Souvenirs

I started writing this on a dreary, rainy day in Žabljak, Montenegro, a small town that is surrounded by landscapes that feel like they must have inspired Tolkien himself. It’s the kind of physical beauty that reminds me that there is magic in this world. Intermittent peaks jut from the earth, creating towering canyon walls that hold the setting sun like a spirit. Sheep and cattle herders guide their flock, bathed in a peach lantern luminescence, to houses that stand as pointed, abrupt, and lonely as the peaks themselves.

But today, the fog is thick and it’s difficult to see 100 feet out the window. Surely there is magic in this too, but at the moment it carries a substantial weight, a perfect alignment of the physical world and the emotional one following our two weeks in Bosnia. In this setting, time moves in an irregular way, and I can’t help but think that perhaps this warp exists permanently in Bosnia. There is no shortage of cliché to describe time and its impossibly fast — but often just as slow — passing, but there is something about our stay in that enigmatic country that muddies perception. It was a fog, a blur, a blink of an eye, a plunge (can we really be done? Can it really be over?). No matter what I want to call it, it is steeped in meaning and feeling that is visceral. Everywhere I look, every interaction I have, every person I see somehow reminds me of my time spent in Bosnia. It grips my ribcage. It is in my footsteps and it is in my shadow.

Speaking in these abstractions may feel dramatic, but it also feels necessary because finding the proper words to describe such an overwhelming experience really is impossible. Perhaps more important than finding the right words, however, is finding the right action in response to those emotions.

Because I am traveling for a number of days following our class in Bosnia, I was able to stay to listen to Ann give a presentation at the University of Sarajevo’s Economics Faculty. Her talk covered the connections between nationalism here in the Balkans and the rise of nationalism under our current administration in the United States, and it was a sobering one. While anyone who has been paying attention to the social and political climate in the United States can clearly see the rise of the vitriolic “us vs. them” mentality, the “othering,” the America first ideology, what might be more difficult to identify is the consequences of these changes — although, really, that’s pretty hard to miss, too. As Ann highlighted, there are currently 954 hate groups in the United States, and the FBI recently released statistics charting an increase in hate crimes corresponding to Trump’s rise to political prominence. Ann tactfully and concisely charted the rhetoric Trump used and continues espouse, highlighting the danger of labeling, of referring to a group of people as animals — a danger that is all-too-familiar for Bosnians — and how these same techniques have been used in every genocide.

In this context, the recent spate of Supreme Court rulings are as alarming as they are discouraging, with the decision to uphold the third iteration of the Muslim Ban particularly devastating. The legality of the president’s authority aside, the underlying racism and prejudice are terrifying and demand action. We already know what happens when we go down this road, and despite our cries of “Never again!” genocide is happening now, in Myanmar, in Yemen, in south Sudan, in Iraq and Syria.

It can happen anywhere. This was a refrain of the survivors we met in Bosnia and it must be taken to heart, maybe the most important souvenir I can bring home. 

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