Before travelling to Bosnia I had expectations of a remote and possibly hostile region, fed by misinformed stereotypes from people in England. I was not only proved wrong, but moved to tears on occasions with memories that will last a lifetime.
I travelled with a group of 12 volunteers with a charity called MADE In Europe to Sarajevo and Eastern Bosnia. Together, we helped to set up strawberry farms for families who had been victims of the genocide in 1995, and were returning to their land. These farms would provide them with a sustainable income.
Attending the annual memorial at Potocari, Srebrenica, the scene where over 8000 Bosnians were massacred in 1995, was an overwhelming experience; even the toughest of hearts would be moved. As a volunteer, I had heard horrendous war-time stories from my host family, but it was only upon attending such an emotional event that I realised the true scale of the genocide.
Bosnia was split into two entities after the war, The Federation, with a large Bosniak population, and Republika Srpska, with a large Serb population, both operating under separate governments. Republika Srpska was the scene of heinous war crimes, where Bosniaks were persecuted and ethnically cleansed from their land. In recent times, some of the displaced families have returned to their homes. Muslim villages are dotted around the beautiful rugged valleys, whilst the larger towns, including Zvornik and Srebrenica, are now almost entirely Serb. Walking around in a headscarf in Zvornik can be seen as a provocative act, and sometimes an invitation for abuse. It is with some surprise then, that I learned that the largest mosque in Eastern Bosnia is located in the centre of Zvornik.
The reason for this, I believe, lies in the events that took place two decades ago. My experience volunteering in Bosnia revealed to me that severe cracks remain in the tense and complex structure of a nation rife with identity politics. Bosniaks and Serbs make an open visual display of their grief and their religious identity – churches and mosques are built to be seen as much as used. A culture of memorialisation is apparent especially in the East of the country; both sides appear to be competing as to the losses suffered in the war.
The two groups do intermingle, although not as actively as they probably could. Bosniaks and Serbs speak the same language and have to integrate in schools and workplaces. The majority of Bosniaks I spoke to were quick to dismiss any hatred for Serbs. Their qualms were with the military generals and nationalists who repeatedly call for Muslims to leave a land they have cultivated and graced for centuries. The breadwinner of the host family I lived with works and studies with many Serbs, yet he was keen to stress one point – ‘we will never forget what happened’. He had lost many family members in the war; I was not one to question his attitude.
My lasting memories from the trip will be the jaw-dropping beauty of the mosques, and sounds of Arabic echoing in remote villages. To see blonde-haired men, women and children, greet me with “Assalamaleyk” and an ear-to-ear smile touched me on every occasion. They were testament to the true universal attitude of Islam and of a kind human nature. So welcoming were the people that they allowed me to recite the call to prayer on a hilltop mosque, a personal highlight that I owe to the locals. It was interesting to see how Serb Orthodox churches were dotted around in villages, and most of them were newly built. Bosniaks make it clear every time they passed by that they do not approve of building on previous mosque land, but appreciate that the Serbs have a right to practice their religion freely.
It is a great shame to say that such a fascinating group of people have a cloud of injustice and doubt hanging over their heads, a cloud that will undoubtedly remain for the foreseeable future. The tense undertone still exists – whether it is Serbs at petrol stations serving Bosniaks, or Bosniaks getting searched by Serb policemen. However, the glimmer of hope I saw was of a people who saw past conflict and beyond prejudices. The most touching words were from a former military commander, who reiterated how he merely wished to live peacefully with his Serb brothers and sisters, in a united Bosnia.
On the surface, Bosnia appears to be as healthy as any other European nation and the only physical signs of war are evident in mass graves or bullet-laden buildings. However, deep under the thin cover of peace is a psychological tension between Bosniaks and Serbs. Coming back to the UK, I realised the privilege I have here to practise my religion freely, and to mix with people from countless other backgrounds. If those in Bosnia, with the terrible memories they have, can make an effort to co-exist, then surely we can do the same here in the UK.
MADE in Europe is a UK-based charity which aims to mobilise young Muslims to take action on global poverty through campaigning and volunteering. For more information and to apply for next year’s Bosnia: The Journey programme, please visit www.madeineurope.org.uk/madethejourney. Closing date for applications 28 November 2011.
Photo Credits: MADE in Europe
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