The assassin didn’t have to wait for long in the cold, winter morning: Basheer was seldom late.
I was in Florida, raising funds, when the news came. It was a shock: I was with him just a couple of months ago. The sequence of events, as they had probably occurred, flashed into my mind.
Basheer has to be in office in Dushanbe – the capital of Tajikistan – by 8:00 a.m. to let the other officers in. Dawlat Baig picked him up at 7:40 a.m. I had accompanied Dawlat Baig a number of times. As we would pull up the car, Basheer would appear out of the sea of people, walking briskly with long, purposeful strides with an air of confidence and mission. To be at the intersection on time, he would have left at least five minutes earlier, putting him in the line of fire precisely at 7:35 a.m. on Monday, January 11, 1999.
The first time I met him was at the Tajik refugee camps in Afghanistan in 1997. He was tall, slim and strongly built. He had become fluent in Persian and wore traditional Afghan dresses. What gave him away were his strong Arab-Berber features. A smile was never far from his stern face, which spoke of years of struggle and hardship.
The eldest son of a government officer, he came from a village 200 miles from the capital of Algeria. He gave up his studies in Engineering to help out in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. He later joined BIF (Benevolence International Foundation) to provide relief assistance to the Tajik refugees in Afghanistan.
Life was hard in the camps in Kunduz and Takhar – the northern Afghan provinces bordering Tajikistan – with no electricity, running water or communication. Food and medicines were always limited. Malaria, Typhoid and TB were close to assuming epidemic proportions. Basheer was going down with Typhoid every year, spending weeks in bed.
I once asked him how he managed to stay there for five years. “I can’t see myself deserting these people,” he had said. “I see myself as holding a post. If we leave, the vultures will come in.” He was referring to some of the secular organizations. Alarmed by the return of the Tajik refugees to Islam, they were trying to compel the Muslim relief organizations to leave. These organizations had one camp in their control where they distributed music and movies, while the children in the Muslim-run camps learned the Quran.
He had kept in touch with his family through letters, which would take up to six months to reach Algeria. We decided to arrange for a phone call. Using a wireless set, we connected via radio to Peshawar and then through telephone to Algeria. It was a joyous occasion, as the family hadn’t heard his voice in five years. They initially failed to recognize him, as out of emotion, he could only speak in his adopted Persian. He had broken down during the call and wept.
Basheer managed a staff of twenty-four Tajik Muslims in the refugee camps, and I could see the love and respect that flowed towards him. I didn’t have a shred of doubt that these Tajiks could have easily stood in the line of fire for him.
He was like a father to the orphans, who loved him dearly. Some didn’t know their fathers but they knew Basheer. I asked some of the young orphans – I didn’t ask the older kids, as they understood – where the money for their sponsorship came from. They pointed to Basheer. I explained that Basheer was just an officer, and the money came from the Muslims in the US. They weren’t convinced: it was Basheer who cared for them. To those little, simple minds, that was what really mattered. I gave up. I wish could tell them now that Basheer gave much more than care: he ultimately gave his life.
This dedication and compassion endeared Basheer to the Tajik Muslims. He loved them, and, yes, they loved him. He gradually became an inalienable part of the Tajik cause, a hero who had come from a faraway land. As the Tajik Muslims struggled in their war against the Communists, Basheer stood by them, supporting their orphans, running clinics, sharing their joy, and wiping their tears. His presence whispered to the Tajiks: “I believe in you and your struggle. Don’t give up.”
In the summer of 1997, the refugees started moving back into Tajikistan, bringing an end to the five years of exile. Deciding to start work in Tajikistan, we established an office for BIF in Dushanbe in November 1997, and later arranged for Basheer and the staff to move from Afghanistan.
A few months after moving to Dushanbe, Basheer married a Tajik sister by the name of Sadbarg. The mother requested Basheer to move in their apartment. She was widowed in this apartment, when Sadbarg was very young. Basheer agreed.
The Muslims signed a peace agreement with the Russian-backed government and the overall situation started to improve.
We took Dr. Nazr-ul-Islam – a surgeon from England – to Dushanbe and established a TB hospital for children. Furthermore, we continued the sponsorship for the orphans; we also started supporting families of men disabled in the war, and commenced the rebuilding of homes of orphan families destroyed during the war.
A group of young sisters, who had set up an Islamic study group in Dushanbe, approached us for help. Concluding that the sisters were high on enthusiasm but low on knowledge, we decided to teach them the fundamentals of Islam and prepare them to reach out to more women in Dushanbe. We gave Nurudin – a graduate of the Islamic University in Madinah – the charge of the programme.
Nurudin had come to Afghanistan in 1993, and had set up an Islamic school for Tajik students in the refugee camps. This is when Basheer and Nurudin had become friends. After the ceasefire, Nurudin had moved independently to Tajikistan, where he had also married a Tajik sister. He had started some Dawah programmes in the mosques in and around Dushanbe.
When we decided to sponsor the sisters’ Dawah programme, Nurudin was like a gift from Allah (swt): he was there; he was married to a local sister, spoke fluent Persian and above all, was a gifted scholar.
The classes started in March, 1998 with a group of 32 sisters and 20 brothers.
Unfortunately, the political situation started deteriorating. Soon, it became apparent that a cold war was taking shape, fuelled by the secular and communist elements to undermine the Islamic movement in Tajikistan.
On June 15, 1998, only three months since the start of classes, Nurudin was shot and martyred outside his apartment. Only 36, he left behind a pregnant wife and a four-month-old daughter, Asma.
No one claimed responsibility, and the Tajik government denied any involvement. “Could it have been the Russian intelligence?” we were left wondering. “Or could it be the breakaway communist fraction which had split from the government and violently opposed the peace agreement?”
We immediately froze all Dawah activities. Our staff of nine people in Dushanbe included two foreigners, so we had reasons to be worried.
Our CEO travelled to the area and told both Basheer and Dr. Islam that they could leave, if they wanted to. Both refused, saying that we need not worry since we were no longer involved with Dawah, and the relief services being offered to Dushanbe were badly needed. Soon a contract was signed between the BIF and the Ministry of Health, finalizing the administration of the TB hospital. With all Dawah activities frozen and only relief projects remaining, we reasoned that the anti-Islamic elements – if indeed they were behind Nurudin’s death – would surely back off.
Our office in Dushanbe faces the parliament building in the Independence Square. A statue of Firdousi, a famous Persian poet, stares down at the beautiful gardens lining the main street. In these gardens are small cafes, where one can dine on a lunch of rice and Kabab on tables scattered under the tall trees. Basheer and I would walk down, have lunch and talk – we would spend hours talking, with the snow-capped Pamir Mountains in the background. These meeting are now memories to be cherished for the rest of my life. We talked about a lot of things: our time spent together in Afghanistan, our families, the BIF, the political situation and our plans for the future.
In one such meeting, I asked him why he didn’t leave Tajikistan after the death of Nurudin. “My mother-in-law would be left alone,” he said. I smiled. We both knew that there was more to it. I was also his manager, and he was aware that I could have asked him to leave. He was careful in wording his answer. “Look, Suleman,” he was very serious and thoughtful, “you know that I have given myself to this cause. I know that I am in Tajikistan for no other reason but for Allah (swt).” Then he paused: “And if I were to die, I have the confidence of knowing that I shall be a Shaheed.”
At the age of 34, Basheer was shot at point blank range. I can conjure an image of his assassin, most likely a local Tajik clad in a black suit – so common in Dushanbe – walking up to him, as he stepped out of his home. Alone and unarmed, Basheer stood no chance and was hit a total of seven times in the chest and the head. The $600 in his pocket – a lot of money in poverty stricken Tajikistan – were not touched.
For us, he was and will remain an inspiration, a statement that this world is worthless in front of the hereafter, and if it takes our lives to establish Islam, then so be it. While we talk, write and lecture about sacrificing for Allah (swt) and Islam, Basheer lived it and etched it in history with his blood. He was a true embodiment of the statement that “a faith not worth dying for is not worth living for.”
He leaves behind in his legacy one more reason for us to struggle for the dream both he and Nurudin gave their lives for – to return Muslims to the arms of Islam from the torturous clutches of colonialism and communism.
Basheer, may Allah (swt) accept your Shahadah. (Ameen)
Adapted (with permission) from “The Embattled Innocence.” Compiled for Hiba by Laila Brence.
Suleman Ahmer is CEO and lead facilitator of “Timelenders”, a management consulting and training firm.