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Love in the Midst of Mayhem

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

It was a simple wedding and, but for the bombs exploding outside, a quiet one. She wore a plain gray skirt, a white blouse and a white hijab befitting a young bride. He wore a dress suit dating from the days before 1992 when the war began in what is now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Shooting continued on the streets outside the basement where the wedding party had gathered. Their banquet was leftover fare from a military celebration the day before. Overjoyed at the prospect of a marriage in the midst of mayhem, several women from the Sarajevo Muslim community had gathered a handful of red roses for the bride.

The ceremony was solemn. Afterward, after the guests had returned to their homes under the protective cover of darkness, they shared a kiss — their first.

The Couple Meets

Abdulah and Hatidza Polovina met as high school students at Gazi Husrevbegova, a gender-segregated madrassa, or Muslim school, in Sarajevo. Both were 16 years old. Hatidza — pronounced Hatija — had offered a private prayer to God to send her a boyfriend who would be her destiny. A classmate pointed Abdulah out one day and asked Hatidza if she might be interested in him.

“I said, OK, he is nice, he is beautiful,” she remembered. She cast a glance at her husband, a man whose dark eyes actually do twinkle. Abdulah’s smile can range from impish to rakish, but is always warm and engaging. His closely trimmed beard helps detract from the fact that he is almost utterly bald.

“Oh yes,” Hatidza added. “He had hair then.”

Boys and girls lived in separate dormitories and attended separate classes at the madrassa, but there were occasions when all students gathered for special programs. The moment they met, Hatidza and Abdulah began talking. It was as if, she said, their spirits had been connected forever.

Overjoyed at the prospect of a wedding while war raged in their city, neighborhood women gathered roses for the bride. Photo: Polovina family archives

Love at first sight?

With not a heartbeat’s hesitation, Hatidza said, “I think it was.”

The strict rules of the madrassa were only the first of many obstacles their young romance would face. The school was unique in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the only residential Islamic school of its kind. Along with training future imams, the school made a firm point of preserving morality. Dating, in the Western-world sense of that term, was inconceivable.

Lacking cell phones or other electronic communication devices, Abdulah and Hatidza traded forbidden correspondence, slipping letters to one another like sweethearts from an earlier century. Abdulah enlisted the help of a secret mailman, the fellow who delivered food to the girls’ side of the school. Every note Abdulah sent to Hatidza was signed with a heart.

He shrugged: “We were young. And we were crazy in love.”

Separation and Strife

It was the practice for all students to be sent to their homes for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. In 1992, Hatidza went back to Divič, her village in the eastern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, near Serbia. Abdulah went home to the small town near Sarajevo where he and his mother had lived since his parents’ divorce when he was 5 years old.

Then came a message from the school telling the students not to come back.

“Nobody knew before then that war would start,” Hatidza said. “When the war started, they disconnected everything. There was no radio, no telephones, no way to communicate.”

When the war began in 1992, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was made up of about 44 percent Muslims — or Bosniaks, as they were sometimes known. Orthodox Serbs accounted for about one-third of the population, followed by Catholic Croats.

Abdulah remembers a childhood where no one thought much about religious affiliation. Kids were kids. Muslim children did attend special weekend schools and after-school sessions, but general education took place in a fully integrated environment. Neighborhoods were mixed, as well. Adults fraternized freely, regardless of where they worshipped.

Six months after the peace accord was signed, downtown Grbavica, a suburb of Sarajevo, remained in a state of rubble and devastation in 1996. These neighborhood saw the worst of crossfire, and became uninhabitable during the war. Photo: Lt. Stacey Wyzkowski/Public Domain, US Gov-Military

Hatidza, too, thought little about religious differences when she was a child. For instance, she did not know that certain surnames could identify certain religious groups.

“I had friends who were Catholic and who were Orthodox,” she said. “That was OK. We were friends, and it didn’t matter.”

All that changed with a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing on the part of Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadžić, the brutal Bosnian Serb leader who was trained as a psychiatrist and who earned the moniker in Western media as the “Butcher of Bosnia.” Karadžić in turn was supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević, an equally treacherous leader who died in jail before he could be prosecuted for war crimes.

The anti-Muslim venom spread quickly. Soon after Hatidza returned from the madrassa to spend the fateful Ramadan of 1992 with her family, she ran into a Serbian girl who until that moment had been a friend.

“She cursed my mom,” Hatidza said, and made pejorative comments about Hatidza’s hijab. “I was shocked.”

About 100,000 people perished in the three-year war. More than 2.2 million were displaced. Rape was a common weapon. Upwards of 20,000 women were violated, most of them Bosniaks. Men, too, were tortured and subjected to violent sexual abuse. Their bodies were heaped into vast common graves.

“They forced fathers and sons to rape each other,” Hatidza said, her voice calm but also cold.

Serb forces rounded up all the men in her village, including Hatidza’s father and brother. Her father soon succumbed to the terrible torture to which he and other Bosniaks were subjected. When the brother of one of Hatidza’s childhood friends, a Serb, came to find her brother, he was elated.

“He thought he would rescue him, but no, he beat him, almost to death,” she said.

The Serbian forces wasted no time finishing the job.

“I lost my father and my oldest brother,” she said. “He was just 29 years old.”

Dreadful Tallies

Hatidza and the rest of her family did not know for sure of the fate of her father and brother until much later — 2007, to be exact, when a mass grave containing what were thought to be their bones along with so many others was uncovered. Her mother and sister provided DNA samples that verified the remains as Hatidza’s father and brother.

A grave digger at a cemetery in Sarajevo, 1992. The number of shovels speaks to the number of burials that took place, day after day. Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev/ Creative Commons

During what became known as the Bosnian genocide, Muslim intellectuals and professionals became particular targets. Personal property and real estate were confiscated. Those remaining, mostly the women, were left with nothing, and no means of support.

“My mom, my two sisters-in-law and I started knocking on doors to see if anyone would accept us,” Hatidza said. Megaphones were set up throughout the area, blasting messages designed to trick any Muslims who remained.

“Please come outside,” the messages blared, according to Hatidza. “We have come not to harm you but to save you.”

But it was a lie. Serb soldiers grabbed one of Hatidza’s childhood friends, ostensibly to serve as a cleaning person. Little did they know what they were up against.

“Her mom was really strong. She was so brave,” said Hatidza. “She slapped the soldier and said, ‘I want my child back.’ They said, ‘We will kill you.’ And she said, ‘Fine.’ They gave her daughter back to her.”

Just before the war broke out, Hatidza’s other brother left for Austria in search of better work opportunities. In their own war-torn region, Hatidza, her sisters, sister-in-law and mother had all but run out of doors to knock on, seeking sanctuary, when they heard about one working telephone. As it happened, the owner was a Muslim. The women waited in a long line before their turn for a call arrived. Talk fast, the phone’s owner admonished.

Miraculously, they reached her brother in Austria.

“Come now,” he told them. “Do not wait.”

A blizzard of paperwork followed. Hatidza had no passport, no ID card, no proof of citizenship. They obtained some forms from the army, then traveled by bus to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Their temporary refuge in a mosque came to an abrupt end when soldiers ordered them outside. They waited on the grass until her brother arrived to spirit them to Austria.

Hatidza still had no passport.

“We were praying that everything would be all right,” she said. “The guard at the border, he put his flashlight into the car. He counted us: one, two, three, four, five — then said, ‘All right, go.’”

Life in Austria

In Austria, so close to their native country, they found something like a normal life: no war, no bombs, no soldiers beating on doors. But since her brother had only a small studio to live in, all five women slept on the bare wooden floor. One day, while her brother was off working in his butcher shop, they heard loud knocking on the door. It was police officers with dogs. The women did not speak German and the officers knew no Bosnian, but it became clear that they were supposed to register with the police.

Caritas, the international Catholic charity, gave them some help. But they needed money. Hatidza was just 17 years old. She found work in Vienna and more importantly, found a newspaper that told her how to send letters to Bosnia.

She wrote to Abdulah, telling him: I am alive, I am in Austria. After a month or two, a letter came back from Abdulah, sent via the Red Cross. One day, Abdulah even managed to place a phone call to Hatidza through a radio station.

Hatidza spent two-and-a-half years in Austria before a long letter, three or four pages, arrived from Abdulah. In it was a proposal of marriage.

Abdulah insists he remembers few details of that particular missive. In earlier letters, Hatidza had urged him to join her in Austria, where there was no war. But Abdulah, a member of the Bosnian army and a de facto imam to fellow soldiers, felt too connected to his country.

“To leave would be to desert, giving up on my own people,” he said. “I felt, I must stay here. I could not leave.”

Death was all around him, as was the devastation of a country that was part of his soul. By the end of the war, he had been wounded three times — once quite seriously. He blushes as he admits there may also have been some flirtations with other women. But they were brief, he quickly adds, and besides, while she was in Austria, Hatidza had the chance to marry others.

“During the war, what can you do?” Hatidza said. “You try to lead a normal life. The girls, they liked Abdulah.”

“I had the chance, she had the chance,” Abdulah  said.

Was their eventual marriage predestined? He shakes his head: “I don’t know.”

In any case, he said, something led her to embark on the dangerous journey back to Bosnia

“Next thing you know, we get married,” Abdulah said.

Sankar Raman
Imam Abdullah earned two bachelor’s degrees as well as a master’s degree after arriving in the United States. While presiding over his congregation at BECO, he is active in numerous interfaith groups in the Northwest. Photo: Sankar Raman

Longing for Abdulah and Home

Hatidza’s memory of the proposal is more explicit. She was 19 years old. It was wartime, and the war looked like it would never end. She was desperately homesick. In Austria, she would search the radio for any trace of a transmission from Bosnia. When she caught snippets of her own language, she broke down and cried.

“It was my home, my memories, everything,” she said.

Among the family clustered in Austria, there was discussion about whether it was prudent for Hatidza to return with so much danger and uncertainty looming.

“My brother told my mother and my sisters, ‘Let her go,’” she remembers.

And so, “I went by bus, to be a bride.”

Hatidza was one of only 10 passengers on a bus that was otherwise crammed with packages sent by displaced Bosnians to their families who remained behind. Hatidza prayed constantly, asking God to give her a sign if what she was doing was right for her.

Hatidza remembers folding her body into a crouch as she made the dangerous journey through the narrow tunnel that brought her to Sarajevo. Photo: Mucahit Cetin

Sarajevo was under siege. It was November, cold and dark, with no electricity. The only way into the city was through a tunnel the Bosnians had dug under the airport. Hatidza, who is not a tall woman, recalls stooping to clamber through a tunnel where the walls reached out to touch her. At last she emerged and was directed to a telephone. She called Abdulah.

“He could not believe I was there,” she said.

Bombs were falling, seemingly everywhere.

“Boom! Boom! Boom!” Hatidza said.

For Hatidza, the joy of her wedding was offset by the fact that she had no one to celebrate with. Not one person from her family was present.

“It was full of people, but no family,” she said. “It was sad for me.”

How had her handsome husband scrounged a fancy suit  in the middle of a war? Abdulah breaks into a smile that can only be described as infectious.

“Miracle!” he declared.

But the sober reality of a country at war was never far from the newlyweds. They had no glass in the windows of their small apartment, only curtains to offer a veneer of privacy. The Serbs controlled the water, the electricity, the gas for the city. Bodies often littered the marketplace. Even setting out from home to find food or water, Hatidza could not be sure that she would be able to return home. To take a bath, they had to heat water by fire. They collected rainwater to flush their toilet.

Abdulah was both a soldier and an imam during the long conflict. Photo: Polovina family archives

One day Abdulah, as if he were expressing some mundane notion, told Hatidza that if he were to die in battle, she should go back to her family. Until then, she had not allowed herself to consider the possibility that he might be killed.

“It was hard, our new marriage, but it was also sweet,” she said. “Sweet, and at the same time bitter.”

Yet amid those harsh conditions, kindness and amity still managed to find their place. There was no television, no radio, no telephones — “Only people,” said Hatidza. Friends sat by candlelight when it was safe to visit.

“The atmosphere that people had between them, that was love, only love,” Hatidza said.

Weeks after the warring parties signed a peace accord, Hatidza gave birth to the couple’s first child, a son.  Like all of his yet-to-be-born siblings, the boy was blessed with his mother’s remarkable blue eyes. Draped in a soft lilac hijab trimmed with embroidery and sparkling stones, Hatidza’s clear, cerulean eyes are the first feature one sees.

“The eyes,” she agrees, acknowledging that she is aware of the effect of her own gaze. “The eyes are the window of your soul.”

Making Peace, Making a Living

Imams seldom earn extravagant salaries, and the years in Bosnia following the war were not easy. Two more babies quickly followed, and the rapidly expanding family lived in cramped conditions. Five people occupied what amounted to a one-room apartment with one small bathroom. They were poor. Abdulah found himself thinking: Peace — it is so hard. But Hatidza, for her part, still clung to a fierce sense of patriotism.

“I told myself, I will never, ever leave my country again,” she said.

Abdulah faced his own challenges as well. Many members of his congregation in Sarajevo had seen lives — their own and others — shattered by the war. It fell to Abdulah to persuade them that faith was a worthwhile endeavor. It was not easy, he said, to build or rebuild religion.

“The people were poor, hungry and tired of the war,” he said. “They felt betrayed. In turn I tried to help them realize that the only true friend we have in our lives, who always looks out for us, is the almighty God.”

Abdulah’s congregation in Sarajevo had further reason for disillusionment. After the conclusion of the war, experts and international diplomats sparred over whether the concerted effort to eliminate the Muslim population constituted actual genocide or “merely” unthinkable war crimes. The United Nations General Assembly deemed it genocide. So did the U.S. Congress, and later, the Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

But the European Court of Human Rights “expressly disagreed,” arguing that “genocide, as defined in public international law, comprised only acts aimed at the physical or biological destruction of a protected group.” At another juncture, the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia declared that it was “not convinced, on the basis of the evidence before it, that it has been conclusively established that the massive killings of members of the protected group were committed with the specific intent … on the part of perpetrators to destroy, in whole or in part, the group as such.”

The semantic football over the systematic killing of Muslims, including her own father and brother, sends Hatidza into a polite form of apoplexy.

“I don’t know what is going on with the human brain any more,” she says. “It looks like we are not human beings any more.”

Her voice takes on a tone of intense frustration: “The genocide, what happened in Bosnia, you can definitely say it was genocide because it was planned.” As for those who doubt the intent behind the atrocities: “I think that was satanic whispers that they got.”

And yet, she points out, mass killings aimed at targeted groups continue, even today. Her husband chimes in: “Burma, Syria, Yemen. And so it continues.”

With seemingly endless rows of grave markers, the Martyrs’ Memorial Cemetery Kovaci in Stari Grad, Sarajevo, is the final resting place for Bosnian Army soldiers killed during the long, bitter war with Serbian forces. Photo: Hakan Deliç

A New Life in America

In 2000, five years after the Dayton Accords were signed, Abdulah was invited to preside at the funeral of a cousin who had died in Seattle. The ceremony coincided with the month of Ramadan, and Abdulah also officiated at those observances. Ramadan is a time for believers to make personal changes, and by the time he returned to Bosnia 45 days later, he had been offered a job as imam to the Bosnian community in Seattle.

Hatidza was not happy. But Abdulah wore her down, sprinkling his entreaties with talk about a better life in a non-communist country, better opportunities for the children and new adventures for the family. He talked about how friendly Americans were. In Seattle, he told her, he felt relaxed, connected. Maybe a move to Seattle was their destiny.

“Somehow he persuaded me,” she said. But, she cautioned him: “I said yes, but even if I said yes, my heart says no.”

On the way to the U.S. Embassy to seek entry papers, Hatidza prayed that officials there would refuse to give her a visa. The prayer worked, temporarily, because a clerk disputed a number on her documents. Then Abdulah showed the woman her error and the visa was granted.

“God knows what is good for you,” Hatidza said, although she did not sound convinced.

Hatidza had no idea where Seattle was. She knew little about the United States. Her English was rudimentary at best. The day after they arrived in Seattle, an earthquake shook the city. Let’s go home, Hatidza thought.

The family entered the U.S. as religious workers, the lowest category on the immigration scale. They could not hold jobs outside the mosque or madrassa. Once again they were poor. They were shocked by the high cost of basic goods in the United States. Things had been tough in Sarajevo, Hatidza thought, but she had lived a better life there than in Seattle.

She enrolled in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and soon enough, learned about and passed the General Record Examination that gave her a U.S. high school equivalency certificate. In the meantime, as they applied for permanent resident status, she once again prayed that it would not be granted. Five years after arriving in Seattle, they received green cards, and then U.S. citizenship. Finally Hatidza let herself accept the hospitality of the people around her.

“You begin to feel, this is really my home,” she said.

Abdulah, too, took advantage of the chance in America to further his education. He earned an associate’s degree from a community college, then a bachelor’s in Islamic studies from Cloverdale College  in Indiana, then a second bachelor’s degree, this one in comparative religion, from the University of Washington. Next he earned a master’s degree in transformational leadership from a Catholic theological institution. He began giving speeches in churches and meeting with intercultural and interfaith groups around the Northwest. In 2015, he accepted the call to serve as imam at the Bosnian Educational and Cultural Organization of Portland (BECO).

Abdulah’s and Hatidza’s five children are thriving, in no small measure, presumably, as a result of the moral and spiritual guidance they receive at home.

“I teach my kids that after all I went through, if I was not a strong believer, I would not have made it,” Hatidza explained. “Always, in the hardest situations in my life, I had God with me. I teach my kids that they must put God first, that they must respect everyone, and that they cannot judge.”

The family lives above the store, so to speak, in living quarters above the BECO mosque in southeast Portland. Their community hovers around 200 members. Hatidza works as a sterile processing technician at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Abdulah has a part-time job as well.

Abdulah delivers a sermon during Friday prayers at the BECO mosque in Portland. Photo: John Rudoff

‘America is our Home’

War and its wounds taught him the important things in life: hope, freedom, family values, and the desire to live peacefully. But as a Muslim leader and as an American, what Abdulah was unprepared for was open discussion of “a Muslim registry” as an actual policy platform.

In an open letter to his congregants, he wrote:

“Muslims have resolved not to become casualties of the disaffection and bigotry that made Donald Trump’s election possible. We are part of what made America great before his election, and we will work to ensure that the nation’s light remains bright — even if the bulb seems to be flickering.”

He continued: “American Muslims have found their peace here in the U.S.A. We started our families, our businesses, and we have rebuilt our lives here. America is our home.”

Hatidza worries that her children are growing up with little knowledge of their history, their culture, their many relatives in a distant country.

“They do not know my family,” she laments.

But two year ago, she went back to Bosnia, alone, and stayed for close to three months. Just see, her husband told her; see for yourself which is the better life. When she returned, she told him she did not feel they should move back.

Special thanks to John Rudoff, Hakan Deliç and Mucahit Cetin for providing photographs used in this story. They were published with permission. Copyright by John Rudoff, Hakan Deliç and Mucahit Cetin. We also want to acknowledge Creative Commons for making some of the images used in this article available for use.