Blonde Muslims find shelter in Pakistan: Refugees from Bosnia were given a warm welcome in a distant land, Ahmed Rashid writes from Islamabad

BLONDE, blue-eyed Bosnian girls sit in a circle on the floor in traditional Muslim fashion and sing a song of praise to Allah. Their bright faces are framed by headscarves. 'Allah - take care of us in our trials. Allah - take us back home to save our people from our enemies. Allah - give Your favours to our Shaheeds (martyrs) and strength to our Mujahedin (holy warriors). Oh Allah, at the end of this journey return us to our homes.'

As the girls sing, Pakistani welfare workers listen with tears in their eyes. Even though they looked after 3 million Afghan refugees in the 1980s and several million illegal refugees from Burma, India and Bangladesh, Pakistanis have been swept by a wave of emotion for these blonde Muslims. 'We are Europeans but we were abandoned by Europe, only because we are Muslims. Now distant countries like Pakistan have opened their hearts to us,' said Sadzida Silajdzic, the Bosnian ambassador to Pakistan, an Islamic scholar.

Some 380 Bosnians have arrived in Pakistan, to an ecstatic welcome. 'They are not refugees, they are our honoured guests. We have set up a Bosnian Village for them, not a refugee camp,' said Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, Shaharyar Khan. Pakistan is the third Muslim country, after Jordan and Turkey, to take in Muslim regugees from Bosnia.

After the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, took the decision to accept the refugees last week, they were flown out within 48 hours from the Croatian resort of Split. Nine thousand more Bosnian Muslims have been ordered out of six camps around Split; Pakistan has said it is willing to take them. Mr Sharif is personally supervising their resettlement.

The refugees are being housed in a complex outside Islamabad, built for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Two families share each large room, with a kitchen and a bathroom. Although they are eating in a communal dining hall, where they are served special non-spicy food, the Pakistanis will give the Bosnians money so that each family can shop and cook.

Nearly 200 of the refugees are children, many of whom have not seen at least one of their parents for more than a year. They were brought out of Sarajevo and other towns by their mothers, uncles and aunts, and sometimes by teenage brothers. One woman is the guardian of six children, only one of whom is her own. Some of the smallest children have not yet been told that their fathers have been killed or that their mothers, having been raped, are too ashamed to face them.

When they arrived, the Bosnian women were dressed in short skirts and jeans, but many have now taken to the local shalwar kameez - the pantaloons and long tunics worn by Pakistani women. 'We are under no pressure to wear it, but it is much cooler in this heat,' said 18-year-old Azra Chaluk. The refugees have been given sewing machines and cloth to make their own clothes.

The few adult men are silent and listless. Most are victims of Serbian concentration camps; some carry ugly torture marks, others bits of shrapnel lodged in their bodies. They are carpenters and bricklayers, lawyers and engineers, and soon they will go to Mansera, in the foothills of the Karakorum mountains, where they will work with Pakistanis to build a proper Bosnian mountain village, far from the oppressive heat of the Punjab plain.

'We must keep the men busy working, so they have no time to remember their traumas and nightmares,' said Ademir Karisjic, the 20-year-old leader of the refugee camp. 'We will not be parasites living off the Pakistani people.'

Pakistanis have been visibly moved by the plight of the Bosnians. One, who refused to disclose his identity, walked up to the stunned Bosnian ambassador and handed her a personal cheque for 1m rupees (pounds 25,000). A special fund for the Bosnians has raised more than pounds 200,000, and welfare groups are sending everything from cloth to powdered milk. Young college girls crowd the camp, volunteering to teach the Bosnians Urdu and English.

Thousands of Pakistanis have written to Ms Silajdzic, asking if they can adopt Bosnian children. She has refused, insisting that her people must maintain their identity if their nation is to survive: 'Whatever happens, our children must grow up as Bosnians, not Pakistanis,' she says.

Manzoor Ahmed, a Pakistani Imam, leads the prayers alongside Zekerijh Jajarevic, a clean-shaven Bosnian Imam who wears jeans and a T-shirt. The refugees spend a great deal of time in the mosque, men and women separated according to Muslim fashion.

Both Pakistanis and Bosnians have been through a culture shock as for the first time they experience the diversity of the larger Muslim world. Pakistanis had never before seen European Muslims. The Bosnians had never seen Asian Muslims. 'There is no creed or colour in Islam. To be a Muslim is to be a part of the world,' said the Bosnian Imam.

(Photograph omitted)


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