Hvala Vam Puno, Bosnia

I’ve been back in Colorado for over a week during which I have had time to decompress and consider what the entirety of the experience has meant to me. One of the main reasons I decided to go to Bosnia in the first place, is that I prefer travel that does not involve superficial touchdowns, visits to foreign places with an intent to skim the shiny surface of a country and its people instead of digging in. This GSSW program seemed ideal, as Ann Petrila’s course offered an opportunity to delve deeper into Bosnia through a social work lens, exposing layers that would be impossible to experience during more traditional travel abroad. Now that I’ve returned, I can say that the program delivered on that promise in a huge way,  leading me to a greater understanding of  Bosnia and its people today, two decades after  war and genocide left much of the country in varying degrees of physical and emotional destruction.

Bosnia is a remarkably complex and scenic country. In addition to exploring the atrocities in Srebrenica and the agencies that help identify missing people, our group saw and learned so much that and it has taken time for me to absorb it all, the processing is ongoing. The GSSW line that I heard repeatedly prior to embarking on the trip was “going to Bosnia will be life-changing”. Now that I’ve returned, that cliché-sounding phrase has become personal, my perspective is massively changed and I find myself devoting much time trying to untangle the various feelings that burble up daily regarding the trip.  Clearly, I do feel different and much of what I’m feeling is connected to the experience of meeting many wonderful people and hearing their stories while traveling hundreds of kilometers through this stunningly beautiful country. At the same time, I’m experiencing other emotions that are associated with trying to make sense of the huge rift that occurred within our group over the course of our stay.  I’ve played and replayed different scenarios in my mind since I’ve been back, trying to sort out what happened. I could never have imagined that our class, which appeared to be a great fit at the outset, could degenerate and fragment so quickly and completely.  In some ways, our intragroup dynamic seemed to mirror  some of the qualities of conflict and pain that we witnessed in the country resulting in vicarious trauma that some members acted out on one another. Who knows?

That said, I don’t want to dwell on the negative because overall, what I feel now that I’m back home is a sense of awe and gratitude for the many joyous, amazing, heart wrenching and wonderful experiences I have come away with. Being steeped in the energy of this traumatized country I feel the strength that has resulted from their painful past. Yes, Bosnians struggle like so many across the globe do, but what I felt strongly from them was their thoughtfulness and presence, their “take nothing for granted” attitude which translated into people communing with each other in a way that I often don’t see in my country. On a typical evening on Kovači street in Sarajevo I observed families strolling together talking to one another, often heading to a mosque. On many days, I saw the owner of our hotel spending hours hanging out with his friends shooting the breeze on the patio of the hotel. When the sun sets and fasting breaks, cafes fill with groups of friends or families eating, drinking and chatting. The normally ubiquitous cell phones I see in the States are not out in the open, people are connecting to one another, not their devices. One of my favorite daily Kovači moments was when Huseyin, the co-owner of our neighboring, out-of-this-world-amazing tea shop, would drop by to say hello, sometimes bringing flowers as gifts for us. His wife, Diana, made the most delectable tea I’ve ever tasted, brewed from the root of the orchid flower which she graciously served with much love and attention.

These and many others are the memories I want to associate with Bosnia. My colleagues, roommates and fellow adventurers, Eliana, Erika, Lucia and Sladja were a constant fount of hilarity and a much-needed sounding board and source of support. Jessie swam to Croatia with me! I feel a depth of gratitude to Hasan, Saliha, Ramiz, Almir, Dragana, Pakiza, Jadranka, Amer, Jasenko, Sanela, Alma, Samra, Benjamin, Mohammad, Šhefec and Violeta and many other locals whose names I don’t know. It seems to me that many of them have chosen to define their lives fueled by the immense love they feel for those they have lost and the strength they have gained from the difficulties they have endured. They forgive, they create beautiful memorials, they lovingly wash the tombstones of their deceased and they steadfastly refuse to give in to those who deny their suffering. They are survivors in every sense of that word and I feel honored to have been offered a glimpse into their lives witnessing their survivors’ resilience in person. I also feel privileged to have been guided on this journey by our wonderful instructor, Ann and her amazing assistant and cultural liaison, Sladjana. This Bosnian excursion would not have been as transformational for me without their attention, guidance and vast knowledge of the country and deep relationships with its people. Thank you.

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