The End’s Not Near, It’s Here… Final Thoughts on Bosnia

This time last year, I did not believe that I would be spending my summer interning in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  When I decided to apply for this program, this choice was met with head tilts, questions as to ‘why would you want to do that? Is it even safe?’, and constant requests for me to pull out a map to point it out.  I had never studied war or genocide in depth, and I had never done work in another country for very long.  I wanted to see what I could do and handle, and my experience has not only shown me that I can do this work, but that I must do it.

We went from week to week learning about how this war has impacted Sarajevo and how the genocide in Srebrenica has impacted the country.  Walking for 70 km in someone’s footsteps who may or may not have survived the original Death March during the genocide was a humbling experience never to be forgotten.  Actually going to the International Commission on Missing Persons, seeing their tireless work to find the thousands of people still missing so that their families can have a proper funeral was surreal.  Hearing survivor stories of loss and resilience was emotional, heartbreaking, and oddly up lifting.  This was because of one common theme across the country: HOPE.  These kind, nurturing, always offering you food even if you’ve already had two lunches, people hope for a brighter future for themselves and their families.  They hope that what happened to them can be a warning to the international community about the dire consequences of ‘othering.’  They hope that they can continue to heal the wounds that still feel so fresh twenty-two years later.

I am in awe of a place filled with people such as this.  I am also frustrated and upset that they had to go through conflict that was systematically designed to tear families, friends, and lives apart when ethnic groups were intertwined and content before the war.  This all also happened when I was just a child.  When I was four, I was going to the River Walk in San Antonio with my parents, and my Bosnian counterparts were fleeing the country (without even understanding that they were fleeing) or hunkering down to have their early years under siege, surrounded by shelling and death.  They now live differently because of this.  They think of life and love and happiness differently because they had such an uncertain future for so long.  ‘Live like there is no tomorrow’ is a common theme, along with ‘this whole country needs therapy,’ as well as a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff because at least we aren’t being shot at’ attitude.

I could write about particular days, or moments, or stories, but I feel like at this point in my journey, now that I am home settling into school and life, that I just want to express my gratitude for such an experience.  This has shown me more about life and the importance of community than I ever could have hoped for.  I am honored to have gone, and I know that this was just my first of many journeys to Sarajevo and BiH.  I want to continue to help them move forward in any way that they will have me.  Even if it is just being there, forming a relationship, lending a listening ear to thoughts on life and stories about war over coffee.

Hvala, thank you, and my heart overflows with love and warmth for this wonderful place that is Bosnia and Herzegovina. Until next time, Sarajevo. Dovidjenja.

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A Few Moments in Photos

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Small signs in another world serve as reminders of the scars that this country continues to bear.

I gaze at the physical beauty while marching to honor the lives lost in these woods.

Mars Mira will continue to soar through my mind, being our first glimpse into the horror of war and the strength of the human spirit.


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The sun sets over a sleepy village nestled below hills filled with those who meant to harm them just 22 years ago.

The hospitality that Saliha has shown us fills me with appreciation and awe of human resiliency and kindness.

I take another sip of rose water and return to our family dinner by her garden.


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Experiencing the city of Mostar from the top of a Minaret was a special moment in a country where the beauty of Islam has been shown to me in so many ways.

I look at the speakers above my head and realize the call to prayer has become an ingrained part of my day and an endearing part of my journey.


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Olympic Village from 1984 becomes the community in which my coworkers and friends live.

I marvel at the rings on the apartment complexes as we walk the streets to dinner and end the evening taking in the sounds of the river lazily running through town.


A  special thanks to the 12 amazing people I got to share some of these moments with…

The Tapping of Potential

As a visitor, here for just two short months, I have become enamored by Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that has one of the most layered and complicated histories of any place I have studied.  The interwoven intricacies of this extraordinary place have become deeper mysteries to me the longer that I stay here.  It’s like that old saying, “the more you learn, the less you know.”  I think that it would take a lifetime to really understand what makes Bosnia, well… Bosnia, but we are so lucky that we have spent our time here with citizens who can shed more light on where Bosnia is now and the potential of where they know it can go.

Right now, people my age are leaving.  When the unemployment rate is over 50% and those without jobs are highly educated, what is there to do but look for work elsewhere?  It is troubling to hear this from the very generation that can help propel this country into the future.  They have unfortunately become disenfranchised by an economic system that has crippled them financially and left them with few other options but to work towards life in a faraway place.  If work is found here, it has a high probability of not being intellectually stimulating in a way that someone with a master’s degree would want to be challenged.  These people want to work creatively, want to start a family, and want to grow old here, but unless some significant changes are made, that is an extremely difficult dream to make reality.  I hope that they begin to have the structural support they need to stay here because some cannot wait for their passions and careers to begin much longer.

With that being said, citizens have begun to tap into untouched markets that are changing the way certain people live here.  We are lucky enough to work with innovators who see the bigger picture of progress in our different internships.  For me, it is interesting to be able to shadow and watch what my Executive Director, Sejdefa, has done with vulnerable populations and public health.  Perseverance, inventive ideas, and optimism have propelled her forward throughout the years, and she is constantly coming up with new ways of bringing community resources together to reach and serve wider audiences.

No one would have thought seven years ago that older adults would have a non-smoking (borderline impossible in a place where cigarettes are a coveted part of daily life) community center where they can come together to have a place to congregate, express themselves artistically, and just talk with each other, but Sejdefa made it happen.  She knew that this population was being left behind because their children went abroad for work or perished in the war.  Adults need support systems too, and thus, The Centre for Healthy Aging was born.  Membership is open to any older adult who feels lonely (within a municipality radius), and her centers are filled with hundreds of people looking for companionship, regardless of ethnic background.  She now has the municipality and community behind this project and can continue to raise awareness about the importance of healthy living at later stages of life.

Along with healthy aging comes proper reproductive health for the younger Bosnians who are staying here, looking to start the next generation.  This country has low birthrates, high abortion rates, and little education on proper family planning.  With the support of the UNFPA, Sejdefa and her partners have created a curriculum for physicians in both Republic of Srpska and The Federation to come together, learn ways in which to talk to their patients about this very taboo topic, and have productive dialogues about future trainings.  It was such an honor to be able to sit in on a UNFPA meeting where doctors are taking such important next steps for the reproductive health of their patients.

All of these issues reach beyond ethnic lines and affect everyone in the country the same way.  Luckily, with collaboration and a common goal, important community and social problems have begun to be tackled.  While these two projects are just the beginning of a long journey toward social change, they show that while shifting social perceptions is difficult, it is not only possible, but powerful, for a developing nation.  They became a reality after united, unwavering hope and determination for a healthier, better Bosnia.  There is so much more to do, lowering unemployment being paramount, but projects like these make me hopeful for a brighter future in a country still healing from its troubled past.

A Day in the Life…

It has been quite a week.  I am really settling into life in Sarajevo and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina in general.  I have never travelled this long or had a home base as we are lucky enough to have at the Travellers Home Hostel.  Here are some of the highlights from the last seven days:

You know that you are living somewhere with a different culture when…                        you find yourself walking into a one room tattoo and piercing parlor filled with smoke, a man with a fresh chest tattoo, and an employee who can speak few words other than, “relax, trust me, I help you” as I begrudgingly let him look at my infected tragus piercing.  While Justine calmly asks what he will do and keeps from wincing as I squeeze her hand, the man has a cigarette and pulls out my piercing.  Apparently, it was “big infection” and “piercing is no more.”

You know that you are forming lasting friendships when…                                                   you attend dinner at a coworkers house and watch the sunset over coffee and ćevape.  Isabella, Sadefa, Neira, Amber, Amara, and I spent hours laughing, eating, exchanging stories, and enjoying each other’s company in an area of Sarajevo I had not yet explored.  The city continues to show me more and more of itself to me as I walked through Olympic village and met Neira’s grandmother as she came home from her outing.

You know that you intern for an amazing organization when…                                           you find yourself at a community pool/recreation center/ranch with twelve buses of older adults for a day outside of the city.  With no common language, we walked the grounds, ate goulash in 90 degree heat, ate pizza topped with bologna, and watched little kiddos play on the water slide from the comfort of a shaded tree.  Sadefa (a different, yet equally special woman from the one mentioned above) showed me around all day, introducing me to members from centres around the city, feeding deer pita with me, and gesturing me to dance to the live music (a man singing with a headset and a keyboard).

You know life is good when…                                                                                                        you live with 12 extraordinary people, all curious about the world in such different ways.  I wander into Ann’s room without even knowing it and find myself discussing everything I did not know I was feeling.  Everyone mills about, going to internships, cultural exhibits, new restaurants, hidden gems in the city.  We all sit in the kitchen while some cook, some draw, some delve into the nuances of this extraordinary country, and we all just exist together.

Just another day in the life… 

 

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Sadefa feeds the animals

 

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Lovely ladies of Centre for Healthy Aging

“The Ground is Too Thick and the Sky is Too Far Away”

Today at my internship, my new friend and coworker stated, “the ground is too thick and the sky is too far away” when we were discussing the war, and I am still mulling through all that it represents.  She wanted to hear about our weekend in Tuzla and Srebrenica… all of it.  I wish I had been able to properly articulate the difficulties that came with this long, emotionally draining, and unforgettable 3 days, but I fell silent.  How do I tell her what I saw and heard without the tears that I have constantly fought back fill my eyes once again?  I have never experienced war or loss on such a scale, and I am still digging through the feelings that have surfaced because of it.

It’s one thing to read books and watch documentaries on the war and genocide (which we have done a lot of in preparation for this trip)… It’s another to visit sites.  To hear firsthand accounts from survivors.  To sit in memorials that you just feel death in.  To be shown around by a man whose resilience and kindness exceeds anything you could possibly imagine.  To finally fill in blanks from the peace march so I could see the whole picture. It was enlightening, confusing, and heartbreaking to learn and see these things on such a different level.

So, what does she mean when she says this about the war?  I think she means exactly how this conflict has left a lot of people feeling.  It’s not time to be buried or reach for the heavens… people survived, and what is left is to do is keep on living.  The people that we have met have done that, and many have made it their mission and life’s work to make these stories known, to seek justice for families and lost loved ones, and to send an important message about why hating and ‘othering’ people has such dire consequences.

This weekend has been a lesson to me in loss and the power of the human experience.  It not only shapes people but lets them keep walking when they thought they could walk no more.

Voda… Bosnian for Water

“When the well is dry, we will know the worth of water.”                                                               -Benjamin Franklin

          I feel like one of the first things I ask when traveling to another country is whether or not I can drink the water.  I feel very fortunate in the United States that my tap water is potable, but that is not the case in much of the world.  I think that we sometimes take our water sources for granted, and I wish that we had a better understanding of how much of a gift clean water is, not to be squandered.  The countries I have chosen to travel to in Asia and South America have no options but bottled water.  It is such a scary realization that this life sustaining resource will make people sick in many countries.  I do not know how Americans became a culture of bottled Dasani and Fiji water drinkers, but it frustrates me to know how lucky and how unappreciative we can be for our water systems and sources.

Bosnia, on the other hand, has water that is not only clean, but delicious.  I have never been much of a water drinker, always forcing myself to drink it because I need to, not because I particularly enjoy it. That has not been the case here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Not only is the water here clean, but it tastes fresh and pure (and is rumored to have “fountain of youth-like” qualities).  Never have I been somewhere that has clean fresh water pouring from the walls at all times.  Natural springs are tapped, and the water flows freely for all to drink.  We even drank water straight from the rivers and streams that we hiked and rafted along.  While I have accidentally swallowed river water and been concerned about afterwards for days at home, I feel refreshed to drink it on purpose here.

One of my favorite sources of water is right here in Sarajevo.  Just inside Old Town, where the streets are cobbled and the shops sell tea sets and rugs is a beautiful mosque.  When you come up to the mosque you always notice a crowd of people.  In coming closer you realize that they are all taking advantage of the water freely flowing from the stone wall.  People are washing their hands and feet, filling up bottles or drinking from cups made of their hands, and children are laughing and splashing, all enjoying this life sustaining, clean source.

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What a lovely aspect of such an interesting country.  Water is life and Bosnia and Herzegovina has some of the best in the world.

Marš Mira (Peace March): 2017… Never Forget

This hike was unlike any other… because it was not a hike; it was a march to bear witness to the atrocities committed in 1995 that took the lives of 8372 people in just 6 days. My thoughts have not fully come together to create my takeaways from this pilgrimage because I am still sorting through all the memories and emotions.  My mind jumps from thought to thought as I grapple with the many things I experienced over those three days.  I think this was part of the point though, because what better way to understand someone’s struggle than to walk a mile (or in this case 50) in their footsteps? Ultimately, three things sit at the forefront of my thoughts on the 2017 Peace March: how physically difficult it was, my struggle to gain perspective, and how important human solidarity truly is in this healing process.

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Beautiful Vistas

A quick ode to the physical toll this hike took on my body… Bosnia and Herzegovina is speckled with rolling green hills that create beautiful views and grueling walking conditions.  Every time I patted myself on the back after a 45-minute trudge up a mountainside, I was rewarded with another.  The sun was unrelenting in its determination to burn my skin and cause a perspiration that could only be kept at bay by the Colorado flag that did its best to shade me as I carried it over my head.  The long and treacherous journey the men and boys were forced to march was actually a road, exposed to snipers and lacking in tree cover. Blisters and sore muscles kept my mind occupied, but while I was in my trail shoes and hiking clothes, I am reminded that they were in the clothes that happened to be on their backs with shoes that were no match for these conditions.  The reasons I am here come rushing back to me.

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2 mass graves 

 

As someone who has spent some time in the woods trekking and exploring, it was hard to separate the walk from what it represents. While I pulled out my trail map, calculating our ETA to a checkpoint and planning when to get water and take lunch, a small sign for a mass grave almost passed me by unnoticed.  We felt thirsty and a water station came into view.  We felt hungry, and a sandwich or piece of fruit was handed to us.  We felt tired, and someone gave us Bosnian coffee they made in their home for the marchers.  The humans in the death march had only the reality of being hunted and the hope that they would live till morning.  The land from Nezuk to Potočari is covered in small country homes, crops, mass graves, cemeteries, and land mines.  As someone who did not experience this war or lose someone to this tragedy, it has created a whirlwind of emotions to see everything juxtaposed in one area.  This was my three days in the woods.  A continuous struggle to keep perspective while fighting through the physical aspects of a 50-mile march through the countryside.

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What moved me the most, however, was the power of mass support.  My favorite moments on the hike involved humans.  Being beckoned into someone’s garage for a much-needed cup of coffee by a villager kept me going.  A piece of watermelon from a stranger while we took a rest under the trees made my doubts about my own ability to finish wash away.  But the most profound moment for me happened after we finished the march, received our certificates of completion (such a beautiful touch), and came upon the parade.  It was not just us hiking and struggling to the memorial.  Hundreds of motorcycles lined the streets in solidarity and hundreds of cyclists had biked from Sarajevo to show their support.  As walkers, riders, and cyclers converged at a memorial covered in the traditional Muslim headstones with names etched in marble, I knew that this was so much more that a march, it was a testament to the beauty of human compassion and caring.  Marš Mira: 2017, humanity, love, and encouragement in a time when scars continue to heal and resilience shines through once more.

 

 

 

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The Memorial

Time

As another day in my first week of life in Sarajevo draws to a close, I wonder what has been impactful thus far.  Was it the rolling hills studded with red roofed houses?  Was it the hustle and bustle that is Bascarsija, where East meets West? Or was it the first glimpses into a war that kept this city under siege twenty-two years ago? I struggle to find what has impressed on me most because these are but puzzle pieces that make up this colorful, complicated city that I am now beginning to discover for the first time.

Then it hits me: I have time.  Time to soak in art and architecture without it becoming a blur.  Time to get to know people and listen to their stories…  Back home, I fill my days with the plans I feel like I should have, running from A to B, barely finishing a task without already worrying about the next one.  How nice it has been to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee with someone, really hearing them, not thinking of how I am late for an appointment.

While I revel in the this newly found, fluid time, I know that none of the aspects of Sarajevo and Bosnia would exist if it were not for the diversity and depth of its people.  As I sit as this café writing, I watch ethnicity, religion, and culture collide on the streets. Women wearing hijabs sell local honey next to the kiosk featuring kitschy souvenir magnets and down the street from the Persian rug market.  The bell of the Catholic cathedral tolls while the call to Islamic prayer flows through the airwaves.  I take a moment to hear all the sounds of Sarajevo, knowing that this is just the beginning of my time here.

As we begin to settle into our internships, I look forward to the relationships we are beginning to form and the stories we are beginning to hear.  The Bosnian people I have met so far have shared their coffee, their breakfast, and their time with me.  I cannot conceptualize conflict, and then I am told of life during bombing as I am handed a small cake for my coffee.  This city bursts into clarity and confusion simultaneously once more.

I reflect on these things; glad I have been given the gift of time.  I plan to use it the way the way I should, not as a traveler passing through as I run to my next perfectly planned destination, but as someone who stops to smell the roses for the first time in a very long time.