In Bosnia, Former Fighters Face Expulsion
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
ZENICA, Bosnia -- They met in 1985 as Syrian immigrants in Croatia, two students in their 20s grappling with a language and a culture they didn't understand.
Seven years later, when word spread of a nearby war being waged by fellow Muslims, Ayman Awad and Imad Al Husayn boarded a bus for Bosnia and joined the fight, they recounted. After peace came in 1995, they married local women, became Bosnian citizens and started families. They settled in ravaged rural villages and fostered a strict religious code that contrasted sharply with the more relaxed Islam endemic to this country's native Muslims.
Now, Awad, 42, and Husayn (who goes by the nickname Abu Hamza), 43, may again be on the move, this time not by choice. Earlier this year, the Bosnian government revoked the two men's citizenship as part of a broad review of foreign-born residents that was urged by the United States. It has led to the denationalization of at least 500 people, about 70 percent of whom arrived here from throughout the Muslim world during the three-year ethnic civil war.
Awad and Husayn have been given 60 days to appeal the decisions against them. If unsuccessful, they and a few dozen others who remain in the country and are embroiled in similar proceedings could be deported.
Bosnian and international officials say the presence of the former fighters -- who, like predecessors in the war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, are known as mujaheddin, Arabic for "strugglers" -- is illegal. The officials say some of them maintain links to terrorist groups, creating a security threat for Bosnia.
The men and their advocates deny such links and say they are victims of a heavy-handed approach to those of their faith in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. By forcing them to leave, they contend, Bosnia is exposing them to persecution in their countries of origin.
"I didn't come to get their passport, I came because I heard stories of villages being burned and people being killed and raped. When we fought here, they called us brothers," said Ayman, who has a bushy silver beard, over coffee and ice cream in the timber industry town of Zenica, where he now lives.
"If we have done one thing wrong, I demand that they bring proof," he said. "As you see, we have been here 15 years and the streets are not running with blood. The buildings are still standing."
Once hailed here as war heroes -- several received the Golden Lilly Award, the country's highest military decoration -- the men who fought as the Mujaheddin Brigade now have few legal options. The 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended the Bosnian war after close to 250,000 deaths, required the withdrawal of all combatants "not of local origin." But anywhere from 50 to a few hundred of the fighters remained, despite repeated calls for their expulsion from the United States and international bodies, which during the war largely supported the Muslim cause.
Foreign security agencies have long warned that Bosnia, which has struggled to stamp out lawlessness in the postwar period, is fertile ground for terrorist groups seeking a foothold in Europe and trying to recruit so-called white Muslims, non-Arabs who can more easily evade security profiling.
Those concerns intensified after Sept. 11. In January 2002, six Bosnian men of Algerian origin alleged to be plotting an attack on the U.S. Embassy were seized by U.S. peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo and flown to the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were later cleared by a Bosnian court, and the Bosnian government has requested their release, but they remain in U.S. custody.
Earlier last month, Raffi Gregorian, an American who is deputy high representative in Sarajevo for foreign parties to the Dayton agreement, suggested to a Sarajevo newspaper that some of the foreign veterans had links to al-Qaeda.