By Suleman Ahmer – CEO and the Lead Facilitator of “Timelenders”, a management consulting and training firm
It was very cold on the night of October 27, 1992, as winters arrive early in Austria. A small group huddled in a tiny glass waiting room in the Vienna train station. I noticed them staring at us. Two bearded Asians didn’t quite fit in. The big clock on the wall ticked noisily; it was almost midnight. It was another few minutes before the train left for Zagreb in war-torn Croatia. I shivered and anyone watching could have easily attributed it to 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. This number, as 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 different 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’s whistle blew furiously, 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, a young girl on the other side of Europe was calmly planning her moves. There was no hesitation on her part, no afterthoughts. She would have smiled had she seen the hurried boarding of these two men in Vienna and read their thoughts.
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 on. 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 friends to lock our compartment and ignore all knocks. We would have definitely slept through but what confronted us was a loud banging. Jolted out of sleep, we stared at each other. The Slovenian border patrol wanted to have a word with us 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-Croatian phrase book had finally proven its worth.
Out came a list of names. With our Pakistani passports in their hands – the ‘Islamic Republic’ boldly staring at all of us – the name tallying started. There were Mohammeds, Ibrahims, Yusufs, Abdullahs and Abdur-Rahmans. There must have been over 300 names.
We held our breaths. By the grace of Allah (swt), 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 the 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 on 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 (swt) 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 somewhere 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 colourful, the grass greener and the sky a bit bluer! I can now understand how Alice must have felt in wonderland – enchanted! The dream of going to Bosnia had materialized into a not-too-distant reality.
As we clumsily entered the realm of our newly-found uncharted territory, the same girl, in sharp contrast, confidently made her way to her job with her letter of resignation.
We soon hooked up with other foreign Muslim relief workers and time flew by. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims were languishing in Croatian refugee camps. Armed with a few thousand dollars that we had collected and tons of goodwill, we kept ourselves busy while planning our ultimate move into Bosnia: we distributed flour, oil, baby-milk, detergent and medicines.
It was the first time that I was confronted with a tragedy that defied limits, with shattered families and heart-wrecking tales of death and pain. At times, I felt the 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, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria… The list was long. We would sip coffee and chat, exchanging stories and sharing notes. We found our smiles and laughter. It was an oasis of joy in an endless expanse of grief.
On one such evening, we learnt that a group of 2,000 refugees had been placed in a remote part of Croatia. Public transportation was non-existent and few relief supplies found their way out there. Deciding to help, we arranged for five tonnes of flour, powder milk, sugar, cooking oil and washing detergent and in a couple of days, set off towards Orebic’ (O-re-bich). (To be continued)
Adapted (with permission) from “The Embattled Innocence.” Compiled for Hiba by Laila Brence.