First Impressions 2015

Second night in Bosnia, time to check in. It’s hard to describe my first impressions about my time here. I feel like every time I start to formulate my opinion on the city and the people here I am given a new experience and my impressions change. I can say for sure that the difference between experiencing this place in person compared to reading and watching videos about it is remarkable.

I’ve heard the expression before, “the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of 1,000,000 is a statistic” used to describe how it is possible to become desensitized to disastrous situations, that it is impossible to conceive tragedy on a large scale. I feel like that saying has applied to my pre-existing understanding of Bosnia, and Sarajevo in particular. I read the articles about this place and learned its history, but nothing could have prepared me for seeing it in person. You don’t conceptualize how meaningful the barricade of this country has been until you hear it come out of person’s mouth that they lived almost completely without power for 3 years, only getting a few hours a week if they were lucky. You don’t understand how desperate people were to get food and supplies until you walk through the tunnels they had to walk through, just to get access to relatively cheaper food and supplies. You don’t understand how devastating the war was for communities until you are told that our tour guide personally knew over 100 people that died during the conflict.

How did this happen? Why did we let it go on? I find myself asking these questions, yet wondering simultaneously, are situations like this going on currently that I am just not aware of? Is this what families in eastern Ukraine are experiencing right now? Is this what families in the middle east are experiencing as they are forced from their homes or into living under the rule of unorthodox rebel groups like Boko Haram and ISIS? They are situations I knowingly don’t understand but wish I did. They are problems that I just don’t know if I have the answer to or the means to solve.

Regardless, it is important to keep one thing in mind, that the people in this country have experienced incredible trauma. There is evidence of that trauma all around us physically. However, I wonder if over the next few days I will get to see and experience how some of the mental, intangible, trauma from this war has impacted the people here. Our tour guide, Jadranka, has given me some insight into just how impactful this might have been for her. I can only imagine how that might have affected someone 20 years ago just after it happened. How did it change how the people here raised their children? How does it still change the way families interact with one another? These are just some of the questions I hope to answer over the next 12 days. And while I know I can never truly experience what the people of Bosnia have gone through, perhaps being present for this journey will allow me a bit of insight into how it has effected the people of this nation, and more importantly, I hope this experience will prepare me to be better equipped to deal with cultural trauma in the future.

I’m still unsure what to make of my emotions as of now. Sometimes I am angry hearing about people being gunned down as they ran across the airport runways, illuminated by United Nations spotlights. Sometimes I am horrified, as I was when I saw the footage of Sarajevo being bombarded by gunfire and mortar shells. I’d seen footage like this before, but it just felt different after being present in the country. It wasn’t just a place in my mind anymore. Are people grateful to us for trying to help? Do they care? Do they blame us for not doing something sooner?

I still have yet to make up my mind about what I have seen and experienced these past few days, and I have a feeling that seeing Srebrenica tomorrow is only going to add to my confusion. But for now, I am okay with that. If the people of Sarajevo can move on with their lives, perhaps there is hope that I will find some closure to this terrible conflict after all. But have people found closure, or have people just moved on and just gotten back to living a normal life for the sake of normalcy?

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