Bosnia – Herzegovina … Fire under the Ashes

Bosnia – Herzegovina … Fire under the Ashes

As our plane was overflying the Balkans I remembered Bismarck's sarcastic remark that the Balkans "aren't worth the life of a sea fish". This remark sums up Europe's attitude to the Balkans and uncovers the reason behind its delay in intervening in its conflicts, the last of which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. Three wars were waged by the Serbs against Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina (henceforth B-H). The latter conflict was not a conventional war between two factions but genocide and destruction of hundreds of mosques and minarets, while Europe was still thinking.

Ten years on, tremendous optimism or pessimism can't portray the future or the current situation. Everything there has stood still except for the Serb and Croat fanatics' strong desire to break away from "the Turks" and achieve their high national ambitions.

However grim this picture is, joining the European Union is the faint ray of hope which combines the three factions in B-H: Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians. A close look at the position of the European community shows that they are in favour of a united Bosnian state. Civilized Europe may ignore fires breaking out beyond its borders, but it doesn't accept moral failure or field inaction on its land as happened in the town of Srebrenica.

With the plane nearing landing at Sarajevo airport, and like all passengers visiting a place for the first time, my curiosity made me pull the window curtain to see what was on the ground. Before landing I was preoccupied with thinking about what I watched and read about the siege of the city by Serbian forces and comparing it with the actual scene. Fifteen minutes before landing, at 6 p.m., I saw Sarajevo a city enclosed with a mountain chain a picture of self-terror which does not need a sniper or heavy artillery flattening houses, mosques and churches. For a brief moment I recalled the six-hour adventure of the late French President Francois Mitterrand in 1992 at the besieged Sarajevo airport to help allow the delivery of humanitarian aid for 300,000 civilian Muslims besieged by the Serb forces. He escaped being shot upon his return from a meeting with Bosnian leaders in Sarajevo and took shelter in the airport building until the hostilities stopped.

There were blank spaces among the wooded mountains which we thought were grazed by the Serb forces to be used as artillery launching ground for example, but in reality, the dwellers of nearby slums during the war had to cut the trees for cooking and heating in winter.

Wounds heal slowly

We left Sarajevo airport in the modern part of the city and went to old Sarajevo where our hotel wars. Signs of shelling and snipers' bullets could still be seen, with the buildings near to the airport bearing the brunt of damage, in addition to completely destroyed government buildings. Among the scenes were more than one mosque built after the war, including Indonesia Mosque and King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Mosque, whose spaciousness and architectural style reflect the spirit of the place they come from.

Looking at the scattered houses on the mountains we saw a number of mass graves dug among the houses or in any empty space because it was impossible during the siege of Sarajevo to bury the dead properly with snipers everywhere. In Sarajevo alone, the Serbs killed ten thousand civilians, including two children on a bus whose bodies were cut into pieces by antiaircraft guns!

On our way I counted tens of houses damaged during the war; however, there are clear indications that Bosnia is witnessing a period of reconstruction: the new office and apartment buildings, renovation of the road network, generous incentives for foreign investors, partnerships with official institutions, such as the Kuwait Investment Authority, which shares huge industrial projects with the Bosnian government, large billboards in main streets, tourism boom, which reflects security and stability, and the cleanliness of Sarajevo, like any European capital keen to build up its reputation.

We arrived at the hotel which the Bosnian ambassador to Kuwait Sharif Moikanfic chose and found suitable for us as journalists. It is located in the busy old city centre which is bustling with life and contains tens of religious, historical and cultural landmarks.

Ferhadia... the commercial hub of the city

Ferhadia is the main and most popular street in Sarajevo, with open and shaded coffee shops, small restaurants, boutiques. Looking at people's faces I couldn't distinguish Croats from Serbs or Bosnians. Their features are pretty similar to the Russians', except for the fact that the Russians are taller. Fortunately, the street is a pedestrian precinct. The first landmark we saw was the Turkish bazaar. A short distance from where I stood is the Mosque of the Gazi Husreff Bey, next to which is his mausoleum. When I entered the mosque's yard, there was a fragrant odour which emanated from I source I didn't know. I asked one of the worshippers who pointed to a huge tree which gives off such an odour at this time of year. The mosque was full of worshippers_men and women_as well as visitors to this prominent historical and religious landmark.

With nightfall our short tour came to an end and we heard the muezzin of the Mosque of the Gazi Husreff Bey call to the maghrib (sunset) prayer.

Religious and linguistic influences

One may wonder why this compound name: (B-H). The answer is : geographically, Bosnia refers to the central, eastern and western regions, whereas Herzegovina refers to the Neretva basin region. Politically, both were separated in the past by the Ivan mountain range but were later united by the king of Bosnia Ban Kotromanic (1322-1533) and have since then been one united country. Herzegovina was named after a king of the region.

The people of B-H are descendants of the large Slav family, and during the Ottoman rule (1463-1878) many Bosnians embraced Islam and adopted many aspects of the Turks' lifestyle.

Dr. Anas Karic, Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at Sarajevo University and a former Minister of Education and Culture, told us in his office about the influence of Arab and Islamic culture on the Balkans which started even before the Ottoman conquests through contacts with the Arabs of Sicily, South Italy and Andalusia, pointing out that thousands of words and sentence structures in the Balkan languages are of Arabic origin. However, Serbo-Croat (the national language of B-H), was influenced by Turkish earlier, and many words used by the three factions Serbs, Croats and Bosnians are of Turkish origin. Arabic words are used in certain situations for religious considerations.

Asked to what extent Islamic studies were popular among young Bosnian Muslims, Dr Karic said the number of male and female students at the co-educational faculty was 770 in three main departments: Principles of Religion, Islamic Education and Imams. The latter department is designed to train imams and teachers. The Faculty is fully funded by the Islamic Professoriate. As for the standard of Arabic in the faculty curriculum, Dr Karic said there was an acute shortage of teachers as well as of books and modern educational audio recordings. The students, he said, came from the impoverished peasant, working and disadvantaged classes and they were in need of cultural and educational support and academic exchange programmers with the Arab world.

As Dr Asaad Drakovic, Professor of Arabic at the Faculty of Philosophy, pointed out, Bosnian scholars had been writing in Arabic, Turkish and Persian since the days of the Ottomans. These scholars, the prominent among whom numbered three hundred, wrote about philosophy, (scholastic) theology, religion, etc. He stressed the status of Arabic in Bosnia: "We Bosnians don't regard Arabic as a foreign language but rather part and parcel of our culture at this time when we hope to boost academic exchange between us and the Arab world. Nowadays a group of our students go to Cairo for three months each to develop their linguistic skills". He affirmed that the Department of Arabic at Sarajevo University is one of the best in Europe. The students study Arabic literature from the pre-Islamic era to the present time. The future of Arabic, he said, depended on the amount of academic and financial support from the Arab countries. He suddenly looked displeased saying: "I wonder how the Arab ambassadors in Sarajevo, except the Egyptian ambassador, don't know that there is an Arabic teaching department in Bosnia and don't care to visit it." His frankness encouraged me to ask him a question frequently asked during the tragic events in B-H and Arabs' and Muslims' sense of solidarity with its people: how adequate is our knowledge of Bosnian Muslims, and how adequate is their knowledge of us? What's their position on Arabic and Islamic causes? He smiled and said: "We Bosnians have always been attached to you world. The problem is the political regimes, including the Austrians and the communists, which for over a century prevented us from building bridges between us and you. But since independence our relations with the Arab and Muslim world have witnessed a new era." Dr. Drakovic has translated a number of Arabic books, including the Arabian Nights. He has also translated the meanings of the Glorious Quran from the stylistic aspect, in addition to pre-Islamic poetry, some of Jubran's works and recently a work by the Lebanese novelist Hanan Alsheikh.

Wearing head scarves (hijab) is very common in B-H. Muslim women, of all age groups, wearing them are widely seen in Sarajevo's streets, and it is no exaggeration to say that young women are more careful than their mothers and grandmothers to cover their hair completely. It seems that B-H's liberation from the communist rule released their hidden cultural and religious values for the first time since the Ottomans left in 1878. In addition, the civil war played a key role in redefining the Bosnians' identity. They used to say they were Yugoslavs, but with the collapse of Yugoslavia they became Bosnians. And as they were killed, displaced and raped only because they were Muslims, they had no alternative but to stick to their identity on par with Serbs and Croats. As far as their relation with Islam is concerned, religious and other scholars stressed that they in B-H: "are not in need of anybody to teach us the principles of religion, as Islam has for five centuries been established and deep-rooted in their hearts and minds, and communism and Christian missionary campaigns failed to convert them." What they did want was the provision of Arabic teachers and some funds to print their works, especially those translations into Serbo-Croat of the most famous Arabic books on religion, literature and poetry. They asked us to publish this appeal on Al-Arabi's pages.

Husreff-Bey, the founder of Sarajevo

The Gazi Husreff Bey is the real founder of Sarajevo. He was the wali (governor) of the region of Bosnia from 1521 to 1541. He led a number of military campaigns himself against Dalmatia, Croatia and Hungary. He was raised and brought up and highly educated in the sultan's palace in Istanbul. He was very interested in construction and urban development in Sarajevo. That's why he was closely attached to it, and he asked to be buried in the courtyard of his mosque, which was built in 1531 and is considered one of the largest and most beautiful in B-H. Next to it were built a Quranic school and a school for learning Sufism. The value of the Quranic school's endowment in 1537 was 700,000 dirhams.

Director of the Gazi Husreff-Bey's Library Mustafa Yahic gave us a brief account of its history saying it established in 1450 and is one of the oldest in Sarajevo and the most important in Europe. The library holds ten thousand manuscripts and twenty thousand books in all fields of knowledge, mainly in Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Serbo-Croat. He showed us samples of such rare manuscripts, including a small copy of the Glorious Quran wrapped in leather to be easily carried by army commanders, an anthology in Serbo-Croat and a gold-plated copy of the Glorious Quran with interpretations from Dagestan. As expected, the library was one of the main targets for shelling during the war. To protect its holdings, Mr Yahic and others hid them in the home of Chief Religious Scholar until the war ended. A project funded by the Qatari government is under way to build a new library near the Gazi Husreff-Bey Mosque. Mr Yahic referred to the facilities which the Jumaa Al-Majid Centre from the UAE provided for the library, including special equipment for manuscript restoration. The library also received digital equipment for manuscript photocopying, storage on CDs and microfilming form Astas Institute in Malaysia. Al-Furqan Institution in London has printed the library's indexes. The library has signed a three-year agreement with Alexandria Library for the restoration of over 30,000 Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts.

After four centuries as an Ottoman province where Sharia law, firmans and Ottoman regulations were in force, B-H entered a new era by falling under Austro-Hungarien colonialism, having been let down for good by the Turks in the Berlin Treaty. The B-H "provinces" remained under occupation for forty years. A chain of unexpected events led to that situation. In 1877 Russia declared war on the Ottomans in revenge for the defeat of its allies Serbia and Montenegro. Russia won the war and achieved many gains in the San Stefano Treaty, which the Austro-Hungarian Empire didn't like because of changes in the balance of power in the Balkans in favour of the Russians. Vienna exercised pressure and succeeded with other European countries in holding another conference in Berlin where the spoils were once again shared. B-H went to the Austrians, and Macedonia was ceded from Bulgaria and given to the Ottomans, and Serbia and Montenegro became independent. In accordance with the treaty over a quarter of a million Austro-Hungarian soldiers entered B-H, and the country was put under military administration for four years following armed resistance. A civilian administration took over in 1882 and started implementing the so-called "Bosnia Modernization Project".

The first thing Vienna was careful to do was diminishing Bosnian Muslims' religious and political ties with Istanbul as far as possible and took a number of measures to this effect, including introducing the post of Chief Religious Scholar and setting up a scholars' council to be the supreme authority for the administration and organization of Bosnian Muslims' religious affairs." A religious school was established in 1888 (it became the Faculty of Islamic Studies later) to graduate religious judges. The late Mufti of Egypt Sheikh Muhammad Abdou (1849-1905) praised that school and recommended that the Egyptian government establish a similar one.

Genocide every forty years

Serbia has always seen B-H as a lebensraum for "Greater Serbia" and as a Serbian land occupied by the Ottomans who implanted an alien religion Islam in the Balkans. That's also Croatia's view of "Greater Croatia". As for the Bosnian Muslims they have a special schedule (not widely focused on in the media) for genocide and ethnic cleansing overy forty years: Srebenicia, and forty years curlier the second World War massacres in which 75,000 Muslims died.

To understand why the Bosnian Muslims in particular insist on joining the European Union, we need to consider two important things: First, their fear of another genocide after thirty years; second, the geopolitical nature of B-H which harbours Serb and Croat fanatics' expansionist ambitions.

The Bosnian Serb Republic, which was established under the Dayton Peace Accord, occupies almost half of the land of B-H and has two ministries of defence and the interior. Moreover, they have a common border with Serbia. Likewise, the Croats have a common border with the Croatian Republic. Bosnians' insistence on the creation of a united democratic, multi-ethnic republic, a member of the European Union is a good option which guarantees survival and provides many benefits in terms of economic, political and security networking.

I asked Dr Fikrat Karich, professor of comparative law about the feasibility of B-H joining the European Union, and his answer was: "Europe, which failed to stop the slaughter of the Bosnians, is morally obliged to accept their membership. From the legal and objective point of view, I stress that B-H's joining is much easier then Turkey's because it has a predominantly Muslim population of 90 million, which upsets Europe's Christian structure. But Bosnia is a small country in terms of size and population with a balanced multi-religious structure. Opening on Europe may stir the concerns of some conservative Muslims that B-H's Muslim identity may be affected, but Kartic says: "These concerns are baseless, for the constitution of the European Union attached considerable importance to the issue of minorities in general. Another positive advantage is increased communication among Muslim minorities in Europe because borders between member states will disappear."

In Bosnia, there are Serbs and Croats who support a united state of B-H, among whom is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Culture in the federal Bosnian government, Gabriel Grahovats, an Irthodox Serb. He talked about the multiplicity of educational curricula in B-H and its negative influence on the thinking of the coming generations saying: "One of the weaknesses of the Dayton Peace Accord is that it hasn't been properly implemented. It only stopped the war, but the country has been partitioned and there is no unified curriculum at state level, with each nationality having its own distict curriculum. "He added:" Until recently B-H represented a unique case of peaceful coexistence among three main religions For a thousand years we have maintained our unity at cultural level, with known political borders. Many Serbs and Croats, unfortunately, don't recognize this today." Asked why he adhered to B-H though he is a Serb he answered: "We were born in Bosnia and got accustomed to seeing mosques next to Catholic and Orthodox churches For the sake of a united Bosnia we support Muslims despite the differences among us."

Srebenicia the day of burial with dignity

Attending the event marking the tenth anniversary of the massacre of Srebenicia was the highlight of our trip to B-H. The programme was very simple: symbolic opera singing, speeches by some officials, shortened noon and afternoon prayers, funeral prayer for 610 martyrs. However, the programme continued until midnight, because the Serbian police blocked our return road and made the journey back home of thousands of the elderly and children a human tragedy to be added to Srebenicia's tragedy record.

A few days before the anniversary, a group of young Bosnians walked through the rugged mountains, following the same route of the survivors of the massacre. This symbolic march ended in the centre of the venue of the event, a large grave for eight thousand martyrs killed by the Serb militias in a single day. This grave was dug two years ago and the victims of mass graves are buried in it on the eleventh of July every year. I asked one of the organizers why they used the word "celebration" to refer to that tragic event, and his well-spoken answer was: "Because martyrs will at last be buried with dignity after the humiliation of burial in mass graves."

When we arrived at the site of the martyrs' grave we saw green coffins carefully arranged on the green grass and covered with plastic rugs to protect them from the rain. The people of Srebenicia came in droves to the site since the early morning, and their number, together with that of the relatives of the victims who were buried last year and sympathizers, was said to reach 50,000. Recitals from the Glorious Quran made the scene more serene:

Srebenicia, with its 60,000 Muslim inhabitants, was a UN "safe area" during the war and was protected by a blue-bereted 370 strong Dutch contingent. Serb forces led by war criminal Ratko Miladic (fugitive in the Serbian Republic) laid siege to the town and collected the town's men and sent them on trucks to an unknown destination with the cowardly Dutch force just watching. On 10-11 July 1995 the Serb forces slaughtered eight thousand unarmed Muslim and buried them in hundreds of mass graves, the location of some of which is still unknown. The Serb committed another crime: raping pretty women after separating them in a faraway place.

This Serb crime is regarded as the first ethnic cleansing and genocide in Europe since the Holocaust in the Second World War. An International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugaslavia has been formed, and the Bosnian Serb Republic under international pressure confessed to the crime in a report by a special commission which avoided the word "genocide" and used the phrase "serious human rights violations" instead. The report revealed the presence of 32 mass graves uncovered for the first time, including some graves which were desecrated and the remains were moved to other locations to remove all signs of the crime. As Dr Kartic pointed out, under international law the Srebenicia massacre is genocide, as adopted by the above Tribunal and the US Congress.

Unsolved critical issues

The end of the war in B-H may have put an end to bloodshed, displacement and intimidation, but the consequences of that war are still felt. According to the estimates of the UN special mine centre there are almost 750,000 land mines in about 30,000 areas in B-H, and 30-35 people are hit by such mines monthly. The fate of 16,000 people is still unknown, as reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross which issued a special book (sixth edition so far) containing the names of the missing in B-H to help in the search effort. Though the identities of the remains of many of the missing have been identified, their relatives still refer to the committee for help in the search process.

A social aspect not much covered by the media is the damage done to families mixed in terms of religion and sect. There are more than half a million mixed marriages in B-H, which made me ask: "Weren't these ties strong enough to prevent the war?" The answer was: "A single match can start a fire."

Mostar, the meeting place of the revealed religions

In Mostar, there is another story which shows the crack which developed in the toleration and cultural diversity which characterized B-H in Europe. The conflict there was between the Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats at a time they were both in a pressing need to unite against their arch enemy-the Serbs.

The town of Mostar, which means the old bridge in Serbo-Croat, is 120 km south of Sarajevo. Its population is balanced in terms of nationality: Muslims (35%), Croats (34%) and Serbs (19%). The historical Mostar Bridge, built by Ottomans in 1566, has over the ages been a symbol of coexistence and tolerance between Muslims and Christians as it links both parts of the town. It is also a source of inspiration for many painters, and is a small model of B-H. Bosnian Minister of Education and Culture Gabriel Grahofats considers the bridge "The first bridge that symbolically links the Islamic and Christian civilizations in this part of the world."

During the war, the Muslims and Croats formed a military alliance against the Serbs, but, suddenly, of Croat fanatics changed course because of false calculations that made them think it was possible to have their own state with Mostar, the more famous and beautiful town inhabited by the Croats, its capital after annexing the Muslim part. In a clumsy attempt by an ignorant commander to cut the ties of friendship and peace between the Croats and Muslims he ordered his troops on 9 November 1993 to destroy the bridge by tank fire.

Rebuilding the bridge, which is an important UNESCO world heritage site, cost US$ 15m. A historic celeburation to mark the reopening of the bridge after eleven years was held on 23 July 2004 and was joined by representatives of many countries and tens of thousands of jubilant Bosnians Another story of religious tolerance replies to Bismarck's remark saying: The Balkans are worth living more than once. And at Mostar, our trip to B-H came to a close.


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


The Mostar Bridge completely destroyed

A stone reminding people pf the days of the bitter war

The historical Mostar Bridge after rebuilding

Ferhadia street, the main street bustling with life in Sarajevo. Many of the city's prominent landmark can be seen walking along it

Only this burnt building with signs of bullets is all that remained from the National Library. Serb artillery burnt thousands of rare book and manuscripts which the library held. The library is in need of assistance to function again

Bosnian Serb police guard Srebrenica annual celebration at the end of which they stopped thousands from the victims' relatives from going back home till midnight

The Gazi Husreff-Bey Mosque, one of the largest and most beautiful in B-H

A map showing the republic of B-H lying between the Serbs and Croats. The map also shows Al-Arabi mission's route

Dr Anas Karic shows his translation of the meanings of the Glorious Quran into Serbo-Croat

In peace and quiet, this Bosnian Muslim girl visits the grave pf a martyr relative, reading some Quranic verses on the day of burial with dignity

The annual celebration of burial of the victims of the Srebenicia massacre. Bosnian photographer Tariq Al-Samra shot the remains of one of the victims of the massacre tied with ropes

Chief Religious Scholar Dr Mustafa Tsiric

A rare gold-plated copy of the Glorious Quran with interpretations in Serbo-Croat. The Gazi Hussreff-Bey Library

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Caltuse in the federal government of Bosnia, Dr Gabriel Grahofats

A Bosnian Muslim girl asking God to have mercy on the eight thousand victims of the Srebenicia massacre

Former Bosnian Prime Minister Dr Haris Silazdic

Mass graves from the days of the siege of Sarajevo. They are open to visitors now

Mass graves from the days of the siege of Sarajevo. They are open to visitors now

Mass graves from the days of the siege of Sarajevo. They are open to visitors now

A familiar scene of an Orthodox church in Sarajevo, with mosques and Catholic churches nearly

A cross fixed on the mountain top by Croat fanatics following their defeat in Mostar, indicating their intention to return in the future. The victorious Muslims left the cross in its place as a credit for them

Supporters of a united Bosnian state carrying their union flag shouting "One united state for all"

The Jewish cemetery is Sarajevo... a historical sign of Bosnians' tolerance with other religions and cultures. The first survivors of the Spanish Inquisition were buried there following the fall of Granada and expulsion of the Muslims in 1492

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