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Banja Luka Muslims harbour no illusions of return to life before Yugoslav wars

While a famous mosque in Bosnia's second largest city has been restored, Muslims from the city remain scattered. Ferry Biedermann reports from Banja Luka.
Djindo Armin, supervisor of the reconstruction of the Ferhadija mosque, says while more than 10,000 Muslims are now registered in Banja Luka, few actually live there. "They have summer homes here, and they come back to be buried."
Djindo Armin, supervisor of the reconstruction of the Ferhadija mosque, says while more than 10,000 Muslims are now registered in Banja Luka, few actually live there. "They have summer homes here, and they come back to be buried."
BANJA LUKA, BOSNIA // The remains of Ahmed Maglajlic will be returned to his birthplace this autumn. A small piece of the fabric of Banja Luka that was torn away by war has been restored to its proper place. The minaret of the fabled Ferhadija mosque has been rebuilt and again towers over Maglajlic's neighbourhood.

But the Muslims of Banja Luka harbour no illusions of a return to life as it was before the war that wracked the Balkans in the early 1990s.

The conflict pitted Bosnia's Muslims, Serbs and Croats against each other. By war's end, almost all of Banja Luka's Muslims and Croats, who made up about 30 per cent of the city's pre-war population, had been uprooted.

Few of the city's Muslims returned to what is now the Bosnian Serb capital. Nearly 30,000 people before the war, the Muslim community has shrunk to several thousand.

"After what happened, most Bosnians prefer to live among people of their own ethnic background," explains the Serb director of a non-governmental organisation here.

In a sign of how sensitive the subjects of ethnicity and refugees and their return still is, the man says he prefers to remain anonymous.

Bosnian Serb authorities do not discourage the return of Muslims to Banja Luka, he said. They do not have to.

"After the war people were scared and, when that passed, they had become settled in their place of refuge. Now they may come here for holidays, but not to live."

Many of the Muslims who managed to stay appear to have been in mixed marriages, like Azra Maglajlic Prlja, the daughter of Ahmed Maglajlic.

Djindo Armin, the supervisor of the reconstruction of the Ferhadija mosque, stayed for the same reason. "It was a small benefit, to be in a mixed marriage," says Mr Armin.

Nevertheless, he says, while more than 10,000 Muslims are now registered in Banja Luka, few actually live there. "They have summer homes here, and they come back to be buried."

Like Banja Luka itself, the rebuilding of the Ferhadija, destroyed in 1993, has been slowed by the ethnic and religious undercurrents that still swirl here, 18 years after the signing of the Dayton Accords that ended the war.

In 1991, the formal launch of the he reconstruction of the Ottoman-era mosque was marred by the death of one Muslim and the wounding of scores of others when Serb protesters rioted. It took four years for the municipality to issue all the required building permits.

But since then the authorities have been fine, even helpful, says Mr Armin. "That does not mean that there have not been other incidents, small acts of vandalism, slogans painted on our fence, like 'Serbia for the Serbs'. But that has not interfered with the work."

Once the bureaucratic obstacles were overcome, others followed, not least trying to locate the rubble from the destroyed mosque.

In 2005, with the aid of an anonymous tip, Mr Armin and the mosque committee found the building stones in a lake. They were mixed in with the debris from two other mosques that were destroyed the same night. The salvage operation took years.

"The destruction was a coordinated act. It happened during curfew and Muslims had to carry special ID's and were not allowed out at night. It is clear who did it but nobody has been punished," Mr Armin says, still bitter. "I do not hate people, but it is impossible to forget certain things."

The rebuilding of the Ferhadija was scheduled to be completed this spring, but its minarets are still encased in scaffolding and no one is predicting when the project will be completed.

Mr Armin and his team insist on a detailed reproduction of the original mosque and are following guidelines set by Unesco for heritage sites.

"We are lacking funds, that is why it is not finished. But it is also technical, it is very slow," he says.

Although Azra Maglajlic Prlja hoped that the reconstruction would be finished by the time her father's remains were reburied, she is not dismayed by the delay.

Sitting in the garden of her house in the old Muslim quarter of Mejdan, not far from the Ferhadija, she recounts past suffering, how her mother and father, a former director of a construction company, were evicted from their apartment in the centre of Banja Luka and forced to live in a tower block without a functioning lift.

The war forced them to flee the city, and her father died penniless in Croatia in 1995. "His heart could not deal with being a refugee," she says.

Like so many other families, Ms Prlja's is scattered. Her two brothers and her mother now in Australia and Sweden. Still, her father is - in a manner of speaking - returning home.

"What is important for me is that my father is buried in the soil of his city. It may bring peace to my mind."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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Updated: May 28, 2013 04:00 AM

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