Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bosnian colleges draw Turks avoiding headscarf ban

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - About 1,000 Turkish students have left home to attend university in Bosnia, attracted by the low cost of living, good food and -- for women -- the right to wear an Islamic headscarf.

On Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan officially opened a new campus of the International University of Sarajevo (IUS) on the outskirts of the Bosnian capital.

"I hope that a cultural bridge will be created at this university that will connect the people and secure peace in the Balkans," he said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Erdogan heads an Islamist-rooted government and his wife wears a headscarf. However, Turkey remains a secular state and women are forbidden to wear headscarves at university there.

In Bosnia no such ban exists, and this is among the reasons that young Turks give for making the relatively short journey to study at one of Sarajevo's three international universities, two of which are Turkish-funded.

Food and finances, close to the hearts of students everywhere, are important to Sarajevo's Turkish students.

"There are a lot of mosques and the food is delicious," said Enes Cici from Istanbul, an engineering student at the IUS. "It's very similar to our own culture."

Economics student Mehmed Guner from Bursa said: "It is more affordable to study here than going to the United States, Canada or any European country, so this was what made me pick it."

Other reasons are peculiar to Turkey, founded in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire which once ruled Bosnia. Turkey's military and judiciary now guard its secularism.

"I came here because of a scarf problem," said architecture student Cahide Nur Cunuk, explaining that she could not enroll at any state or private university in Turkey after graduating from an Islamic theological high school.

"We are happy to be here," added her colleague Vildan Mengi. "Bosnians are Muslims and they are similar to us."


A relatively large proportion of the Turkish students in Sarajevo are women, and most wear headscarves.

They say they cannot enroll at universities in Turkey as they have graduated from theological high schools, the only schools where they could attend classes wearing headscarves.

Many young Turks from religious families attend Islamic secondary schools where 40 percent of the syllabus is devoted to religious subjects, but the rest is for secular topics.

Erdogan was product of this system. A revised system of university credits introduced in the late 1990s has made it hard for pupils of such schools to study non-religious subjects at Turkish universities.

"If the situation in Turkey changed, we would not come to study here," said one woman in a group of headscarved students sitting in a university tea shop. "Bosnian people are more tolerant than Turkish people," she said.

Vildan Mengi said she had three sisters who would also come to Sarajevo if the scarf problem were not resolved. "My mother came to see me here. She saw I am safe," she said.

The IUS is the largest of the three universities that are building what might become the largest complex of private colleges in the region. The other Turkish-funded college is the International Burch University (IBU).

While the IUS was set up by a group of Turkish businessmen and public figures and their Bosnian counterparts, the IBU's founder is the Istanbul-based Foundation of Journalists and Writers, established among others by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Followers of Gulen, who has pursued a view that Muslims should not reject modernity but embrace business and the professions, have created a network of private schools and universities across Turkey, the central Asia and the Balkans.

Gulen now lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.

The third university, whose new building in emerging only a few hundred meters away, is the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, accredited by the British-based Buckingham University.


"This is unique situation to have two Turkish-funded universities in the same area," said IBU Secretary-General Orhan Hadzagic. "This was a pure coincidence," he added, explaining that universities were not linked in any other way.

Bosnia, which like most other Balkan countries had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, has close ties with Turkey. Bosnian Muslims are known as moderate Muslims of Slavic origin, who have turned to the religion in greater numbers only since the 1992-95 war, during which they were the main victims.

Erdogan said at a public debate earlier on Monday: "It does not matter whether we have a shared border or not, I feel this country as the closest neighbor and we will never abandon Bosnia because of our historic responsibility."

The sight of bulldozers and the noise of construction and drilling machines at the foot of nearby Mountain Igman is in stark contrast to many building sites in the capital, where work has stopped since last year because of the recession.

 The total investment, estimated roughly at more than 100 million euros ($135 million) once it is completed, would turn Sarajevo into a regional university center and create new revenues for the city, officials say.

"The city of Sarajevo will earn about 35 million euros annually only from the university, which is a large profit," said Alija Rizvanbegovic, one of the founders of the IUS. "We expect that about 600 jobs will be created in the next five years."

(Editing by David Stamp)

Somali refugees recruited to fight Islamist militia

By Sudarsan Raghavan

Washington Post Foreign Service

Tuesday, April 6, 2010; A07

The Washington Post

DADAAB, KENYA - The U.S.-backed government of Somalia and its Kenyan allies have recruited hundreds of Somali refugees, including children, to fight in a war against al-Shabab, an Islamist militia linked to al-Qaeda, according to former recruits, their relatives and community leaders.

Many of the recruits were taken from the sprawling Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya, which borders Somalia. Somali government recruiters and Kenyan soldiers came to the camps late last year, promising refugees as much as $600 a month to join a force advertised as supported by the United Nations or the United States, the former recruits and their families said.

"They have stolen my son from me," said Noor Muhamed, 70, a paraplegic refugee whose son Abdi was recruited.

Across this region, children and young men are vanishing. All sides in Somalia's conflict are recruiting refugees to fight in a remote battleground in the global war on terrorism from which they fled, community leaders say.

It is unclear whether recruiting by the governments of Kenya and Somalia is ongoing. But their military officers continue to train refugees at a heavily guarded base near the northern Kenyan town of Isiolo as the Somali government prepares for a long-planned offensive against the Shabab.

A second camp is in Manyani, a training station for the Kenya Wildlife Service in southern Kenya, according to former recruits, relatives, community leaders and U.N. investigators.

"They told us we were going to Somalia soon," said Hassan Farah, 23, who escaped from the Isiolo camp last month.

Farah, who was injured in a 2008 bombing in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, first spent more than two months at Manyani. "I saw 12-year-old children at the camp," said Farah, who has a jagged scar on his left arm. He escaped by bribing a water truck driver to sneak him out.

The Kenyan government has acknowledged that it is helping train police officers for Somalia's weak interim government but said that the recruits were flown in from Mogadishu. "No one is recruited from the refugee camps," said Alfred Mutua, a Kenyan government spokesman.

But a recent U.N. report on Somalia confirmed the recruitment of refugees, including underage youths, for military training. Kenya's training program, the report said, is a violation of a U.N. arms embargo, which requires nations to get permission from the U.N. Security Council before assisting Somalia's security efforts.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the U.N. special representative to Somalia, said he has not personally seen evidence to act on. "If this recruiting is happening, we have to condemn it," he said.

Recruiting refugees is a violation of international law, and enlisting children under 15 constitutes war crimes, human rights groups say.

"They told me I would become a soldier and fight the Shabab," said Ahmed Barre, a bone-thin 15-year-old whose family fled Somalia's anarchy in 1991, when the central government collapsed. He was born in Dadaab's camps and has never been to Somalia. "I didn't want to go. But I was jobless. I wanted to help my family."
A State Department spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said, "We strongly condemn recruitment in the refugee camps by any party." Senior U.S. officials, he added, "have stressed" to top Kenyan and Somali government officials "the need to prevent any recruitment in refugee camps."

Human Rights Watch has also raised concerns about the force, which numbers roughly 2,500.

Once the recruits signed up, their cellphones and identification cards were taken. They never saw the promised money. And they were denied access to their traumatized families, which, fearing deportation, seldom complained to the authorities, local officials and recruits said.

"These people ran away for their dear lives to seek refuge in Kenya," said Mohamed Gabow Kharbat, mayor of Garissa, the provincial capital. "To recruit them and send them back to the same situation they ran away from, this is terrible."

Kharbat said that "most of the youths have no parents, no family members to protest on their behalf. And even if they have parents, these are people who are scared of the government security organs. They can never have the confidence to complain."

The recruitment comes amid fears that Somalia's Islamist militants could extend their reach into Kenya, Uganda and other neighboring countries. The Shabab has voiced support for al-Qaeda and has attracted jihadists from around the world. The United States and European nations are supporting the pro-Western Somalia transitional government with arms, cash, training and intelligence.

Somali refugees have few opportunities in Kenya, which has imposed strict residency rules and limits on travel, making it difficult for them to find jobs. Many youths are uneducated.

"The Shabab and all other groups have representation here," said Abdul Khader, 35, a refugee youth leader. "They give a lot of false hopes to the refugees."

Hassan Mukhtar, 16, was recruited to fight for the Somali government with a promise of $300 a month and a $50 signing bonus.

When he and other recruits did not get their signing bonus, they jumped out of the truck on the way to Manyani.

A Shabab recruiter enticed Mukhtar Awliyahan, 16, by promising him $300 month. He was taken to Somalia and given the nom de guerre "Mukhtarullah" -- the One Chosen by God. In January, tired of fighting, he escaped. Today he keeps a low profile in the camp. "They are still recruiting," he said.

Hezbi Islam, a rival militia, recruited Bare Ali Jama, 19. "I had nothing to substitute for this offer," said Jama, who joined along with five other refugees. In February, Shabab fighters pushed them out of their stronghold; he fled back to Kenya. Still jobless, he wants to return to Somalia. "I will fight for anybody," he said