One candle in the heart of darkness

The Mufti of Banja Luka lives on among those who killed his people. He tells Robert Fisk (left) why he is ready to forgive

Ibrahim Khalilovic drags heavily on his cigarette. "You don't mind me smoking, do you?" he asks. We are in his office, beside what every guidebook describes as the beauty of the Ferhat Pasha mosque, but all that remains of the 17th-century building, blown up by Serb militiamen in 1993, is a few hunks of painted masonry and two square feet of Arabic script on ancient stone, dumped in the hallway below his office. The Mufti of Banja Luka smiles bitterly. "Yes, we can smoke because we have been through hell."

Which is putting it mildly. Ibrahim Khalilovic is in the very centre of the heart of darkness, the capital of northern Bosnia from which the "ethnic cleansers" set out in the summer of 1992 to burn and rape their way through the Muslim population. Though he always refuses to be photographed, the mufti bravely agrees to talk on the record, and does so in the voice of a survivor, carefully, slowly, softly, fear creeping into his sentences along with pride in his own courage.

"More than 90 per cent of the Muslims in my area were thrown out. Their property was usurped by people of Serb nationality. But the houses which were no longer good for living in, the Serbs demolished them, took away building materials, windows, sinks, chairs. They took as from a dead body. I have not a single mosque in my area left. All have been blown up. This means that the roots of the Bosnian Muslim people here have been pulled up. I had more than 200 imams preaching here. I now have only two active ones and three who have been pensioned off..."

The Imam of Prijedor, a man called Carakovo, was wrapped in a carpet from his mosque and set on fire with petrol. "They burned him to death in front of his wife and children and other believers," says the mufti. In Kozarce in 1992, they took theimam and skinned him alive and poured salt over him. "In the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina, 62 imams were killed. They did not belong to any uprising. They were absolutely innocent people."

Mr Khalilovic was himself in mortal danger. "The police came to pick me up and said 'Why don't you go?' I refused. This happened on many occasions - in 1993, 1994 and last year. In August, men tried to kill me; eight shots were fired through the windows of my living-room. A bomb was planted in the cellar of my house in July 1994.

"The police kept asking me why I wouldn't leave. I said to them: 'My life is my guarantee that I will not leave - because this town belongs more to me than to you who came to this town yesterday.' One of the policemen said to me: 'We have knocked all your mosques down, so you will not be able to go on living here.' So I replied: 'I am a moving mosque.' They were so angry that they threw me out." The mufti is a valiant man. "I have no immunity here," he remarks suddenly. "But I have immunity with God."

The statistics of persecution in northern Bosnia will never be known with any exactitude, but the estimates are terrible enough. Around Banja Luka alone, the 1991 census listed 30,000 Muslims. Now there are only about 4,000. Mr Khalilovic believes that 55,000 Muslims were slaughtered in all north-western Bosnia. And still the "ethnic cleansing" continues, officially sanctioned now by local government officials. "Since the Dayton accord, very many unpleasant things have been happening," Mr Khalilovic says. "We thought Dayton would reverse things - that Muslims would be coming back. There are many Muslims who were thrown out of their homes in northern Bosnia and came here. They are struggling to get their homes back through the courts in Banja Luka, but the process is very slow. It depends what local political wind prevails here and which winds come from Pale [the Bosnian Serb "capital"]. Muslims still feel uncertain. They are frightened, hungry, they have the minimum means of living; there is less and less humanitarian aid arriving. They have no work, nothing to heat their homes with."

Yet the mufti still believes that Dayton is better than war, and proudly shows his new visiting card, printed in Islamic green by a local Serbian printing company. It is in Latin script rather than the Cyrillic alphabet used by the Serbs, respectfully refers to him as a Hadzdzi - one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca - and bears the country's title of the "Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina" rather than the rump Serb republic. He insists that the leaders of all three churches in northern Bosnia - Muslim, Serb Orthodox and Croat Roman Catholics - should mix again and that their people should be reintegrated, that the West must ensure the Dayton provisions are carried out to the letter.

He seems dazed by the ability of even a few Muslims to hang on amid the fire and hatred of the past four years in northern Bosnia. "They planned to throw every one of us out, but we had so much spiritual strength to resist those pressures that we remained. But we have given our lives for it. We perform the minimum of Islamic rituals now, but there is still some Islamic life here. I thank God that Muslims remain - because they actually spoiled the plans of those monstrous people who wanted to completely destroy us. I pray to God that this surface peace becomes a real, lasting and just peace. Bosnia and Herzegovina must be integrated again."

There is no way of knowing if the precarious new security of the surviving Muslims will continue.The mufti says: "Thousands of God's buildings were destroyed in this war, but the dearest of God's places is peace. We were in darkness for a long time. We welcome the light of a single candle now."

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