'Euphoria' wrecks imam's village: Robert Fisk returns to Cela, a hamlet where Serbs protected the mosque, and finds a burnt-out memory

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The Independent Online
REMEMBER Cela. That is what the village Imam told me a year ago when the Serbs let us visit what they claimed was a model of Muslim-Serb cohabitation, proof that not all the Muslims of northern Bosnia had been 'ethnically cleansed'. The Imam Adil Alukic, in his little black beret, had welcomed us to the squeaky-clean hamlet with its coffee shop and slightly damaged mosque and its Muslims and Serbs still living together in neat red-roofed cottages. So when Inspector Radovan of the Prijedor police - the Serb police, of course - escorted me back to Cela, there seemed no reason to doubt that I would soon be taking coffee once again with Adil and his family.

The countryside around Cela blazed with summer, thick green trees shaking in the wind by the Sana river, as we followed Inspector Radovan in his little squad car. 'There has been no fighting here and there are still some Muslims living in the village,' he said disconcertingly when we stopped by a little bridge. 'Some' Muslims? When I visited Cela a year ago, there were 1,200 Muslims and only 500 Serbs. A mile further on, Inspector Radovan stopped his car. 'That's it,' he said.

But where was the coffee shop and the mosque, I asked? I had never driven in this village before. Indeed, I doubted if this was Cela. The Inspector's amiability seeped away. 'We'll go to the other part of the village then,' he snapped. We drove to another village - the real Cela this time - but again he stopped. I want to go to the coffee shop, I said. Two of the neighbouring houses were still flying white flags , the same white flags the Muslims had been ordered to hang from their windows a year ago to 'prove' they had no weapons. The houses looked deserted.

The Inspector drove down a side road where we did indeed stop at the coffee shop. It was here that Imam Adil and a colleague called Itzak had explained to us a year ago that while there had been problems - a young man kidnapped by Serb gunmen, an old man thrown down a well, a small firebomb that slightly damaged the mosque - the Muslims of Cela had been promised protection. 'We have struck a deal,' he told me then. 'We promised the authorities we would not fight them and they agreed to leave us alone.'

Poor, simple Adil. There was no one in his coffee shop now. Its windows were smashed, its entrance overgrown with weeds. The windows of the house next door were also broken. What did this mean? What about the mosque, I asked the Inspector? I pointed to the lane way where I knew it to be. His face had now turned hard and suspicious. We drove down the lane, past empty houses where, a year ago, I had been greeted by families eating in their yards who shouted 'Salaam Aleikum' because they believed they were safe.

The mosque told the whole story. A pretty, high-ceilinged building with a spindly minaret, it stood next to Imam Adil's single-storey home where I had taken coffee with his family. Not any more. What lay before us was a mockery of what I had seen a year ago. Only the walls of the mosque were standing, its wooden roof blasted off, its outer rooms burnt, its carpets stolen. Four pages of a torn, 19th-century Koran, the edges of the pages blackened by fire, lay in the rubble outside. Inspector Radovan raised his arms in a hopeless way but when we tried to take his picture, he put his hand over the camera.

Imam Adil's house had fared little better. The kitchen had been burnt, the contents looted. On the floor of the empty sitting-room were a cluster of deodorants, the tops still emitting a faint spray when I pressed them. Behind an upended sofa, I found a schoolbook belonging to the Imam's daughter containing science essays and diagrams in her own hand. 'Halida Alukic,' she had written many times on the cover, alongside a drawing of a fragile tulip. Next to the book lay a wedding portrait of Imam Adil and his wife - its frame partly melted by fire - and a monochrome snapshot of Adil with his family, his wife peering from the doorway of the same smashed home in which I now stood. Adil was wearing his Imam's black beret and he was smiling. Where was he now?

Inspector Radovan did not know. He had been standing in the wreckage outside the house with a kind of hunted expression, aware that his propaganda had turned to ruins, just like the mosque. Then he started talking, a kind of hurried monologue. 'People do these terrible things sometimes because of vengeance. My sister, my own sister and my brother-in-law and their children were all murdered in their home by Muslims in central Bosnia. This does something to a person. In Cela there was this euphoria of destruction. But it has been worse in Banja Luka. There the police and authorities are behind the violence and the killing of Muslims.'

Euphoria of destruction. The expression was as remarkable as his admission about Banja Luka. We walked past another burnt house and then to a woman with an old, kindly face standing at the gate of a Muslim's home. But Zagorka Dacic was a Serb. 'I've been here two and a half months,' she said. 'Yes, the Muslims left some furniture and things which I now own. Muslims also lived over there on the other side of the road, but they left their home today for tomorrow's convoy. I came from central Bosnia. I was ordered to leave by Muslim soldiers who were murdering my neighbours. I fled for my life. I am happy now.' Could she ever live with Muslims again? 'I doubt it,' she replied with a smile.

We knocked at a house in which Radovan knew Muslims were still living. 'Come out,' he shouted harshly. But no one dared come to the door. Twenty yards away, we tried again, this time greeted by a middle-aged couple, Esma and Sujo Sugo. They smiled at us, shook hands with the Inspector. They were Muslims. 'I was born in this house, I love this village,' Sujo said. 'We want to stay but things are difficult now. I don't know what the future holds.' Esma understood what we wanted to know. 'We have no papers, nothing, nowhere to go to if we have to leave,' she said.

Why should they leave? 'There are people who come at night,' Sujo said. 'Sometimes there is trouble.' Who comes at night? 'Oh, all sorts of people, policemen, militiamen, soldiers, people, extremists, we don't know who they are.' He was looking now at Inspector Radovan. And the mosque? 'Yes, it was blown up. I don't know who did it. How would we ever know?' And the Imam and his family? There was a pause. 'I think he went to Zagreb,' Sujo replied.

When we left, Sujo and Esma shook hands with us and with Inspector Radovan too. I asked the Inspector to protect them and he promised to do so in an over-friendly way. But they, like Cela, will need more than his protection. Imam Adil once asked us to remember his village. Soon, we will have to forget it.

(Photograph omitted)

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