The first time I came across her was in the winter of 1992 in the Bosnian town of Mostar. She had long black hair, hazel eyes and a smile that lit her face. Her eyes refused to laugh. They held a look of bewilderment and fear of an uncertain future. Girls as young as Aida had started understanding the misery that wars so easily delivered. They call war ‘raat’ in the Bosnian language, which sounds similar to ‘night’ in my native Urdu. For Mostar and its daughters such as Aida, the Balkan war meant exactly that – a never-ending darkness.
Aida’s father had been a young and aspiring architect before the war. Edin Batlak, or Edoo, had never called any other city his home. It was its sons such as Edoo that Mostar had called upon when confronted by the Serb siege. Educated and experienced, Edoo became the chief of logistics for the Muslims and was the one to receive the supplies that we brought to Mostar from Krilo. As Mostar warmed up to its guests, Edoo happily filled the role of a perfect host, providing home-cooked food and putting us up for the nights. One evening, he introduced us to his daughter.
Aida could not understand the strange language that we spoke. Her nine years of life had not awarded her the luxury of learning a foreign language. We tried to get by in broken Bosnian. Children are expressive and so was Aida. Soon we started understanding each other.
The war had forced the Muslims to take a fresh look at their identity and religion. There was an eagerness, especially among the children, to learn about Islam. Wanting to learn the Salah, she had started learning Fatiha. We would teach Aida a part of the Salah in each trip with a promise of a ‘Poklon’ (gift) which would be candy, a rag doll or tidbits of that sort. The thought that a small girl eagerly awaited us in Mostar would warm our hearts many times over.
River Neretva divides Mostar into the east, which was predominantly Muslim, and the west, where both Muslims and the Croats lived. The Serb front lines were a few miles east of the city, cutting off the Muslims from their strongholds in central Bosnia. West Mostar was linked through Croat-held Bosnia to Croatia. Sandwiched between the Serbs and the Croats, East Mostar was vulnerable, a fact the Croats knew very well.
I remember some children insisted that I accompany them. They took me to a school, which had been converted into a refugee camp. The lower floor hosted the office of the Merhamet (a Bosnioan relief agency), the office of the Mufti of Mostar and some rooms for medical emergencies. I was led to the basement, where some young girls were practicing Islamic songs for an upcoming festival. Upon seeing a stranger, they fell silent. I urged them to continue and left after a few minutes, leaving behind my cassette-recorder.
With every spin of the recorder, the songs and the memories were electronically preserved. It was to become a prized possession and a great companion for many months to come. During our long drives in Croatia and Bosnia, Abbas and I would play the tape and sing along in Bosnian:
O Allah (swt), Bosnia bleeds today.
And we suffer.
But we have hope that you will deliver us.
And we don’t complain.
We know You will be with us forever.
A girl had burst into tears and before the tape could be shut off, her sobs had been recorded. Upon reaching this section, we would gently cry ourselves, our tears cementing our determination and pushing away thoughts of giving up. “How can we give up when children in Mostar are calling Allah (swt) and trusting Him?”
Many months thus passed. Once Mustafa, Edoo’s interpreter, smiled when we said good-bye.
“You may not find us upon your return. The Croats will not wait for long!”
“Never mind,” we said, “we belong to this city now. If we go down, we go down together.”
“It is easier said than done, you know,” he said.
“We have been with you all these months; we would not desert you in the end,” we promised.
The Bosnian Croats struck in the early hours of May 18, 1993. The Muslims were outnumbered, outgunned and taken by surprise. Hundreds of Muslim men, women and children were forced to walk in front of the Croat columns to prevent the Muslim army from firing back. The Muslims were pushed to the eastern side, where they stood their ground and prevented the Croats from crossing the river. Thus began a nine-month siege that would later claim thousands more lives, inflicting pain and devastation of unimaginable proportion.
Never in our lives had four words held so much devastation: “West Mostar has fallen.”
We frantically tried to find a way to get to Mostar, but to no avail. The memories of the town came flooding back: the faces, the long hours spent talking, the laughter, the mosques and the walks in the old town. The voices of the girls singing the Islamic songs and the words of Mustafa echoed: “You may not find us…” and then there was the sinking feeling of defeat and the heart-wrenching realization that we had failed Mostar in its final moments. Our promise of being with them had been broken.
We started asking about the people we knew. Some had survived. Some were in concentration camps. Of some, there was no news. What happened to Edoo? Did he make it? How is Aida?
Edoo lived above the offices of the Muslim army, which were the first to be targeted. A huge fire had erupted, catching all by surprise. Edoo and his wife had managed to escape, but Aida had gotten trapped. I shudder with the thought of the painful last moments of the young Aida, trapped in the fire of a war she never fully understood; punished for a crime that her enemies are still not ready to forgive – Islam! Had she lived, Aida would now be in her teens. She would surely have completed learning her Salah.
Aida may not be with us today, but the struggle for which she died so young continues. Bosnia is alive as are many Aidas and many lands like Bosnia. Our failure to keep our promise to Aida must not prevent us from making our promises to others. For Aida, the help was too little, too late. It doesn’t have to be the same for others. The understanding that we are Muslims is a promise to all the Aidas and all the embattled Muslim lands: a promise that we are with you and you shall never be deserted.
When I am down with despair, and hopelessness seems to prevail, I thank Allah (swt) for giving me such treasured memories. As I look back and see a little town with a little girl with a little rag doll, I know that I have rereasons to continue.