By Suleman Ahmer
It was 1:30 a.m pm July 16,1993. The interrogation session wasover. “Time to go to bed” the commander had said. “what an excellent statement,“ I had thought.
Our hands were numb withalmost four hours in handcuffs. We had just learnt that you must never wrestlewith them. They ‘click’ and becometighter. Mine had clicked twice before we arrived for the session; I don’t knowabout Abbas.
By the grace of Allah , the ‘session’ had gone well. The standardfor going well was simple: no broken bones or blood. The return ride wasuneventful except for the fact that we were in the van once again on ourstomachs with those darn handcuffs. The soldier accompanying the driver wouldoccasionally shine light at our faces to make sure that we were not up to anycourageous acts.
As we were driven away, we could hear the Croat artillery poundingaway at the East Mostar only ten miles away.
We missed being in Mostar but found solace in the thought thatthough separated in space,we were finally united with Mostar through the painsthat we were made to endure because of the Croatian assault. Unfortunately,ourpain could not lessen theirs.
Finally the van halted. Ourown van! Captured along with us seventeen days ago when we had taken a wrongturn into the treacherous HVO( Bosnian Croat Militia’s) territory. It was aclassic case of being the wrong people ( Muslims with record of talking aid tothe muslims in Mostar), at the wrong time (the height of the Muslim-Croat war)and at the wrong place (an HVO stronghold southeast of Mostar).
It was dark and very disturbingly quiet. The night was cool withthe fragrance of heavy Bosnian vegetation. A soldier appeared from a wreckedcar. Our handcuffs were removed and we were led to a shed. I noticed that therewere no windows, only openings towards the roof with bars. The guard opened thedoor-a steel sliding one with a latch- and gave us an unceremonious shovebefore locking it. I was expecting , as was the norm , a kick in the back. Hemust have been too sleepy, I guess. Or maybe he had had his share of kickingothers that day.
We found ourselves in pitch darkness holding each other’s hands.Now what? It was interesting how many times this question had come up in thelast few weeks. Once again I was gripped by fear. I was never, I consoledmyself, a very brave person anyway. I was amused at how many different formsand horrendous shapes fear can take; another addition to the long list ofthings that were learnt in captivity.
After a five minutes of soothing our rattling nerves, we started toinch forward. My foot hit someone on the ground and there was a painful groan. Thenthe realization stuck us with a shocking force! What appeared as an unorganizedmass on the floor were humans; breathing, groaning coughing beings. There werehundreds of them, covering every inch of all possible space. The atmosphere washeavy with their breaths. Finally the reality dawned upon us. We had landedourselves in the infamous Croat run concentration camp of Champlina.
The two of us found a little place near the door, hardly enough fora person to sit. We took turns sitting the rest of the night. We were starving,tired and cold. It was one of those times when you wished that it was all adream if you tired hard enough you would wake up. If felt like giving up.
Finally, daylight broke
Dark unrecognizable forms started getting recognizable. It was asif light had sparked life in them. The sight was terrible. We counted around700 of them, packed in an old army shed barely 80 feet by 100 feet. They staredat us with empty faces. We could tell who had been there for long. Long timeswere emaciated with bones jutting out. Some managed to put up a weak smile. Some one gave us a littlespace. Some older men talked about how good Pakistan was in a hope to brightenus up. Some tried expressing gratitude. “these Pakistanis must have donesomething good for us to be in this mess,” I found myself guessing theirthoughts.
They talked about treachery, torture and death; of drinking theirown urine to fight thirst; of men silently dying of illnesses and being draggedout in the middle of the night and shot in cold blood.
They talked until we could hear no more.
What struck me the most was not the physical suffering, but thelack of luster in those sunken eyes. The eyes spoke of despair and utterhelplessness. I had met with war injured, who were in greater pain but theireyes had sparkled with hope. But these were the eyes of the captives withlittle chance of freedom and little hope. That day I truly realized what itmeant to be a prisoner of war. And what it meant to be free. I also looked backto how I had never thanked Allah for the blessing of freedom.
Freedom- to be able to do what you believe in; to accomplish ; toachieve; to plan; to dream and to share your dreams; to be able to cry when youchoose and to laugh when you like.
What I learnt in that misery I could never have learnt in my lifetime.Or for the matter, in many lifetimes! The van came came again at around 9:00a.m and took us away. We were told that there was another interrogation. This timethey ook a single handcuff and cuffed one hand of each of us together. But atleast the other hand was free. This time we successfully managed to get bywithout having the handcuffs click. You learn fast in crisis, as the sayinggoes.
You never, as we had finally learnt, stuggle with handcuffs whenthey are on.
And that you value freedom and remain thankful to Allah for havingit; and that you put it to good use and above all, you never put a price on it.EVER!
Excerpted (with permission) from :”The Embattled Innocence” bySuleman Ahmer