Friends, but more like Family.

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(Photo Credit: Rose Corbett, http://www.rosecorbettphotography.com)

If there is one thing that I am thankful for, it is how our lovely host and the owner of our hostel, Naida, has taken in our Global Practice Bosnia group like we are her own. The hostel which we are staying at is Naida’s childhood home. She grew up here and continued to live here as an adult, even during the siege of Sarajevo. She raised her family here, and yet she opens her doors to people from all over the world. She is one of the kindest, smartest, and most fiery women I have ever met. If I grow into even half the woman that Naida is, I would be more than happy.

Naida spent her life teaching as a university professor, and later worked as a government translator. She has traveled the world, and has stories and photos from her time all over the Middle East. She has seen places that I wish to see (Homs, Hama, Damascus, Aleppo), and she even took her students along with her. She speaks several languages fluently, including English, Arabic, French, and German. At one point, she was a personal translator for the wife of Muammar Gaddafi. I asked her if his wife was as crazy as he is, but she assured me that she wasn’t–according to Naida, she’s actually a very nice lady.

On the fourth of July, as we were celebrating our nation’s birthday, Naida let us take over her kitchen and cook all sorts of American food. Little did we know that earlier that day, she had taken the time to bake us a traditional Bosnian cake, writing “Happy Birthday America” on it in Bosnian. When her and her husband presented it to us, I couldn’t help but cry. The fact that she did something so special for us, this loud, messy group of Americans who leave dirty dishes all over her hostel… was beyond special. I’ve never felt so welcomed by anyone before. The fact that we were in another country thousands of miles away made it even more touching.

Naida and I became close because her grandson, Ekrem, took an unusual liking to me and over the summer, became very attached to me. One night, while doing work downstairs, he sat on my lap and started drawing. Suddenly, we were watching Youtube videos of every single Disney song I could remember from my childhood. “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” from the Lion King, and “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. Every time he is here, he will ask Naida “where Meggy is.” Together, we watch Pokemon, and sometimes we even draw pictures of our own Pokemon and make up names for them. Some of the pictures we have drawn over the summer are still taped to the doors downstairs.

When the Center for Healthy Aging threw a Bosnian-American themed party, Naida made sure to come. Along with her, she brought Ekrem, who was carrying the toy Pikachu that I had bought for him from one of the stands on the street. That night, we all danced together, and Naida and I even convinced Ekrem to dance with us. We taught him the Macarena, which he really seemed to love. I stayed with Naida and Ekrem until the party ended, and afterwards, she treated me to some coffee and dessert at the restaurant across from the hostel. “You are a good person, Meggy,” she told me. “I can tell because Ekrem likes you. Children know these things,” she explained, as she took my hand in hers.

I am lucky to know Naida, and I tell her that one day, when I am a professor like her, I will try to bring my students to Bosnia and stay in her hostel. She laughs when I tell her this, but she always tells me that she hopes that I do. I’m sad to be leaving Bosnia, but especially to be leaving Naida. She is like a grandmother to me. A fiery grandma who wears red lipstick and smokes cigarettes with me when I’m having a bad day. I’ve never felt so welcomed by a complete stranger. Thank you for everything, Naida. I will never forget you or the memories we have shared.

 

Week 6: Srebrenica Reflections

“…Those who devise and implement genocide seek to deprive humanity of the manifold richness its nationalities, races, and ethnicities and religions provide. This is a crime against all humankind, its harm being felt not only by the group targeted for destruction, but by all of humanity…” – Appeal Judgment in the case of Radislav Kristić, 19. Apr. 2004

When you study security, genocide isn’t a word you often pay a second thought to. It’s a horrible thing, yes, but when you study security, genocide just seems to be another one of those ugly consequences that happens during war. Sometimes, it often seems inevitable. Other times, it appears to be strategic—for a piece of territory or political survival. As a security student, I have been taught from the very beginning of my academic career to separate “abstract moralities” from the cold, hard calculations of interests and objectives. We are expected to think about political interests like they are mathematical equations—to close the door on our emotions and leave our sympathies behind us. If we bring them with us, even tucked away carefully somewhere in the back of our minds, we risk compromising the overall mission. At least that is what I’ve always been told.

Before this trip, I did everything I could to study the political history of Bosnia, to try to understand the war through the lens of security and political interests and failed agendas. I tried to understand why the United States stayed out of the conflict for as long as possible. “We don’t have a dog in that fight,” Secretary of State James Baker infamously said of the Balkans. I tried to justify the lack of authority the United Nations exerted. That’s just how the United Nations is, that’s how it’s always been, I tried to tell myself.

All of this changed after visiting Srebrenica. There is no excuse for letting 8,373 people die over the course of nine days in a declared United Nations “safe zone.” There aren’t any national interests that are achieved by sitting back and allowing defenseless people to be slaughtered. I am no longer able to think about the word genocide in plain calculations of rationalized policy objectives and national interests and overarching strategies. I can no longer think about human lives being represented by just a number. I have smelled their bodies, seen their graves, and heard their stories. I have viewed the things they carried in their pockets as they fled their homes and expected to reach safety, and I have peered into paper bags that still hold their earth-covered blue jeans. For every life that makes up that haunting four digit number—8,373—there is a story that we will never get to hear.

Writing this blog is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to write. I’ve been avoiding it for so long, because to go back to Srebrenica and to relive the second-hand horrors of what happened there is akin to ripping a scab off of a wound that still hasn’t healed. To think how painful it is for me, someone who just visited Srebrenica and heard the stories of survivors twenty years after the event makes me realize that the pain that people live with every day after personally going through such an ordeal must be indescribable. Words will never be enough to convey it or to bring anyone justice. But it’s the best I can do.

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Srebrenica Memorial

Life Goes On

I find strange beauty in all the hollowed out old buildings with plants spindling up inside them, beautiful, fresh, and green in contrast with the dusty, crumbling stone.  I have been noticing these sorts of buildings all over Bosnia, abandoned and destroyed during the war with only pieces of the beat-up exterior walls still standing in defiance, gaping holes from shells carved out in the middle.  It was hard to choose just one picture, but with this one comes a story, an experience.

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It was silent as I explored, eerie almost.  Or so it felt at first.  Then I started to notice small noises.  The cars crossing the road behind me, the birds chirping in the distance, the bugs buzzing in the field, the breeze rustling just a few leaves, something that sounded like running water in the distance.  I was enchanted by the tragic beauty of the abandoned Dutch Battalion buildings with shreds of glass still clinging to the window frames and the sun shining through the long lost ceiling.  Trees and plants were sprouting through the floors, pigeons flying by overhead, bugs zooming past my ears.  I began to think of this as a sort of theme for Bosnia – life goes on.  The building is still here, untouched, left crumbling just as the war made it look but here all around life was happening.

This is true of so much of Bosnia.  Buildings still have holes in them from bullets and shells.  “Sarajevo roses” cover the sidewalks.  Memorials stand in parks and on street corners.  But still people walk by, going to work, shopping, meeting friends for coffee.  Life goes on.  Always.

When In Bosnia.

 

When we went to Mostar last weekend, I was so excited. So excited to get away from Sarajevo, a place that just recently seemed to remind me more and more of war and suffering, and to be by the water which I consider to be my safe haven. While we were sitting by the waterfalls in Kravice (a town close to Mostar), all I could think about was the sun in my face and the sand beneath my feet. I seemed to briefly forget about the pain and suffering that we were becoming far too aware of in the rest of Bosnia. This might sound selfish, but I needed to get away, I felt as though I was drowning in sadness and reminders of war.

After having a few drinks that first night in Mostar, dancing for some hours, and not returning to our hostel until 3 am, we passed by a construction building of which I saw this graffiti art.

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WAR IS NOT OVER.

A reminder, once again, that 20 years later and this war is not over. There are no bombings anymore, Sarajevo is not under siege, there are no snipers, but the memories are still there. There are families all over Bosnia that will never know where their family members died or how they were killed. The war of rebuilding this country is still very much happening.

It also reminded me of the devastation that is constantly going on all around the world; in Syria, France, the D.R.C. It is happening as we speak, yet it is so easy for us to close our eyes to it, and forget about what the reality is.

This trip has been incredible. From the friendships I have acquired,  to the copious glasses of wine that have been consumed. This trip has also been hard, so hard. The stories that I have heard, the physical and emotional distraught I have experienced is like no other… The varying emotions that were experienced, the tears that were shed, the songs that were sung. I will take these experiences with me for the rest of my life.

 

When in Bosnia. 

 

Sarajevo: Part 6

“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” -Salvador Dali

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            7 weeks ago, to the day, I arrived in the unknown and unfamiliar city of Sarajevo. I was nervous. I was scared. I did not know what to expect. I arrived and it was raining, as it is today.  I was tired. I had just been in Italy for 3 days, by myself, knowing no other soul in Rome.  It was my first time traveling abroad internationally.  I arrived and when I saw Arista and Annalisa waiting for me I wanted to cry. I was so happy to see them; people that I actually knew and that spoke English!  They helped me with my things and helped me to get settled into the hostel.

            The next day, more group members arrived. Seeing familiar faces in a not-so-familiar place was extremely comforting.  I am telling this little back story because my second day in Sarajevo is when I took these pictures, and with these pictures, I feel, came ideas, notions, feelings, about Sarajevo, and the time I would be spending here.

            I remember first being amazed, in awe, of the beauty of this country.  The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was beating down on my skin.  It felt nice. It felt welcoming. I was immediately enthralled by the culture here, especially in Baščaršija.  I loved all of the little shops, the winding cobble-stone road, and the hidden side streets throughout this old part of the city.  I, for whatever reason, felt very welcomed when walking through here. It was like I was in a good dream.  I could live here forever.

            I now no longer look at this city and am pleased by its aesthetics. Yes, there still are very beautiful parts of this city, but I am not so naïve to this beauty anymore. Originally stunned by the indescribable beauty of the mountains that surround the city, I now see these mountains as snipers’ nests.  These beautiful mountains where the perching spots for soldiers who took countless lives throughout the city.  These mountains were the reasons why civilians had to put up sheets throughout the alley ways of the city.  These mountains and their beauty were used against the people of this city.

            Cafés bring life to this city, no matter the time of day.  I cannot tell you how many times we have sat at cafes and had glasses of wine and ate dinner, and people watched.  I loved that when I first got here. But with time in the city, I realized that during the almost 4-year siege of this city that life was non-existent.  There were no leisurely strolls down the streets or by the river, because at certain points that river was the front lines during the war.  There was no sitting outside at night and having a glass of wine.  The Sarajevo roses throughout the streets, that I once thought were beautiful took on a whole new meaning.  They were reminders of the lives that were taken. I knew this. But it did not register until living in this city.

            All of this that I had grown to adore about the city, everything from the scenery to the type of living, was non-existent during these 4 years. This city was a war zone. This city, and all of its beauty was stripped, and robbed of this.  At times I now had this fear of the city. At times I now felt a great amount of sorrow when thinking about this city. How could a place so beautiful become one of the worst places in the world? How did these people live here during the entirety of this war?

            I still don’t know how to properly handle this dichotomy of feelings.  This place has become one of my favorite cities I have ever been in, but I now have a small glimpse into the life of the people that lived here during the war. People who I consider friends grew up here during the war. This was, and still is their home.

            7 weeks later, I still feel like I am living in that dream-like state that I arrived in. Sometimes it feels like a whole different, parallel life, one that I am happy is not my life.  Other times this city has taken my heart and my soul, and I have fallen in love with in completely. The culture, the passage of time, the people, the food. I smile thinking about all of it.  The 7 weeks I have spent in Bosnia have been some of the hardest days of my entire life. Do I wish I had not come? Absolutely not.

 

A Hodgepodge

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The photo I have chosen for this post is one of a sort of zoo located at the Mercur bus station in Budva, Montenegro. Even though it isn’t one of specifically Bosnia, to me it was a good representation of the entire experience I have had while here this summer. Like discovering a smattering of rabbits, deer, turtles and peacocks at a bus station, some of the things Bosnia presents are at times confusing. It feels like a hodgepodge sort of thrown together without a larger cohesive vision and at times seems out of place. It isn’t bad but it seems like a temporary placeholder rather than a permanent arrangement.

It’s kind of how I feel about the museum where I intern. There is no single overarching narrative being displayed and the resulting effect for many is one of general confusion. The exhibits themselves may be interesting but the storytelling is not necessarily linear. Since my field of study is in conflict resolution, we focus a great deal on the importance of storytelling and how the story being told influences how willing groups are to interact and especially reconcile after conflict. It would follow that if one group continues to denounce the other or prominent members espouse that atrocities did not occur it hinders the normalization of relations.

However, it seems that because such topics are still so contentious there can be pressures not to deal with them. For me it is slightly paradoxical that a history museum, an institution of social memory, must tiptoe around certain topics of history that are internationally accepted as true. Therefore, when you get to a country that has recently suffered a war you might expect that it might be something deeply explored in a history museum. And when it isn’t and it isn’t just that institution that doesn’t really talk about it you are confused by its absence of not outright omission.

When I first came to Bosnia, I expected there to be a great amount of focus and almost promotion of the war as a thing for tourists to learn about while here. But when I saw that there is not such an exhibit, or at least one that focuses on the aspects you would think to be the most important (who did what, where things took place), I was surprised. But after talking with people I saw that they feel like they can only say certain things since they want to get embroiled in the politics. And so I saw a reason for the hodgepodge. It isn’t the ideal setup and people know it, but they do what they can and hope that people can gain from it what they will.

Like a smattering of animals at a bus station in Montenegro, I saw that things are in a sort of placeholder mentality. People may want things to get better but there is no single initiative to do so and there is no single vision to guide the improvement needed. But that doesn’t mean that no one is interested in taking that initiative. If anything, I have seen that there are a large number of smaller groups of people at the grassroots level that are very much achieving the change not happening at the top. They focus on their own domains but the overall intent to make a stronger Bosnia is the same.

And so while things may take a while to change, I remain hopeful for this country and accept that sometimes things may simply resemble a rabbit-turtle-deer exhibit at a bus station.

The sky bleeds, too.

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Photo Credit: Annalisa Triola

I’m not certain I can explain this photo, but I’ll try.

Srebrenica was difficult. “Difficult?” Difficult, adj. “needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand.” Hardly captures the overwhelming emotion, crippling sense of gravity, or powerful message of resilience the survivors we met impressed upon us. I struggled greatly with depression in the wake of that weekend. I think we were all sick, in one way or another.

During a particularly arduous day at my internship, I was informed that we had another after-work program obligation: a barbecue at Wings of Hope, a nonprofit that provides trauma, legal, and educational programs to both survivors of the war and people of all ages and walks of life in Bosnia. In retrospect, I’m ashamed to say I was pissed. I wanted nothing more than to sleep away my mental and physical exhaustion. But I grabbed a bottle of wine and a taxi and got myself to the west side of Sarajevo. Though our hosts were incredibly welcoming and gracious, the tension amongst our group was palpable. The most awkward group of undergrads I’ve ever encountered showed up, too, and we were asked to try to engage them—they were struggling with being truly involved with their experience in Serbia and Bosnia.

We stood awkwardly in our cliques, all clearly on edge and upset on some level. We ate, we drank wine, and conversations got easier, but something was still tight in the air. Then, thunder.

It started with a sprinkle, and quickly became a torrential downpour—complete with hail—of biblical proportions. The undergrads and many of the Wings of Hope employees ran for cover. But a few of us just let it ride. Laura smiled and threw her arms up. Jenny and I threw our shoes off and ran together through puddles collecting on the lawn. Julia and Lindsay ran out to join us. Then Rose. Then, all of us were out there, even Ann. We laughed hysterically, hugged, danced, sang various rain-themed songs (“Fool in the Rain” was stuck on repeat in my head). I shed some tears of happiness, but they were washed away as quickly as they came. When the sky thundered at us, we laughed and yelled back at it. All the anger, all the sadness, all the tension was summarily cleansed.

What followed was a ridiculous evening of screaming and dancing, soaking wet, in the kitchen of Wings of Hope, along to a compilation of Shania Twain, Spice Girls, Smash Mouth, and other godawful/fantastic 90s hits playing from someone’s iPhone. The undergrads, understandably frightened, cowered in a room nearby, with eyes begging “Please get me out of here!” We couldn’t have cared less. Our minds were clean.

When we bleed, the sky bleeds, too.

Photo reflection

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Going through my photos from this summer was nearly impossible to pick just 1 to write about. There are thousands. Essentially like asking me to choose a favorite color of Peanut M&Ms. There are no favorites here, they are all delicious. And I will eat them all, please and thanks.

This photo was taken on the most recent and final work trip I had working with Green Visions. A group of 8 women and 1 man (our lucky guide) summited Maglić Peak at 2,386 meters . It is the highest mountain in Bosnia, and directly translated it means “The Foggy One”.  Like something straight out of the Misty Mountain, the views would indeed make Gandalf swoon.  Sutjeska National Park is Bosnia’s biggest park, and was so aptly named because of a famous World War II battle that took place here. Our days hike composed of a border crossing, 360 views of meadows and limestone cliffs, summit coffee breaks and lots and lots of singing. We were the human jukeboxes, singing loudly for Nature and basking in amplified joy.

10 hours later, however,  we were all slightly frustrated, exhausted, stinky and within minutes of the finish line when the sun decided it would give us a sendoff fit for queens.  I couldn’t even be mad at the blisters taking over both big toes, the grumbling tummy noises from a rather conspicuous meat sandwich and the ache of scaling down a mountain.  It was like getting hugged by nature, and it felt amazing.

Sunsets are a magical thing, and dusk has always been my absolute favorite time of day. When the calmness hits, the air seems to suspend in absolute clarity. The receding warmth and the impending coolness of night collide in a transformative peace.  And oh the light- they don’t call it the Golden Hour for nothing.

This summer has brought emotional and physical exhaustion.  It has been some of the best and most difficult moments I’ve yet experienced in life, and it has provoked lots of reflecting, journaling and perhaps too many bottles of wine.  I chose this photo because as the end of our time here approaches, and the start of something new awaits, a sunset seemed both simultaneously appropriate, existentially profound, and humbly awesome (as it is a fairly epic photo, if I do say so myself).

 

Week 7 – Reflection

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Tito’s Cold War Bunker. Built to withstand the end of the world, where two world powers couldn’t sort out their differences and decided to battle it out in other countries. Almost the end of mankind because of this us vs. them mentality. We are out of the Cold War now, and yet our world continues to face these dark realities. Refugee crises, the Islamic State, the state of the European Union and the United States, all of this seems to be on the brink of disaster once again. We build monuments of never again, and yet our future doesn’t seem so much different than the past. Not unless we do something about it. The photo above is part of an artistic activist movement to understand the past as well as see how the present and future are not so different. Yet there is still hope in this message. While Bosnia could linger in the tensions that led to the war in the 90’s, as the film Uspomene 677 (put together by the Post Conflict Research Center based in Bosnia and Herzegovina) the goal needs to be to activate the younger generation and re-frame the issue as “What are we going to do next? And how can we work together on this?”. We can choose to linger in the past and continue to make bad decisions, or we can acknowledge that people were hurt on all sides and find a way to make the world a better place. I think my reaction last week was filled with distress that our future mirrors our past and we aren’t doing anything about it. But this week, I am more optimistic. I am more like the quote below, also found at the Tito Cold War Bunker, this future also belongs to me and I will walk through hell and high water to make sure it does not look like the dark past, but something brighter.

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Sarajevo Rose

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I chose this picture of a Sarajevo rose because it is indicative of the things I am trying to focus on from this trip going forward. I think they represent the ways in which the effects of the war stay with the Bosnian people. From the dysfunctional political system to lost loved ones to mental health impacts, it seems clear that it will impact this society for years to come.

At the same time, however, the attempt to find beauty in such an ugly context reminds me of so many of the people I have met during my time here. It makes me think of Hassan and my supervisor Maja, and the way that they find meaning in helping those who have suffered so much. I think of Ramiz risking his life to collect the bones of those who were massacred to help their families. Even Saliha, who clearly deals with the pain of her loss each and every day, welcomed us with open arms and an amazing meal. I am also reminded of the welcoming Bosnians we met in Mostar, who to give us food and drink and make sure we had a good time in their country. One of them, Jasmin, talked about how Bosnians try to cope with their past. He talked about living in the moment and trying to enjoy their lives with those that they care about, knowing all too well how easily it could all be taken away. That’s what I will remember more than anything from this trip. Not just the personal resilience of Bosnians who faced such terrible circumstances, but their willingness to help others in big and small ways, always with a smile on their face.