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.
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.
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.
chance to travel with Islamic Relief into the heartland of
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
was a micro-credit loan officer, organizing and collecting loans
from those seeking mainly housing and agricultural loans.
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."
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.
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
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.
bumpy, mountainous roads that need to be conquered in order to
appreciate the visual delights of
terrain's lush vegetation gave way to patches of gray rock as we
struggled up Bjelasnica mountain to reach the
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
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."
Imran Garda is a freelance journalist based in
Muhammad Saley contributed additional research to this article.