Final Blog

It’s been two weeks since I landed on U.S. soil and being home is exactly like everyone said it would be.

The questions.

“How was your trip?” “Great.” (Actually it was an amazing and indescribable experience that I cannot put into words.)

“Did you have fun?” “Yes” (and no. The beauty of the country is intertwined with the all-too-recent tragedy of ethnic cleansing.)

“Wait, there was a war there?” Oh man.

Though it’s difficult to explain my Sarajevo summer to family and friends from home, I was in the same boat once. Last spring, I remember sitting in the DU library, thinking ‘I’ll just put my headphones on, quickly watch this video that Ann assigned, and then I’ll finish my Stats project.’ Three minutes into “Cry from the Grave” tears were streaming down my face as Saliha told her story. Other students quietly studying at surrounding tables started giving me weird looks. After an hour of intense, raw, emotional footage of Bosnia from 1991-1995, I had no intention of touching my Statistics homework. Instead, I rushed out of the library into the drizzling rain and walked the thirty minutes it takes to get home. I remember the feeling of needing to decompress and compartmentalize what I had seen. I also remember feeling very ignorant, and asking myself, Why am I not more aware of this genocide?

Towards the end of our program, I watched this film again in the battery factory in Srebrenica. This time, having participated in the Peace March, having embraced Saliha at her home the day before, having heard the first-hand testimonies of survivors, and having established relationships with warm and welcoming Bosnians over the summer, the footage hit me hard. It was overwhelming. When we walked across to the memorial cemetery, I found the first secluded spot under a tree and sobbed. Looking out over the thousands of white tombstones I couldn’t think of anything to say except I’m sorry. I just kept saying those words over and over in my head. Sorry to those who had lost their lives. Because none of this had to happen. I also remember the overwhelming urge to call my mom and dad, to talk to my sister. I think I hugged them all a little tighter before flying back to Denver.

I am different from the girl in the library that spring. I have had experiences that I will remember forever and have met people that will never be forgotten. I have lived in a city that is truly like no other. I am so grateful for my Sarajevo summer.

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Favorite Moment

So many inspiring, unforgettable moments on this trip but I would like to go back to the very beginning, if I may, to the group’s first attempt at a weekend excursion to Croatia.

Even though Makarska itself was spectacular, the most memorable experience for me was the actual transportation to and from. It was aIMG_2074 long day, that Friday. Having already spent the day in Mostar and the afternoon in Kravice Falls, we piled into our rented vehicles feeling tired but excited to celebrate our country’s day of independence. Katie and Katherine, our fearless manual drivers, flawlessly weaved through city streets, and effortlessly hugged narrow curves as we climbed farther and father up into the mountains. We ventured out on our Balkan journey at dusk, and as the sun was setting over the purple hills, we listened to the radio’s jazz station fading in and out.IMG_0222 Having only been in the region less than two weeks, the all-American trip was so Bosnian. We took our time, making frequent stops for snacks, bathroom breaks, and most importantly, wifi because our handy-dandy GPS proved to be a useless box of microchips and wires on it’s last breath. When it was time to reverse, we performed the routine procedure of putting the car in neutral, pushing on the hood, and jumping back in. On the way, we assured our gracious host that we would arrive by 8:00pm, scratch that 9:00, no later than 10:00, never mind, 11:00 that night. Ne problema.

DSC_0002The drive back to Sarajevo was much of the same. We gathered passports, handed back passports, then gathered them again. We followed the faulty directions of an iPhone that led us through the rocky, dusty roads of an immense national park; an unexpected detour which proved to be a gorgeous passage through the green hills and stark mountains of the countryside.

The uncertain twists and turns that may have seemed like obstacles at the time were actually contributing to a magical adventure that I’m glad I could be a part of. Thank you to the tall K’s for patiently forging ahead, for taking the wheel wherever it may have lead, and for being all-around badasses. I never doubted that we would arrive home safely, securely, eventually. IMG_2104

And now I am inevitably forced to bring home the cliché:

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Srebrenica

I do not know real fear.

My worst nightmare pales in comparison to the terror that was Srebrenica in July 1995. Throughout the survivor testimonies, there were constant references to “shivering” and “trembling” – the physical representation of knowing that death is near. Looking death in the face in the literal sense, seeing dead bodies on the side of the road. Continuing to put one foot in front of the other all the while knowing this could be your own fate. Hasan revealed not being able to move during the Death March. He was completely frozen, too weak to move, and overcome by fear until a man offered him sugar water and willed him to keep going. Hasan, realizing that he had lost his father and brother, made the conscious decision to go forward instead of turn back to look for them. He had the unfathomable but rational thought that someone should survive to tell their story and that it was his duty to live on for them. When the terror of death was no longer crippling the mind and body, reality finally set in for the survivors of the Death March and the tears started to flow uncontrollably. The footage of men reaching free territory, caked in blood, barefoot and limping, reveals this instant release. Men buckling to the ground and weeping. The relief of safety mixed with irreparable loss.

I have not experienced tragic loss.

My grandmother died in February, at the old age of ninety three. She slowly took her last breath in her own house, in her own bedroom, surrounded by her children who were holding her hand and whispering their last loving words. Death greeted her as one would an old acquaintance.

The survivors of Srebrenica have different experiences with Death- stories involving blindfolds and bullets to the back of the head; hearing moaning, screaming, crying; soaked in the warm blood of brothers, cousins, neighbors; afraid to move a muscle, not daring to blink an eye. When a soldier asks, “Are there any survivors?” one man responds, “I am. Kill me.” A mother watching her son walk off into the distance becomes the last image she has of him. My grandmother’s funeral was less a mourning than it was a celebration of a full life well-lived. The continued burial of these innocent men is nothing but tragic. No one deserves to die amidst such terror. Having lost both of her sons and her husband to this massacre, Saliha is left alone. She has no fear left in her. What else could be taken from her? What has she not already suffered? As she tells her story from the step of her front door, a solid, unshakable strength exudes from her, but so does a desperate sorrow. Not a second goes by that she doesn’t think of her beloved men who were taken from her twenty years ago. She physically lives in the present moment but she is consumed by a constant remembrance of the past.

Being able to listen to the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators in the Documentation Center was so powerful. The most memorable testimony came from a VRS soldier who wished to remain anonymous. He explained that in the aftermath of a mass killing, amidst a field of dead bodies, a small child of 5 or 6 emerged from the heap, calling frantically for his father, “Baba! Baba! Where are you?” The soldier remembered silence as each man lowered his weapon and looked on in dismay. When the general angrily ordered them to “Finish him off already”, the soldiers didn’t move and instead responded “You have a pistol, finish him off yourself.” I listened to this testimony twice, unable to comprehend the irony in this small but significant event. It was astounding to me that these soldiers, who had clearly been capable of shooting thousands of innocent men, would not dare to end the innocent life of this one young boy. Why draw the line here? Why were they unable to kill one boy when shooting countless men did not seem to trouble their conscience? Why is innocence apparently embodied in a 6 year old child and not a 14 year old boy or a 50 year old man? As Hasan explained, this could happen anywhere, in any nation, at any time, and it is true.

I have borne witness to evil. 

Yet while many people relished in the killings by kicking, torturing, and psychologically taunting their victims before annihilating them, some soldiers felt they had no choice but to follow orders. One very young soldier explained that when he tried to refuse his orders to shoot, he was told he could stand right in line with them. One driver tearfully confessed the moment he found out he had been transporting dead bodies in his truck. I commend the Serbian driver who stood up for Saliha and ensured the safety of other refugees. I admire the few individuals who absolutely refused to engage in the deplorable actions ordered “from above.” If more people had respected the sanctity and dignity of a human life then perhaps July 11, 1995 would just be another date on a calendar.

Walking into the storage room filled with bags of human bones at the ICMP, I was overwhelmed by the smell of dirt mixed with decay. Surrounded on either side by shelves of human remains, I tried to be reverent while listening to the technical side of bone retrieval and identification. I kept looking around me- plastic bags labeled by a letter and a number- someone’s father, a mother’s son- so far from their homes and mourning loved ones. Yet despite the depressing circumstances that underlay the purpose for these retrieval tactics, I realized that PIP, the ICMP, and even the “bone man”, are immensely uplifting. A tragedy of unimaginable magnitude ended the lives of thousands. Mass graves still remain uncovered and countless bodies are still missing. But out of such a catastrophic and chaotic mess, it is comforting to know that there is an intricate, methodical, organized system that continues to match a myriad of body parts to a name and face. It is slow meticulous work involving the most dedicated individuals in their own specialties, from blood work to paperwork, from analyzing DNA to assembling skeletal remains, from pathologists who alert family members of new discoveries to a humble man who collects bones in the woods behind his house. Individuals are working together to assemble the pieces of an impossible puzzle in an attempt to somehow right the wrongs of twenty years past.

I refuse to lose faith in humanity.

Engleski Studenti

At Wings of Hope, I’m helping with the summer language program by teaching English to Bosnian students. It is a free program, open to people of all ages for the month of July and I’m astounded by the students’ abilities. Their ages range from 9 to 13 years old, and one lovely girl is my age. The younger ones are giggly and open to fun activities while the older students are eager to soak up new vocabulary, trying to speak English whenever possible.

I’m finding that I’m actively learning more than I am teaching since I am very new to the skill. My co-workers have been an immense help, giving me tips on how to engage the students and how to elicit answers from the class. Yet just observing their actions while leading an activity is a lesson in itself. I have such a great appreciation for the patient care and attention they show toward each individual student. After a lesson one day, I received the best advice from one of my co-workers who explained that teachers should actively seek, not only to teach a subject, but to transform lives. Teaching is not just encouraging students in a classroom but rather instilling a deep sense of self-confidence and pride, of self-respect and dignity… basically making students feel like they matter. As I look back on my own childhood, I realize how fortunate I was— to have been instilled with this same passion for learning and to have had such encouraging people surrounding me, acknowledging my successes and then pushing me further through my failures. The absence of a solid support system can effect your entire outlook on life and can shape your future goals.

I’m learning more about the English language than I thought possible, but I’m also learning about Bosnian culture and the lives of these young people. Even while playing games and stumbling through a foreign language, the siege of the 1990s inevitably comes up. During the lesson about careers, we went around the room asking each student what their family members do for a living. While many of the younger students mentioned that their parents were doctors or professors or construction workers, the delightful 23 year old (who is honestly the most charming, pleasant person I’ve ever met) explained that she lived with her mother and grandmother who were both unemployed since her father had died during the war. During the lesson on the use of “can” and “can’t” I learned that she can’t drive because her family doesn’t own a car so she never needed to learn. I learned that she can’t ski but she can (kako se kaže..?) sled in the winter, and that yes, Bosnian children attempt to build snowmen too. I learned that the adorable 9 year old lives in the house next to Wings of Hope. I can see her dog, Medo, from the office window. She tells me that during her free time she plays with him in her backyard. I’m so lucky to be able to meet and converse with such sweet, respectful, endearing students each day. Their eagerness is contagious.

Beyond words.

Being a part of such an indescribable experience, I’m finding it very difficult to form coherent and chronological sentences about the immense event that is Marš Mira.

Solution for the time being: I’m just going to let my stream of consciousness take it away…

Peace March. Peaceful. Birds chirping. Butterflies fluttering. Bees buzzing. Rolling green hills. Small distant villages. Quaint countryside. Wildflowers. Bursts of laughter. Thousands of feet moving as one. Solidarity. Walking. Buildings riddled with bullet holes. Mass grave. Up a mountain, down a hill. Under the cool cover of forest. Walking. At the height of the clouds. Walking. Stifling heat. Walking. Dangerously un-shaded asphalt for miles. Sunscreen. Difficult. Uneven rocky gravel, dry dirt paths. Dust on my eyelashes. Steep angles. Slippery muddy slopes. Strangers offering a helping hand. Walking. Yellow caution tape- “Pozor Mine!” Sunscreen. Pauza. How far is the camp? Just over the hill. Generous homes open up to marchers. Bananas, apples, coffee, tea, apricots, nuts. Mass grave. Water trucks. Walking. Flags. Chants. Men. Boys. Hello? How are you? Amerikanka? Girls. Friendship. Silly conversations. Enlightening self-discoveries. Somber thoughts about the men who paved the very same route twenty years ago. Walking. How far is the camp? Just another hour. Tired. Collective pee breaks in strategically chosen hideouts. Has anyone seen (input any one of our names)? How many miles has it been? Walking.

Camp. Mama Ann! Hasan Hasanović. Call to the General. Privilege. Military. Tent. Hvala. “Showers”? Waiting in a clump of women for 20 minutes in order to use the port-a-potty. Realizing you miss your secluded spots along the walk. Peace March puppy! Sleeping bags. Chocolate. Strangely disturbing dreams. 5am wake-up calls. Chilly mornings. Wet sneakers. Wet socks. Wet clothes. Walking. New friends. Bosnians. French. Canadians. Australians. What’s the best burger place? What’s the best burger? Describing the burger. Drooling while thinking about burgers. Slowly shuffling shoulder-to-shoulder through bottlenecked passageways. Striding along on a wide empty road. Walking. Watermelon! Burek! Watch out for the car coming through. Water truck. Mass grave. Walking. Walking. Walking. Tired. Walking. Walking. Walking. Angry feet. Blisters. Band-Aids. Sore shoulders. I would very much like to stop walking. Just keep walking.

Potočari. Whispers. Quiet. Silence. Light patter of a thousand footsteps. A sea of white pillars. Memorial. Lines of faces on either side. Tears. Smiles. Both observer and participant. Overwhelmed. Accomplished. Exhausted. The carrying of the coffins. Hundreds of green boxes. Each green box a body. Each body once a living, breathing person. Each person beloved by family and friends who are now grieving mourners. A final resting place for a loved one after an agonizing two decades. Reality setting in. This is what genocide looks like. This was an escape route. A march for survival that ended the lives of 8,372 men. This is Srebrenica.

I could keep walking.

An Ode to Shoes

One new habit that we have all been forced to adopt in the past two weeks is the strict “no shoes inside” policy. Whether coming home after wandering the Baščaršijan labyrinth or strolling along the Miljacka river, either returning from internships or stumbling home from a late night out, or quickly hustling from the gym to avoid stares of disdain for sweaty pits and sneakers, we all exit and enter our beautiful castle at least once a day. Therefore, this ‘removing of the shoes’ activity is one event we all share and one ritual that has definitely grown on me. As Americans, our private-public lives can become so intertwined and the lines between work and home are often so blurred that we do not realize we are, in fact, constantly working. I am so used to traipsing into my apartment with my shoes on and my groceries in hand, ready to send an email and throw in some laundry while cooking dinner and watching Netflix. Shoes still on. I never give a second thought to the significance of opening that door and entering a completely different sphere of life.

This tiny act of removing one’s outer shoes before entering the home is so subtle but packs so much meaning. Those extra ten seconds may seem inconsequential but to me, it signifies that once that threshold is crossed, you are in a different environment- one of family, friends, belonging; a place to settle and relax while the stress of the day, the problems at work, and even the public persona you show to the world are left tucked away in the shoe closet where they stay until morning. I think a lot more people, especially Americans, could benefit from a little more separation and a more visible dividing line in order to cherish the sanctity of home life, family, and safety. When I think back to Kenan’s story in the Cellist, I remember his treacherous journey to fetch jugs of water for his wife and children. After putting on his shoes and closing the door that separated him from the comfort of his family, he would slump to the ground and weep for a while until beginning his walk out in the open. In this perspective, the significance of crossing that threshold was a hundredfold and helped me to appreciate the value of having a safe and loving place to go when the outside world is exactly the opposite.

First Real Excursions!

We had some fun sightseeing activities today with Jadranka, who was a great tour guide. She knew a lot about the early history and architecture of the city as well as the recent war years since she grew up in Bosnia and experienced the siege in Sarajevo first-hand. At the tunnel museum, it was interesting that Jadranka was explaining the tools she had used to improvise without electricity and running water. The fact that she was familiar with the techniques that were on display in the museum made it all the more real for me to understand that these were not just props on a shelf but absolute necessities during that time.

Even though it was relatively short, the video at the tunnel museum held my attention because the places that were shown- the Parliament building, the Holiday Inn, the library, Marshall Tito street- were becoming recognizable since we either drove by or walked along these locations earlier in the day. The familiarity with various places in the city transformed the footage from random clips of bombings into a more personal attack on Sarajevo landmarks. In this sense, I feel like I had an infinitesimal glimpse into the heartache of seeing one’s hometown destroyed.

Along the same lines, I also found myself thinking about the daily life threatening conditions that Bosnians had to face by merely crossing a street, or worse, running across a bridge over the wide-open river. Though today the city is peaceful and everyone is casually walking, talking, and laughing, the Sarajevo roses in the streets along with the bullet holes in sides of buildings serve as constant reminders of what had once been and I feel grateful for the ability to leisurely stroll along in the market.