Defiant Muslims keep faith with shattered mosques: In the ruins of Banja Luka, Robert Block finds a community clinging on

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The Independent Online
LIKE ants trying to figure out which end of an abandoned sandwich they should tackle first, workmen in military fatigues last week climbed over the remains of the minaret of Banja Luka's Ferhad Pasha mosque, looking for a good spot to set their jackhammer.

The splendid 16th-century mosque which once dominated Banja Luka's main square is now a pile of stone shards beneath the workmen's feet. 'Unknown' extremists blew up Ferhad Pasha one night last May, but the sturdy old building survived the explosion, and demolition teams have had to return several times in attempts to finish the job.

All that remains now of 400 years of architectural history is the huge chunk of tough yellow-grey rock that was once the base of the minaret. And, like the remnants of the community which used to heed its calls to prayer, each day the stump is becoming smaller.

Despite official claims to the contrary, Muslims are not wanted in Banja Luka. The city has been designated by the boot-boys of 'greater Serbia' as their exclusive domain, a candidate for the future capital of an ethnic Serbian mini-state in Bosnia.

Once Banja Luka had a population of about 45,000 Muslims and 16 mosques. Now there are fewer than 10,000, most driven out by threats and bomb attacks, murders, rapes and beatings. As for the mosques, none remains. The latest target is Muslim cemeteries.

Some families, however, like the minaret stump, are not so easily pummelled into oblivion. They cling to their homes and stubbornly resist all attempts to be driven away.

A few blocks from the empty site where Ferhad Pasha once stood is a house whose windows are always shuttered. It is difficult to tell whether anyone lives there except at night, when thin shafts of light come through cracks under the door and through the shutters. A knock on the door brings no response. After a second knock there are hurried footsteps.

'Who is it?' a voice asks.

'Friends, looking for the Pasic family.'

'They are not here'.

'We are foreign journalists'.

After a long silence, the door opens and a barrel-chested man with grey hair and glasses appears. Seeing that his visitors are indeed foreigners, he smiles. 'I am sorry, but you understand we have to be careful. Please come in. Welcome to my house and to my city.'

Muharem Pasic's grandfather was a wealthy Muslim merchant and built the house at the turn of the century. Today his descendants are not so much owners of the house as its prisoners - especially Muharem's son, Fikret.

He has been locked away inside for more than 10 months. He has not seen the outside in all that time, not even from a window, lest somebody sees him. A former city lawyer, 37-year-old Fikret was sacked from his job by emergency decree 03.531/92, which banned all non-Serbs from jobs with access to 'important information'.

His family now tells everyone that Fikret fled the country. They fear that if the police know he is still in Banja Luka, he will be forced into a labour unit working on the front line.

For his father, Muharem, the situation brings back an event from his youth.

'Fifty-three years ago, there was a Jewish woman, Klara Agasic, the wife of a good friend of my father's. The husband was a watchmaker. When the fascist Ustashe government took power in Croatia, he fled. Klara could not go with him. She was in great danger staying in Banja Luka on her own. If caught, she would have been killed for sure.

'Now, my father was a good man and loved all people - Serbs, Jews, Muslims and Croats. His duty was clear. Klara stayed with us for five months, hiding until we were able to get her smuggled out of the country.' Muharem smiles. 'As a little boy I thought it was so exciting, hiding someone in our house. Every time there was a knock on the door, we grew scared. My father would calm us and handle everything.'

Muharem pauses a long time before adding: 'I never thought that I would ever have to do the same for my son.'

Muharem points out that Jews were not the only ones to suffer. Most of the Ustashe's victims were Serbs. And the Serbs from the area around Banja Luka were perhaps the worst hit. 'That is why it is so hard for us to understand what is happening to us.'

Over cakes and coffee the family talks about the past. About the beauty of Banja Luka; about its history of tolerance; and about the splendour of the Ferhad Pasha mosque.

When told of the workmen finishing off the minaret, Muharem and his family grow silent. 'They can't take it away from us, just as they can't erase the fact that we have been here for centuries.' His daughter Senada hands me a calendar from the Banja Luka Islamic League, with a photograph of the mosque in happier times. The calendar was for 1994.