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Revisiting Bosnia Part 1

Revisiting Bosnia Part 1

Issue 76 January 2011

I arrived at Vienna airport to change for a flight to Sarajevo. I fell asleep on board and was woken up by a sharp pain on the left side of my head. As I gathered my senses, the pilot announced the shocking news, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I am delighted to inform you that we have just averted a major crash. As we came in to land, I could not see the runway even from 400 metres high. I apologise for the sharp lift off; I had to climb high to avoid hitting the surrounding mountains.” I was stunned!

 There was murmur amongst the passengers and expressions of disbelief. “I will not attempt landing again,” the captain continued, “we will return to Vienna and you will be informed what to do next.” Nobody said a word. We all sat there in silence taking in the gravity of what had just happened. I always knew the line between life and death was fine, but this day it looked even finer.

 Back in Vienna, we were taken to a hotel and told to be ready for 7am the next morning. We ended up departing in the afternoon, still not sure whether we could land. The captain failed twice and announced the next attempt would be the last, after which we would be flown to Zagreb for a 10-hour bus ride to Sarajevo. All I was thinking of was if we crashed, what would be my fate and the fate of my family? I kept on asking God for forgiveness and to enable my friends and families to forgive me too.

 Sarajevo brought back memories for me. I had gone to Bosnia in 1993 during the war. I was very moved by the horrific ethnic cleansing that was unfolding in this region. I drove in a convoy from London to Bosnia with trucks and ambulances filled with medicine, food and basic humanitarian supplies. I remembered the horrific scenes of decapitated and mutilated bodies of men, women and children on the streets. I wondered what I would see this time, seventeen years later. It was nighttime and raining; I could not see much through the windows of my taxi. I could make out building works in progress, shops and markets alive with people and I could see the long pencil-like minarets of the mosques and the tall towers of the churches decorating the skyline beautifully every few hundred metres.

 I arrived at my hotel and then headed to the mosque for the night prayer. It was in the old cobble-stoned part of Sarajevo, full of low-rise traditional shops, cafe and restaurants. I followed the sound of the muezzin, and walked into the central mosque of Sarajevo. It was a breathtaking architectural masterpiece, with detailed Qur’anic verses in calligraphy carved into the walls of the mosque. I was mesmerised. After the prayers, the Imam led a chanting that I was unfamiliar with, but I sat and listened. People started passing rosary beads to each other, sliding them along the carpet. It looked choreographed and it fascinated me.

 I had been invited for a conference on fundamentalism. I was planning to rest that evening, but I was invited to an Introduction to Bosnia Evening by some of the local participants. As I listened, I felt let down by how those who introduced Bosnia failed to mention anything about the Muslims or Bosnia’s Islamic heritage; when talking about the conflict, they never even mentioned the name of Alija Izetbegov, nor was anything said about the Srebrenica genocide. I could smell trouble in the air and sat watching the faces of the Muslim participants turn angry, and some of the non-Muslim participants who were aware of the history were looking visibly uncomfortable. One of the British Muslim participants could not contain himself anymore and challenged the narrators. What ensued was a fight over whose version of history was right. Then, one of the Jewish participants decided to challenge the use of the word genocide. The Muslims, the various denominations of Christians and the Jewish participants began to dispute each other’s version of what had happened. The organisers were in total disbelief, and had no idea how to manage or take charge of this.

 I raised my hand and said, “It is better for the narrators to stop here. Let us acknowledge there are many strong emotions in the hearts of people, and dismissing any would be dismissing their feelings. Let us leave the discussion of history to the experts instead.”

 To my surprise, the arguments stopped and my mind turned to my lecture the next day on the influence and impact of fundamentalism.

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