It’s June which means that students from the University of Denver are back in Bosnia. The first group from the Graduate School of Social Work arrived yesterday and will be here for a couple of weeks. What a cool group of students! This is the 6th year of our blog and I am looking forward to seeing everyone’s Bosnia experiences unfold and be highlighted in their posts. After the GSSW students leave, another group of students from DU arrives. They are participating in the Global Practice Bosnia internship and will be here for about 8 weeks. They are from GSSW, Korbel School of International Studies and the Graduate School of Professional Psychology. They will also be writing in this blog. I can’t believe my good fortune that I am once again in this beautiful country that I love with smart and curious students who are all interested in social justice. We have already received our usual gracious and warm welcome from those we know here. Let the journey begin….
In a week from today a group of GSSW students from the University of Denver will be heading to Bosnia as a culmination of an academic course that they have been taking this spring quarter. We will be visiting sites that are important to the rich history and culture of this beautiful country, will be interacting with survivors of the war and genocide, and will learn from professors at the University of Sarajevo as well as those providing social work services across the country. This is the 5th year that this course has been offered through GSSW and it is a pleasure to be introducing another group of smart, curios students to this amazing country where they can learn first hand about resilience and issues of social justice.
Right after this first group of students leaves Bosnia the second group of masters students from DU will arrive to begin their 8-week internships in Sarajevo. They are studying social work, international relations, international security, conflict resolution, international business and other related fields. They have also been studying during spring quarter in preparation for this summer experience. They will travel to various sites around the country and will also have the honor of meeting our hosts in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Srebrenica and other parts of the country who welcome us so graciously.
For those of you who have followed our blog before, we hope that you will do so again to join in the journey of our dedicated students. If you are new to us please feel free to comment on our posts if you would care to do so. It’s our hope that we can share a bit of our experiences through this blog.
Ann (soon to be “Ana” as I am called in Bosnia)
June 1, 2015
1.I’m leaving for The Hague tomorrow but when I get back you must come for
2. The bus stop is right across from the mosque.
3.I’m meeting a group of Lithuanians later today. I think they started their trip in Bulgaria, or maybe it was Macedonia.
4.This is where 500 men and boys were killed, including my brother.
5.Ana, don’t sit on the cold stairs. It will freeze your ovaries.
6.She has problems with her legs and feet. It’s from drinking cold water I think, or maybe from the war.
7.Her six sons are buried in Potočari, along with her husband.
8.We’ll have to meet in a few weeks. I’m walking from Slovenia to Albania.
9.This pekara (bakery) has been here for 600 years.
Each year on the 11th of July a burial ceremony is held for those victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide who have been identified. This year I was invited to go to Srebrenica for the days leading up to the memorial ceremony and I went, looking forward to being with friends while at the same time knowing that I would be taking part in some very difficult things that I had never experienced before—things that I have wanted to experience as I struggle to make sense of something that cannot be understood in any terms of human decency.
A few days after the ceremony I was invited by the Mothers of Srebrenica and some survivors of the genocide to join them for a day of memorializing 6 of the many execution sites where their family members were tortured and killed in July 1995. This group was mostly women who had lost sons, fathers, husbands and every other male relative.
To be included was such an honor and to be asked to lay a wreath at one of the execution sites, the Cultural Center in Pilica, was something I will never forget because this is where my dear friend Hasan’s twin brother was killed along with 500 other men and boys. No memorialization of these sites exists and those memorial plaques that have been put up have since been removed by those who deny the genocide. I don’t know what is worse—execution sites that are once again used as schools where student-of-the week pictures adorn the walls of Petkovci school in the space where hundreds of men and boys were held to be executed, where kids play basketball in a gym where hundreds of others were held and killed—spaces that have no sign of what occurred there, spaces that include graffiti that says «welcome serbs» on the building where men were slaughtered. Is it worse to have these sites used as if nothing ever happened there or is it worse to have a site like the Pilica Cultural Center where nothing has changed since the massacre—the walls are full of bullet holes, debris is everywhere and it is the most horrible place I have ever been. It is like the set of a horror movie that you would never want to watch. It is haunted and it is impossible not to visualize what happened there.
The day of going from execution site to execution site was a day of traveling through insanity—the insanity of evil. When we arrived at Branjevo Fields where more than a thousand men were killed, fields that now serve as the front yard for several homes, we turned the corner to find ourselves in the midst of a carnival. The jokes began, as they have to on a day filled with the unthinkable, jokes about a county fair with a twist of genocide and a county fair with a swat team rather than a side show. Everywhere we went we were accompanied by or met by police, some heavily armed, just in case anything happened. Apparently this was the first year of the memorializing event that the police were helpful and not obstructionist. Given the political structure of Bosnia & Herzegovina, all of these execution sites lie in the Republika Srpska which means more things than can be explained here. In the past the participants have had to force their way in to these buildings because the police did not allow them access and some years they were unable to get in and therefore had to leave the wreaths on the road
Since it is Ramadan, the majority of people were fasting and it was so hot in the buses and at the sites. At the edge of the Aluminum Factory Dam execution site we stopped for a water break which for most of the participants meant splashing cold water on their faces and arms to try and cool off. I was so thirsty by the time we stopped that I couldn’t imagine what is what like for those who didn’t take a drink.
All day on the bus I felt the solidarity of women, women laughing and telling stories and crying and hugging each other, just like women do everywhere. Some of them were visiting the sites where their relatives were killed for the first time. How can a beautiful field surrounded by mountains, filled with haystacks and wild flowers be the site of an execution of a thousand innocent people and the site of a mass grave? How can a carnival be happening around the corner from this place? How can children attend Grbavci school and play basketball in a building where hundreds were tortured and killed and be taught that these events never happened? And most of all, how can people who survived this genocide and who lost those most precious to them—some lost every male member of their family—how can they have moved forward in their lives, have grace and humor, be so generous and welcoming and touched by my interest in being here, while having to fight to memorialize the places where their loved ones were slaughtered. How can they, year after year, greet the trucks in Sarajevo as they wind their way with the coffins to Potočari where they will be buried on July 11. How could they be concerned about me when the trucks entered Potočari, concerned that I was so sad. When they invited me to sit with them while they prayed in the corner of the room where the coffins were stored overnight I was overcome with the generosity of their spirit. How was it that I was laughing about cake and fat legs with 3 of the mothers at Iftar the following evening after they talked to me about how they noticed me at the trucks, noticed that I was crying and they wondered who I was. They wondered how an American could be so interested in their story. I told them that I was crying as a mother of a son, crying for mothers who were burying their sons. It feels strange and sometimes uncomfortable to me that anyone here spends time wondering about me and caring for me. How can they have anything left to give to anyone else after all that they have lost, particularly as the perpetrators of this war and genocide continue to deny that it happened.
I can only accept all of it for what it is. To have been taken in by this community of people is such a gift and I can’t imagine life without my Bosnians.
I will never understand how the first two weeks flew by so quickly with GSSW students in Bosnia. I felt very excited about the future of social work when I saw the insight, respect, curiosity and good humor among the students who traveled this journey with me. They have all, for the most part, left Sarajevo for home, for other travels or for adventures yet to be determined. Thank you also to Rita Hughes who came on this trip as the 2nd faculty member. What a treat it was for me and the students to spend time with this natural teacher. So, as much as I didn’t want to, I had to say dovidzenia to the students and to Rita. Our last day was spent at the impossibly beautiful village of Lukomir.
Now the DU students participating in International Service Learning Bosnia & Herzegovina (ISL BiH) have arrived and I am so happy to see them. Today internships started so we are off and running. Stay tuned for further news. A photo was to be posted here but the evening internet goblins have started in Sarajevo so the photo will have to wait.
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.
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 babushka. And, 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.
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.
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.