First impressions in Sarajevo

I mentally prepared myself for the class trip to Bosnia by reading as much as I could about the history and culture there, and anticipating that witnessing the remnants of the Bosnian War would be tough to digest, as well as listening to first hand accounts of the experiences of those affected by the war. I also anticipated that I might be overwhelmed by all the new information that I would learn in Bosnia. After spending just two days in Sarajevo so far, I have realized that my anticipation is true and then some. I feel as though I am in an emotional and physical daze to an extent. I am a visual person, so I tried to visualize standing in front of buildings damaged by artillery rounds. Actually doing so seems surreal. All the information and thoughts from class and readings come flooding in, and I am left standing there in disbelief that something like this can happen to a European capital, and less than 25 years ago.

The first day of the class exploration of Sarajevo took us to several sights involved in the Bosnian War in one way or another. I was most struck by our visit to the Old Jewish Cemetary, which is almost 500 years old. The cemetery sits on the side of a hill and has beautiful views looking north towards the city. Almost immediately one can’t help but notice the damage done to numerous gravestones during the Bosnian conflict. The sight of this again left me flooded with thoughts about the circumstances surrounding how the damage was done. Did the Serb forces fire down on civilians or Bosniak forces in the cemetery? During what stage of the war did this happen? Then I noticed that a couple mortar shells had damaged a large monument erected in honor of Jewish persons who lost their lives during World War II. My thoughts went to the first client I had for my internship with the Senior Solutions Department at Jewish Family Services. My client was a survivor of the Holocaust. She lost several members of her family due to the Holocaust, watching at age 14 her younger brother, mother, and father being separated from her at the Łódź ghetto in Poland and never seeing them again. Three weeks before my client passed away, she let me read her handwritten account of what happened to her during her time in the ghetto and several other concentration camps. What stood out the most while reading her harrowing ordeal was a description of a forced march where Nazi officers led over 100 prisoners to an old graveyard in Łódź, and as the prisoners marched the officers shot those who were falling behind and couldn’t keep up. They forced the rest to step over the dead and continue the journey. Once at the graveyard, the officers forced the remaining prisoners to dig a mass grave. Many more prisoners perished. My client felt immense relief to survive that ordeal, but she described the absolute horror and fear she felt while on the march that she thought would lead to certain death.

My client’s experiences had a profound affect on me, and my brief work with her was a big motivator for me to learn as much as I can about conflicts past and present that involve crimes against humanity. I realize that learning about them in the classroom and in books is one thing, but learning about them in the places that they occurred in is entirely different. This learning experience so far has been very rewarding and challenging at the same time. The pace is fast and the content is obviously heavy, but I am very much looking forward to the next challenges ahead.

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