Police Confrontation

Imagine having the police show up at your front door and confront you immediately and accuse you of hiding someone in your home. Imagine the confusion, panic, and utter disbelief that this is happening to you. It seems dream-like yet it happened to me. They came to my front door, accused me of hiding political propaganda and people, and searched my house without cause. I felt very violated yet in my state of fear and the fact that I was a Muslim woman, there was nothing I could do. Read on below for the full story.

The Police

 

The screeching sound of a police car slamming on the brakes and five policemen jumping out right in front of our house started me. I glance the pale faces of the refugees in my home. The front door shook with the violent pounding of a fist. I forced myself, in spite of my fear, to turn the knob, pull the door open, and stare into the hard faces confronting me

“Do you have any refugees here?” one of them asked sharply.

“Oh, oh, yes, I am hosting one family,” I answered in a quavering voice, afraid like a rabbit surrounded by wolves.

“We have to search your house,” the policeman said, and all of them came inside. Their footsteps on the wooden floor in the hallway sounded like thunder.

“How many are there?” asked the first policeman coming into my kitchen.

“It is one family, three brothers and this young lady with the baby.” I was shaking.

“Why did you let them stay in your house?” A blaze of anger accompanied his words and he ground his teeth.

I looked at his shoes and said, “A young couple with baby were on the street in the cold.  I let them in to warm up in my home.” I paused. “This isn’t the first time that I hosted refugees. Serbian families from Croatia stayed in my house twice.  I helped them too.”

“It is not the same. This is the Serbian Republic, and we have to help our people, but we cannot help Muslim refugees. Do you know that?” He raised his voice. “These people could be soldiers. Did they bring any weapons?” He paused. “Where are they?”

“Belkisa with the baby is here,” I looked around. “My son is sick. I took him to the doctor, and we came back a few minutes before you arrived,” I said trying to find the best answer. “Belkisa, do you know where your husband and his brothers are?”

“They went to obtain transit visas for us. We couldn’t cross the bridge and go to Western Europe without them.”  I noticed her trembling hands holding her baby.  All of the customary brightness and gentleness was gone from her face.

“Do you have extra medicine in your house?” The policeman moved his gaze from the baby to the china cabinet.

I looked at my sick child and my throat tightened. “My son was sick for two days. I do not have anything to give him, nothing to lower his fever. I took him to the doctor today even though I don’t have insurance,” I felt pitiful and couldn’t talk any more.

“We are going to search your entire house. We will see what you are hiding here,” the policeman said firmly and gave an order to his squad where to search. I didn’t know what they were searching for. What did they hope to find?

 Why did the policeman ask me about the medicine? What is their plan? Will they accuse me of being an illegal drug dealer? I had hidden all my money in the books upstairs in my room. For sure they would take it with them.  Oh, and I also have some religious books.  Policemen and soldiers didn’t like the books in where God’s names are mentioned, especially if they are written in Arabic. Will they burn my books and perhaps my house along with them?

            I don’t have any weapons, but they could bring a few guns and “find” them in the house.  The five of them are going to witness against me.  Are they going to take me to jail, or kill me here?  Will these be the last minutes of my life?

 The room was spinning around me. I became ice-cold, trembling and shivering like I was falling apart.  Samir, Nana, and Belkisa looked at me. I stood up, walked to the window, and looked at the quiet garden. Belkisa joined me, and our eyes met. We were quiet.  Even the baby didn’t make any sounds.

Objects, mostly books, were falling on the floor. The policemen’s belittling laughter struck me.  They sneered at all that they touched.

“Are those materials from your Muslim political organization?” asked one of them from another room.

I wasn’t sure that I was able to shout back so I walked to the hallway.  I found him looking through piles of materials from Social-Democratic party meetings.

“I am not a member of any Muslim political organization. I don’t have any of their written materials,” I said, just above a whisper, my mouth dry and bitter. My tongue could barely move, and I wasn’t sure he heard me well.  I collected my last strength and said, “I am a congressional representative of the Social-Democratic political party in our local government. I have their written materials. Do you want to see them?”

He turned his hands from the materials as if they were on fire, walked a few steps toward me, and opened his eyes wide.

“Are you an active member of the government?”

I nodded.

“Do you go to the government meetings?” He frowned and his eyebrows moved close to each other. He came closer, trying to distinguish my weak voice from noise that other policemen were making as they searched the house.

“Yes, I do. Do you want to see the materials from the last meeting? We have discussions.”

He interrupted me, “No, no, you are fine. You are fine. I am sorry, we made a mistake. This is our mistake,” he said softly. Suddenly he looked like he were scared of me, an unarmed Muslim woman.

“Hey, guys stop your work immediately!” he roared,   “all of you. Put back everything where it was and clean up your mess. Did you hear me?”

Silence.  The policemen picked up all books from the floor and placed them gently on the shelf. They straightened other books that they hadn’t even touched before.

“I am sorry, Mrs. Softic. I did not know that you were a representative of the government. You didn’t warn us when we entered your house. How would I know that?” he paused. “We didn’t harm you. We really didn’t do anything wrong. Your rooms will be in the same shape as before our visit. You have unknown refugees in your house and we wanted to protect you; to be sure you were safe. That is all.” Suddenly his voice was as soft and gentle as though he were my guardian angel.

I was confused by the sudden change in the behavior of the policemen.

“Mrs. Softic, can you come to my office tomorrow morning, please, and register them? Bring the I.D. cards of the people who are in your house. They don’t need to come with you. They can pursue their transit visas through Croatia, no problem. Poor people.  Look what the Croats are doing to them! They are taking money for nothing. Everybody can go through Croatia without visas except the poor Bosnian refugees,” he said, smiling.

The other policemen walked quietly through the house. Nobody mentioned any religious books or money that they found. As they closed the front door and walked toward their car, I ran upstairs. Everything looked as it had before their visit. All the books and the money were in the same place. I thanked God for His intervention, to help this positive outcome.

After a few minutes the refugees came back into the room quietly.

“How did you disappear? Where did you go?” I asked.

“We jumped over the balcony fence and went into the garden. We didn’t even want to cross paths with the policemen,” said the youngest.

“Soldiers took our father and he never came back,” said Muharem, Belkisa’a husband. “That day we jumped out the window of our home, ran to the woods, and thank God we survived.”

Samir and the Flu

With the flu going around pretty much everywhere, it reminded me of when Samir was severely sick and I had to take him to see a doctor in Bosnia. At this point, my husband Hussein wasn’t with us and we had no insurance. However, I knew one of the doctors at the hospital nearby. She had been friends with my Hussein for years, so I was sure that she’d see my son. After all, she was my only hope.

   The Sick Child

Our town was on the border with Croatia, the exit point, and a barrier for Muslim refugees from the western part of Bosnia who didn’t have transit visas through Croatia. In the beginning of March, 1993 when the cold north wind was still our frequent guest and temperatures often reached the freezing point, our imam asked me to host three young men and a young woman with her baby. The young lady, Belkisa, and I cooked together for our now eight-member family.

Two days after the family arrived Samir became sick. He ran a fever, had a sore throat, and couldn’t eat. I boiled an onion, put socks soaked in alcohol on his feet, placed oiled paper on his stomach, and made hot tea, but Samir didn’t feel better for two consecutive nights. On the third day, early in the morning, I dressed him and walked with him to see Dr. Anka Dobromilovic, a pediatrician, and the wife of one of Husein’s closest colleague. Our families had been friends for several years, and I didn’t have any doubt that she would help us out, especially now when we did not have insurance and Samir’s father was refugee in Austria. I was almost sure that she wouldn’t charge me, but I placed a hundred dollars in my wallet in case she was absent, and we had to see another physician.

I wrote Samir’s name on a sheet of paper, turned it in, and found a seat where Dr. Dobromilovic could see us immediately when she entered her office. Samir leaned his fevered, aching head on my shoulder, and we waited. Several sick kids came in with their mothers.

“What is wrong with your son?” the nurse Dushanka asked me politely.

“He has been sick for two days. I tried treating him with natural remedies, but nothing has helped,” I said.

“We are going to help you, Samir.” The nurse smiled.

Just at that moment I recognized Dr. Dobromilovic coming toward the building. I leaned Samir’s head on a wall and stood up to hug the doctor. She glanced in my direction and then immediately turned away from me. We both became confused, disoriented. She took a few steps back and walked away as fast as possible from Samir and me. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the middle aged women’s back to be sure I saw the same person I used to know. Her walks assured me that she was Dr. Dobromilovic. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. My throat became dry. As I struggled to control my bitterness, I walked to the window, grabbed my paper, and placed it in my purse. I sat next to my sick son, and anger filled my heart.

Are you angry at me, Dr. Dobromilovic? Why? What did I do wrong? Did I kick your husband and you out of your jobs? Did I destroy your family life? Did I kill your friends? Did I wound your brother? Did I take your wheat from your attic? Did I take your car? What would you do if your son were sick?

I didn’t know what to do. Obviously Dr. Dobromilovic wouldn’t see my son. Could we go to the children’s hospital and ask for help there? What if there was another Dr. Dobromilovic there? How could I take my son to another town, to another place to seek help? We cannot travel by bus with our Muslim names on our documents. If we take a taxi, what would we do at checkpoints? But I had to find help for Samir. Tears filled my eyes. I squeezed my purse in one hand and helped my son to stand up with the other.

Dushanka noticed it and came close to me. “Mrs. Softic, a new doctor will take care of your son. Don’t worry. I’ll call you shortly.” I nodded and wiped my tears. After a few minutes the nurse came and whispered, “The doctor is waiting for you in room number two.”

The young female doctor introduced herself, but I was still reacting to what had just happened, and my mind did not process her name. As I started to tell her about myself and my sick son, she said, “I heard about you and your family. I am going to examine your son and see what kind of help he needs.”

I became quiet, touched to see mercy from a stranger.

The Neighbors

Many of you try to make spending time with family and friends or getting to know your neighbors better your new year’s resolution. This week’s post is about the power of having good neighbors- and how it can also save a life in the case of the war. It means more to me than you’ll ever know, what it meant to have had your help Ljubica.

The Neighbors

I was lucky to live among the best neighbors in the world. During the war in Bosnia people in our neighborhood helped and protect each other. Late in the afternoon, after the night in the cornfield, neighbor Ljubica called. “I heard you spent last night in a cornfield. Come to my house tonight.”

I couldn’t believe that any Serb was ready to take the risk and help Muslims, and I asked, “You are inviting us to come to your house tonight?”

“Yes.” Ljubica’s voice was firm.

“I have a problem. I cannot leave Nana at our house alone anymore. Last night was…”

“I am inviting Nana too,” she interrupted me. “I want all three of you to come.”

“Oh, Ljubica! How generous. Thank you, and thank you again.” I was ready to accept the invitation, but I wasn’t sure if Nana would be able to walk to her house. “Let me talk to Nana and I’ll call you back.”

Ljubica truly amazed me, and her wish to help us brought light to my tired eyes.

When Samir heard our conversation, he jumped. “Mom, Nana, let’s go,” he smiled. “Tonight we can sleep in a bed instead of on the hard ground in a cornfield. Let’s go.”

Nana did not move. Even after I explained the invitation to her, happiness failed to brighten her face. After hearing our excitement, she said, “It is a good plan for you and Samir, but I cannot go.”

Samir came close to her, touched her hand and said, “Nana, I’ll push you in a wheelbarrow and make it comfortable. Please Nana, go with us, please.”

“Ah, my dear grandson, I don’t want make any trouble.” Nana almost cried. “If soldiers see that Ljubica is protecting us, they’ll kill her and her husband first.  They’ll kill us too. I am thankful for her invitation. May Allah reward her, but I don’t want to make problems for her family.”

“We will hide you. I’ll cover you with a bed sheet. Go with us, Nana, please,” Samir begged.

“This is the third war of my life,” said Nana as she looked into Samir’s innocent eyes. “I know how it works. You are young, and you don’t know how cruel people can be.”

“Ljubica wants to protect us from that cruelty. We’ll be safe at her house,” I said, wishing to change Nana’s mind.

She turned her head toward me quickly and raised her voice, “You think like this child.” She paused. “I cannot take my scarf off, just as you cannot take off your blouse. If a soldier sees me, he immediately knows that I am Muslim.” She fixed her scarf. “You can go with this child. I’ll be fine.  If Allah allows them to kill me here, I am fine with that. I’ll be a martyr.”

Nothing Samir and I said could change Nana’s mind.  Her decision to stay in our home was final.

I ran to Ljubica’s house and explained Nana’s fears and concerns. Ljubica admitted that she already had a few unpleasant visitations from soldiers. They asked her why she chose green, a Muslim color, for the color of her balcony tiles and why she didn’t post the Serbian flag on her house. I was very pleased when she said that she feared only God and not the soldiers, and that she really wanted to protect us in her home. On my way home, I thought how the war exposed the true character of individuals. Those whom I considered friends, their friendship did not survive the test of war. That test like an x-ray exposed diseased hearts, rotten souls and fearful character. Ljubica did not only exchanged neighborly greetings in passing, but opened her home to protect us. With her the pure wish to help me and my family during the war despite the consequences, showed the true nature of her friendship and made a huge, pleasant place in my heart. Even though I declined her offer, her home was a safe island that I could count on.

Thank you Ljubice from the bottom of my heart.

The Shoes Are Ready

Hope everyone had a good new year! Here is this week’s post!

The Shoes are Ready

In November 1992, many Muslims and Catholics were leaving the dangers of Bosnia for the safety of Germany and Austria. My husband Husein decided to obtain the necessary documents and go to Austria as refugee.

The decision devastated him. As with the other refugees Husein not only  had to leave his family and all his belongings, but he also had to pay for different documents showing that all of our utility bills were paid up to date even bills that we never had, such as a public heating bill.  This was pure robbery on the state level.  Husein’s mind wrestled with worries about us staying in Bosnia and with uncertainty what was waiting for him a foreign country. The skin around his eyes and mouth took on the creased look as an oak tree bark, and his dark hair began to turn silver around his ears. He couldn’t get to sleep before midnight, and many times he’d sit up in bed until dawn. Some nights he found himself wide awake and listening to nearby owls’ songs.

Nana moved her prayer beads with her fingers and whispered constantly, “Dear God, protect my son. Protect my son, protect my son.”  From time to time I noticed her facing the wall wiping her tears with the corner of her scarf. She barely talked. I checked on her often in the middle of the night and always found her sitting in her bed and moving her head and shoulders in the same rhythm as a baby rocking in a cradle. I was worried how she was going to deal with the separation from her son.

Samir’s face was pale. He ate only a small portion of his meals, stopped smiling and singing, and walked around in silence. I tried to be an umbrella and protect everybody. I was concerned for Nana’s emotions, as well as Samir’s and my own, but my husband’s safety took priority. I knew that I personally could not protect them or myself. I didn’t have any weapons, and I didn’t give a thought to getting any.  I knew that only God could protect and safeguard us and that gave me confidence each day.

As Husein’s departure approached, Nana’s restlessness increased. In the middle of November I came home from work and noticed Husein’s white shoes in her shaking hands. She looked at the shoes and said, “I will go, too. Only Allah only knows how much I hate to go, but I don’t want to keep you and this child here because of me. Samir is like a pearl.  Every day I thank Allah for such a kind, considerate, and wise child.  I am 87 years old, ready to give my soul to God every minute, but still He keeps me here for His reasons.” She shifted the shoes into one hand and wiped her tears with the other.

I looked at her shaking body and couldn’t keep my own tears at bay. I put a hand on her fragile shoulder and helped her sit down. I was still puzzled about the shoes.

“I am always cold. My feet are like ice and I cannot walk without wool socks. I am going to travel in my wool socks and in Hussein’s shoes. I tried all of them and these fit the best. They are not heavy, and I am able to walk around the entire room holding a wall,” said Nana as she began crying again. Through her tears she said, “Oh dear God, our enemies destroyed our peace. Help us to recover, and give them what they deserve.”

I handed Nana the cup of hot coffee and looked at her wrinkled face and red eyes.

I was deeply touched with her decision to travel. “Nana, let Husein go alone now.  If it gets worse, we will join him. The shoes are ready.” Nana took a sip of the coffee, and her face became brighter.

Hussein came from another room, looked at his shoes and his old mother, and his tears rolled down as well. In a shaking voice he said, “Separation from my family is heartbreaking, worse than death.  Who can say when or if we will meet again?” All three of us sobbed. Separation – our most wrenching test – was upon us.