July 25, 2001
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Three Girls and a Funeral

Suleman Din in New York

The plain wood coffin was placed on the ground and opened for one last time. Ansar Ahmed looked upon the smooth, cold, dead face of his beloved niece Rahela Begum.

The strong smell of embalming fluid cleared the nose and stung at the eyes as he broke down, wailing, in the arms of his friends.

Rahela Begum, 13, was pulled from the water on Monday at Rockaways beach in southern Jersey. She was part of a family fishing outing that became a disaster when she and two cousins were swept out to sea by a riptide.

Divers continued to search for Jubeda Ahmed, 16, and Shajeda Ahmed, 12, but Ansar knew all too well that the prospects of finding his daughters alive were now non-existent.

"My lovely children," he wept.

The girls waded into knee-deep water in the early morning when an undercurrent, travelling at 5 feet per second, pulled them away from the beach and into the middle of East Rockaway inlet.

Their uncle, Mohammed Fahrul Islam, was fixing fishing rods when the girls were swept away.

"I just turned my head for a second," Islam was quoted in The Daily News as saying. "By the time I got there, it was too late."

None of the girls could swim well, relatives said, and lifeguards on the beach were not yet on duty.

Relatives said Islam was blaming himself for the tragedy. His wife did not wish to answer questions.

"They were such good kids," said Asmat Ali, Islam's brother. It was from his Long Island home that Islam picked up the children to take them to the beach.

"They grew up in a tough neighbourhood, but they were all straight-A students... to have them taken away from us so soon is a shame."

Rahela Begum's body was brought on Wednesday evening to the lime-green Masjid Jalalabad in downtown Paterson, New Jersey, a tumbledown city set amongst green hills.

Inside the mosque, scores of Bangladeshis, many new immigrants, sat inside the spacious but simple prayer hall, enduring the humidity to listen to the imam's sermon.

"Pray for her forgiveness, and pray for her entry into jannat [heaven]," he beckoned in his supplication.

Outside, camera crews had set up stations and police cars blocked off Van Houten Street. The janaaza [funeral prayer] would be held in the street, where the crowd of over 1,000 people would be accommodated best.

Worshippers streamed out of the mosque as the coffin, draped in beige and green paisley cloth, was brought out on the backs of Rahela Begum's relatives and family friends. A black hearse was parked in front of the mosque, and the coffin was placed before it.

Lines for the funeral prayer stretched back more than 40 rows, as men crammed together, shoulder-to-shoulder, filling the entire width of the street. In Islamic tradition, women do not attend funeral prayers.

Four shouts of "Allah-hu-Akbar" with short pauses in between for prayers, without bowing or semi-bowing, completed the ceremony and people surged forward to help place the coffin inside the hearse.

The funeral procession then snaked out of downtown Paterson and into a tree-lined cemetery 15 minutes away.

A plot was already dug, and wooden panels placed around the hole in the ground that would be Rahela Begum's final resting place.

People congregated around the plot and lowered the coffin into the ground. But it was too much for the girl's family: her older brother sat red-faced, a few feet away, weeping hysterically, while Ahmed held his hand over his mouth, wiping his tears.

A man came to console them, gently placing his arm around the relatives. "Do not weep for her," he said. "Heaven is obligatory for her."

According to Islamic belief, those who die by drowning are accorded the fate of a martyr.

Once the coffin was in the ground, the imam came forward and, saying a prayer, sprinkled dirt into the grave. Others then took hold of shovels and began moving the pile of dirt beside the plot into the grave.

As the sun set, the grave was filled up. Men who ordinarily were taxi drivers and shop vendors returned to their farming roots, taking off their shoes, heaving shovels and dirtying their kurtas.

A relative of Rahela Begum sprinkled water over her finished grave, and a rock was placed at the front of it, to demarcate it. She lay beside three other Muslim graves, all buried on one hill.

Everyone stepped back, and the imam made his final supplication for her soul, asking for her forgiveness, seeking mercy on her parents, asking for her place in heaven.

As everyone turned to leave, Ali said family members would return to the beach on Thursday, to wait and see if authorities can find the bodies of Jubeda and Shajeda.

"We pray for Jubeda and Shajeda to be returned to us," he said. "If this is the will of Allah, then it will be done.

"This is not just our tragedy, but an American tragedy," he continued. "America will miss its three beautiful and bright children."

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