08-07-2007, 10:04 PM
Kamilla: she dared where many men hesitated
written by Suleman Ahmer, Operations Manager
It was very cold on the night of October 27, 1992; winters arrive early in Austria. A few people huddled in a small glass waiting room in the Vienna train station. I noticed people staring at us. Two bearded Asians didn't quite fit in. The big clock on the wall ticked noisily; it was almost midnight. Another few minutes before the train left for Zagreb in war torn Croatia. I shivered and anyone watching could have easily mistaken it for cold. I knew it better: it was fear.
I took a deep breath and sat back, my hands deep inside my pockets. The previous months whirled by. It had been very hectic: the decision to go to Bosnia; interrupting my graduate studies; taking permission from my family; discovering that Abbas wanted to come along; and then the million dollar question: 'How in the world are we going to get to Bosnia?'
"There is a train," a friend had told us, "that goes to Zagreb from Vienna in the night. That's your best bet. Croatia is a new country and the immigration people on the train stations are not that vigilant. They might let you in. Going to Bosnia from Croatia should be relatively easy."
And here we were with a telephone number of someone in Croatia, as our only tangible plan; a couple of brothers had gone to Croatia and we were supposed to link up with them. A number, which we later discovered, was as worthless as the worn-out piece of paper it was written on. A Bosnian Brother had told us of Muslims being detained while trying to get into Croatia. I was beseeched by thoughts that day: 'am I crazy? Is this a right decision: going from the luxury of a certain life to this madness of uncertainty. We still had time and maybe we should just turn back.'
The train blew furiously at the whistle, jolting me out of my thoughts. Everybody started hastening towards the door. We followed with our bags. The train was ready to go. The moment had arrived.
As two strangers boarded the train that fateful night-one of them scared-a young girl on the other side of Europe was calmly planning her moves. There was no hesitation on her part: no afterthoughts. If she could have seen the hurried boarding of these two men in Vienna and read their thoughts, she would have smiled.
Fate brought us together for a few moments. I dedicate this story to explain why those moments are one of the most unforgettable ones in my life.
We drifted into sleep as the train rumbled off. Our car was empty. We entered Slovenia, a former province of Yugoslavia. The Slovenes would question people passing through their territory and harass Muslims. We had been advised by our friend to lock our compartment and ignore all knocks. We would have definitely slept through but what confronted us were bangs: loud bangs. Jolted out of sleep we stared at each other. Yes sir, the Slovenian border patrol would like to have a word with the two highnesses.
"Going to Jeeth-had." said one, eyeing us suspiciously.
We politely indicated our failure to understand. If they had meant Jihad, well, the pronunciation was off, way off.
"Jeeth-had, Jeeth-had!" said another one, pointing towards his gun.
"Oh no," we managed a smile, "Humantarna pomoch (humanitarian help)." The Serbo-Croation phrase book had finally proven it's worth.
Out came a list of names. With our Pakistani Passports in their hands-the "Islamic Republic" boldly starring at all of us-the name tallying started. There were Mohammeds, Ibrahims, Yousefs, Abdullahs and Abdur-Rahmans. There must have been over 300 names.
We held our breaths. By the grace of Allah, no one named Abbas or Suleman had done any wrong to earn a place on that list. "You have a few hours," warned the chief, clearly disappointed with the absence of our names on the list. "Go back to Vienna or continue to Zagreb. Just clear off Slovenia."
"Sure, sure, no problem," relief dripped in invisible drops from our faces, "Hvala, Hvala (thanks, thanks)."
The plan was to get up an hour before Zagreb and rehearse what we would say and how to protest if things went awry.
The stopping jerks of train woke us up. The relief of not getting into trouble in Slovenia had worked as a tranquilizer. Suddenly there was calm. The 7 o'clock Sun lit up the compartment.
Zagreb had come!
Pulling our things together, we broke into a rush.
'What were we supposed to say?' The phrase book hid itself somewhere. 'Dobar Dan' meant 'good morning' or was it 'good night'. Maybe it was 'I am hungry'. No, no that was 'Jasem Gladan'….
The tap in the door was gentle this time. It reminded me of the famous saying,"Barking dogs seldom bite." It was the thought of what could be the converse that made me a little uncomfortable.
One exclaimed on seeing our passports, "Pakistanats." Which roughly translated into 'Pakistanis'. We nodded. To our utmost surprise, our nods were met with smiles and handshakes. "Pakistan is our friend," said one turning to the other; " It was among the first countries to recognize Croatia."
In no time our passports were stamped and we were on our way, thanking Allah and bewildered at the simplicity of the matter. Few physical steps were as significant as the ones we took that morning to step outside the station. It seemed as if by magic, we had entered a new world. The old world that we knew was some where in history: remote and unreachable. Our new adopted one lay ahead.
For the first time in days I suddenly became aware of the freshness of the air and the chirping of the birds; somehow the surroundings looked a lot more colorful, the grass greener, and the sky a bit bluer! I can now better understand how Alice must have felt in wonderland-Enchanted! The dream of going to Bosnia had materialized into a not too distinct reality.
Again as we, clutching our bags, clumsily entered the realm of our newfound uncharted territory; the same girl, in sharp contrast, confidently made her way to her job with her letter of resignation in her bag.
We soon hooked up with other foreign Muslim relief workers and time flew by. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims languished in Croatian refugee camps. Armed with a few thousand dollars that we had collected and tons of goodwill, we kept ourselves busy while planning for our ultimate move into Bosnia: we distributed flour, oil, baby-milk, detergent and medicines.
It was the first time that I was confronted with staring into the eyes of a tragedy so deep that it defied limits-shattered families with heart-wrenching tales of death and pain. At times I felt as if this tragedy had invisible hands, reaching out and choking my heart.
On the outskirts of the City of Split in Croatia was a house where Muslim relief workers got together in the evenings. With constant additions and subtractions, it was an interesting group. We had brothers from Egypt, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria… The list was long. We would sip coffee and chat, exchanging stories and sharing notes. And yes, we found our smiles and laughter. It was an oasis of joy in the never-ending expanse of grief.
It was in one such meeting that we found out that a group of around 2,000 refugees had been placed in a remote part of Croatia. Public transportation was non-existent and refugees had no access to private transportation. Few relief supplies found their way there. Deciding to help, we arranged for supplies and in a couple of days set off towards Orebic¢ ( O-re-bich). We had close to 5 tons of flour, powder milk, sugar, cooking oil and washing detergent.
Croatia has a few hundred miles of mountainous coast along the Adriatic Sea that starts a few miles short of Triste in Italy and extends all the way South to Dubrovnik, a historical Croatian town. Little islands sprinkled in the calm, blue waters of the Adriatic beautify this mile upon miles of coastline. Remaining within the murmurs of the waves, a highway twists and turns along the coast. Along the way lie picturesque fishing villages and hamlets with roadside cafes, brick homes and cobblestone streets. Bigger villages have small harbors where fishing boats and trawlers rock with the breeze. 190 miles south on this beautiful coast lies the city of Split-a major port and a tourist resort. 95 miles further south is a peninsula called Peljesac (Pel-ye-shats) which extends northward---almost parallel to the mainland-carving a narrow V out of the sea. Villages on the coast of mainland and the peninsula face each other. Orebic¢ lies at the northern tip of Peljesac. Rather than going south to the base of the peninsula and then going north, you can take a ferry from Ploce¢ (PLO-SHAY), reducing the travel time by almost two hours.
It was almost 2:00 PM when our truck rumbled on to the ferry. We got out and leaned across the rails. The waves striking the hull sent a fine mist all over the ferry. It was beautiful. Small islands with thick dark woods glided backward and Ploce¢ slowly disappeared. Sea gulls initially circled the ferry and then lost interest. Soon the ferry had docked.
The truck roared and groaned for two hours in the Mountains and we finally arrived in Orebic.
The sight was breathtaking! It was a clear day with a few wisps of pure white clouds. The calm and deep blue waters of the Adriatic-dotted with Islands-extended westward, blending into the lighter blue of the sky. The waves sparkled in the Sun, dancing around the few fishing boats lazily swaying in the breeze. Orebic¢ has brick and stone homes with small pretty gardens; others have small vineyards with the vines reaching out to the stone walls obscuring windows and roofs with foliage. In the times of peace the town would bustle with tourists from countries with harsh winters. Every third home has a bread and breakfast arrangement where tourists would spend days, even weeks, enjoying time as it almost comes to a stop in Orebic.
The town was conspicuously empty then. Stripped of its tourist income, many had gone to bigger towns to make ends meet. Many young men were drafted into the Croatian Army. Although Orebic¢'s remoteness helped it avoid the physical scars of the war, the social and economic hardships were apparent.
The war had brought about another change in the town: Bosnian refugees. Over 2,000 of them were cramped into a few of the Government rest houses; many were the survivors of massacres and concentration camps, escaping with only the clothes on their backs. Few families were intact. The others were a saga of dear ones painfully lost to the flames of a war that came suddenly and left their hopes, dreams and lives in smoldering memories.
Coming to know these people was coming to grip with this reality. " The Serb troops promised us that if we surrendered, no one would be hurt," said Ameer, an elder from a village of around 200 people near Brcko in Bosnia." We had little to defend anyway. They came the next day, lined us up and took 9 young girls away, some in their early teens. We couldn't even protest".
Ameer convinced over 60 of the villagers to escape before the Serbs came back. Ameer led them into the wilderness that night; walking for days, hiding from Serb Patrols, battling fatigue, thirst and hunger they finally reached the Muslim held area. The Serbs razed the village to the ground the next day and took the remaining to concentration camps where many later died.
We met with the refugees that day and delivered the supplies. As the truck was empty, we made it back in good time; yet the journey felt like ages as our hearts were heavy with grief with the stories we had heard.
We made Orebic¢ one of our distribution points where we would show up now and then with flour, cooking oil, canned tuna, sugar, soap and detergent. Once we received a donation of over 50 new overcoats for children. Ameer, who was also the representative of the refugees, refused to distribute them. " The ones who would not receive the coats may blame me for not being fair," he said and asked if we could stay over and distribute them.
We came up with a formula that every one would agree upon. We started with the kids who had lost both fathers and mothers, then the ones without fathers and so on. The younger would get preference. Abbas and I would put the coat on each child and we would stand back to see if it fitted. If it didn't, we would promise to bring one next time. If it did, the child would get a hug. The child would smile, the eyes lighting up with joy. When you are stripped of all possessions, even small things mean a lot.
It was one of the best evenings of my life. The adults were smiling to see the kids laugh. I caught sight of many, hurriedly wiping off tears. They didn't want the kids to see them cry, I guess. Memories of good times-in not too-distant past-must have come flooding in. Abbas and I were more successful: we managed to laugh and crack jokes in our broken Bosnian. As the kids laughed at our strange pronunciation, our hearts were wrenching out. That night as we drove back, I wept, careful to keep the sobs to myself lest Zahruddin(our driver) or Abbas found out.
I once came upon an old man in Orebic¢, crippled by tortures in a Serb concentration camp. He spoke of how people were forced to drink used motor oil, whipped, beaten and left bleeding to death.
We exchanged names. On hearing my name he clung to me and wept bitterly. My name 'Yousef', as I was called in Bosnia, reminded him of his son. The Serbs had asked him the number of his sons. When he had replied one, they had dragged Yousef in front of him. "Now you have none!" They had said, as they slit his throat in front of the father's eyes. I will never forget the embrace of that broken old man as his tears drenched the collar of my shirt.
In a few trips, the refugees in Orebic¢ had warmed up to us. The children would especially wait for us, as we would bring donated candy and toys. It was late December 1992 when Zahruddin and I arrived with a vanload of supplies. As the van was being unloaded, the kids gathered around. They had all sort of stories to tell: new refugees had arrived, Croat authorities were giving troubles, a car had been stolen...This time they had a new story: a guest had come from England two weeks ago. " She is so nice!" they exclaimed, " She helps us around and plays with us too."
I first thought of missionaries." let's go Yousef," one of them interrupted my thoughts, "She is not that far away." I started to walk as information poured in: She teaches Quran-that dealt a blow to the missionary theory - and is all alone! My curiosity was growing with every step. The children took me to a home where some of the refugees lived. I sat down and waited as the lady was called.
"Assalamualaikum brother Yousef." I noticed the British accent, " The refugees had told me about you and brother Abbas."
She was around 20 years of age with South Indian features, not more than 5 feet tall; her slight built would not let her look short. She looked simple in a hijab: someone you would hardly noticed on an average day in a Muslim country. In Orebic, that December afternoon, she was nothing less than a mystery. I was seized with curiosity: 'who is she? What made her come? How did she make it…'
I returned her salam and sipped on the dark bitter coffee-the only expression of hospitality that life in exile allowed the Bosnians. "I have gathered that you will be visiting the other rest house." she started out, "I would like to come along as I have to visit a seriously ill girl there."
The other camp was less than 15 miles away. As the Zahruddin negotiated the turns of the hilly road, sister Kamilla unfolded her story. Her parents had immigrated to England where she was born. After graduation she had taken a secretarial job in a company in London. Moved by the sufferings of the Bosnian Muslims, she couldn't bear to silently watch. She had resigned from her work and convinced the leader of a Muslim relief convoy to take her along. Citing the perils of war, they had refused to take her into Bosnia and had dropped her in Orebic'. The convoy was long gone.
The camp had arrived by then. I went off with Zahruddin to distribute supplies. As I walked around, sister Kamila's account was on my mind. She had spoken passionately, her words brimming with purpose and confidence. It must have taken a lot of courage, I had wondered. I was moved. I know many men who had thought of this step, only to be overcome by fear. And as I reflected back on the night in the Vienna train station, my own hesitations shamed me as never before.
We visited the girl that Kamila had come to see. She was epileptic and the war had aggravated the conditions. She was in her twenties and appeared almost like a skeleton, with an ashen face and sullen gray eyes. I will never forget the eyes: their quietness was so eerie and disturbing that it dominated the whole atmosphere. It was as if she had moved beyond pain. She had fell a number of times, her face showing cuts and bruises. She had very old parents who sat by her side. As I look back I can liken her to a fresh rose suddenly torn off by a violent storm, its life painfully ebbing away from its moist petals.
I noticed how Kamila hugged and comforted her. "The medicines would be here soon." Kamila promised, "I will visit you regularly." Her words held out what that the family was desperately looking for: hope. As we left, I caught the parents managing a weak smile.
On the way back I was worried. Kamila had taken a brave step. What if the going gets tough? There were rumors that the Croatians may force the refugees back into Bosnia. Worst still, trade Muslim refugees with the Bosnian Croat refugees being held by the Serbs. What would Kamila do? Being a Muslim and a foreigner, she could be easily singled out for harassment. Orebic was so remote; help could be days away. She could stay in Split, a city that had many of the Muslim relief organizations with better living conditions. After expressing my fears to her on the way back I took a deep breath, " Sister,"I said, "We shall be returning tonight. Why don't you come along? I really think it would be safer in Split." She smiled and I remember her saying something to the effect: "No brother Yousef, I'll be fine here. My life and death is with the refugees. Allah is with me."
We were back in Orebic¢. Like always, some of the refugees had gathered to see us off and among them was Kamila. I caught sight of her and almost panicked. ' I just can't let her take this risk' I thought to myself, 'she is so young and inexperienced.' My earlier fears flooded my mind. I walked up to her, " Sister please think again." I started out, my voice laden with urgency, "We will be leaving in a few moments and you can come. It could be weeks before we return."
I glanced at the sea. The waves were catching the last rays of the sunset. The wind had picked up, gently tugging the evening fog inland. I could taste the salt, mixed with the moisture of the fog. In the distance, large dark clouds loomed. A storm was on its way. That moment of silence almost froze in time only to be interrupted by her voice: "Brother Yousef," she was calm and composed, "I will stay."
I turned around and waved to the group. The van lurched forward and so did time. In the rear-view mirror I could see the people dispersing. Soon the view started meshing with the shadows. We were soon out of Orebic¢, ascending the mountains. I took a last look. Lights glimmered, slowly fading away with their reflections dancing on the waves. The fog had moved in, wrapping the town in an eerie darkness.
I was deep in thought. Many would question what a young girl could do in such circumstances. The scene of Kamila comforting the epileptic girl drifted into my mind. The last few hours spoke differently. Kamila was a hope that had come to the refugees: a light at the end of the tunnel. A statement to the Bosnians that whatever comes, we Muslims are with you. Kamila's presence was shouting at the refugees: "Good times will come and I want you to believe in it. Why? because I believe in it. Look…I wouldn't be here if I didn't."
The courage of this young sister continues to inspire me. For me, and I hope for others too, Kamila offers a model of courage, self-sacrifice, dedication and above all, the love of this Ummah.
Speeches, talks, protests, and even donations can never pay the price of that one hug that Kamila had given to the sick girl. If this Ummah seeks men and women of action, Kamila will always be there among the forerunners: an example, a model, a beacon.
It was very dark. The stillness of the night broken by the continuous drone of the diesel engine. Zahruddin was silently concentrating on the road; night driving on those mountain roads is treacherous. It had been a long day and fatigue was setting in. I caught myself shivering. I hastily rolled up the window and dozed off, little knowing that it would be months before I would return to Orebic¢; only to find that Kamila was no longer there.
Time flew by. An all out conflict started between the Muslims and the Bosnian-Croats and we got more heavily involved with the city of Mostar. In the end of December I had to leave for the US for a couple of months in a bid to raise funds.
On my return I asked Abbas if he remembered the English sister that I had mentioned to him months ago. "She is fine and still active," he said," She was in Orebic¢ for a while and finally joined Amin's organization. Amin met her when he delivered some supplies there after you left." I knew that through Amin's organization she must have been able to do a lot for Orebic.
Amin was a Sudanese brother who was studying in Bosnia when the war broke out. Fluent in the local language and familiar with the area, he had taken charge of a Muslim Relief Organization. His dedication and hard work had made him an asset for the Muslims.
I recall our conversation moving forward, close to the effect of: "But didn't Amin have a problem with Kamilla not having a Mahram (a male relative)?" I asked. Some people had commented that Kamilla, being a Muslim, should not have traveled without a Mahram. It had troubled me a bit but I had placed that on a lack of a grounded Islamic education when she was growing up in England.
"Well," said Abbas, " She took care of it."
"But how?" I was perplexed.
Abbas paused. "Simple," he then smiled with a twinkle in his eyes; " She married him."
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