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The City, The Girl, And The Little Rag Doll

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    The City, The Girl, And The Little Rag Doll

    A Story From Bosnia

    Assalamu alaykum,

    I hope that this letter finds you in the best of heath and spirits. Here is a little story about a girl I had met in Bosnia.

    Told for the first time through writing. So here it goes the story of;

    The City, The Girl, And The Little Rag Doll:

    The first time I came across her was in the first week of December, 1992 in the Bosnian town of Mostar. She had long black hair, hazel eyes and a smile that would light up her whole face. But something was not quite right and I soon realized that her eyes would refuse to laugh. They held on to the look of bewilderment, confusion and the fear of an uncertain future. After months of war, girls as young as Aida had started understanding the devastation, misery, and pain that wars so easily delivered. They called it 'raat' in Bosnian language. Sounding like the 'night' in my native Urdu. I wonder how two languages continents apart would have the same word depicting darkness. For Mostar and its sons and daughters such as Aida, the Balkan war meant exactly that - a never ending darkness.

    Aida's father Edin Batlak was a young and aspiring architect before the war. Edoo, as he was called, had never had a chance of calling any city other than Mostar his home. "Look", he said as we took a walk on the East side of Mostar, "My grandfather built that masjid." As I looked up I found a small masjid with a gapping hole in the minaret, a victim of Serbian shelling. "Inshallah, we shall rebuild it after the war, with your organization's help." I nodded in agreement. But as we walked away staring into nothingness, we silently shared the conviction that peace was far, far away. It was the sons such as Edoo that the city of Mostar had called upon when it confronted the siege by the Serbs. Edoo, with advanced education and management experience, ended up as the chief of logistics of the Muslim quarter of Mostar. Before our friendship blossomed, it was in this position that I first met him. Abbas- a friend and partner in this effort- and I used to take turns taking supplies to Mostar. One would go while the other would stay in Krilo, a small Croatian fishing village on the coast of the Adriatic. Practicing the wisdom of not putting all the eggs in one basket, we avoided traveling together in the war-ravaged Croat-held part of Bosnia that extended all the way up to Mostar. As we would bring supplies to Mostar from Croatia, Edoo was the one who received them. It was Edoo whose regular messages and faxes alerted us to when the cooking oil supplies dwindled or when flour ran low. As Mostar warmed up to two of its guests who would show up with bits and pieces of help, Edoo happily filled the role of a perfect host, providing home-cooked food and putting us up for the nights. It was during one such dinners that he introduced us to his daughter, Aida.Aida could not understand the strange language that Abbas and I spoke. Her nine years of life had not awarded her the luxury of learning a foreign language. We, on the other hand, tried to get by in our broken Bosnian. Children are so expressive, and so was Aida. Soon we started understanding each other. The war in Bosnia had forced many of the Muslims to take a fresh look at their identity and religion. There was an eagerness, especially among the children, to learn about Islam. Aida wanted to learn Salat. She had started learning Fatiha. During every trip we would teach Aida a part of Salat with a promise of a small 'Poklon' (gift) in the next trip. The gift would be a bar of candy, a small rag doll or tits bits of that sort. The thought that among many in Mostar this winter is a small girl who eagerly awaits us would warm our hearts many times over.

    The war dragged on to 1993 and the relations between the Muslims and the Bosnian-Croats deteriorated. Seeing the world stand by as the Muslims were being massacred and their land dismembered, the Croatian nationalists grew aggressive. They wanted a share too. Mostar, the most historic city of Herzegovina, was a prize. Mostar is divided into East and West by the river Neretva. The East side, also called the Stari Grad (old town), was predominantly Muslim whereas the West side, the Novi Grad (New Town), was mixed. The Serb front lines menacingly lay a few miles to the east of the city, effectively cutting off the Muslim side from the Muslim strongholds in central Bosnia and Sarajevo. West Mostar was linked up through Croat-held Bosnia to proper Croatia. Sandwiched between the Croats and the Serbs, East Mostar was always vulnerable and the Croats understood this. Later on they would use this weakness to the best of their advantage.

    As our association with Mostar stretched from days into weeks and then months, the city and its Muslim dwellers endeared us to themselves. We loved them and yes, they loved us. As I walked the streets of Mostar, sometimes I had to remind myself that I am not Bosnian and that one day I would leave this area and go back to my old life - my lab in Nebraska where my Master's thesis awaited completion. Every passing day my bond with the town grew stronger, strengthened by numerous interwoven cords of memorable incidents and events. I remember one day as I hurried towards a town council meeting, I was stopped by some children who insisted that I accompany them. They took me to the center of the town where stood a school which had been converted into a refugee camp. The lower floor hosted offices of the Merhamet (a Bosnian relief agency), the office of the Mufti of Mostar and an assorted selection of rooms for emergency medical care. I was led through the dark and damp hallways to a room in the basement of the building where a group of young girls were practicing Islamic songs for an upcoming Islamic festival. On seeing a stranger walk in, they fell silent. I urged them to continue. As I departed after a few moments, I left behind a cassette recorder requesting them to record the songs.With every spin of the recorder spool, the songs and the memories were electronically preserved. It was to become a prized possession, a great companion for many months to come. On our long drives in Croatia and Bosnia, Abbas and I would play the tape and sing along in Bosnian; "O Allah, Bosnia bleeds today.And we suffer.But we have hope that you will deliver us.And we don't complain.We know you will be with us forever." During the recording a girl had burst into tears and before the tape could be shut off, her sobs had been recorded. Many times on coming to this section, we would gently cry ourselves. Those tears would cement our determination, helping us push away thoughts of giving up. How can we give up when children in Mostar are calling Allah and have their trust in Him (SWT)? Many months thus passed. Mustafa, Edoo's interpreter, would always smile when we would say good-bye. "You may not find us when you return. The Croats would not wait for long!" he would remark. "Never mind," we would reply, "we belong to this city now. If we go down, we go down together." "It is easier said than done, you know" he would say. And we would promise, "We have been with you through all these months, we would not desert you in the end."

    In the early hours of May 18th, 1993 the Bosnian Croats struck. The attack was so vicious that the Muslims defenses on the West side quickly melted away. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Muslims were taken by surprise. Just a day ago the Croats had signed a no-aggression pact. Hundreds of Muslim men, women and children were forced to walk in front of the advancing Croat columns to dissuade the Muslim army from firing back. By the evening , the Muslim presence in West Mostar had blown away in the smothering fires that engulfed their homes, their belongings, their mosques, and their hopes. Hundreds, if not thousands, perished. The Muslim army was pushed into the East side where they stood their ground. The Croats were prevented from crossing the river. So started a nine-month siege of the Muslims which would later claim thousands more lives, inflicting pain and devastation of unimaginable proportions.

    It was a typical day when the news came. We had delivered supplies to Mostar a couple of days ago and were preparing for the next trip. Never in my life had four words held so much devastation. "West Mostar has fallen." All borders leading up to Bosnia from Croatia were sealed. We frantically tried to find a way to get to Mostar, but to no avail. The memories of the town came flooding back. The faces, the long hours spent talking, the laughter, the walks in the old town, the mosques. And the voices of girls singing the Islamic songs and the words of Mustafa echoed, "You may not find us..." And then there was the sinking feeling of defeat and the heart-wrenching realization that we had failed Mostar in the final moments. Our promise of being with them till the end had been broken. With the fall of West Mostar, we later felt, a part of us had died.As details of the fall started filtering out, we started asking about the people we knew. Some had survived. Some were in concentration camps. Of some there was no news. What happened to Edoo? Did he make it? How was Aida?Then the story came out. Edoo and his family lived in the apartment complex whose lower floors were dedicated to the offices of the Muslim army. That complex was the first one to be targeted. A huge fire had erupted and had caught many of the families by surprise. Edoo and his wife had made it out, we were told. Aida had gotten trapped in the fire and later died due to burn injuries. I shudder with the thought of the painful last moments of the young Aida, trapped in the fire of a war she never fully understood, punished by the Balkan war for a crime that her enemies are still not ready to forgive her for - Islam!

    It has been almost three years now. Had she lived, Aida would have been in her early teens. She would surely have completed learning her Salat. Some people say that they are fed up with Bosnia. Others say there is more to life than Bosnia. Some comment that I am hung up with all that went on. I wish they could have known that little girl and many, many others like her.Aida may not be with us today, but the struggle for which she died so young continues. Bosnia is alive today; so are many Aidas, and so are many lands such as Bosnia. The fact that we failed to keep our promises to Aida does not mean that we cannot make promises to others. For Aida, the help was too late, too little. It doesn't have to be likewise for others. The understanding that we are Muslims is a promise to all the Aidas and all the embattled Muslim lands in the world. A promise that we are with you. And that you shall never be deserted.

    When I am down with despair and hopelessness seems to prevail, I thank Allah (SWT) for giving me such treasured memories. As I look back and see a little town with a little girl with a little rag doll, I know that I have reason to continue.

    AlJumuah Magazine
    By Suleman Ahmer, Benevolence International

    ....thankx for sharing that gq.
    It was surely worth the read.