'Arab brothers' come to aid of Bosnian forces: Muslim fighters are getting help from the East, Robert Fisk reports from Travnik

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The Independent Online
IN THE Travnik coffee shop, where the sound of Abba all but drowned out his words, 'Zero' was trying to explain why he and his 5,000 Muslim fighters needed support from the Islamic world. 'Of course we need guns. We need help - yes, why not Arab help? We need money, food, clothes. We need to train officers because the Serbs had most of the officers' jobs in the Yugoslav army. The Arabs are our brothers and they want to help us. The UN do not help us. How can you blame us for accepting Arab assistance?'

Zero sipped gingerly at his espresso, interrupting his analysis of Islam's place in the Balkans to lend his matches to a pretty, chain-smoking girl. His lean face and trim Muslim beard made him look like a Spanish conquistador, although his combat jacket gave him a sad, world-weary appearance. Delegates to the Islamic conference in Jedda were demanding immediate assistance to the Muslim fighters of Bosnia. But how many miles from Saudi Arabia was our coffee shop?

War makes strange leaders. Zero - his real name is Izet - was a motorcycle rider in a Bosnian circus who acquired his nickname when he told admirers that his career was 'worth zero' in comparison with God's power; he turned to his Islamic faith after his Swedish wife left him five years ago. When the Bosnian war started, he formed the first Muslim militia here of 15 fighters. Now, with more than 300 times that number, he had just spent the night 50 yards from the Serbian frontlines at Bjelobuce on the edge of Turbe, fighting to stop his enemies pouring down the valley of the Lasva river to Travnik.

'Some of the Arabs who came here cried when they saw our plight - and when it was time for them to go home, they asked to stay,' he said. 'We could not say 'no' to them. We could not send them away. So they stayed to help.' Zero avoids any discussion of what this 'help' might be. He is the liaison officer to the Arabs, the man who lists the requirements of Travnik's people, who practises his newly-learnt Arabic with both pride and embarrassment. He greets comrades: 'Salaam aleikum.' But the rest of his conversation is in Serbo-Croat. He reads the Koran in Arabic but wants to remain a European.

'When the Arabs first came here to help us, they wanted something in return . . . They wanted us to be more like them, to learn Arabic, to tell the women to cover their hair, to open Islamic schools. I was the one who had to explain to them that, yes, we need food and shelter and guns. But Travnik is the centre of Europe, it has the culture and religion of the East and the culture and religion of the West. I told our Arab brothers that our culture here in Travnik is very special. Yes, I want more schools . . . that teach Islam but that also teach chemistry, physics, that will tell the people about nuclear fission and the future. Our Islam must be a social revolution, not a narrow thing.'

It was a strange speech to hear against the strains of Abba as the frost lay coating the pavements outside, the low cloud clinging to the mountain tops above the city. In Algiers, the bookshops now stock Islamic literature next to scientific textbooks. There are Algerians in the countryside around Travnik. And now here was Zero, advancing the same ideas, of a new Islam born through struggle.

The cost of that struggle is spreading inexorably across the pretty little parks in Travnik. There were 20 Muslim soldiers buried there a couple of weeks ago. Now there are 53. Cramped together, the frosted mud heaped high above each corpse, the wooden markers bearing a neat Islamic crescent, they are more regimented in death than they ever were in life. For them, of course, the promises of Arab aid have come far too late.

'No, our dead are not all martyrs,' Zero said mournfully. 'To become a shaheed, a martyr, in Bosnia depends on your frame of mind when you die. Some soldiers are selfless. Others are thieves. If at the moment of his death, a Muslim soldier feels no regret at the life he is leaving behind, then he is a shaheed. A real shaheed will die with a smile. He will be dying in the name of Allah.'

Guns and money, it seems, are not the only commodities the Muslims of Travnik are likely to acquire from their Arab brothers.