MSA Bosnia-A journey of the Heart and Mind.

What happens when you gather 20 ladies of different ages, backgrounds yet all in some way linked to Muslimah Sports Association (MSA) for their first ever trip abroad to Bosnia? 5 days of unforgettable adventure, tears of both joy and sadness and a uniquely humbling experience in a place of outstanding natural beauty as well as a deeply historical, and Islamically enlightening journey.

It began rather shakily. Having said our farewells to our loved ones, on Oct 19th 2023, some of the group had managed to successfully arrive in Bosnia. For the rest of us who were on the later flights however chaos ensued:  delays on the underground followed by delays in flights, followed by missed connections, and further delays, left us shaken, hungry and worse for wear by the time we finally arrived in Sarajevo, Bosnia at almost midnight. 

The minute we meet Kristijan at the airport, our guide organized by our on the ground tour operators, Holiday Bosnia, our spirits were thankfully, lifted. His infectious enthusiasm for welcoming us to his country followed by a detailed explanation of his own personal story of how he turned to Islam and the significance of faith to the Bosnians, quickly diminishes any fatigue we are feeling. As the car winds through the glistening city streets, it strikes me how much more modern and built up the city is from what I had imagined of a country synonymous with war. As we arrive at hotel Sahat, built in the Austro-Hungarian style but filled with quirky modern art, our excitement begins to grow. It is clear we were in the heart of the ‘Old Town’, a wonderful location of treasures from the Ottoman empire, to the Austro Hungarian and to a Sarajevo of the 21st century.  Kamraan Siddiqui the CEO of Holiday Bosnia, the contact Yashmin Harun, the Chair of MSA and I had been speaking to, welcomes us warmly and puts on a lovely spread of food that is devoured in appreciation as he enthusiastically explains the itinerary.

Breakfast in the morning is a hubbub of bleary-eyed travelers and excitement begins to build as we gather together for the first official day out altogether.

The chatter of women getting to know each other as we explore the Old town is audible. Sarajevo has a distinct “east meets west” vibe. Perched alongside the Miljacka River and surrounded by mountains, the city is both scenic and historic. It is incredible to see how closely nestled the city is within the embrace of the surrounding mountains. Between the taller city buildings, the historic bridges and the iconic city hall, it is impossible to miss the lush, grassy hills that overlook the inhabitants. Sarajevo, is well-known for its cultural diversity and is sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem of Europe; within the city you can find a mosque, a catholic church, and a synagogue all within a few blocks. Its myriad of winding streets which are cleaned frequently with pride, host hundreds of open fronted shops, restaurants and vendors selling their wares.  Haggling here is tough-the locals don’t budge on price with tourists but it is still fun trying as you admire the colourful woven carpets, copper coffee pots and the intricate jewellery all readily available for the right price. Whilst Bosnia maintains a resilient and proud facade, the scars of its harrowing past are still very visible from the pock marked buildings to the stories that permeate the very air of the cities. From the stories of our drivers, the musings of hotel staff and the pleas of the charity workers, everyone here has a personal story to share. Faith is a profound business here and as we meander, we are told shockingly of Ottoman bridges that have been moved a few hundred yards to the left to ensure the original intention of having a mosque directly on the other side of the bridge would no longer be the first thing the community would see walking across the bridge. Instead, the Austro Hungarians built a church in front of the newly shifted bridge. That level of vitriol is shocking. Ironically trees have grown in front of the church so it can no longer be seen clearly from the bridge but the mosque still stands tall, its minarets adorning the city sky line, clear, unmistakeable in its call for prayer.

The Tunnel of Hope

Upon entering this historically significant place, we are immediately struck by the sense of honour yet simplicity of a secret tunnel dug by the Bosnians who were surrounded by Bosnian-Serb forces; Sarajevo had just one link with the outside world from 1992–1995: an 800-meter long (2,624-feet), 1-meter (3-feet) wide, 1.6-meter (5-feet) high tunnel connecting two houses on opposite sides of the airport runway. Eventually, the tunnel was equipped with rails to transport food, war supplies, humanitarian aid and to allow people out. As we walk through part of the tunnel from the house at the western entrance learning about the story of the siege through informational displays and videos, Kristijan tells us of his own father who at the mere age of 17 was selected for his speed to aid many a person to escape. He would run from one side of the tunnel in the city of Sarajevo, which was entirely cut off by the Serbian forces, with the Bosnian held territories on the other side of Sarajevo airport an area controlled by the UN. Our voices decline to natural whispers in this underground tunnel, perhaps subconsciously acknowledging the respect for these incredibly brave soldiers who risked so much in the face of adversity. The tunnel became a crucial artery in bypassing the arms embargo and providing the city defenders with weaponry.  Even Nana Kolar, the old lady who played her part in giving countless cups of water to the men as they used the tunnel is celebrated as a hero. No role is ignored. It is a remarkable achievement to think how the Bosnian army as well as courageous civilians dug this within 4 months against the constant bombardment by the Serbs. Many of us on this trip would have been in our youth when watching the news about the conflict in former Yugoslavia. I myself was doing my A levels at the time barely absorbing the scenes that flashed on my parents’ living room television. So now in 2023, sitting in a room in Sarajevo and watching the scenes of horror unfold on a screen with an MSA group, feels almost surreal.  We are suddenly positioned as part of the action rather than being far removed from it. The bombing, screams of anguish now have new meaning, now have context, now have relevance. We are reminded that these people fought for the right to be Bosnian Muslims, to practise their faith and to affirm their cultural identities against an attempt at genocide. Being here is an incredibly moving experience. The Sarajevo rose on the floor epitomises how the Bosnians take tragedy, death and destruction but transform it to life that is beautiful, hopeful and peaceful; with our hearts both heavy and with a newfound respect, we leave the Tunnel of Hope with at the very least, a better understanding of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A quick stop is next made to the Spring of River Bosnia located in a pretty National Park. We branch off and as any self-respecting traveller does, suddenly descend into ‘take a hundred photos mode.’ The pretty swings dotted around the bridges framed by woodlands, shimmering river and horsed back carriages make for a picturesque setting. Whilst some perfect their poses, others are enthralled by the play area and have a quick go on the sea saw whilst no one is looking! Back on the coach, we chat away getting to know one another better and comfortably moving away from the friends we already have to forging new MSA friendships.

Food in Bosnia

Traditional food in Bosnia & Herzegovina is cheap and meat-heavy. Beef and lamb are popular staples, and influences from the Middle East and the Mediterranean are common. Sarma (meat and rice in pickled cabbage leaves) and burek (a flaky pastry with meat, cheese, and spinach) are some of the popular traditional choices. Pies are delicious with a queue for some of the most popular pie sellers. Vegetarian options are limited.  Throughout our Bosnian adventure we all at various points crave a little more flavour and spice. However, the spit roast lamb encircled by potatoes and cabbage is an amazing meat feast. The Cevapi, their national dish, consists of char-grilled juicy kebabs served with fresh flat bread, chopped onions and sour cream. It is tasty and filling. In our first meal together we all choose our own dishes experimenting with what appears exciting from stews, goulash and grilled meats to some people even choosing the pasta.


This is such a must see place for those who like a little fun! Sunnyland is the first amusement park with an Alpine Coaster in Bosnia Herzegovina.  The plan was to take the cable car across the mountains but due to the change in weather which had suddenly turned windier, we had to adapt. Instead we have a hysterical moment where grown women squeeze into rather small rail track rides that can reach speeds of 40km/hr. Squeals of laughter ring in the air as we watch each other making fools of ourselves racing and at times embarrassingly stalling on the tracks whilst taking in the beauty of the rugged outdoors surrounding us. It is impossible to sit gracefully but with caution to the wind, we go for it! A lovely stop for refreshments including heljde, a puffed up buckwheat bread served with chocolate on the side for indulgence as well as an assortment of sweet treats, in the main mountain restaurant is decidedly welcomed. The views from the Olympic mountain Trebevic are breathtaking; It is such a profound juxtaposition of a land where such bloody conflict tragically arose between three different ethnic groups; Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats and yet it boasts an unspoilt natural beauty of disarming tranquillity. It is difficult to imagine the terrors we learned of just earlier in the morning whilst faced with such pretty scenes.

Once safely back to the city centre which is only 10 mins away, there is a decision to be made; Which of the ladies would be riding bikes and which of us would be walking. In the end it comes down to who is tall enough to sit on the bikes that seem to be designed for larger statures. But given our sports reputation we persevere. Here, as we manoeuvre the old city, going passed the city hall, it is a pleasure to get the female perspective; Our two female guides share their personal experiences of being Bosnian Muslim with one being a Serbian Muslim and how uncomfortable it is for her to visit her largely Serbian village. “Whilst Muslims can come and go in the Serbian areas which are predominantly Orthodox Christian, the peace is fragile and it is a place that you do not linger,” she explains. “Before the war, Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians lived together in harmony. In fact, many Serbs stayed behind to fight alongside their Muslim neighbours. Now the different groups try where possible to avoid crossing the river to each other’s neighbourhoods.”  She speaks of how many graduates like herself, educated, and with the potential to help improve the economy were leaving for a better future elsewhere due to a lack of transparency in opportunities. She is still hopeful however and explains how much the Mayor of Sarajevo, a formidable woman, has done for the city to improve its infrastructure, instil National pride and promote tourism here.

One of the huge advantages of going on this trip with MSA partnered with Holiday Bosnia is that it isn’t simply a holiday but an opportunity to learn and expand our own understanding of Islam in other regions in the world. Perhaps the biggest testament to this the lecture from the incredible Dr Amra Hadzimuhamedovic who is an architect and International Heritage Specialist that manages diverse projects on post conflict reconstruction in countries such as Palestine and Bosnia. Despite it being at the end of a long day, there isn’t a dry eye in the room. Dr Amra speaks passionately of how the destruction of cultural heritage was not simply a collateral outcome of the 1990s war. It was large-scale, systematic and co orchestrated with other forms of human suffering. Her mission is to mitigate the consequences of ethnic cleansing and the tremendous physical losses in Bosnian historic landscapes. She encourages building resilience through the restoration of sacred heritage. One particular story that touched the heart is about a man who walked miles from his village to Sarajevo with the rubble of his destroyed historic mosque in his back pack to share with Dr Amra.  That story is so poignant and haunting but also showcases the love he had for his place of worship, his religion and devotion to Islam. This was the moment she explains, that she decided to take her team and rebuild that mosque, painstakingly digging for clues and searching for fragments for years until eventually they were able to restore the ancient mosque to the pride of the community.  We come away from the talk with a deeper appreciation of how postwar trauma healing can be supported through heritage restoration to maintain peace settlements and sustainability in Bosnia. But there is also a new knowledge that we know we will never be able to discard; we often take the ability to practise faith as a given. Here in Bosnia, a Baltic country in Eastern Europe that most of us if truth be told, felt little affinity with before this trip, suddenly humbles us.


One of the highlights of our MSA Bosnia has to be our visit to Mostar. On the way, we stop off to have a quick look at a Stara Cuprija (translated to mean old bridge), an Ottoman bridge connecting the East and West in Konak. This was a bridge Dr Amra had informed us of in her talks; When one of the oldest mosques was destroyed by the Croats, large chunks from the minaret were eventually found along the river bed.  These were used in the revamp of this bridge ensuring tribute was paid to lost legacy. Its 99 steps represent the 99 names of Allah (SWT) and we are reminded again of how Islam truly lives within the fabric of Bosnia. Following a quick photo opportunity, we arrive at Mostar.

Mostar is a medieval city best known for its 16th-century bridge, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, straddling the Neretva River. Mostar’s name comes from the word mostari, which translates to bridge keeper (the original bridge was crucial to an important trade route). The bridge was originally constructed in the Ottoman style and painstakingly reconstructed for three years using the same stone and the same construction method as the original. It is impossible to miss how special this bridge is to the Bosnians. Today, Kristjan informs us, the bridge is most famous for its divers – men who plunge off the edge into the icy Neretva River below become local celebrities.  

As we carefully walk across the bridge, treading its uneven steps and avoiding eye contact with the tourists who nearly take a tumble it is impossible not to be feel inspired; This is truly the unforgettable iconic scene that adorns picture perfect postcards. Ironic considering how Mostar was all but completely levelled in the 90s. Fortunately, Mostar has been reconstructed beautifully since the war, and the area around the bridge is filled with souvenir shops and ice-cream kiosks and temptations to browse for far longer than our allocated time.  The excited chatter of us ladies feeling as if we have stepped back in time, strolling along its quaint cobblestone streets, ogling its incredible architecture and fighting back the urges to purchase all its tempting wares is exhilarating. I think I can safely say we all wish we had more time here.

Another memorable moment here is our boat rides along the river in Mostar.

The Sufi Tekkes – Darvish house

One of the prettiest restaurants we were fortunate enough to experience was in Blagaj in a beautiful riverside restaurant serving fresh roast lamb as well as the highly recommended grilled fish caught from the crystal clear Buna River before us. But the true treasure is the phenomenal views here. It is a picture-perfect scene of a sparkling river under an ornate bridge with the towering hills in the background. A sudden torrential downpour however breaks the tranquillity and means a desperate dash across the bridge to enter the Sufi Tekkes, a 16th century Darvish house. This is rather ironic as Blagaj means ‘mild’ and we were repeatedly told how the weather is considerably warmer in this South Eastern region of Mostar. As we remove our wet shoes to enter this Darvish monastery built in 1520 with elements of Ottoman architecture as well as a distinctly Mediterranean style, there is a tangibly spiritual atmosphere in the air. The word ‘Islam’ in Arabic means peace and submission to God. Sufism is based on devoted performances of religious rites that they believe result in spiritual mercy of an extrasensory reality. As we learnt about how the Darvish would fast and live in solitude in preparation for their full participation in the monastery, it is both fascinating and strange to consider that extreme level of sacrifice.  The Darvish never married and instead lived a life of mystical and spiritual concentration. After the second world war, activities of the Darvish and the Tekke in Bosnia were officially banned.  But in more recent years, a renewed interest in the practices have begun to emerge and there are even Dhikr gatherings here. Thunder and lightning dramatically strike as streaks of purple and gold split the sky like an orange and for a transient moment, we too are all in our own trance staring silently out of the windows and watching in awe at this unexpected storm wreak havoc against nature itself.   

Fajr Walks

One of the most magical parts of this tour has to be our Fajr walks. Gathering together for Fajr prayers we walk in hushed silence before sunrise to a stunning mosque a stone’s throw away from our hotel. Built by Gazi Husrev Beg the governor of Sarajevo in the 1500’s, this is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovinia and one of the most representative of the Ottoman structures in the Balkans. Before he passed away, Gazi Husrev Beg left his immense wealth to the town and built for the community, the masjid, library, college, public bath, traveller inns, fountains of drinking water, soup kitchens for the poor and a huge market palace. After our prayers, Kamraan shares his extensive knowledge with us and takes us for a walk around the old city. The mosque is the centre of Gazi Husrev Beg’s waqf.  Kamraan explains how this wise man built the heart of Sarajevo which is based on charity, love and peace. Gazi Husrev Beg wrote in his testament of 1531 ‘Every wise and rational man will come to learn this world is transient.’ And that ‘good deeds chase away evil and the best of good deeds is charity’.  A khatam of the Quran is made in his name every week which is an outstanding feat of respect.  A silent nod of gratitude is made by us as we fill up our drinking bottles from the fountain in the courtyard of the serene mosque named after him. The water is refreshingly crisp, cool and thirst quenchingly delicious coming straight from the mountains. As the sun begins to rise from behind the clouds, our history tour commences with the notorious assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Kamraan walks us to the infamous wrong turning that cost him his life and marked the start of World War One. It is mind boggling to see how much history breaths in the streets of Sarajevo.

For those of us who enjoy history, we are like sponges soaking up story after story. As we walk along the Seher-Cehaja Bridge, Kamraan points out yet another interesting building. This one is coined ‘The House of Spite’. It used to be located on the right side of Miljacka, in the place of City Hall he explains.  When the Austro-Hungarian authorities asked to buy the house as well as other facilities that stood in their way, the owner of the house, the old Benderija, a native of Sarajevo, refused sharply. Offers of more money than the property was worth, were made but were repeatedly turned down. Eventually, he stubbornly demanded that he would not sell the house but that the authorities would need to move his house brick by brick, stone by stone, to the other side of the river bank as well as provide a bag of gold for his inconvenience. As we smile wryly, Kamraan light heartedly shares how the house symbolises Bosnian stubbornness, defiance and persistence.


Bosnia is highly mountainous as well as being surrounded by forests, deep lakes and stunning rivers. It is what makes the country so undeniably stunning. Our journey through Bjelasnica Mountain is an opportunity to absorb the rugged scenery around us whilst listening to our driver’s personal tales of being a soldier in the war and his experiences of the conflict. As our coach wobbles over the mountainous track, I cannot help but feel we could be in a scene set straight out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It is wild, naturally rugged and so unspoilt that I almost expect a Hobbit to pop out from behind one of the many bizarre rocks that appear scattered randomly across the plains.

Amidst this, we are told the story of Midhad Hujdur, an ordinary bus driver who began noting down the discussions amongst his passengers as it became increasingly apparent that the Bosnian Croats were colluding with the Bosnian Serbs. He then put together a Bosnian resistance and succeeded in leading them, foiling many a plot. This was all despite having never fired a weapon. Just prior to his death, he told his local Shaykh that he wanted to be buried beside a particular spot. The very next day he was Shaheed. Kamraan is keen to remind us that we must not dehumanise all Serbs and that many stayed behind to fight on the Bosnian side against their fellow Serbs. This included General Divjak, a Serb who became a senior general in the Bosnia army. His refusal to betray the Bosnians symbolised the rich multi ethnic culture of Bosnia which he felt strongly should never be divided. Another story shared was about ‘The Arrow’, a young Serbian girl who became one of the best snipers in the Bosnian army.

Our trek through the mountains culminates in our MSA mountain ‘hike.’ The fitness apparel however isn’t quite what is needed – to our amusement, half of the ladies are in pretty dresses and heels!  Wonderful for photos not so much for a hike. Instead, we enjoy a light stroll in the blustery wind, allowing the beautiful fresh air to fill our lungs, take some stunning photos and pray in the mountain village mosque.  A beautiful, peaceful masjid at the heart of this village that we happily contribute some donations to. Following prayers, we gather in the mountain top restaurant and enjoy bowls of hot veal soup, chicken soup and cups of herbal tea as well as strong Bosnian coffee. The warm aromas tickle our nostrils and provide some warmth from the crisp mountain air. The hospitality from these villagers so remote in the mountains is touching.  Some of us purchase the local knitwear including handstitched gloves and socks as gifts for our loved ones and with a final wave to the villagers, head back.

Our evening concludes with a talk from a local charity group who work hard to better the lives of local Bosnian children and as we give Sadaqah, we make the intention to remember the plight of Bosnians forever.

The morning brings about farewells to new friends as well as old. Bosnia has been a magnificent experience that will bond this amazing group of women forever. Having been party to Yashmin’s incredible organisation of this MSA trip along with Holiday Bosnia, I feel a sense of relief and pride that all has gone so smoothly. It is rewarding to hear how much this trip has meant to so many of the women who have joined us.  Bosnia is a complicated country: three religions, three ethnic identities and a nationalism that is strong in all three. It is a country with three presidents which in itself poses the question how can anything get done. It is also however a land of great hope, proud Islamic legacy and a steely determination to succeed. This may have been the first ever MSA trip abroad but hopefully it will not be the last. For sure, it has been a journey of the heart and mind.

By Sakina Anwar-Riaz (MSA Communications Officer and Volunteer)

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