Some lessons learned

As the summer comes to a close, I thought I would share a bit of what I learned from living with 11 women this summer. I was one of two males in our cohort, with Brandon being the other male and quite a bit older (he has a son around my age). For some men that may sound like a bit of a nightmare, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience just as much, if not more, than if I was in a more mixed group or an all-male group. So, at this point, I thought I would share a few lessons and insights that I learned along the way, and maybe impart some wisdom on my fellow men.

  • Mansplaining is real. I’ll admit I am particularly guilty of this one. I didn’t actually realize how bad of a mansplainer I was until I started getting called out. A lot. Like a lot, a lot. I would like to think I improved at this, but I will leave it to my fellow Global Practice Bosnia friends to be the judge of that one. All I can say is I get it now, and I’m trying to knock it out. As for other men, you probably do it too and it’s annoying, so cut it out.
  • Women can be just as potty-mouthed, crude, and inappropriate as a high-school boy’s locker room. This one speaks for itself. Suffice to say, I wasn’t lacking in the same kinds of colorful conversations I would have at home with my guy friends drinking at the local dive bar.
  • There are just some conversations men do not need to chime in on. A lot of men (and just people in general) feel compelled to be a part of every conversation that is happening around them. Yet, there are some conversations that men, in particular, should not contribute to if you are privy to being there for. It’s not our place and we simply cannot relate or understand. Sometimes it’s just better to listen and observe with couth.
  • Talking about feelings and venting is actually a good thing. I thoroughly dislike talking about feelings or even admitting I have them. Yet, talking about feelings and listening to other’s feelings and venting was a big part of the summer. It’s a healthy and perfectly normal thing to do. Although I am still a bit squeamish about it, I can appreciate that I should be more in touch and vocal about what I am feeling than I did when this all started. It was a good lesson to learn.
  • Men can be creepy. The number of stories I heard over the course of the summer about the shitty, creepy things men do to women was shocking. I used to think that women may have blown this out of proportion, but not anymore. Men simply do not know how to act around women and it’s pathetic. It doesn’t take much to polite and respectful, but it seems to be more of a struggle for a lot of men than I was previously aware of. It made me a bit ashamed to be a guy actually. I’d like to think being raised by my mother I know better, but I cannot speak for the rest of my fellow men.
  • We are all just people. That’s it. It doesn’t matter that I lived with mostly women this summer, we were all in the same boat. It wouldn’t make a difference who I lived with based on sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, or whatever. We are all humans coexisting in a foreign country together, pursuing new experiences, and trying to make the best of our time here. I have made some truly great friends on this trip and bonded much more than I thought I would.

I would like to thank my cohort for one hell of a summer and some good lessons learned. I think my future girlfriends will agree, you all made me a better man. Thanks for tolerating my mansplaining and not giving me too much grief along the way.

Interning

Interning in Bosnia most definitely has its perks. Once you get over the principal drawback of not being paid, the Bosnian way of working is vastly superior to the States. The flexibility, late start times, vast amounts of coffee, free Fridays, and the general laid back atmosphere is unmatched. Interning back home at a similar institution this summer would have been a grueling 50+ hour work week, where the pressure to outperform my peers in pursuit of a full-time offer would have been an ever-present stress nipping at my heels.

Instead, I have had a thoroughly experience at the Atlantic Initiative as a research assistant. I have had the flexibility to takes days off, work from home, and have been able to help with the primary research for a number of interesting projects, both in and out of my area of expertise. My projects have included; researching methods for de-radicalization of Islamic extremists in the Balkans, ethnic segregation in schools in Bosnia, and the radicalization of women and youth in the Balkans.  I also get the double whammy of a great name on my resume and the experience of working in a new culture, on top of having what I consider one the best summers of my life. My only real complaint is that I could have easily had a bigger work load, but then again, I’m probably just looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Contrast

This past weekend I took a little detour out of  Bosnia and Eastern Europe to go to Belgium. At that point, I have been exclusively in the East since June 10th and thought it would be fun to visit a friend in Western Europe. The culture shock was almost immediate when I got off the plane in Brussels. From the sticker shock, to the diversity, to the soldiers in full kit patrolling the streets with assault rifles, it was a drastic change from Bosnia.

For me, the sharp contrast was really a lesson in the importance of both a functioning central government and stability are for the development of a country. It also made me wonder what Bosnia would be like today if the war here had never happened or even if the postwar period had experienced actual reconciliation instead of the ethnic divisions that exist. Bosnia has immense potential to compete with any Western country and has a natural beauty that is unrivaled. It’s a shame that the recent past and a totally inept government continue to hold it back.

Going back to the West also reminded me of what makes Eastern Europe unique. Eastern Europe has a character all its own and the cities, Sarajevo included, have a soul. In the West, there is of course easy transportation, clean streets, and a wealth of shops and restaurants to fit just about any desire. Yet, the cities lack the corky character and authentic feel that you get in Eastern Europe, and in particular, Bosnia. I really enjoyed my time in the West, but there is no place like Eastern Europe and nowhere I would rather be right now than Bosnia.

 

Returning to Srebrenica

I was a bit apprehensive to return to Srebrenica. We had already done the Peace March and seen the burial of this year’s identified bodies on July 11th. We had watched multiple documentaries, met Hasan (a friend of the program and survivor of the genocide) and read countless articles. So what else was there to see or learn? I knew the story right?

I could not have been more wrong.  Our three-day excursion to Tuzla and Srebrenica was an experience that could never be replicated. The emotional first-hand accounts of loss, death, and fear we heard from victims and survivors while seeing the actual sites, was both emotionally exhaustive and enlightening. That is the big differentiator with this trip and visiting other sites of mass atrocities I have been to in my travels.

The ability to hear the first-hand accounts in addition to seeing the sites and reading the informational plaques or watching the documentaries. Joseph Stalin, arguably the greatest perpetrator of mass killings in history, once said, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”. I feel terms of Srebrenica, for most people (myself included until this trip) that this is true. You heard the actual story, you knew the numbers, but until hearing from those who survived you don’t fully grasp the pain involved. It’s difficult o hear those stories, but it makes the genocide real in a way that no amount of numbers or factual information can.

For me, in particular, hearing Nura’s story, a sweet and dignified Bosnian woman who lost her three sons and her husband, was particularly painful. Her story was not uncommon, but her telling this story and looking at me, as the only young man on this trip, and saying that it was hard for her to look at me while choking back tears because I reminded her of her sons who were around my age was haunting. I had no idea how to respond to her and still don’t. I gave her a warm smile and a hug, but how are you supposed to respond to that? It was a moment that will be etched in my mind forever.

For this blog post, I could have talked about the failures of the international community, the complex mechanisms in place, and the political theories that give sense to how this happened. That is after all my comfort zone; it’s what I study in school. What this trip taught me though is that the cold logic I approach things with at most times may not always be the best lens through which to analyze a situation. This genocide affected real people, and has a real impact those that were survivors and victims, with repercussions well beyond those immediately involved. This trip unequivocally proved to me, that no matter the number of deaths, it is never just a statistic.

Perspective

Bosnia is without a doubt one of the most captivating and unique places in the world. The people, food, and physical landscape are second to none. What is also astounding, and I think seldom acknowledged, is how lucky we are as American graduate students to experience Bosnia from a perspective of privilege. I know not everyone from the States who reads this would categorize themselves as “privileged”. All of us here come from a diverse set of backgrounds, socioeconomic rungs, and tribulations. Most us of, myself included, look at our current government with dismay and are deeply worried about the future. Yet, here we are in a country that is still healing from a brutal civil war, that has around a 40% unemployment rate, and an average monthly salary that would barely cover even a modest rent rate in Denver.

We have the privilege of eating out most nights, enjoying copious amounts of good wine and beer, and traveling around not only Bosnia but the surrounding region enjoying a plethora of activities and tours. For the average Bosnian, the life style we are able to live here is well out of reach. Relative to Bosnians we have job security that they could only dream of. Even though it may be taxing, most of us, it not all of us will be employed within a year of graduation. We also do not have the constant presence of foreign peacekeepers in our country nor do many of us have a personal experience with war. Thus, I think it is important from time to time, while we experience everything this amazing country has to offer, to take a step back and reflect on how fortunate we are to be here in the capacity we are.

Our country is by no means perfect and I will be one of the first to offer a host of criticisms. There are so many things about Bosnian culture and the way of life here that I would love to export back to the States. However, we are also privileged to come from where we do and experience Bosnia in the way we are, and that is something I am exceedingly grateful for.

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Marš Mira (Peach March)

I am still searching for the words to describe the Peach March from Nezuk to Potocari the site of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial that retraced the steps of the original Death March in July 1995 that Bosniak men and boys had to take to escape the Bosnian Serb Army’s (BSA) campaign of genocide. It has been two days since the March ended, but I do not think that is nearly enough time to process what we saw and felt. By the numbers the experience included; 3 days, hiking 60+ miles, in 90+ degree heat, with 60-70% humidity, over the Bosnian mountains that resulted in 1000’s of feet in elevation change, while walking past mass execution sights that had as many as 600 victims, with around 6000 other marchers from all over the world including survivors of the original Death March. It was mental, physical, and emotionally exhausting like nothing I have ever done before.

I have a number of stories and experiences from the weekend that I could share, but I believe the strongest and most impactful moment was when Hasan Hasanović, a survivor and a friend of our program,  thanked us and expressed a deep gratitude to us for completing the march. I had no words to respond to him then and I still am not sure how I would respond now. This man had survived the real Death March that lasted six days, while being hunted by the BSA with virtually no water or food, and he was thanking us for doing the March. The 11 graduate students from Denver who had shelter, water, food, proper hiking equipment, access to medical services, and could have quit at any time. I was really touched by that. It was the single most humbling experience of my life and I will remember it forever. The exhaustion and pain we experienced during our March were only a razor-thin sliver of what the survivors experienced that in absolutely no way, shape, or form compares. Yet, there was Hasan, a true survivor, greeting us at the end of the March inside the Memorial, with a smile thanking us for what we did. I can only hope that one day I am able to exhibit even a portion of the humility he displays.

On a lighter note, I am now convinced that the Bosnian way of hiking is superior to the American REI gear and trail-mix infused method. I saw hundreds of Bosnians doing the Peace March in poor shoes (including Crocs!), drinking nothing but coffee and tea, and chain smoking cigarettes breeze right past us like it was a leisurely afternoon stroll.  We were even told that you have not truly done the Peace March until you have done it in bad shoes!

In the end, it was an experience that I would not trade for anything. I am not sure I would do it again, but for anyone reading this and debating participating, do it! You may curse yourself during the March for signing up, but I promise once you complete the March, you will cherish the accomplishment and what you went through for those three very long, hot, and rough days.

Returning to Bosnia, First Impressions

IMG_0943After an almost two-year hiatus, it feels great to be back in Bosnia. Although my first experience here was short, at 12 days, it left a unique impression on me that few places have. There are so many aspects that are alluring about Bosnia- its unique mix of cultures, its tragic recent history, the physical beauty, and of course the food. Being back has filled me with an excitement I seldom feel at home and so far the experience has been nothing but positive. I feel strongly a significant part of having had a positive experience here initially (and hopefully throughout the program!) relies on my attitude. For anyone who has traveled, or plans to spend extensive time aboard, being adaptable, open-minded, and accepting are three traits that are a recipe for a positive and fulfilling experience. And so far the whole Global Practice group has exhibited those traits, which I hope will continue to happen! As for my internship, I couldn’t be happier with my with the project (researching de-radicalization methods for Islamic radicals and returned fighters from Syria in Bosnia). The only worry I have is, as an intern who works remotely, I will have a harder time meeting locals to build friendships vs. those who are able to interact with local co-workers every day in person. That said, I’ll just have to adapt to the reality that I will have to put a little extra effort in to make that happen. With one week in the books, I am loving my time here and looking forward to what is in store for the next 7 weeks!