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Rafah Border crossing- Aid workers on hunger strike

Rafah border crossing

As medical workers went on hunger strike today at the Rafah border crossing into Gaza in Egypt, Israeli jets could be heard flying overhead, the sound of explosions and vibrations could be felt on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing.

No mercy was shown by the Egyptian authorities, who kept the border closed, not even sick Palestinians were allowed through back into Gaza, they were simply told that the border was shut. However there was a great deal of activity at the crossing with military vehicles passing through all day. There were some ‘VIPs’ crossing the Rafah crossing, but it was unclear who they were as the vehicles had blacked out windows and travelled well protected with armed soldiers at the front and rear.

For most of the day the Rafah border has been quiet, only the sound of birds can be heard disturbed by Egyptian military and police vehicles entering the border compound, but everything is periodically drowned out by the piercing screams of Israeli jets as they fly over Gaza.

Reem al Tahloot, 26, arrived from Cairo after receiving treatment for a brain tumour but was told that she could not go home to Gaza as the border was now closed. She was asked why she did not come earlier by the guards even though she had been in hospital and had left at the first opportunity.

70 year old Salaha Skeyg arrived with his 65 year old wife Salma at the Rafah crossing at 6am in the morning, only to be told that it was closed. Salaha Skeyg had been in hospital in Cairo suffering from kidney stones but could not afford for the operation he required to remove his stones that had blocked the passage between the kidneys and bladder and was therefore forced to return to Gaza. Now they wait in the blistering sun of the southern Sinai, sitting, waiting for the Egyptian authorities to show some mercy to allow them back home to be with their family in Gaza.

Meanwhile aid workers continued their hunger strike in protest at the Egyptians not allowing urgent medical help through to the Gaza Strip. British reconstructive surgeon Sonia Robbins-Bolos and her Greek husband Dr Nikolos Bolos of Mercy Malaysia have been waiting to enter Gaza for 40 days, with no avail.

“There have been issues around entering Gaza before, it has always been difficult but nothing like what we are experiencing right now,” said Sonia. Sonia and Nikolos are members of the group of aid workers that have entered into a hunger strike over the Egyptians refusal to allow them entry.

Dr Omar Mangoush a cardiac surgeon from Hammersmith said, “We are trying to enter Gaza, we are doctors, we have a humanitarian mission to carry out but we are being prevented from doing that by the Egyptians and the lack of help from the British consulate.”

Two Irish medics were allowed through into Gaza this Monday which suggests that the Irish consulate has put pressure on the Egyptians to allow their citizens through into Gaza, something that the British are reluctant to do.

The Egyptian intelligence agency is making it as difficult as possible for the hunger strikers, even forcing the local shop at the Rafah crossing to close, where the aid workers were purchasing water and phone cards.

For now the aid workers and Palestinians are waiting in the searing heat of the southern Sinai for the border to open so that they may cross into Gaza, to help and return to their families.

Salama Skeyg pleads with the guards, asking them to let her and her husband pass; her husband has a bag attached to his bladder. She cries out, the sound of her cries drown out everything, the wind, the vehicles and even the Israeli jets. The Egyptian authorities look on, unmoved, untouched by the plight of this old couple who do not even have anything to sit on except a small dirty wall. The police sit on chairs provided by the local cafeteria, but they prevent the owner from allowing anyone else to sit on them.

Oktay Balci an aid worker from Belgium asked the police, “Do you not have a heart? What If she was your mother?” At this the officer looked them straight in the eyes and said, “It is not our decision, we do what we are told.”

Egypt and the rest of the Middle East can be summed up like this. It is not their decision; they do what they are told, whether it is from their governments or foreign powers like America and Israel. But the Palestinians refuse to do what they are told, refuse to accept decisions made by others about their future, and refuse to give up their hopes; this is why they must endure so much punishment at the hands of everyone.

Aid workers to enter into hunger strike at Rafah-Gaza border

British, Belgian and Greek doctors, nurses and aid workers will go on hunger strike tomorrow over the Egyptian Authorities’ refusal to allow entry into Gaza.

After constant attempts aid workers, doctors and nurses, have been refused entry in to the Gaza strip by the Egyptian authorities. Some doctors have been waiting for forty days. Out of utter desperation and witnessing the treatment of Palestinians by the Egyptian authorities, aid workers and activists have been left with no choice except to go into hunger strike and stay at the Rafah crossing until they are allowed through into Gaza.

Although the Egyptian authorities had said the border was open for two days the fact is that non-Palestinians were not allowed to enter, even though some were Palestinian but held different nationalities.

Contact Dr Omar Mangoush
Tel: 0020193764783

Journey to Gaza, so far

Journey to Gaza

Journey to Gaza





I have arrived in Cairo and have spent the last 24 hours running around meeting people, trying to get contacts and trying to formulate some sort of plan to get me into Gaza. It is looking very difficult.

I attended a conference today on Palestine; the place was swamped with police in full riot gear armed with shotguns, pistols and dogs. They moved me on, and would not let me take pictures of the protest that started the conference outside the centre for journalism in Cairo. I took pictures nevertheless, however discretely.

I turned up a bit later got into the conference and mingled gaining valuable contacts in trying to help me get into Gaza. I have unfortunately missed the deadline to join a convoy travelling from Italy. The names of the people travelling on this convoy have already been passed onto the foreign ministry, so even if i was to join it, i would not be allowed to enter Gaza as my name is not on the list. I will try nevertheless.

I have also been exploring other non-conventional ways of crossing the border; I think most of you know what i mean.

I also need a letter from the British embassy that says that they have warned me of the dangers of entering Gaza, which the British seem not to want to give out, but is vital as the Egyptian border guards will not let me pass without it. The embassy is closed for the ‘weekend’ and will be open for business on Sunday.

Tomorrow i will be travelling to a hospital to see Palestinians injured in the recent war on Gaza.

Hope to speak to you all soon

The challenge for Pakistan

Challenge for Pakistan

Pakistan’s tumultuous relationship with the West has put the country at the forefront of the so called War on Terror.With violence flaring in the North West Frontier province and the recent attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, many analysts are predicting Pakistan’s future as a failed state.


Since former President Musharraf signed up to America’s so called “War on Terror” the country has been spiralling out of control.The violence in Afghanistan has spread south of the border into Pakistan.The Pakistani military, once respected and admired by Pakistanis, is now engaged in a war against its own citizens, that has resulted in large civilian casualties and thousands of internally displaced refugees from the Bajour Agency ,in the North West Frontier Province, and neighbouring regions.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 thousands of students from religious schools in and around Pakistan and Afghanistan were encouraged to take part in ‘jihad’ against the Russian occupation.These mujahedeen fighters were trained and financed by both the Americans and the Pakistani military to fight off a common enemy.After the withdrawal of the Russian troops however the mujahedeen fighters turned on each other, and a bloody civil war ended with the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan.

Let us think outside the paradigm of the so called war on terror, outside the common narrative that we have just read above. What is really taking place?

War on Terror

The so-called “Pakistani Taliban” have been mounting attacks not only against the Pakistani military but also against ordinary people living in the region.If you ask people in Pakistan including in the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province, Peshawer, people tell you “these militants are not Taliban”.There is the belief in Pakistan that the so called Pakistani Taliban have no links to the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is in fact supported by a statement from the Afghan Taliban that the so called Pakistani Taliban have nothing to do with them.The ‘militants’ in Pakistan seem to be jumping on the Taliban brand name to gain both religious and political legtimacy.They are well funded, well equipped and trained well enough to battle the Pakistani army.

Possible Balkanisation?

Professor Michel Chossudovsky, director of the centre for research on Globalisation, recently wrote in his article the destabilasation of Pakistan, “Washington’s foreign policy course is to actively promote the political fragmentation and Balkanization of Pakistan as a nation” along ethnic lines.Pakistan faces the breakup of itself as a nation, which could lead to an independent Pashtunistan, made up of the NWFP and border regions and also independence for Baluchistan.Pakistan would be left with just the states of Punjab and Sindh.
Challenge for Pakistan

Far fetched? Well not if you consider the strategic location of Pakistan in the light of American and Chinese interests.China has recently signed a deal to develop the port of Gawadar in Baluchistan; this will be the largest Chinese construction investment outside of China.Chinese access to the Indian Ocean is making both India and the United States uneasy.While America does not want China anywhere near the Straits of Hormuz.India has had a continuous military rivalry with Pakistan, and the presence of China, a close military ally of Pakistan, could be seen as a potential threat to India.

Pakistani Government

The Pakistani government, currently led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, has lurched from one embarrassing incident to another after the end of President Musharraf’s rule in 2008.Apparent splits in the government began to emerge after the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, with conflicting reports being given regarding the nationality of one of the alleged terrorists.This culminated in the sacking of the National Security Advisor, Mahmud Ali Durrani, by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

However the biggest embarrassment to Pakistan and its people was when the Hilal-i-Quaid-I-Azam was conferred on Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of State for central and South Asian affairs, by President Asif Ali Zardari for his ‘services to Pakistan’.Zardari has shown he is reluctant to break with the same governments that had favoured Musharraf.He has ignored the will of the Pakistani people and their anger at the war in Afghanistan and the consequences it has for Pakistan.US drone attacks and US troops carrying out operations on Pakistani soil which have resulted in huge civilian casualties have been met not with protest, but with the awarding of Pakistan’s highest civilian award to Boucher. The award was met with shock and criticism by politicians and media alike.

The latest crisis to grip Pakistan’s beleaguered government has just ended in a significant climbdown for President Asif Ali Zardari.The crisis began when the Supreme Court barred opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, and his brother, Shahbaz, from elected office. The government of Pakistan’s most populous state, Punjab, led by Shabaz was duly dismissed.Sharif then threw his weight into the lawyers’ movement that has been active for the past two years following the sacking of the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.Despite a government clampdown on protestors and attempts to place Sharif under house arrest, the protest gathered strength and thousands of supporters, determined to take their grievances to Islamabad.Zardari’s crackdown even went as far as to shut down independent news channels, which lead to the resignation of the Information Minister, Sherry Rehman.In the face of this Zardari was forced to step down, and to reinstate Chaudhry and other judges sacked by Musharraf.He was also forced to order the release of the political activists who have been arrested over the past week.People have been drawing parallels with Musharraf’s rule and have taken to the streets to demand change, and in doing so, they have shaken Zardari’s government.

Regardless of the incompetence and corruption of the government and the emerging threat from ‘militants’ and any future American plans for Pakistan,the Pakistani people seem to be holding together.On the streets of Pakistan, from Lahore to Islamabad, from Karachi to Peshawar, people seem to be in a defiant mood, and have no appetite for a fragmented nation.

On the busy streets of Peshawar lies a memorial for those that fought the British in the early 20th century.The same people will fight any occupier or any one that wills Pakistan harm.The Pakistani people are strong and will fight intellectually, verbally and if need be physically to defend their country against any oppressor.However, Pakistan’s biggest threat may come from within.

Refugees and the War on Terror

Refugees and the war on terror

On the edge of Peshawer, capital of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan, lies a sea of white tents that is home to thousands of refugees who have been internally displaced as the Pakistani military carries out operations against so called terrorists in Bajour Agency in the region.

Since the summer, Pakistan has been waging a war against its own people as it collaborates with the American military.  American attacks have targeted so-called terrorists on Pakistani soil, as it expands its field of operation from Afghanistan to the border regions of Pakistan.  According to the UN 190,000 people have been displaced as a result of the fighting.

The site of the UNHCR refugee camp was previously occupied by Afghan refugees fleeing the NATO bombing of Afghanistan.  The Afghan refugees have since moved on, spreading throughout Pakistan and the rest of the world, some have even returned to their homes in Afghanistan.  The people who reside here now are Pakistani citizens.

The tribal areas have been the site of fierce fighting between the Pakistani army and so-called Islamists since former President Musharraf signed up to Washington’s agenda in the region to root out Taliban support and stop fighters crossing the border into Afghanistan and mounting guerrilla attacks on NATO forces.

The children that play in this maze of tents do not have adequate clothing for the harsh winter weather. Their faces are dirty with the brown dust that seems to permeate everything, as it is kicked up by donkey carts passing by.  There are no toys, so the children play with anything they can get their hands on. Some of them use as wooden cart to pass the time, pushing it down a dirt road that separates the tents.  Other children help with their family’s chores, washing dishes and carrying water.  Still others can be seen collecting rubbish that they will use to earn money.

A metal mesh wire fence surrounds the camp, but sometimes the entrances are too far for the children to walk to, so they make holes in it, crawling through to gain access.

There is a cricket match taking place just outside the camp between children from the camp. Rocks are piled up as improvised wickets while the metal wire fence serves as the boundary. The game provides a distraction from the harsh reality of life in the refugee camp.

Residents of the camp voice their objections with the US and Pakistani government policy of bombing targets in the region. Ibrahim Khan says “The only people that were targeted by the military were civilians, women and children. We did not even see who was bombing us.  They bombed us from the sky.  I did not see any terrorists. Our homes were destroyed as we fled, we left everything, and now our children do not have adequate education and we have been left with no livelihood.” The people’s concerns here are for their children, “We want our children to gain an education. It will take 50 years before the psychological affects of our displacement are removed from these children’s minds.  We have no grievances, grudges or problems with anyone, we are a peaceful people.  We want to be able to live our lives.  We are Muslims, terrorism is against our religion.  This is our message to the Pakistani government and the International community.  We want to go home.  Stop this war that you have started.  We are not terrorists!” exclaims Ibrahim.

Abdul Wali, whose two month old son was born in the camp, speaks of the difficulties he faces living in the camp “We are coping, but it is bitterly cold.  The UN is helping us but it is not sufficient for our needs.”  As he speaks, his voice carries a tone of resignation to his fate in the camp.

Refugees and the war on terror

A little girl wanders the camp attempting to hide her face with her red scarf.  No sooner do I take a picture of her, she disappears into the maze of tents.   The other children told me the shy girl’s name was Fatima. Samiullah, a boy no more than four years of age, stands languid, his head leaning against a wooden pole with a look of dejection on his face.  The trauma of the flight from his home to brave the bitter winter cold of the camp is evident in his eyes.  An entire generation of children have been traumatised by a conflict they know nothing about, took no part in, just collateral damage reduced to statistics for aid agencies to deal with.

Refugees and the war on terror

These are the victims of the so called war on terror.  Caught between the Pakistani and American military and the so-called militants, the civilians live with the consequences, forced to leave their homes to become refugees in their own country.

Report from a refugee camp in Kashmir

Refugee camp in KashmirIn Pakistani-administered Kashmir this small refugee camp is home to some 600 people who have fled Indian-administered Kashmir, 16km from the line of control. This is the line of the world’s most militarised zone. Since the Mumbai attacks and continued Indian allegations of Pakistani involvement tensions are once again forcing people to fortify their bunkers as they brace themselves for a potential confrontation.

Kashmir has been a disputed territory since both Pakistan and India’s independence in 1947. The two countries have fought three wars over the region. The green metal rope bridge shakes as the car mounts. The bridge is what separates Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Azad Kashmir. One vehicle at a time, some passengers walk across the shaky structure as the collective weight of the passengers and vehicle may be too much for the bridge. Down below flows the dark and murky Jelum river.

We enter Azad Kashmir and head towards Kotli district an area close to the line of control. The road twists precariously and snakes its way up, climbing steep gradients and slopes around the mountains of Kashmir. Numerous pot holes marks the tarmac. Clumps of green trees and bushes peer over the side of the narrow road, grey igneous rocks lie at the sides. The car shakes and jolts around, making its participants look like dolls, with their heads wobbling as their hands clinch tightly to the handles inside. One wrong move here and it is a sheer drop down the mountain – there are no safety barriers.

It is therefore not surprising to hear every now and then the grim reports of vehicles going down in this tortuous terrain often without survivors. Kashmir is a beautiful mountainous and green region, scenic, with its amazing views and fresh air. As we pass through villages and towns on our way to the refugee camp we can see evidence of the wealth earned in Britain spent on development of the area from money sent in by Kashmiri families in Britain, home of the world’s largest Kashmiri Diaspora. Large mansions, with a clash of colours – red, green, and brightly painted white is the common design in this region. Huge pillars holding up the three-storey homes, with four-wheel-drive SUVs parked in the driveways.

As we dismount our vehicle, which is now covered in thick dust, the number plate barely readable, we walk the rest of the way to the refugee camp. After traversing mountain paths, and jumping over rocks while taking in the scenery, we are stunned to see the lLine of control which the locals call the Line of Divide that separates the people of Kashmir is visible from here. My guide points to a mountain top in the distance. “There it is” he says confidently. And then he points to a green hillside within a stone’s throw of us, and adds “Shells land there when India fires its guns”. With an uneasy feeling, we head extremely close to the LOC that separates two nuclear armed nations and what remains a volatile flashpoint.

Over the years the tents in the refugee camp have been replaced by small houses and even a mosque and a small State run school teaching children up to the age of ten. These children play in the narrow alleys that separate their homes in what looks like a labyrinth of narrow passages. A little girl works the water pump trying to fill an old metal bucket. Her clothes are scruffy and face dirty from the dust. As we settle in we begin to talk with some of the residents here who fled Indian administered Kashmir.

Hasin Din, who is 25 years old, says: “I worked for 200 rupees a day (two pounds) as a labourer” to support my two children aged five and two. “Whatever we had we left behind, our homes, our families our land and livelihoods.”

I asked many of the refugees if they wanted to return, and without exception they they said “If Kashmir (Indian administered) becomes azad (free) tomorrow, we shall return”.

Peering through his metal spectacles, sixty year old Navi Baksh, is eager to share his story. A story that rings a familiar bell with the others heard in the camp. “We ran for our lives across these tough and forested mountains under the cover of darkness with my wife and my children” Navi says wearily. “It was a difficult and dangerous journey but we had no option, the Indian army gave us no choice, and they made life unbearable for us”. “We left with nothing but the clothes on our backs”.

Everywhere you go, everyone you speak to will tell you harrowing tales of their escape from what they say is the clutches of the Indian occupation forces. Muhammed Munshi remembers the ordeal which will be indelibly stamped on his mind:

“They killed my uncle and two nephews without any reason, then they took the bodies to the forest to burn them, but we realised what was happening and raised the alarm, all our village coming out to protest. Then they surrounded my house. The Indian army said we were helping Pakistani based militants, so I fled taking my three children and wife. We left one son behind along with my older brother. My son was 14 years old when we left. My son was taken into custody”. His grandchild now sits on his lap, and Muhammed holds him tight, close to his chest. The hurt is clearly evident on his face and pushing back the tears he continues:

“The Indian army used to come into our homes and force our women to undress, saying they were helping militants and could be carrying bombs! In our own homes?” he questions. “We were helpless. The Indian army are the ones with the power. We took our respect, dignity and honour and fled, we could not live under such rule or be subject to humiliation and oppression”.

The Pakistani government has provided some help for these people. Vehicles were provided for refugees to bring them to the camp. Small pieces of land were allocated for each family so that they might pitch up a tent. Each family receives 1000 rupees a month, approximately ten pounds. People told me that they are in debt, and it has been four months since the have received anything from the Pakistani government. There are thousands of refugees scattered throughout this region, victims of the conflict in Kashmir. These people are far away from the politics of Islamabad and New Delhi, even further away from Mumbai. If there is a war between the two nuclear-armed nations, it is people like those of Kashmir that will be the victims, long forgotten by the world and international community. Munshi hopes to be reunited with his son one day and return to his home. “Azadi” he says, freedom, one day.

Interpal bank account threatened with closure

Interpal, a British charity providing development and relief for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip, has been served notification from the Islamic Bank of Britain that the charity’s account will soon be closed.

This comes as a result of Lloyds TSB, the Islamic Bank’s clearing bank serving notice to “cease all dealings with Interpal”, according to a statement released by the charity.

The notice comes into effect as of eighth December, during the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Adha, a time when Muslims are encouraged to give charity.

The charity said: “All transactions into or out of Interpal accounts will be blocked and IBB will be at further risk of all its customer payments being suspended.”
It added: “This is not only an attack on Interpal, a leading British charity, but on all other Muslim charities, all charities working in politically-sensitive regions, all customers of IBB and the Palestinian people, 80% of whom are completely dependent on international aid for survival.”

The decision to close Interpal accounts comes at a time when the United Nations agency assisting Palestinian refugees was forced to suspend food distribution, earlier this week, due to Israel’s continued border closures in Gaza preventing the delivery of vital supplies to Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.

“Fuel pipelines remained closed, leaving Gaza with continued disruptions to its power supplies and adding to the rapid decline of socio-economic conditions” according to the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process.

In September this year a World Bank report warned that the continued restrictions placed on the Palestinians by Israel was severely limiting the Palestinian economy and making Palestinians even more dependent on foreign aid.

When approached the Islamic Bank of Britain said that it would “not comment on individual accounts” and Lloyds TSB offered a similar response stating “we do not comment on our relationship with corporate customers”.

Muslim groups responded with anger. The Muslim public affairs committee (MPACUK) said “Lloyds TSB have shown how much they value their Muslim customers by demanding that IBB terminate Interpal’s banking facilities” and encouraged people to write and phone Lloyds TSB demanding that they “rescind this outrageous, unfair and arbitrary decision”.

The Muslim Council of Britain, a national representative umbrella organisation, said they had written to Lloyds TSB saying the decision was “causing the MCB and the Muslim community tremendous concern and anxiety” and added that they “deplore the pressure that has been placed on IBB to close down the Interpal account”.

The MCB also sent out a warning to Lloyds TSB referring to the “significant number of Muslim account holders” the bank possesses and the fact that Lloyds TSB has been “reaching out for business for its shariah compliant current account” adding “If banking services to Interpal are not reinstated, then this will inevitably influence the actions of its existing and future customer base”. However MCB refrained from stating exactly what action they would take in the event of Interpal’s account being closed.

Interpal has faced numerous accusations since it was established in 1994.
In 2003 the US government designated Interpal a terrorist entity, accusing the charity of funding the Palestinian group HAMAS. However the UK charity commission found no links to terrorism stating “The American authorities were unable to provide evidence to support their allegations”.

In 2007 NATWEST closed the charities account citing pressure from the law suit bought by 14 families of Israeli suicide bomb victims.

The claim was bought against the Royal Bank of Scotland, NATWEST’s parent group, under the US Anti-Terrorism Act.

The Bosnian Warrior Sheikh

Bosnian warriorAs I walk through the hand crafted wooden doors of the sixteenth century Naqshabandia Tajkia (spiritual centre) mosque that sits on one of the many hills surrounding Sarajevo, I am greeted by sounds of ambient, mellow chanting emanating from inside the Mosque. As I approach the sounds define themselves as voices singing in unison.Water trickles from the beautiful white and grey marble fountain which is topped with a bright white sphere that turns with the water flow. The fountain is placed in the middle of a neatly kept garden surrounded with numerous flowers. Large roses lean over the path to the mosque, like welcoming hands beckoning guests ever inwards. A small cemetery of old graves surmounted by traditional white turban tops, lies adjacent to the mosque. Cutting through an elevated prayer space, a massive wooden door takes us to the central area of the mosque, surfaced with wood, covered in traditional Bosnian rugs placed any which way in a riot of colour. The wooden praying platform is like a balcony allowing you to look out onto the small garden and cemetery.Inside the central prayer area, a group of men wearing green waistcoats and red fez hats sit, now silently waiting after the chanting. It is almost time for prayer. A man walks in as the muezzin (prayer caller) gives the call to prayer. Wearing a green turban and a long green coat, reaching just above his ankles, he glides into the mosque. Smiling softly with a look that permeates authority. Men around him react quickly; placing their right hands on their hearts, a salute to the general of an army. His green eyes acknowledge everyone in the congregation.

After the prayer the man gets up and says loudly “Assalamualaikum!” turns and leaves just as he had entered, with long subtle silent steps. The congregation again place hand to heart. Who is this man?

Leaving the mosque we are told by a man wearing a red fez hat and green waistcoat that the Sheikh invites us to return for a gathering later in the evening.

Inside the sheikh sits amongst his students imparting knowledge and wisdom, exhorting them to be honest people and good. There is something different yet intangible about the relationship between Sheikh and congregation. Sessions of dhikr (singing praises of God) are tightly regimented; the circle formed by the murids (students) is disciplined into perfection. Late entrants must wait until granted permission to participate in the rhythmic undulations. “La il-la-ha il-allah” swaying left to right. – There is no God but Allah. Lights dimmed. Everyone deep in his own on themselves.

The undulating dhikr movements over, a few announcements for future sessions, lessons and meetings are read out to the students. I catch a glimpse of the Sheikh in a room attached to the mosque. He beckons to me to approach. Sheikh Halil Hulusi Nakeshibendi el Bosnevi sits sedately austere surrounded by his students. Accompanied by numerous servings of tea our conversation commences.

Sheikh Hulusi was the general of the Muslim Brigade, commanding over 5,000 men.

“How could I expect my students and people to go to war whilst I stayed behind?”
“I have responsibilities as a sheikh. One of those is to fight in the defense of our community and country and people. This was incumbent on me”. He speaks softly yet authoritatively.Students move around punctiliously never turning their backs on the sheikh, walking backwards through doors as they leave, never sitting themselves higher than the sheikh, always hanging on his every single word, eyes fixated on either his mouth or on the decorated carpet, unflinching, intent.Sheikh Halusi was based in Zanista outside Sarajevo during the war. He relates how gatherings of dhikr preceded each operation. Spiritual guidance was an integral part of his leadership as he lead his men into battle throughout the war.

During the war Serb forces destroyed mosques across Bosnia, wiping away history and those numerous architectural gems and ancient Turkish architecture, that made so much of the character of the country. Sheikh Hulusi was involved in the construction of the only mosque during the war built in a mountain primarily servicing fighters.

Since the end of the war Sheikh Hulusi went back to his spiritual duties, teaching his students and leading dhikr gatherings. Tajkie are established in 17 different locations across Bosnia and two in America, all under the Sheikh’s guidance, he is keen to tell me, naming all the tajkie along with the names of the students in charge of each one. This is a growing movement that has been established since the 16th century in Bosnia when the Turks first came to the region.

The Naqshabandia Mosque in Sarajevo was destroyed during Tito’s communist reign to be used as a storage depot. Sheikh Hulusi and his followers restored the mosque, succeeding even to restore the sixteenth century minbar (pulpit).

Breaking a taboo of Sufi gatherings across the world I bring up issues of politics. I ask the sheikh about the current state of Bosnia and his opinions of the status quo after the war. My question does not seem to trouble him . “Bosnia is far from perfect,” he says thoughtfully sipping from a glass of dark red tea, “but look at the goals of the Serbs” he says darkly. “We saved Bosnia as a state. The term ‘Bosniak’ became a recognised form of self-identification. “Subsequent to the Dayton agreement, people that had fought against Bosnia are now in the government, working against Bosnia” These words are echoed by many others, including politicians such as the current president of Bosnia, Haris Silajdžić.

Sheikh Hulusi says “The best future plan for Bosnia is to join the European Union, it’s the only way to stop future genocides”.

Students discuss all manner of issues with the Sheikh, spiritual, political, aesthetic. I suggest to Sheikh Hulusi that he is a different kind of Sufi Sheikh compared to other sheikhs. He disagrees and says that he is a true Sheikh. Other Sheikhs also stood up against oppression and occupation: Shamil Daghestani of the Caucasus and Omar Mukhtar of Libya: Both were spiritual leaders that led a resistance movement for freedom against tyranny: the Russian Tzar and Mussolini respectively.

The sheikh was awarded the Golden Lilly, the highest military honor for his efforts during the defense of Bosnia. The General, the Sheikh, and the Luminary. His students find everything in one man. He salutes us as we leave his hand on his heart with a warm smile. It was an invitation to return. For Sheikh Hulusi the real struggle was about to begin. Spiritual heights to reach, political advice to give, a nation to pull together from the debris of the past. Water trickles from the beautiful white and grey marble fountain which is topped with a bright white sphere that turns with the water flow

Srebrenica, lest we forget

Srebrenica, lest we forgetIn 1995 Srebrenica was a haven of calm and security: a UN declared safe zone. Bosnian Muslims could relax a bit in the relative security of the Dutch Peacekeeping force sent there to protect them, while war raged all around. Then Serb forces barged their way into the town.

Thirteen years later we stood together under the hammering hot sun of midsummer on a meadow near the town of Srebrenica. Tens of thousands of us gathered to commemorate those 8,000 massacred thirteen years ago.

Seeing themselves out numbered by Serb forces the Dutch force, UN to a man every one, hands-up and handed over helpless civilians to the Serbs. Now indicted but as free today as he was on that fateful day, war criminal General Ratko Mladic ordered the men and boys to be separated out. 8,372 men and boys were executed over the next few days. Some tried to escape through the forest. Mladec ordered Serb soldiers to hunt them down and kill them all.

The remains of 308 victims of the genocide were buried, as we stood there in respect under the glaring sun. One might say from mass graves where they had been dug up since the end of the war to a cemetary of individual graves. This time with the due respect and the personal grief of families that had waited so long to grieve. Thirteen years has been a long time to wait.

The mass graves were discovered in the dense forest and beautiful high, green hills which surround Srebrenica. To honour the dead there is now a memorial and landscaped cemetery where the massacre took place. Aptly perhaps it is adjacent to the former UN base and old factory were many of the victims were held.

Families wander around the old factory, looking at the dark rooms where victims were once held. A makeshift noose improvised from an old cable hangs from the ceiling of one room, a striking symbol of what took place here. An execution. With bullets, though, the Serbs proved themselves more efficient.

Srebrenica, lest we forgetMarks on the walls, pictures and graffiti all testify to the events that took place 13 years ago in this old factory. The atmosphere of darkness is palpable. Bright beams of light manage to penetrate through cracks and filthy windows. But the darkness was as if indelible, morbid forever. Bosnians wander around as if in the trance of a dilemma: Frightened to witness the unspeakable yet curious to share somehow in the experience of the victims. A virtual scrum to sign the guest book at the entrance, many hands at once on the same page leaving messages of hope and condolence.

In spite of the fine words of treaties and peace agreements, Bosnians see it as important to remember the reality of what took place. Tens of thousands stood there subdued and solemn in the shade of this factory from hell waiting for the ceremonies to commence. Water came in container vehicles to quench the waiting crowds. More water for ablutions. Yet more for the rows of mobile toilets providing some ease for those that had endured so much hardship to be present.

It is hard to forget the war in Bosnia. Cities, towns and villages are filled with graveyards full with those that died in the war. Buildings still bare the scars of the war, their walls riddled with bullet holes, their occupants too poor to pay for reconstruction or repair. The hill tops of Sarajevo are full of graveyards. White gravestones reflect the sunlight and catch the eye of the visitor, a reminder of what took place in this beautiful and historic city. Each crescent and star on a white gravestone signifies yet another Muslim grave: An entire people standing there on the hillside facing Makkah. I saw the dates on the gravestones:1992-1995 most of them. The war did not discriminate between old and young – wars rarely do.

Some 5,000 bodies are yet to be found and identified. Families still wait for the remains of their loved ones, dragged away to their death: all under the “protection” of the UN.

People came from all over Bosnia to attend the Friday 13th commemoration. Hundreds of coaches have traveled over rough tracks and winding roads, as the occupants of vehicles closed their windows gasping for breath in the red dust filled air. As we ourselves found it was a choice between the heat of the summer day or getting covered in dust. Police stand at intervals indicating the road to Srebrenica: every half mile or so. To protect the pilgrims, no doubt, for this is now Serb majority territory.

Many have come from abroad like Aida Siddique, a Bosnian currently living with her family in Aberdeen. This was her first time in Srebrenica. “It is painful to come here” The sorrow shows on her face. “Now that I am a mother I feel the pain of the mothers here”.

Amir Kobilic was in Srebrenica when the Serbs took the town. He escaped through the forest fleeing for five days until he reached Tuzla 65 miles away. Amir now lives in Sweden only now returning for the memorial.

“This great crime calls for justice, there must be no pause for the pursuit for justice, this great crime calls out for a response. Come! See! Feel! Weep and act!”. Thus spoke the American representative speaking at the memorial.

Srebrenica was the largest massacre to occur in Europe since the Second World War. Mustafa Ceric, Mufti of Bosnia, called on the European Union to declare the 11th of July a European day of mourning.

Relatives of the dead stand by the graves waiting, waiting for 13 years to lay their sons, fathers, brothers and husbands to rest. Boys of 15 marched off with the elderly from so many families. Entire communities destroyed.

I got tired walking amongst the thousands of people attending the memorial. The surrounding hills were full of families waiting just a little longer to bury their dead. Walking from grave to grave writing names, speaking to relatives, it was painful yet oddly surreal. Never have I witnessed such public sorrow and pain yet borne with dignity. I didn’t know any of the victims, but today I felt the sorrow standing with the families, praying for their loved ones, our loved ones, Europeans all. Men and women alike shed tears unable to hold back emotions. We in the West rarely remember or even know the names of the dead who are not ‘like us’. These are human beings that were murdered for being Muslim, Europeans all.

Srebrenica, lest we forget

Speaking to people in Bosnia they are nice and hospitable. Mention Srebrenica and you see them physically shiver. The woman hotel owner in Travnik, literally quaked at the very sound of Srebrenica when I told her where I was going. Wounds are deep.

“We will never forget Srebrenica” Swore Ekrem Halilovic remembering the war. Ekrem served in the army and police. Bosnia was subjected to Genocide, rape camps and bloody sieges. Bosnians will never forget those lost family members, or those mothers, sisters, daughters and wives that were raped. “We will never forget.”

The International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, has ruled that the Srebrenica massacre was genocide. This Genocide took place in Europe, in full view of the international community. For many there is still no closure, no justice with the main perpetrators of the massacre still at large, Ratko Mladic and Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic as free as they were in 1995.

(In no particular order) . . .

Mehmedovic Sadik Sead, 21 years old, no 259
Alkanovic Osman Aljo, 43 years old, no 123
Becirovic Sabrija Murat, 26 years old, no125
Halilovic Omer Mehmed, 72 years old, no 119
Masic Sluejman Fahr, 20 years old, no 66
Kurtic Becir Rifet, 39 years old, no 65
Muminovic Hesan Nasim, 63 years old, no 67
Becrovic Salejman Samir, 20 years old, no 64
Avoc Kadrija Mesad, 21 years old, no 58
Bosnak Alja Amr, 18 years old, no 31
Sujkic Ramiz Amho, 21 years old
Hasic Nedzib Edin, 16 years old, no 61
Srebrenica, Yes, remember that name! Never Again! Lest we forget.
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