Kamila: She Dared Where Many Men Hesitated (Part 3)


“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.

Kamila: She Dared Where Many Men Hesitated – Part 1


By Suleman Ahmer – CEO and the Lead Facilitator of “Timelenders”, a management consulting and training firm

May, 1988

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.