Passed out with my mouth hanging open—true Zareen style—my plane approaches Sarajevo. I wake, irritated, groggy, already homesick, emotional and physical energy wasted from my first ever international flight. And then I look out the window. As we dip below the clouds, I think, “Holy $%&, they airdropped Oregon in the Balkans!” Rolling, vivid green hills that stretch as far as the eye can see. It looks just like home. Winning.
My program mates—each with their own distinctly huge, beautiful, and multifaceted brain—roll in over the next few days, and we explore the city. Our hostel is located near the so-called meeting of cultures: The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman quarters. On one side, narrow streets with towering buildings on either side, cafes serving Bosanka kafa (THE best coffee I have ever had—yes, Brazil, I mean it…deal with it), ice cream, fresh-squeezed juices, and ludicrously large and extravagant fruit desserts, clothing boutiques, and epic Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals. It looks like a postcard of Budapest. On the other, Baščaršija, my new home. The streets turn to cobblestone, the buildings shrink, and you feel as though you’ve suddenly teleported to Istanbul. A mind-numbing array of colorful, cheap Turkish-posing-as-Bosnian souvenirs line the walkways. Check your right! It’s a 14th century mosque, stones disintegrating slightly with picturesque, gentle age. An old man with delicate hands crafts silver filigree from the finest, thinnest wire. Gjezve, the Bosnian version of the copper Turkish coffee pot, are stacked to the ceilings of storefronts. Burek, a tasty, greasy, meat/spinach/cheese/potato pie, can be found every ten steps. The adhan rings out from various minarets, imposing a strange calm over the immensely crowded streets. We shop, we eat, we drink, we bond. Amid the gaiety, it’s easy to forget what happened here.
But then, every few blocks, a splash of red resin beneath your feet: A “Sarajevo rose” marks the spot where a Bosnian Serb mortar fell. People died here. Civilians, women, children. You try to absorb, to feel the presence of the victims, their personalities, their experiences, their relationships, how they must have loved, laughed, cried. It’s all at your feet. The resin is all that remains.
We travel to the surrounding mountains and walk the ruins of the 1984 Olympic bobsled run, covered in a smattering of graffiti, near-swallowed by the forest. I leave my mark, but wonder…do I have a right? I write a message of love, in hopes that our outside influence—often doing more harm than good—might be interpreted as empathy rather than sympathy. But I know better. I study war. My school’s dean helped negotiate in Dayton. I know how we’ve failed them. What are we doing here, exactly?
Down the mountain we drive, and stop off at what I assume is a scenic viewpoint. I climb the rocks to look over the cliff down upon the city below. Stunning, yes; beautiful, hardly. It’s a former Bosnian Serb snipers’ nest. The streets, buildings, and people, so clear from up this high, were cannon fodder. I feel the recoil of rifles as they pick off innocent lives below. Words escape me. I take panoramas with my iPhone like a stereotypical, ignorant tourist, but not just to capture the view. I want to envision—and remember—this feeling. I want to remember the wicked cowardice that still hangs in this air. To be so high, safe, hidden, and murder people just trying to shop, get to and from what work is left during the siege, visit what remains of their families. The evil is tangible. Hold tight, Zareen. Don’t forget.
Next stop, a Jewish cemetery a little further down the mountainside. Dating back to the 15th century, its headstones crumble. There’s a striking, effortless silence here. At its center, a marble slab lists the names of Bosnian Jews massacred when Sarajevo was under Nazi occupation.
I’m so far removed that I’ve never really connected with the heritage, but my father’s Slavic family fled Europe before the Holocaust. So, I walk up to examine the memorial. To try to evoke some kind of profound feeling.
This sacred place was also used as a snipers’ nest.
The monolith near the names is engraved in Bosnian, but the names of concentration camps are recognizable: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Stara Gradiška, Jadovno, Đakovo, Loborgrad. At its backside, an unmistakable mortar scar.
I wonder to myself how—despite the power of any overwhelming, brainwashed sense of nationalism or ideology, the pull of which, as a student of terrorism, I fully understand can poison even the purest of minds—people could possibly justify shooting innocent souls from this hallowed ground, already stained and haunted by genocide. My heart slows to a stop, and the first of many tears I will shed in this country wells up in my eye.
I look closer, into the center of the scar. A tiny plant has sprung forth, two delicate leaves twisting outward in defiance of the physical and emotional pain that hangs in the air. I exhale. My heart begins to beat again.
I remember that life—hope, good, kindness, love—will always spring from the darkest of places.