By Sarah Javaid
In June 2011, UK-based Muslim organisation MADE in Europe took a group of twelve young volunteers for a month in Bosnia and Herzegovina, southeast Europe. The project aims to revive the Islamic concept of taking a journey as an act of learning and enrichment, and providing an opportunity for young Muslims to learn about conflict and development.
Bosnia suffered greatly from violence and aggression during the 1990s with over 8000 Muslim men and boys killed. The people have been slowly rebuilding their lives for the past fifteen years but the memory of genocide cannot be so easily forgotten.
The MADE in Europe volunteers lived with survivors, supporting them with their day-to-day farming tasks as well as setting up two strawberry farms for which they had fundraised in the UK. The volunteers also took part in the three-day Mars Mira “Peace March”, following the route the Bosnians took to flee the Serbian army and attending the anniversary of the massacre along with thousands of people from around the world.
One of the 2011 volunteers, 21-year-old student Wasim Mir shares his story:
“Words and pictures will never be enough to describe the experience I had in Bosnia this year. Before coming I had various expectations of a remote and possibly hostile region, fed by misinformed stereotypes from people in England. I was not only proved wrong, but moved to tears on occasions, the memories of which will last a lifetime.
“Our day-to-day activities in eastern Bosnia mainly involved waking up early to aid our host families on their farms and sampling what can only be described as a beautiful culture (not least the food!). Personally I was awe-struck by how physically demanding the fruit picking, hay stacking and irrigation was in such intense heat. Men and women shared the workload and did so with such humility, something we take for granted in our every-day comforts of ‘first-world problems’.
“We had a group objective of fundraising for and setting up two strawberry farms for families who were victims of the 1992-95 genocide. We came together on specific days and after a lot of grafting, set up the farms that would provide a means of income (6000 Bosnian Marks / year) for an otherwise unsupported family. Returnees in Eastern Bosnia receive little or no support from the government and so this was both a gesture and a necessity for them.
“Strawberries and other small fruit are a large export market in the Balkans and as most of the families were women (owing to the large loss of life of men during the conflict), it was a convenient project to implement, as fruit picking does not entail the intense manual labour a massive field of hay or animals does. The farmers have both the expertise and the commitment to work hard to sustain their means of income; we as a group of volunteers merely provided them with the platform they deserve as much as everyone else trying to make a living.
“On a more poignant note, attending the annual memorial at Potocari, Srebrenica (the site where over 8000 males were massacred in July 1995) was an event that would tug at the strongest of hearts. As a volunteer, I had heard the horrendous war-time stories from my host family over the 3 weeks I had stayed with them, but it was only upon attending such an emotional event, steeped in sorrow, that I realised the scale of the genocide. One thing stuck with me from that day – Bosnia’s tragic stories deserve to be heard at the very least, for ignoring such atrocities is paramount to our failure as fellow citizens from both an Islamic and moral perspective.
“My lasting memories will be of the jaw-dropping mosques and sounds of Arabic echoing in such remote villages. It was a pleasure and a great educational experience to see Islam practiced so openly in this nation. To see blonde-haired, blue-eyed men, women and children greeting me with ‘Assalamaleyk (Peace be upon you) and ear-to-ear smiles melted my heart a little more on every occasion. They were testament to the true universal attitude of Islam and of kind human nature, not judging me for my background for a second. So welcoming were the people that they even let me read the Adhan (call to prayer) on a hilltop mosque, a personal highlight that I owe to the local people.
“The experience as a whole was not only that of a volunteering project, but a journey on so many levels. Spiritually, morally, emotionally and personally, I learnt a lot about my character that I doubt I could have without stepping out of my comfort zone into this environment. I saw my religion practised by an entirely different ethnic group and it broke down barriers which previously seemed immovable. Volunteering abroad also gave me a completely new form of independence I had not experienced before. It benefitted other areas of my skill base in terms of verbal and non-verbal communication, teamwork and time management skills.
“I would highly recommend the project for anyone with an interest in volunteering or working abroad with NGOs, but it is also an opportunity not to be missed as an educational experience. It entails a lot of hard work and effort before deployment with regards to training and fundraising, and also in raising awareness afterwards. But this pays off when you can see first-hand the benefits of your own grafting. The only downfall is that there is a lasting feeling of regret upon leaving the country!
“Bosnia has been through a lot in recent times, and on the surface it appears to be as healthy as any other European nation, the only physical signs of war evident in mass graves or bullet-laden buildings. However, deep under the thin cover of peace is a psychological tension between Bosnians and Serbs. Living in Republica Serbska (a Serb-run province) is not easy for a family who has had relatives killed and land taken away.
“Today, Serbs are now a majority in this area of Bosnia, and every bit of help is needed to support the returning Bosnians to their land. May God protect the Bosnian people from whatever force prevents them for living their simple, yet incredible lives. And you can take it from me, what a lively bunch they are.”
– Wasim Mir, MADE in Europe 2011 volunteer
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More about MADE in Europe
MADE in Europe is a UK-based charity that aims to mobilise young Muslims to take action on global poverty through campaigning and volunteering. For more information about Bosnia: The Journey programme please visit www.madeineurope.org.uk/madethejourney.