Seen from Jewish

Woke up to Bosnian sun streaming through the window. I could hear the faint language of Bosnian and the people of Sarajevo beginning their day. After hazily coming out of my dream, I remember where I am. Today is the second day of our trip. I am sharing a room with three other women out of the Denver School of Social Work program. After a full night of sleep and an exhausting first day, we feel refreshed and stir with excitement of travels to come. We exchange an idea of walking to the market and getting fresh fruit, vegetables, and that delicious butter, kajmak, that I had tasted the previous day and went to bed thinking about. After a lazy breakfast and two cups of coffee, the group packed our day bags, filled our water bottles from the Bascarsija fountain, meet Jadranka our tour guide, and head to the tunnel. The tunnel is the most visited place in Bosnia. It is a historical place where Bosniak Muslims moved goods during the war. It was sheltered from the Serbian snipers and thus people were able to safely bring sugar, tobacco, and other miscellaneous goods into the city. We walked into part of the tunnel and hear from Jadranka about her experience living during the war. She spoke of rationing her food, trading cigarettes for haircuts, and surviving with fear of the unknown knocking on her doorstep. I cannot fathom how that felt. To see her survive, and thus understand her resiliency is moving. The tunnel was small, and we were reminded to duck our heads. I thought of the tall Bosniak men, with giant bags of goods tied to their back, crouching through the tunnel, and walking the entirety of it with no other choice. Sciatica comes to mind.

Our group returned to the bus, and we headed to the 1984 Olympic bobsled track. We brought spray paint because we are told we could paint a part of the track. The experience was one of a kind. We had some trouble deciding the perfect mark to leave. We decided on a large female symbol with a spiral in the middle and “GSSW” (Graduate School of Social Work) written at the bottom. It was dope. We gave the other passing visitors the remining spray paint. One after another they painted “peace” in their native language. We created a community of peaceful vandalizers. We laughed and took pride in our new found rebel identities. We left in high spirits, and hungry for lunch. Lunch was delicious and sitting with the group, reflecting, and cracking jokes is truly life’s simple pleasures. We then had a lazy afternoon, filled with after meal coffees and views of both the old and new cities of Sarajevo. I must also mention the bobsled rollercoaster ride, in which I did not participate because of fear of motion sickness. However, some of the other women did and I took joy in watching them scream in happiness.

We loaded up the bus once more to head to our final destination, the Jewish cemetery. This cemetery was a nest for snipers during the war. The cemetery looked almost abandoned. Tomb stones where knocked over, bullet holes punctured the graves, and a space which should be holy was stripped of that claim. I was upset. Being a Jewish woman, genocide and truths of anti-Semitism has been built into my upbringing, culture, and education. Feeling upset in this capacity is unfortunately just a theme in my life. Jadranka tells us that Bosniaks where weary of living near and being seen from the cemetery. They feared losing their life for if a sniper was perched behind a tombstone, they could easily have been amongst one of the many targeted civilians during this bloody war. They warned each other to steer clear. It would certain death if they were to been “seen from Jewish.”

Burying Children

5:30 am my starts to go off, we are preparing for travel to Tuzla and then Srebrenica. I know this is going to be a difficult trip but I am eager to meet Hasan and the infamous Saliha.

Beginning in Tuzla, we meet the bad-ass Dragana, a forensic anthropologist who is bringing peace to thousands of families who lost loved ones to the war. She uses a DNA test to identify bones and help those families bury them. The room where the bones lay in purgatory, smells of dried blood and sweat. Dragana explains the lack of funding necessary to properly ventilate the room. It was unsettling.

Later that evening, we arive at Saliha’s. She greets us with warmth beaming from her face which was wrapped in a yellow headscarf. I can see the years of hurt in the wrinkles of her face. Yet she loves so clearly still. I begin to understand just how meaningful it is to her that we are there, taking up space, praising her beautiful garden, eating, and listening to her story. Saliha’s home is located on the boarder of Serbia, and when the war began, the Serbian forces set to destroy her town. When the attacks started, her family retreated to the forest behind her home. She explains that she could not fathom the war. She could not conceive the horrors that lay ahead for her family. She reflects on times before the war, telling us that she had such a lovely life. Simple, filled with love for her husband and sons. This is incredibly painful for me. I think about my own father and brother. I cant imagine being separated from them, I cant imagine my strong father succumbing to those horrors, or my brother being among the thousands of men taken to execution sites and shot as if their lives were meaningless. Tears begin to swell and my heart breaks for Saliha. She is lonely. She is so incredibly lonely. Waiting for her family that will never come back to her. Living because she has to. She aches to be reunited with them, in heaven. When we leave, she begins to cry. She waves to us and it takes everything in me to keep it together. Knowing she’s going to bed in an empty house once again.

A mother should never have to bury her child. But they do, all the time. 

Comparing Governments

Amer Osmic, a faculty member at the University of Sarajevo, gave an incredible and animated lecture on the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina and their current government. I can not go into great detail about his lecture, since it was complex and a lot amount of material, however, it was specifically intriguing to understand the sentiments of the citizens of BiH in favor of the period before the war, when it was Yugoslavia. Pre-war BiH was the united country of Yugoslavia, and citizens had the right to jobs and apartments. The country had one government and in comparison with the current government, it was a simple and plentiful time. This sentiment was confirmed later that evening when a few of us met with students from the school of Social Work. When I asked their opinion on Yugoslavia, they agreed, using the lives of their parents as examples. I then asked one of the students about her opinion on Trump. She responded with saying she thought Trump was “smart because he was able to get elected, regardless of his idiotic ways.” I was dumbfounded. This was the first social worker to describe Trump as “smart.” I understand her intention was to acknowledge his ability to make his way into the white house by systematically preying on the small mindedness of apparently the majority of our country and utilizing his Russian boyfriend, but I still felt uneasy. How could anyone give a compliment to Trump? He is the scum of the earth.

With more thought, and more wine, we began to compare our governments. One president to them was surly a better situation than a tri-partisan government; one Croat, one Serb, and one Bosniak, an ethically divided country, with about a billion other useless government officials sucking the economy dry. The situation here is bad. It is inconceivable for me that a people so close in ancestry, are post-war so bound to the importance of religion that parents would “rather their child be gay, then be apart of a ethnically mixed-marriage.” (Please note that the LGBTQ community here is not widely accepted, and multiple accounts of violence have been reported.) The desire for unity is so strong here, Yugoslavia and a Trump America seems better to the citizens.

I checked my privileged, and we all made plans to see each other again

The Road to Potocari

As I walked the road to Potočari from Srebrenica I looked down at the ground beneath me and was flooded with emotion. My feet were following the path that the scared, tired and hungry people of Srebrenica had walked two decades prior, seeking relief that instead resulted in massacre. Alongside the road, large haystacks standing like silent sentries, felt like witnesses to the horrors that were perpetrated over five days in July, 1995. With each step I realized that it would be impossible to make sense of all that we had learned and been told over the past 24 hours. How does one make sense of the horror? How does one explain the unconscionable acts that the Serbs perpetrated against the Bosnian Muslims of this tiny, mountainous village?

I’ve spent years mulling over answers to questions like these. The answers I’ve cobbled together have led me to the humble conclusion that we arrive on the planet destined to come face to face with suffering. The spectrum is varied; for some it is suffering of a less egregious form, for others, it is the life-altering, horrifying experience of an Auschwitz or a Srebrenica. Few of us will leave this life unscathed or untouched by tragedy, but we  all have options as to how we will endure and carry on.

In Hasan’s case, he has chosen action driven by his sense of destiny. Neither he, nor anyone else we spoke to waste time asking why the atrocities occurred. Hasan is more interested in raising  international awareness lest his people be forgotten. His motivation is not one of revenge. He clearly states that he doesn’t feel hatred because he understands that dwelling in that space would only continue to perpetuate his pain. Instead, he talks about acceptance and  a near-gratitude because his pain was not as intense as that experienced by other victims of atrocities. For Saliha, the pain endures, intensified by her extreme loneliness. For me, as a mother of three sons who has also experienced the loss of a child, I’m not sure how she endures. But she does.

I walked the road to Potočari thinking about Hasan and Saliha and the depth of love and giving that emanates from their hearts. Bitterness doesn’t dwell in this town because  many of these survivors understand that the salve for their intense pain does not lie in seeking retaliation, it lies in the Bosnian understanding that we are all human beings destined to live out our soul’s purpose or -sudbina. Their gift to all of us is a reminder of the preciousness of this life and how important it is to be awake and fully present every day because there are no guarantees for tomorrow.

 

Documentary

Bosnia has so many stories to tell and it is an endless journey of learning. Even with all the different perspectives we have been given, there is still so much more to know. We were lucky enough to attend a film festival where there was a viewing of the documentary ‘Scream for Me Sarajevo’. The movie basically brought together the concept of war and music and how music can help people heal and unite.

The documentary was based around the band Iron Maiden who came to Sarajevo during the war. They snuck into the country in order to perform a concert, and what made it most interesting is that they could have decided not to play, but as they got to hear the stories and know what was happening to this country, it made it all the more important for them to have this concert occur.

The documentary also included footage of the war in Sarajevo. On this trip we have seen many pictures and videos of the war, but somehow this one made it more real and current. Maybe it was the footage of people just trying to get around the city and being shot down in the streets. These are things we try to do as every day civilians, so it’s impossible for me to imagine a time today where we would need to worry about running down to the store to grab some essentials. This film made a huge impact on me, and I hope this story gets out to the world.

UNTitled

“UNSafe” is scrolled in marker across a brick wall in Srebrenica. Two hundred kilometers away in Konjic, “UNaware” is written in black paint on the moldy walls of a bunker. “UN: United Nothing” is hand written on a piece of sheet metal mused over by museum onlookers. These political statements, peppered across Bosnia, are the remnants of disappointment over the failings of the United Nations Peacekeepers which, some say, made the deaths of thousands possible. Such statements echo earlier criticisms of the U.N. as being inadequate in their handling of the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a host of other ethnic and international divides since the organization’s inception. In the on-going debate over the role and effectiveness of international peace keeping, I tend to agree with those who think U.N. peacekeeping is a mirage.  DSC00209.JPG

“UNsafe” is a word I’ve used to describe my experience on this trip and it reminds me that conflict resolution on an international level is no more complicated or important than how conflict is resolved on an interpersonal one. The latter will always be good training for the former because the roots of conflict are fundamentally the same: the perceived or real inequality of power; the fear of difference; the struggle over resources. The components necessary to resolve conflict, then, is inevitably the same: equity of power, resources, and love. The goal, hopefully, is the same at every level: relationships. The difference, of course, is scale.

I think people have difficulty recognizing this conflict continuum and the common threads that bind, say, a gang fight, tension between classmates, and war. It’s difficult to see because dominant culture trains us to avoid conflict, hoard power, and get defensive at the notion that we have resources to share and accountability to enact. One side of our mouth will talk compassionately about the experiences of genocide victims while the other side of our mouth makes assumption-fueled judgments about the person next to us. We are told to honor those who were buried on this land while simultaneously being instructed to bury our feelings, concerns and needs under a proverbial carpet for the comfort and convenience of someone else. This hypocrisy is allowed to exist because we make a conscious effort to stay UNaware.

titosbunker
Artwork in Tito’s Bunker

We need conflict resolution processes and peacekeepers at every level, in every classroom, every community meeting, every international affair. People cannot work together without thoughtful intention for how conflicts will be resolved when they arise… because they will. People in positions of leadership often times are the ones with the greatest responsibility in this area because of their ability to equalize power which fosters safety among those who have less.  The U.N. Peacekeepers stand as an example for what not to be: passive onlookers making excuses for their inaction. Instead, humans need engaged others who are intentional about cultivating and maintaining relationships lest people are left to their own devices, United in Nothing.

 

Gracious Guests

Steadfastly throughout our trip, Bosnia’s inhabitants have provided us their warmth, laughter, and pain. For us, this is a learning experience. For them, this is their home. Our little hotel, nestled in a bustling yet quaint corner in Old City, faces a small café that spills onto the street where people sit sipping wine and espresso, laughing and talking with one another. The men who run it are nothing but gracious hosts to their patrons. The other day, a man pulled his car up to the edge of the cafes’ curb, where they ask people not to park. The man overseeing the café gave a friendly shout outside, asking him to please move his vehicle. The man ignored his request and, in English, shouted, “two minutes!” and rudely ran off, leaving his car behind. This incident was a moment in time that, for me, summed up the frustrations of hosting foreigners. Whether we are walking through the woods, pounding the pavement of the city, or speaking with our hosts, we need to be cognizant of the meaning of our words and actions juxtaposed against our intentions. We are not here as fixers, as social butterflies, or white royalty. We are here to listen, learn, and ask, what can we give?

It has not escaped my purview that while we are here studying and asking questions about the tensions that grip this country – ethnic, political, and otherwise – our group has begun mimicking attributes of these very same tensions.

As part of our community/macro social work theory and practice class, we were assigned to read a piece published in 2001 by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in From Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. In it, they include a section entitled White Supremacy Culture in an attempt to illuminate “a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture which show up in our organizations.” These components span perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, progress is bigger, objectivity, and a right to comfort. I want to take a moment to dive into these characteristics in order to reflect on how groups and organizations can unconsciously utilize them and cement them as cultural norms because once they are in place, it can be nearly impossible to create pathways for other cultural norms to have a voice. Below I have excerpted some of the many tenets of white supremacy culture; while there are many I’ve chosen to list, it is by no means an exhaustive list and if you want to read the full article, click here.

PERFECTIONISM

  • little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate
  • or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them
  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are ó mistakes
  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
  • little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes
  • tendency to identify whatís wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate whatís right

SENSE OF URGENCY

  • continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think long-term, to consider consequences

DEFENSIVENESS

  • the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person or to clarify who has power and how they are expected to use it
  • because of either/or thinking (see below), criticism of those with power is viewed as threatening and inappropriate (or rude)
  • people respond to new or challenging ideas with defensiveness, making it very difficult to raise these ideas
  • a lot of energy in the organization is spent trying to make sure that peopleís feelings arenít getting hurt or working around defensive people
  • the defensiveness of people in power creates an oppressive culture
  • all resources of organization are directed toward producing measurable goals

QUANTITY OVER QUALITY

  • things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot, for example numbers of people attending a meeting, newsletter circulation, money spent are valued more than quality of relationships, democratic decision-making, ability to constructively deal with conflict
  • little or no value attached to process; if it can’t be measured, it has no value
  • discomfort with emotion and feelings
  • no understanding that when there is a conflict between content (the agenda of the meeting) and process (peopleís need to be heard or engaged), process will prevail (for example, you may get through the agenda, but if you haven’t paid attention to peopleís need to be heard, the decisions made at the meeting are undermined and/or disregarded)

PATERNALISM

  • those without power understand they do not have it and understand who does
  • those without power do not really know how decisions get made and who makes what decisions, and yet they are completely familiar with the impact of those decisions on them

EITHER/OR THINKING

  • things are either/or ó good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us
  • closely linked to perfectionism in making it difficult to learn from mistakes or accommodate conflict
  • no sense that things can be both/and
  • results in trying to simplify complex things, for example believing that poverty is simply a result of lack of education
  • creates conflict and increases sense of urgency, as people are felt they have to make decisions to do either this or that, with no time or encouragement to consider alternatives, particularly those which may require more time or resources

FEAR OF OPEN CONFLICT

  • people in power are scared of conflict and try to ignore it or run from it
  • when someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, the response is to blame the person for raising the issue rather than to look at the issue which is actually causing the problem
  • emphasis on being polite
  • equating the raising of difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line

I took the time to put together this list because we are mostly white visitors in a foreign land and, in my opinion, it is a common and unfortunate mistake that many organizations that claim to be multicultural, in fact, carry the opposite torch and only make space for other cultures to be a part of the group if they adapt to the cultural norms already in place. As Jones and Okun eloquently put it, “being able to identify and name the cultural norms and standards you want is a first step to making room for a truly multi-cultural organization.” Just because we are full grown adults and social workers do not mean that we don’t need the occasional reminder on staying mindful.

–Caitlin Morris

Lukomir

We started the Lukomir hike next to a medieval grand yard, which started the flooding of new experiences I would come to gain from this excursons. Two guides from Green Visions guided us throughout the hike, Samara one of the guides, grew up going to Lukomir in the summers and her grandparents live in the village. Both guides shared information on the landmarks we pass as well as historical facts about the picturesque surroundings.

Parts of the Lukomir Hike made me feel like I was back in Colorado. With the great rock faces, the beautiful scenery, and icy cold streams the hike was so like the ones I have done in the states. Of course, there were many differences that made this hike unlike anything I have ever done. The biggest difference was that we were on one of the only hiking trails that is walkable without having to worry about stepping on landmines. The freedom we have walking around and going off trail is not always an option in Bosnia. Unfortunately, much of the wonderful scenery and great land that make up Bosnia are inaccessible due to remains from past wars.

At the end of the three-hour hike we arrived at the Village of Lukomir, which is home to thirty people, all of which are over the age of 65. Samara’s grandparents and her aunts greeted us. They gave us some background information on the village and fed us delicious pitas. We watched the sheep, dogs, and sheep herds go about their day-to-day life. The village was such an excellent example of the nomadic lives that so many Bosnians lived, especially prior to the war. This experience made me understand even more the true diversity and beauty of Bosnia.

Adventure Time with Hugo

Today’s blog post is a little different from my previous entries and marks the return of Hugo the blue hippo who is along for the ride. I was honored to venture into Bosnia’s natural beauty as a guest of the landscape and listen to a different story. For a couple of hours I was lost in the beauty of the natural world, with my silly blue hippo by my side. Today was a day of remembrance for me. With each step I thought of my beloved who no doubt would have loved to do this hike with me. My father, whom I called a day to early to wish a happy birthday. My father’s stories of his childhood in Mexico seemed to fill my head for most of the hike. I thought of my grandparents in Mexico and the hope that I will be reunited, after over ten years apart, with them soon. Finally I thought of my friends whom I call family and the support that they give me every day. My first blog post I spoke to listening to the stories beneath our feet. Today, amongst the scratchy grass and green hills, I feel as though I was truly able to do that for the first time. As I prepare to leave Bosnia at the end of this week, I am full of gratitude and love for the stories I have had the honor and privledge to bear witness to.

Lillian and the Hugo the Blue Hippo

Feeling on top of the world!

Don’t forget about the women and girls

It’s impossible to be here in Bosnia, hearing these stories of the Siege of Sarajevo, and not think of the United States and its current political climate. It’s impossible to be here in Bosnia, meeting survivors of the genocide, and not think about Philando Castile, Nabra Hassanen, Charleena Lyles, and all the people who have been “othered” by the United States for being black, brown, or a woman. Or for being black or brown and a woman.

It’s also impossible to be here in Bosnia, learning about Srebrenica and the massacre of more than 8,000 people (mostly men and boys) and not think about the conscience silence surrounding the mass rapes and sexual violence committed against Bosnian women during the war. Our time has almost come to an end here, yet so far, I have noticed that any mention of this intense sexual violence is only mentioned in passing. Genocide doesn’t happen over night: it is slow, like a frog gently boiling to death in a pot of water. And just like genocide, rape camps don’t happen over night. It is estimated that over 60,000 women were raped from 1992-1995.

The Serbs used these rape camps to humiliate women and to create fear amongst them; some women were even raped to death. Some women were raped repeatedly, by several men in the span of minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months. Some young girls were raped. Some old women were raped.

It is still incredulous to think that little has changed in this world in regards to genocide and sexual violence.

Here’s some more information.

DSC00208
“Bosnian Girl” by Šejla Kamerić. Based on graffiti found on the barrack wall of Dutch UN peacekeepers who were in charge of protecting the refugees of Srebrenica.