Expectations

If this summer had a theme, it’s “things are never what you expect” or perhaps more appropriately, “don’t expect”.

1-19

The memories from the summer often don’t feel real.  I experienced so much. It seems like I’m reeling in my own feelings and trying to process all that I did saw ate touched and smelled. The daily churn of living in a city as magnificent as Sarajevo, combined with the trials and tribulations of hostel life, thriving in an incredible internship, and all the while trying to stop my brain from being Rose and focusing on the impending school year, seem to culminate in an unfamiliar numbness.  Did that really just happen?

 

Living in Sarajevo was so much more than I could’ve anticipated. I miss the sounds of call to prayer; the endless liters of wine consumed, the bread, the buildings, shit sometimes I even miss the smell of a freshly lit cigarette with morning kafa.

Dobre. It was so good. The cobble stone streets flooded with the freshest of spring waters and the potpourri of people.

 

Sarajevo has so much to offer, and coming back to the world of Starbucks, grad classes, SUVs and IPADS galore, I’ve come to the rapid conclusion that I need to offer something back. Whether it’s an academic, creative, spiritual or god knows what, what has stuck is this inherent need to acknowledge the world beyond the bubble.  Growing up in my family, I was perpetually exposed to new cultures and styles of living through my dad’s work.  As an adult I have made a point to travel- from Prague to South Korea and now the Balkans.  I have seen poverty and disease and death, but nothing, never like this. It hit like a freight train, and I’ll yield the scars (and new tattoo) for the rest of my life.

 

I have had several very personal conversations since being home about what Bosnia was like for me.  Returning home has not been easy, in fact it’s been the opposite. Even my own parents are slightly stooped to hear of my difficulties.   It was hard. Simplest way to put it. I don’t want to paint of picture of horror when I talk about Bosnia in casual conversations now, but to an extent it’s required.  The beauty of this region that I was able to witness and share through my photos is of a world that is very real.  I hope that through these images, and through the narratives of the people who participated in this program, that the world will acknowledge the realities of Bosnia. What’s also required is that programs like GPB continue to show students a side of the world that is often forgotten. I am so grateful that I got to participate in this program, and in every sense it has changed me.

 

 

 

 

Bringing it all together

After returning from Bosnia, I am left with many mixed emotions about my overall experience.  The entire summer feels like it was some sort of drawn out dream.  There were highs and lows from the 8 weeks I spent in Sarajevo.  Exploring the city with its rich history from the periods of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires was special.  The beautiful mosques of Baščaršija, the regional delicacies and folk music were all a pleasure to be immersed in.    The days in which I learned about the Bosnian war and met genocide survivors were challenging to get through, however I am incredibly grateful to have had them as part of my overall experience.  There has never been another time in my life when I have felt so close to a historical catastrophe.  Even meeting holocaust survivors and visiting concentration camps in Germany, Austria and Poland cannot compare to what I experienced in Bosnia.  It was extremely difficult to stomach seeing the human remains of those who were mercilessly slaughtered in the hills during wartime and listening to stirring accounts from civilians who ran for their lives through the forests to escape horrible fates.  This however, allowed me to sympathize much more with the people of Bosnia than before my arrival in the country.  I previously knew very little about the Bosnian war, other than bits and pieces of information I saw on the news discussing the anniversary of its ending in the mid-1990’s.  The harrowing experience allowed me to catch a deep glimpse into the nation’s past.

On a different note, exploring the lush countryside and mountains of Bosnia & Herzegovina was unforgettable and the views we encountered are worth a return trip in the future.  Our first excursion was to Lukomir, the highest altitude and most remote village in the entire country, where we endured a 3 hour hike in the mountains in the intense Bosnian heat.  The epic landscapes we found ourselves in made it feel as if we were fantasy characters trekking through Middle Earth.  Rivers, valleys and dense forests were everywhere to be seen around us.  Our final trip to Kravice Falls was the perfect, lighthearted way to end our series of excursions after coming into close contact with Bosnia’s dark history.  I didn’t know what to expect when heading to this landmark, but when first setting eyes upon it, I knew this was something special.  On a beautiful day late in July, our group experienced a cathartic release swimming in the refreshing waters by the falls and enjoying a few cool beers in the sun.

Bosnia is a fascinating place when it comes to its intense recent history, eclectic Slavic & Ottoman heritage and majestic landscapes.  I can certainly imagine myself returning to the Balkans in the future to learn more about the culture and past of the region, while enjoying some delicious Cevapi and Rakija.  Until next time!

img_5062

Kravice Falls

img_5057

Sunset on Sarajevo

My last night in Sarajevo I had a decision to make. I had an opportunity to go to dinner with some of my good friends I made this summer (which is what everyone was doing) or to go to my favorite spot in the city, the 9th floor of a hotel nearby with a wrap around patio, to watch the sunset. Watching the sun set on the last day I would be in Sarajevo this summer was really important to me. It seemed even more important for me to reflect on my time in Sarajevo. The passing of time is such an intimate experience. The events that have happened in my life, the places I have traveled, the people I have known…they have all impacted how I experience the passing of time. I believe that it is an experience that is unique to each individual. Consciously meditating on the passage of time is a powerful experience. Birth, the passage of time, and death are three constants that every soul undoubtedly experiences. Nothing outlasts the passage of time.

I think that is why I have found wherever I travel that holding space for quiet moments in the rising and setting of the sun has been really important to me. It is a spiritual experience to me. It is an organic visual representation of time. The sun represents all of the things that I feel a deep sense of connectedness with in this lifetime. Without it none of them would exist. To sit in the gratitude of it all is a meditative moment because nothing else in my life brings me to that moment of singularity. The divine experience of gratitude. Being in a genuine space of gratitude requires sitting in vulnerability. It is not something I particularly have a great track record with.

I have experienced a lot of things this summer that have to do with a side of humanity that I haven’t had a lot of exposure to. Undoubtedly due to a certain amount of conscious and unconscious self preservation. Experiencing a culture where heinous crimes were committed in a war in the not so distant past was an experience that I don’t even have words for. I’m not even sure that I have the language skills to express my feelings. The thing that I realized, in that space of meditation, is that it’s okay. I think I felt unnecessarily pressured, by myself, to define my experience. To find emotions and language that fit because in some way I felt that if I could it would be easier to deal with. The truth is that maybe in the attempts to define how we experience certain events in our lives that we limit ourselves. There is peace in allowing yourself to sit in things without trying to define or analyze them.

Doviđenja Bosna

As I sit here on my very own living room couch with my wedding shoes sitting right next to me, it’s hard to remember that just a little over two weeks ago I was sharing a common living space with 13 people in Bosnia writing reflections on the genocide in Srebrenica. The Bosnian language skills have begun to fade a little, but still occasionally creep up on me when I respond to my grandfather with a “da” instead of a “si”, or continue to use the words “Ćao” and “super” for everything, and yet at the end of the day I feel 90% sure that the eight weeks I spent in Bosnia this summer were just a dream. That’s always the issue when you travel another place, isn’t it? You get so used to that place being your reality, you sometimes yearn to return home, and yet once you come back home you are faced with the decision to either change nothing about your life and just enjoy the memories, or to actually make a conscious effort to carry this experience with you everywhere you go. Not making that decision can also be a decision in itself as life’s responsibilities take over your energy. It was only today, when I finally had a second to look at the postcards that just arrived from Bosnia to my apartment today that I realized… this study abroad experience actually happened… there was a point in my life where I wasn’t freaking out about my wedding and I was just existing in the world and learning from it.

So, what happens now? That’s the question isn’t it? What do I do with the experiences, the knowledge, the breakthroughs, and the vast emotions that emerged from this trip? Is it about my knowledge or is it about what I contributed to the people at my internship? Do they feel more fulfilled from our shared experiences? Will my contributions amount to anything? Can I hang my hat knowing that I did everything I could have with the time I had and be proud? I wish I could answer these questions, but honestly I can’t. I think that I added value to my internship, but the experience I had in Bosnia definitely had the potential to add so much more value to my life than I could have possibly added to the lives of those around me.

So, now I’m charged with the responsibility of doing something with this knowledge without pretending to be an expert and without pretending to understand everything. I feel strengthened in my conviction to pursue a career that improves the human condition by promoting development and fostering a functional legal system to protect human rights. I feel blessed to be exposed to a new culture and a new language that has vastly expanded my linguistic abilities and my understanding of this diverse world. I feel more confident to fight for equity, dignity, and opportunity for all peoples. And I feel even more inquisitive and compassionate about my world and all of the events that have happened with in it. But even moreso, I feel empowered to embrace my true self – like the Bosnian people seem to be experts at –  an life my life in a more fruitful and powerful way rather than a busy and hectic American way. This is what I can say I feel about this experience at this point. Perhaps as I continue to let the events soak in I will be further empowered. My goal is to make sure I don’t let this experience fade away into memory but rather actively keep the details alive in my mind and heart.

Vidimo se Bosna… at least in my heart and soul

IMG_2211

Friends, but more like Family.

IMG_1741.jpg
(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.

IMG_20160722_125259
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.

IMG_5670

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.

image1

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

blog week 7 pic


            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

20160807_073709

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.