“Assalam Alaikum, brother Yusuf,” I notice the British accent. “The refugees had told me about you and brother Abbas.”
She was around twenty years of age, with south Indian features and not more than five feet tall; her slight built would not let her look short. She looked simple in a Hijab, someone you would hardly notice on an average day in a Muslim country. In Orebic’, that December afternoon, she was nothing less than a mystery. I was seized by 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 fifteen miles away. As Zahruddin negotiated the turns on the hilly road, sister Kamila unfolded her story. Her parents had immigrated to England when she was born. After graduation, she had taken a secretarial job in London. Moved by the sufferings of the Bosnians, 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, and I was moved. I knew many men who had considered 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 condition. 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. Her seizures had made her fall a number of times, her face showing cuts and bruises. Her old parents sat by her side. She was like a fresh rose suddenly torn off by a violent storm, its life painfully ebbing away.
Kamila hugged and comforted her. “The medicines would be here soon,” Kamila promised, “I will visit you regularly.” Her words held out hope, which the family was desperately looking for. 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 rumours that the Croatians may force the refugees back into Bosnia. Worst still, they might trade Muslim refugees with the Croats 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 remote; help could be days away. She could stay in Split, which had better living conditions and many Muslim relief organizations. I expressed my fears to her: “We shall be returning tonight. Why don’t you come along? I really think it would be safer in Split.” She smiled: “No, brother Yusuf, I’ll be fine here. My life and death is with the refugees. Allah (swt) is with me.”
We were leaving 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 would 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 for 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, Yusuf,” 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 mirror, I could see the people dispersing. Soon, the view started meshing with the shadows. We were soon out of Orebic’ and ascending the mountains. I took a last look. Lights glimmered then faded. 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. It was a statement to the Bosnians that whatever comes, we, the 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, and a beacon.
It was very dark. The stillness of the night was broken by the continuous drone of the diesel engine. Zahruddin was silently concentrating on the road; night driving on those mountain roads was 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, 1992, I had to leave for the USA 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.
“But didn’t Amin have a problem with Kamila not having a Mahram (a male relative)?” I asked. Some people had commented that Kamila, being a Muslim, should not have travelled without a Mahram. It had troubled me a bit, but I had placed that on the 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 Amin.”
Adapted (with permission) from “The Embattled Innocence.” Compiled for “Hiba” by Laila Brence.