Summary of Part 1
In May 1988, Suleman Ahmer, along with his companion, set out for a long and difficult journey to Bosnia. At the same time, a young girl on the other side of Europe was planning her next move. Suleman Ahmer reached Bosnia and joined other foreign relief workers in Croatian refugee camps. One evening, the team learned of 2000 new refugees who had been placed in a remote part of Croatia. Armed with relief supplies, this small group set out for Orebic’.
Croatia has a few hundred miles of mountainous coast that starts a few miles short of Triste in Italy and extends all the way South to Dubrovnik, a historical Croatian town. Little islands sprinkled in the calm, blue waters of the Adriatic Sea beautify this long coastline. Within the murmurs of the waves, a highway twists along the coast. Along the way, lie picturesque fishing villages and hamlets with roadside cafes, brick homes and cobblestone streets. Bigger villages have small harbours, where fishing boats and trawlers rock with the breeze. 190 miles south on this beautiful coast lies the city of Split – a major port and a tourist resort. 95 miles further south is a peninsula called Peljesac (Pel-ye-shats), which extends northward – almost parallel to the mainland – carving a narrow V out of the sea. Villages on the coast of the mainland and the peninsula face each other. Orebic’ lies at the northern tip of Peljesac. Rather than going south to the base of the peninsula and then going north, you can take a ferry form Ploce’ (Plo-shay), reducing the travel time by almost two hours.
It was almost 2:00 pm, when our truck rumbled onto the ferry. We got on and leaned across the rails. The waves striking the hull sent a fine mist all over the ferry. It was beautiful. Small islands with thick dark woods glided backward and Ploce’ slowly disappeared. Seagulls initially circled and then lost interest. Soon the ferry had docked.
The truck roared and groaned for another two hours in the mountains, before reaching Orebic’.
The sight was breathtaking! It was a clear day with a few wisps of pure white clouds. The calm and deep blue waters of the Adriatic – dotted with islands – extended westward, blending into the lighter blue of the sky. The waves sparkled in the sun, dancing around the few fishing boats, lazily swaying in the breeze. Orebic’ has brick and stone homes with small pretty gardens, while others have small vineyards. Thick vines crawl up the stone walls, obscuring windows and roofs with foliage. In times of peace, the town would bustle with tourists from countries with harsh winters. Every third home has a bread and breakfast arrangement, where tourists can spend weeks enjoying time, as it almost comes to a stop.
The town was conspicuously empty when we arrived. Stripped of its tourist income, many locals had gone to bigger towns to make ends meet. Many young men had been drafted into the Croatian Army. Although Orebic’s remoteness had helped it avoid the physical scars of the war, the social and economic hardships were apparent.
The war had brought another change in the town: Bosnian refugees. Over 2,000 of them were cramped into a few of the Government rest houses; many were the survivors of the massacres and concentration camps, escaping only with the clothes on their backs. Few families were intact. Others were a saga of dear ones painfully lost to a war that had struck suddenly, reducing their hopes and dreams to painful memories.
Getting to know these people was like coming to grips with this reality: “The Serb troops promised safety, if we surrendered,” said Ameer, an elder from a village of around 200 people near Brcko in Bosnia. “We had little to defend ourselves with anyway. They came the next day, lined us up and took nine young girls away, some in their early teens. We couldn’t even protest.”
Ameer convinced over sixty of the villages to escape, before the Serbs came back. Ameer led them into the wilderness that night; walking for days, hiding from the Serb patrols, battling fatigue, thirst and hunger, they finally reached the Muslim held area. The Serbs razed the village to the ground the next day and took the remaining to concentration camps, where many died later.
We met the refugees and delivered the supplies. We made it back in good time, because the truck was empty but the journey felt like ages, as our hearts were heavy.
We made Orebic’ one of our distribution points, where we would show up with flour, cooking oil, canned tuna, sugar, soap and detergent. We once received a donation of fifty new overcoats for children. Ameer, who was also the representative of the refugees, refused to distribute them. “The ones who would not receive the coats may blame me for not being fair,” he said and asked if we could stay and distribute them.
We came up with a formula that everyone agreed with. We started with the kids, who had lost both parents, then the ones without fathers and so on. The younger would get preference. Abbas and I would put the coat on each child and stand back to see if it fitted. If it didn’t, we promised to bring one next time. If it did, the child would get the coat and a hug. The child would smile with eyes lighting up with joy. When you are stripped of all possessions, even small things mean a lot.
It was one of the best evenings of my life. The adults were smiling to see the kids laugh. I caught sight of many, hurriedly wiping off tears. They didn’t want the kids to see them cry. Memories of good times – in not too-distant past – must have come flooding in. Abbas and I were more successful: we managed to laugh and crack jokes in our broken Bosnian. Though the kids laughed at our strange pronunciation, our hearts were heavy. That night, as we drove back, I wept, careful to keep the sobs to myself, lest Zahruddin (our driver) or Abbas found out.
I came upon an old man in Orebic’, crippled by the tortures in a Serb concentration camp. He spoke of how people were forced to drink motor oil, whipped, beaten and left to bleed to death.
On hearing my name, he clung to me and wept bitterly. My name ‘Yusuf’, as I was called in Bosnia, reminded him of his son. The Serbs had asked him the number of his sons. When he had replied one, they had dragged Yusuf in front of him. “Now you have none!” they had said, as they slit his throat in front of the father’s eyes. I will never forget the embrace of that broken old man, as his tears drenched my shirt.
After a few trips, the refugees in Orebic’ warmed up to us. The children especially waited for us, as we used to bring donated candy and toys.
It was late December 1992, when Zahruddin and I arrived with a vanload of supplies. As the van was being unloaded, the kids gathered around us. They had all sort of stories to tell: new refuges had arrived, Croat authorities were giving trouble, and a car had been stolen. This time, they had a new story: a guest had come from England two weeks ago. “She is so nice!” they exclaimed. “She helps us around and plays with us, too.”
I first thought of missionaries. “Let’s go, Yusuf,” one of them interrupted my thoughts, “she is not that far away.” I started to walk as information poured: she teaches Quran – that dealt a blow to the missionary theory – and is all alone! My curiosity was growing with every step. The children took me to a home, where some of the refugees lived. I sat down and waited, as the lady was called.
(To be continued)
Adapted (with permission) from “The Embattled Innocence.” Compiled for “Hiba” by Laila Brence.