Learner vs. Tourist: Our Experience in Bosnia

Traveling to a new country for the first time as part of a graduate school class leads to a very interesting dynamic between being there as a learner as well as somewhat of a tourist. When I think of tourists, I think of people who travel away from home for leisure and possibly to explore a city or country’s famous sites. I have to say, there was a lot more tourism in Bosnia than I expected, and because most of the tourism centers on what happened during the war, it was somewhat bittersweet to see and be a part of. While I’m sure this tourism is helpful for Bosnia’s struggling economy, with nearly 50% unemployment, I felt a little embarrassed and hesitant to take pictures of damaged buildings, famous war sites, or the memorials in front of the people who live there.  While none of the locals really seemed to notice or outwardly care about all of the foreigners taking pictures of the war damage that still remains there, I found myself constantly wondering what our cab drivers or the person being leaned across on the bus in order to get the perfect shot might be thinking about us (and many others) being there to get a glimpse of what happened to them. I hoped that our exploring and picture taking weren’t serving as unwelcomed reminders of a horrific time in their lives.

While we did do some touristy things in Bosnia, like visit the famous Mostar bridge, the Bosnian pyramids, and the “Tunnel of Hope”, I feel that we were there first and foremost as learners. We were there to learn firsthand as much as we possibly could about Bosnia and Herzegovina, its people, its history and the issues that still remain, so that we can return home and educate others about what has happened there and what the people of BiH continue to struggle with today. We were there to learn and experience the kind of stuff no book can teach you.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit and explore Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time with our professor, Ann, who has been establishing relationships there for many years. The deep and trusting relationships she has built in BiH allowed our experience to transcend the experience of the average tourist. Just a few of the unique experiences we had included: an after-hours tour and speech at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial from “Death March” survivor, Hasan Hasanović; a private visit to the amazingly inspirational Saliha Osmanović’s home for lunch and kafa and to hear her story of survival; and two incredibly candid lectures at the University of Sarajevo’s School of Social Work, about both what happened during the war as well as the political issues that continue to divide the people of Bosnia today.

While the “tourist” parts of the trip allowed us to take in the striking beauty of BiH, to see just how far and wide tragedy and devastation spread during the war, and to see and appreciate the rich and deep-rooted history of BiH that made so many people so badly want to stay and fight for the place they call home regardless of the possible alternative, it was really the “learner” moments of the trip, when we were able to have rare, often difficult, candid conversations with the people of BiH that will allow us to now educate people back here at home about BiH’s past, present, and hopes for the future. While I would never claim to be an expert on the issues after just one visit, I do feel that the special and unique experiences that this program provided us will allow me to at least begin to open the hearts and minds of my friends, family, and colleagues here at home about where Bosnia stands now and what they need from us all moving forward.

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