I’m not entirely sure what I expected upon arrival to this country and I suppose I am still deciding how I feel about my first impressions of Bosnia. Having learned so much about the history of the past 25 years in country and prior to arriving I am unable to play the ignorant American who can roam the streets looking for goodies and enjoying the view. I’ll be honest, the arrival into a swampy, sticky, rainy mess was not exactly the arrival I imagined it to be. It did however add to the mood I experienced as I traveled around the city on Friday with the group learning about physically significant war sites. I constantly caught myself, and continue to catch myself, admiring the beauty of a view and realizing the same view was most likely used by snipers to take advantage of far off individuals who thought they were safe. Something that caught me off guard was the use of the Jewish cemetery as a ‘sniper nest’. This visit sparked the realization that this war had no boundaries and all morals were thrown out the second the conflict started. No one was safe, anywhere, not even those you’d hope would be exempt because of factors like age, location, or gender. No women or children were given a pass or safe passage through the streets, nor were individuals attempting to bury their dead. The disrespect ran so deep that communities had to stop using their primary burial location and reopen previously unused cemeteries that were shielded from the views of the hills.
There is no way to walk through this city and not see remnants of these facts. Small cemeteries can be found in places one wouldn’t expect to see them, like behind a fence of a restaurant or next to a park. Apartment buildings still have burn marks on their sides and bullet hole imprints line the balconies. The purposefully placed ‘roses’ are impossible not to notice as one strolls down the street, and memorials are posted on every other corner. You can even see the effects of the war on the population, if you look close enough. On the city buses you notice a large number of older individuals and those with physical handicaps, missing limbs and/or fingers. I physically feel a collective silence among this population, the deep wounds around their surfaces, and a truer understanding of the differing sides this world can show you.
If you take a step back, the social and political structures shows outsiders how little has changed. Many have explained that there exists three official languages in Bosnia: Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. All three are virtually the same and the only difference exists within the grammatical structure of the language. The government is divided into three parts, and when people talk about other individuals, they make sure to first explain which ethnicity this person belongs to, especially if they differ from that individual. It pains me deeply to see this divide so obviously enforced by stubbornness and an inability to accept the similarities among a group of persons.
Although I mention all these seemingly obvious signs from the war, I can see how easy it would be for an ignorant person to visit Sarajevo and think to themselves that it’s just another bustling town. Things have the appearance of being ‘normal’, even though some museums, shops, or facilities have only just recently returned to any kind of ‘normal’ and have finally reopened their doors after many years of being closed. The Sarajevo zoo is not one of these.
This all being said, I return to the question: what are my first impressions? One first impression is that despite all the division and destruction, this community is passionate and loving, a feeling I am not used to experiencing from a group of people. It’s also obvious that resilience is in large supply and that people have found a way to stay strong with the intention of building their lives back up from the ground. Working so closely with trauma in my program we see the effects such a war can have on individuals and that one shouldn’t and can’t assume what an someone who has experienced such events will be feeling. One problem in our court system in the U.S. is that judges and juries don’t understand that someone can still fear returning to their country even if they aren’t constantly crying, anxious, and jumpy. Resilience is an absolutely amazing and beautiful adaptive tool and I have never seen it exist on such a large scale. I didn’t want to write in this post about how sad I was about Bosnia, because I don’t think Bosnian’s need or want that kind of sympathy or pity, or whatever you would call that impression. And so, I share with you my first impressions of Bosnia in a more positive light. My impressions have been extremely moving as I’ve gotten to explore a beautiful city, culture, and group of people that are ever so different than I am used to experiencing in the United States. I look forward to expanding this impression as I meet more people and explore more places.
Over and out,