Being an intern sucks if you really think about it. It is the slave labor of the Ivory Tower, and, in my experience, internships have been relatively disappointing. You get this position at a really sweet non-profit with an awesome name that will pad your resume and give you great exposure to the field … only to realize you have 3 years too few of experience for any job listing on idealist.org. On to the next unpaid internship. It feels like a constant cycle of unpaid, under-appreciated work. This was my overwhelming sentiment until I arrived at the Post-Conflict Research Center. HOLY BALLS, I LOVE THIS PLACE.
My internship experience thus far has been absolutely incredible – more than I could have anticipated. The summer started off quickly as I jumped into the War Art Reporting and Memory (WARM) Festival that my organization, the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) hosts in collaboration with WARM Foundation. (ALL THE ACRONYMS! Welcome to the field.) Anyway, as I noted in a previous post, it was a week full of film screenings, photography exhibits, and conferences with panelists from a variety of professional backgrounds. I essentially went to the venue, Kino Meeting Point, by 11 a.m. every morning, and rarely left until after the last film screening that started at 9 p.m. each night. I was assigned to cover several of the events, but I chose to attend most of the events regardless. It was an exhausting, heart-wrenching, inspiring, and motivating week.
Today, my internship notified me that my first article, Documenting disaster: perspectives on the process and purpose of archiving war, was published to Balkan Diskurs. In total, I covered four different events during the week, and am in the editing phase for the remaining articles. The week was a whirlwind, and I absolutely loved the refreshing shift from writing strictly academic papers to creative, journalistic pieces. While I am not pursuing journalism professionally, I am ecstatic about the opportunity to write on such a variety of ongoing issues in this post-conflict society.
The staff and other interns at PCRC are some of the most enriching parts of my internship experience. I will need to write entire posts about them individually, because there is too much to say in just one blog. Several of the interns are from Bosnia, or are children of Bosnian refugees who resettled in the States. Their stories and perspectives make for incredibly interesting and insightful conversations, feedback, and opinions. One intern in particular, Neira Kadić, told me a story about her hometown, which encapsulates the ethnic divisions deeply engrained into the past 25 years:
Neira grew up in Gornji vakuf-uskoplje, a town located between Sarajevo and Mostar. The division between Bosniaks and Croats runs deep, requiring separate names to differentiate the sides of the city: Gornji vakuf is the Bosniak side; Uskoplje is the Croat. She grew up on the neighborhood line between the two communities, and naturally made friendships with her Croat neighbors. She would walk to school with a neighbor friend, but as soon as they approached the building, they would separate, stop talking, integrate with their respective groups, and not reconvene until after they returned home. My friend is Bosniak; her friend is Croat.
When she was 15, Neira started seeing a Croat guy in high school, and as a challenge to the divisive atmosphere, they would visit different cafes, switching back and forth between the “sides” of the city. One day they would meet up on the Bosniak side of town; the next meeting would be at a Croat cafe. Familial ridicule, however, bore into their relationship, until her friend’s brother in a fit of rage threatened to disown him should the relationship continue. While the threat was emotionally charged and may not have come to fruition, the friendship terminated.
Neira left Bosnia to pursue her bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Spanish at the University of Oklahoma. On one recent visit to her home on a break from school, she decided to peruse social media to see who still lived in the area. This same friend from high school happened to be in town, and she contacted him as they had not reconnected for 6 years. They met for coffee within the Bosniak neighborhood line, and quickly remembered the small size of the town precludes privacy in public settings. Neira recounted how, within the time her friend went to use the bathroom, she was approached by some of her Bosniak friends who proceeded to chastise her for meeting up with him. She was speechless. The shock of the stagnation crashed into her reality: in 6 years since their first attempt at friendship was forbidden, nothing had changed. The ethnic divisions proliferated, and reconciliation remained a dwindling hope.
When I asked Neira what she understood of this perpetuation of ethnic tension, specifically, she discussed the ubiquitous intergenerational trauma percolating in her community. She grew up hearing stories of her family’s experience during the war and seeing the physical manifestations of trauma in her family members: night terrors, dissociation, hyperawareness, paranoia. Throughout her childhood, she repeatedly heard the stories, at times adopted these same responses, and felt as though she herself suffered from memories of the war. Neira’s experience of intergenerational trauma permeates this generation – a generation too young to have lived through the violence, but one that holds the weight of familial trauma without necessarily understanding the psychological impact on families, nor having the resources to address the collective grief, pain, and memories.
As the ethnically charged divisions continue to entrench deeper crevasses in communities like Gornji vakuf-uskoplje, the younger generations grow up knowing nothing else. They do not remember the days before Milosević when differences in ethnicity did not preclude young love, dissolve friendships, or tear apart families. Neira noted that the war generation in her community fears an ethnic war will happen again. Many suppose if the neighborhoods integrate, if Bosniaks and Croats are once again friends and family, it will be more painful when conflict erupts again. This overarching sentiment of fearful anticipation is tremendously dangerous. Not only does it impede reconciliation, but furthermore raises a new generation bent on sustaining separation and anxiously awaiting interethnic hostility.
Leaders who play on ethnic differences for political and economic gain will continue to succeed if voices of experience fail to challenge such propaganda. Instead of avoiding the reestablishment of cross-ethnic relationships, the integration could be harnessed as a preventive measure against future leaders, policies, and unrest, that echo such animosity across ethnic lines.
Granted, reconciliation is a complicated and dynamic process, often times spoken about flippantly and not easily achieved. “Just reconcile,” they say. Working on the ground in Bosnia has tremendously shifted my perspective on the reality – the gravity – of the situation. I worry for the younger generations whose families deny friendships because of both past agony and future fears. I am frustrated by the stagnant state of the Bosnian government that impedes grassroots efforts toward change. I am irate on behalf of the highly educated populace that leaves the country to find menial work elsewhere because no opportunities exist at home.
Yet in the face of these obstacles, people still hold on to hope for Bosnia. People like Neira, like Velma, Safet, Tatjana, and Leslie, people who are deeply, deeply invested in changing the landscape of Bosnia; they continue to dedicate their lives to making concepts like transitional justice and reconciliation realities throughout Bosnia.
I am honored to work with Neira. I am incredibly fortunate to hear her experiences, to learn from her perspectives on Bosnia. What I call foreign, she calls home, and the dialogue that stems from here is rich. I am grateful for our team of interns from around the world who bring their lifetimes of experience to the PCRC and have passions for justice, learning, change, and Bosnia! Two months is not even close to enough time here…