere was breathtaking. There was no shouting, no chaos and no disturbance or unpleasantness that we witness sometimes in the mosques in England.
The whole program lasted for over three hours. Every body joined in the zikr
and the program ended beautifully. The scene had been different some months
ago when bombs and grenade fell on this city killing 144 people. Many people
had spent winter in hunger but they were alhamdullilah alive today and they
were grateful for this. The children particularly enjoyed this day although
there were no toys or presents for them. Despite seeing so much of suffering,
they smiled endearingly.