And so it begins again………

Another summer and I find myself again back in Bosnia with University of Denver students.  Introducing this extraordinary country to people remains a highlight of my life.  As before, we will be blogging throughout the summer for anyone interested in sharing our experiences.  Please share this blog with those who might like to read it.The first group of students, who will be staying for about two weeks, are from the Graduate School of Social Work.  Following their departure, another group from a variety of DU programs will arrive for 8 week internships. 

On this rainy morning in Sarajevo we are all taking the time to reflect on our first few days here.  We have taken a walking tour of Sarajevo (thank you Jadranka for being our wonderful guide and teacher), visited the War Crimes Court of BiH, traveled to Tuzla to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), spent time at the Genocide Memorial Center in Potočari, stayed overnight in Srebrenica and spent a day with genocide survivor Saliha Osmanović who just might be the coolest woman in the world.  Many thanks to our long time friend Hasan Hasanović for making our time in Potočari and Srebrenica more meaningful than can really be described here.  The graciousness, generosity and courage of our Bosnian friends never ceases to amaze me.

Hopefully the rain will continue today so that I can finally find the time to get unpacked.Image

You should always look up at the Bosnian sky.

Sky over bobsled from 1984 Olympics.  By 1992 it was a tool in the war and ultimately destroyed.
Sky over bobsled from 1984 Olympics. By 1992 it was a tool in the war and ultimately destroyed.
Old Town Sarajevo
Cloudy Sky in Old Town Sarajevo
International Commission on Missing Persons where remains from mass graves are identified.
Impossibly blue sky over International Commission on Missing Persons where remains from mass graves are identified.
Kapija Gate where 71 young people were killed in 1995.
Billowy clouds over Kapija Gate  in Tuzla where 71 young people were massacred  in 1995.
Kilseljak, source of mineral water in Bosnia.
Blue sky in Kilseljak, source of mineral water in Bosnia.
The battery factory in Potočari, site of the worst genocide in Europe since WWII.
Cloudy sky over the battery factory in Potočari, site of the worst genocide in Europe since WWII.
Listening to the Call to Prayer from high above Sarajevo.
Summer sunset high above Sarajevo.

Destiny.

Destiny is not something that I typically believe in.  I know that most people either do or don’t believe when it comes to destiny, but for me it seems to depend on geographic borders.  When I am anywhere other than Bosnia destiny is not part of my thinking.  In Bosnia, however, I’m not so sure.

Most all of my Bosnian friends and colleagues believe in destiny, including Saliha who invited me to her home last week while I was in Srebrenica.  Saliha survived the genocide but her husband and two sons did not.  She lives alone in a house on the river Drina that is the border between Bosnia and Serbia.  She has a garden that could supply a small farmers’ market and she keeps up the garden by herself.  She also has pear trees and apple trees and she knocks the fruit off of the highest parts of the tree using a really, really long, heavy stick.  There is no stopping her.  Amidst her sorrow she has returned to her home that has been rebuilt after the war and she gardens.  She recently returned from The Hague where she testified against Ratko Mladić, facing him in the courtroom and telling him that she saw him at Srebrenica and she saw him at Potoćari. She is courageous and she is beautiful.

After walking around her magnificent garden we started to go into her house for dinner.  I stopped in my tracks when I noticed a plant that she has growing on her porch.  It is a purple plant with leaves shaped like a shamrock and delicate pink flowers.  How could this plant be here?  I have never seen this plant anyplace else in Bosnia.  It is very familiar to me, however, because my own grandmother grew this plant in abundance on her windowsill in Chicago.  In fact, Saliha and my grandmother Anna are similar in many ways, including the head covering worn by each of them.  Bosnian -Muslim Saliha calls hers a hijab shayla and Lithuanian- Catholic Anna wore what she called a babushkaAnd, this purple plant lived in both of their houses.    My father continued the tradition and grew this plant in pot after pot on our porch, inside our house and on the windowsill of his classroom where he taught for over 40 years.  He would share the plant with friends and family on different occasions, as it is an easy plant to divide and share.  I have continued the tradition and have this plant in my home and in my office.  I have shared it with friends on many occasions, both happy and sad.  I told Saliha about my family’s tradition with this plant and, with typical Bosnian generosity she offered to give it to me.  I told her that she had already shared it with me just by having it.

A plant is just a plant maybe, but somehow I don’t think so.  The connection that I have felt with Bosnia from the first time I set foot in Sarajevo is something that I have never been able to really explain.  The path that has led me to my experiences here and most importantly to the people that I now know and love has felt different than any other journey I have taken.  Coincidence? Randomness? Good luck?  Good fortune?  Destiny?  I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter because my connection to this country and the people here continues to deepen with each visit. 

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“Razumijem i ne razumijem” = I understand and I don’t understand

The second week with this remarkable group of students is drawing to a close in Sarajevo.  We typically blog on Monday but this coming week about half of us are heading to the Srebrenica Summer University, an intensive genocide study for close to two weeks.  I know that once I get to Srebrenica my attention will turn to our experiences there so I want to write about Sarajevo before I leave for a short while.

“Ne razumijem” is a Bosnian phrase that I mastered a long time ago.  It means “I don’t understand” and I can’t count the number of times I unfortunately have to say it to someone who is speaking Bosnian to me.

Ne razumijem how at lunch the other day an old friend and a new friend, both genocide survivors who lost most of their families in the war, were intent on making sure that I was comfortable and that I would agree to come to their home to have lunch in their garden.  Ne razumijem how I can ever be the story in the presence of people who have faced what they have experienced. Ne razumijem where such graciousness comes from.

Ne razumijem how our host Sead can be telling us about his experiences in a concentration camp one minute and then be serenading us with a beautiful rendition of “Strangers in the Night” the next minute.

Ne razumijem how Bosnia’s political situation will ever get straightened out.

“Razumijem” means “ I understand”.

Razumijem that cherries and strawberries bought at the market in Sarajevo are impossibly sweet and flavorful.

Razumijem that being able to bring students to Bosnia is a gift.

Razumijem that Bosnian friends are a treasure.

Razumijem that when I look up into the scarred and picturesque hills of Sarajevo I know that this place is in my soul.

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Where can i find this school?

In spite of my best efforts I still struggle mightily with the Bosnian language.  I mix up the word for cold and hungry, can’t remember to say if I’m sleeping or shopping, and asked a restaurant owner to please make the TV half big (turn it down please).  This charming video of children singing the Bosnian alphabet is inspiring.  Perhaps if I can find this school they would let me join in.