Coming home…and leaving one behind.

I’ve been trying to find the best way to effectively put into words my experience and associated feelings for my life this summer in Sarajevo.  To say it’s difficult, is a voracious understatement.  I’m brought to near tears and my heart feels full when I consider the friendships I built, the stories I heard about the war, how connected I felt with people I knew for a few weeks to only a few months.  I was cared for and about.  I knew that if I was hurt, sick, sad, confused, or scared, I had people to turn to – and those they directed me to, also cared about helping me.   This may seem self-centered.  I hope I gave back as much as I was given.  But this is the experience that swells within me when I remember Sarajevo. 20150811_230434

We hear often about traveling to “third world countries” and unsafe war-torn places, and for many, Bosnia is on this list. The first thing I tell people is how beautiful the country and the people are. How warm and safe I felt while I was there. That I recommend they look into experiencing the culture and country for themselves. And that no, it is not a “third world country” it is a recovering country. And most people I spoke with felt the same – we are all human, we all bleed the same, we need to be one country again without religious discrimination (we understand that here, don’t we).

20150731_152410One day I hope to return to one of my favorite countries. I will visit my friends, the natural beauty, the clean water accessible everywhere (for animals and human-animals alike), and the little big city that I fell in love with. And I hope my friends and readers do as well. And please, don’t change it to meet your perception and beliefs of perfection. And don’t believe everything you see or read in the media.  Experience it yourself, you’ll see…

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We have a lot to learn

There was a war here. This seems universally agreed upon.  Hundreds of thousands of people died from all backgrounds – Muslims, Serbians, Croatians (Isn’t it interesting how we still place religious beliefs with ethnic backgrounds?).  What isn’t universally agreed upon is the genocide. In one week more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed.  They were separated from women and very young children and put on buses to be transported to different massacre sites – schools, open fields, soccer fields – where they were lined up and fired upon.  If anyone answered that they had survived, they were shot point blank.  We heard the testimony of one man who didn’t answer the call and was able to escape, he was the only one from that site.  We met another young man who was concealed under a woman’s skirts, he was the only male survivor at his site.

Women were also targeted – between 40,000 and 70,000 women were raped as a weapon of war – many forced to live in rape camps.  But this isn’t a common conversation here.  In fact, we had to ask to learn more details about how the women fared. Rape is taboo. It’s shameful. And too often the survivors are fearful of sharing their stories, of telling anyone, and so their torture often continues. Why is there so much shame around the world about rape when it is unfortunately far too common?

We spent three days learning more about this genocide and some of the post-conflict activities. And there is far too much to include in one post. We visited both campuses of the ICMP – the International Committee for Missing Persons in Tuzla.  At one site, the remains of the found are stored and forensic anthropologists sort through the bones before attempting to put the skeleton back together.  At the other site, they test each bone to find DNA matches. They must match with a 95.5% before families are notified that a family member has been found. The ICMP has been crucial for healing and closure to surviving family members.

We met a woman, Saliha Osmanovic, who lost her husband and sons.  Her husband can be seen in footage, A Cry From the Grave, where he and others were asked to call their sons out of the “safety” of the woods under the impression that if they surrendered they would be saved. They were all executed.  Saliha now lives alone on the Serbian/Bosnian border and says she has a bag packed in case she needs to flee again.  She is a brave woman who has testified against war criminals – looking them in the eyes and sharing what she witnessed. She is a well-known person and has been invited to speak around the world to share her story.  What does she want us to take from what we have learned?  She wants us to share her story. To share the story of all the Bosnians. To learn from it.  To never let it happen again.

What does this mean for me?

It means that I have seen through other’s experiences the disconnect between the policy level and the civil level.  Often, we make plans for people and places we’ve never been, never experienced, don’t understand. Things “should” work. However, they often don’t.  I do believe many of our officials in UN-like organizations have the best intentions and yet often don’t know the reality of their impact.  The disconnect is vast and we must find a way to bridge this gap if we are to really make a difference for those who want it.

It means I’m angry that so many people were tortured and killed here. I’m disgusted that there is such evil in this world, that a human can take another human’s life – in this case thousands of lives, of all ages. The hardest thing for me was watching how the men were psychologically tortured before they were killed. I don’t understand how we still allow propaganda to rule our thinking and how so many people blindly follow a person or a system without questioning the intent, the impact, the ethics. How do we teach bravery to stand up to what we fear, what we believe is wrong?  I’m sad for all of the people who experienced this war, this genocide. I’m sad that this kind of conflict often leaves behind a separation of people and vicarious racism. I’m thankful for all of the people who came together, who fight the ignorance of racism. I’m grateful for those who remain open-hearted and want to see a unified society, once again. I want to heal my friends. I want to stop this from happening elsewhere.  I want other Americans to see that we too are allowing propaganda and hatred to cloud our humanitarian spirits.  I know this will be a challenge for me. It is one I am willing to embrace if it means that even a small difference is made, somewhere.  We can make changes. And we must do it together.

ICMP: “The BiH Law on Missing Persons, enacted in 2004 (BiH Official Gazette 50/2004), was the first such piece of national legislation related to missing persons anywhere in the world. It prescribed the families’ right to the truth about the fate of their missing relatives as well as the right to information about ongoing investigations. It also prescribed the creation of the Missing Persons Institute with a mandate to search for and identify missing persons across the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina thereby ending the discriminatory practice of searching for missing persons based on their ethnicity or religion. It prescribed the creation of both the Central Records of missing persons and a Fund for the Families of the Missing. It also made provision for sanctions against individuals who withhold information pertaining to the fate of missing persons” (International Commission for Missing Persons, 2014).

A Cry From the Grave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fliw801iX84

ICMP: http://www.ic-mp.org/where-we-work/europe/western-balkans/bosnia-and-herzegovina/

It’s Raining Men!

I notice when I am out and about how many men there are in Sarajevo – groups of older men having coffee at the cafes, young men in groups at the local bars, and the lack of noticeable local women in the same settings.  So where do the women hang out?

This past week I hurt my back – I felt it coming but was not prepared for the discomfort I’ve experienced since Wednesday night. And as my experience here has shown, I have felt an abundance of kindness, generosity, and flexibility.  My hostel family set me up with a doctor and physical therapist who have been very helpful and so reasonably priced. I also have to add them to my “Strangers who have seen me in my underwear: Sarajevo Experiences” list.  I am not a shy person, of course I have my body insecurities in regards to my recent weight gain, as most of us do, however, I’m comfortable in my skin. Even with this, it still takes a deep breath and a boost of self-confidence when I’m asked to undress in front of strangers here (doctors, massage therapists, etc.).  In America, we are given paper gowns of some kind, a few moments alone to undress, and here, so far, it has been, “OK, take your clothes off and climb onto the table.”  And of course, this has become a group joke.  I’m now keeping a tally.  But this also speaks to the culture here: it’s relaxed, unpretentious, and accepting.  Who cares about seeing a little nakedness, it’s natural, it’s benign, and, there have been bigger things to think about here.

Although my back is still uncomfortable, I feel like I am in good hands and I am told to “Be careful” and “Listen to my back.”  Shouldn’t we all listen to our bodies more?

Also this week, I was asked to cover the front desk at the hostel, what an honor!  I love my hostel family. I love that they trust me and are comfortable enough to ask. I also love that I have the opportunity to give them something back for all of their time, kindness, and generosities.  And, I’m meeting new friends every day at the hostel while continuing to build and strengthen my new friendships within our group.

Tomorrow we head out to Tuzla and Srebrenica.  I’m am sure we will have lots to write about upon our return.

My fellow DU “Sarajevoans” arrived back from the Peace March and Commemoration on Sunday, and I couldn’t have been happier to see them.  While they were gone my days were filled and yet there was an emptiness in the hostel that can only be filled with them.  I enjoy having my three roommates around.  Ask me again in a month and perhaps my story will be different, but for now, I’m enjoying the constant slumber party feel we have in the hostel.  And so far, no fights over the bathrooms, which I find VERY impressive.

Hearing their stories and reading their blog posts, reminds me of the kindness our human species is capable of.  The Bosnians are grieving and commemorating a horrific period in their lives and/or the lives of their loved ones, and yet the DU Sarajevoans felt an abundance of gratitude, generosity, and kindness from them.  I am vicariously grateful and inspired, once again, by my fellow students here and the beautiful strong people of Bosnia.  They are resilient in a way we don’t often see – their laughter is bright, their kindness encompassing, and their bravery, courageous.  I adore my people here – all of us.

Last night all of the other students went to a fudbal game, and although I think it would be a neat cultural experience, I don’t love big rambunctious crowds (the riot police were there just in case), so I stayed at the hostel.  Ann headed upstairs and I hung out with Hassan and another long-term boarder from Eqypt.  And as the night went on, our hosts returned from the French Ambassador’s Bastille Party and began feeding me and all of the other boarders who were present.  Sead and Naida have a garden and he has been bringing little pears for us to eat – “All natural,” he says, “No chemicals, fresh.” That’s just the way I like them, Sead.  And while I was being fed and kept company, my buddies returned and were also fed (when it comes to food and drink here, no is not an option).

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I continue to feel grateful for the way we have been embraced into the lives of our hostel family, friend-families, and with each other.

My cup runneth over…

Blogs are becoming harder and harder to write. So much happens in a day – new thoughts, feelings, activities…my days feel full even when they are mellow.

Last weekend we had a program trip to Mostar and Kravice (cra-vee-tzeh) Falls. Mostar is beautiful and has a deep history in the war. I can’t help feel regret when history is lost at human’s careless hands.  The main bridge in Mostar, built during the Ottoman Empire, was blasted to pieces during the war. It withstood so many punches and still stood…until if finally fell completely.  But the people here did their best not to “improve” the bridge by building something modern, instead, they did their best to replicate it and rebuilt it in its original fashion.  For me, it stands for their power to rebuild, their respect for their history, for the love they have of their country, and memorializing what has fallen in the war.  They haven’t forgotten, I hear repeatedly, that they must not allow themselves to forget what happened, lest it happen again.  And in rebuilding the bridge, they used as many pieces as they could rescue from the river below. They didn’t replace the bridge entirely, they integrated the old with the new, encapsulating what has become their new society.

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From Mostar we went to Kravice Falls – what a treat!  After the heat and the crowds in Mostar, the falls were a welcome experience.  We were able to climb among the falls, swim if we chose in the lake, and just relax.

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From there, we students (minus our professor and coordinators) rented cars and headed to Makarska, Croatia for the weekend. What a trip!  We visited Makarska and Brac (Brach) which is an island off the coast of Croatia.  Although it was REALLY hot, the water was glorious – blue, calm, clear – no waves, fish and crabs swimming freely, water we could see to the bottom of, and refreshingly salty.  The beaches are rocky instead of sandy, which I’m more accustomed to.  So you make some changes, wear waterproof sandals, have a thicker towel – easy fixes.  It was lovely to sit and just enjoy the surroundings and the company.

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This week at internship, I was asked to join a training in a town called Teslic (teslich) in the area called Republic of Srpska.  There is a tri-government here in Bosnia to represent the three distinct areas.  It gets a little confusing understanding the how’s and why’s – however, it is.  The training was for the Education and Life Skills team and to bring the office folk and the people in the field together.

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What am I going to work on while I am at this internship?  The need to pay everyone back.  Because this was a training, and I felt that my internship was spending money on me, I felt the need to pay them back in work.  However, my supervisor had a very different perspective.  At the end of the second day she said exasperated, “I bring you hear to enjoy, and you work.” I didn’t know!  I thought that was expected of me.  I did fit in a 28 km massage and attempted to sit by the pool (it was way too hot outside), I did take a nap, and spoil myself with a lovely hot shower.  But I worked when I should have been enjoying.  Balance here is prominent.  “Why do you Americans get your coffee and go? Why don’t you sit and enjoy it?” Yes, why is this?  “Coffee” (you can order tea, voda (water), or what you like) is for connecting, for enjoyment, to talk without rush or stress.  I was told at my internship that deals are often made over a meal, coffee is enjoyment.  I want to remember this when I am attempting to multitask and fighting to keep up with the chaos around me.  Why do we rush just so we can relax?  Where is the balance in that?

When I arrived back at the hostel, my friend from California, Erica, had arrived.  She was in fantastic hands with the owners of the hostel, Sead (say-odd) and Naida. Sead picked her up from the airport, Naida put her to bed for a nap, and they gave her directions to a restaurant, where, upon her arrival found out they had called ahead to make sure she was well taken care of. How wonderful is this?!

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Her trip was fast and wonderful.  Since most of my group is on the Peace March and the others are traveling, it was lovely to have time to focus on showing Erica around and catching up.  She got on swimmingly with one of the other students, bonding over books (she is a librarian!) and Shannon, who introduced us to a tea shop with the most welcoming owner and employees.  And last night, as Erica and I were lounging in our common space, Sead came upstairs to invite us to Iftar. What a treat!  We enjoyed another fabulous dinner with Sead and Naida and afterwards they took us and another traveler from Turkey out for kafa and caj (coffee and tea).  My cup overflows.

Today, Erica left and I filled my day, while waiting for my friends to return, with a hair appointment, emails, and my blogs.

I have realized that although there are times I feel disconnected, this is a great opportunity for me to practice connecting.  During the training in Teslic, I felt removed, unsure how to connect with my colleagues who seemed comfortable in their group.  I realize that part of it was my own shyness, my own insecurity with the local language, and uncertainty of the expectations.  But I was reminded of a few things:

Do what is comfortable for me, I don’t have to wait for permission.

Enjoy life, it’s happening all around me

Barriers aren’t always personal and what we make them to be in our thoughts.  Before I left, one of my colleagues approached me and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t speak to you, my English, it’s not so good.” And in that moment, I realized I wasn’t alone in my communication insecurities. The barrier wasn’t just mine.

My massage therapist, upon asking where I was from and hearing my answer, “California”, burst out, “WHY ARE YOU HERE?! California is perfect. Everyone there is perfect.”

Aside from meeting me, whom is far from perfect, she still proclaimed this.

I responded, laughing, “That California is only portrayed that way in movies.”

She quickly replied, “Don’t ruin it for me.”

Hahaha.  Perceptions are our reality, no matter where we live.

And now I realize that upon my friends’ arrival back to the hostel, perceptions will have changed. Many of them attended the Peace March and the memorial in Srebrenica.  My friend at internship have told me that it is so heavy, they only did it once.  They encourage me to be supportive of my friends who may experience intense emotions over the coming days. I’ve done my best to prepare and hope that although heavy, this experience has brought enlightenment that they will share with me.  I’m looking forward to their return.

More information about the Peach March this year:  http://www.aa.com.tr/en/news/554037–bosnia-peace-march-to-mark-srebrenica-genocide-ends

It’s da bass, da bass

There is a beat that surrounds me. It is the bass at a nearby bar, Cheers, “Where everyone knows your name.”  Sounds familiar right?  There is also a Murphy’s Pub downstairs.  The music is a constant rhythm that I fall asleep to each night. It’s not loud and obnoxious, it’s just there.  It’s like this city. It’s bustling, beautiful, and constant. I think that’s one of the many reasons I like it so much so far. It isn’t a high-rise city where the sky and the natural world gets lost. It’s a small city. A city where trees are present, the surrounding hills are lush and green and the buildings don’t block out the sun, clouds, and beautiful blue skies.  There is a feeling of openness in the streets from the amalgamation of the culture, the structures, and the people…and possibly the low number of cars in our area.

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I would love to find decaffeinated coffee or kafa bez kofeina.  I do miss it.  And I get wary and silly looks for even suggesting the existence of kafa bez kofeina.  What a silly American.  I can find Americano bez kofeina at the nearby fancy hotel, Hotel Europe, which I take advantage of when my friends partake in the beautiful desserts they offer.  There is an open-air market very close to my internship where I have found the most glorious fresh foods that are clearly more natural than what we find in grocery stores back home.  The blueberries are tiny and come still attached to branches, as do the cherries and other fruit. And everything has such flavor here.  The tomatoes taste as if they just came off an organic plant – food just tastes different here, even when it is food we are accustomed to back home.

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Last night I decided to make a salad with my purchases of the day and to make some pesto pasta.  Upon arriving in the kitchen, I found our hostel owner, Sead (say-odd), in the kitchen preparing their Iftar (if-tar) meal of delicious smelling soup.  He is a lovely man who asks about my day, holds my hand as we chat, and has been helpful in settling in here.  He gave me a cooking lesson and then sent me to the dining table with a bowl of his homemade soup and an order to stay put.  He brought me my dinner after cooking it entirely!  What a treat.  He shared their meal with most of us last night with a smile and a gentle pat on the back.  And upon going to the kitchen to do my dishes, was ushered out as Hasan (ha-sawn – the owners nephew) took my dirty dishes from me.  Naida (niy-ee-da), Sead’s wife, waves us out of the kitchen often and together they take care of all of our necessities: laundry, available fresh fruit, breakfast, toilet paper in the bathrooms, clean sheets and towels, procuring cell phones, encouraging smiles, the list goes on and on.

Yesterday I did a little recon to find out what color the decaf Nescafe (instant coffee is what we drink here) is. And in my specialty store where I find my gluten-free/egg-free foods, I found it!

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We were also invited to join our hosts for their Iftar last night, what a special treat.  They had been fasting all day and still insisted upon serving us first. There is always a bit of guilt and a need to jump up to help – I think they find it sweet and rude if we insist.  It was a multiple course dinner.  We started with more of the delicious soup, followed by a traditional egg and four kinds of cream dish (I didn’t partake in this due to an intolerance to egg), then we had a beef and mushroom dish, with an onion cream and tomato dish, then a “pita” dish (fillo filled with beef, cheese, or spinach), and finally a dessert that must have taken all day to prepare with layers of cake, custard, jello, and fruit.  What a feast!  It was an almost three hour dinner with friends, food, and delightful conversation.

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And we learned more about the superstitions here: breezes are deadly to your nervous system, sitting upon cold surfaces in months with an “r” in it will freeze your ovaries, and sitting at the corner of a table is an omen you won’t get married. There are others but these are the ones we discussed last night.  Tonight it’s off to meet a reporter who Katie is working with.  I can’t wait!

First Impressions

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Green. Lush. Bustling. Kind. Friendly. Willing. Helpful. Colorful. Historic. This city feels very international. I have heard many languages spoken as we have wandered our neighborhood.  Our hostel family is generous and friendly and the hostel building is so BIG.  It is a wonder to me that it was once the owner’s family residence.  And I haven’t even seen it all.

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We took a walking tour around our neighborhood and then went to a few historical sites.  The walking tour was helpful to orient us to our new space and to show us some of the wonderful places I am excited to visit.  And a nun kicked us out of a church.  That’s always a little exciting.  Plus, I had been asking if anyone wanted to go to Turkey to attend the fish foot baths and we came across a Fish Spa!  And you can bet I have already tried it out. ;0) It was odd and delightful. I recommend trying it!

We also went to the escape tunnel by the airport.  It is an 800 meter tunnel from one side of the airport that was under siege to the other side of the airport that was free.  It is a small tunnel measuring about 1 meter across and about 1.6 meters high.  We watched footage of people traversing through this tunnel carrying in food, water, a live goat, and weapons.  It looked to me that it was only men in the tunnel…I didn’t ask our guide about this.  During the war, part of Sarajevo was cut off from the rest of the city and the world. People were rationing food, burning furniture, books, anything they could to stay warm and to cook what little food they had.  This tunnel helped save many lives and to reduce the cost of food and goods during the siege.

That same day, we went to the Olympic bobsled that was built for the 1984 Olympics here in Sarajevo. It was later used by the Bosnian Serb forces as an artillery position and now is a hangout for graffiti artists, teenagers, and skateboarders.  We walked the entire bobsled run and how I wish I could share the sound of the birds and the smell of the forest we walked through. The area is overgrown and the bobsled run is slowly falling apart, but the memories of what it was are very alive. Bosnia first full day 127Bosnia first full day 114Bosnia first full day 125Bosnia first full day 136

We visited a Jewish cemetery that was used as a sniper nest during the war.  It is hard to imagine such a vibrant city being under siege.  We stood where massacres occurred and where the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand and the Duchess of Hohenberg, Sophia Ferdinand were assassinated (the event said to have started WWI).

It’s hard to imagine this city during a genocide – only 20 years ago.  The city is green and beautiful. We are staying in the older part of the city and I love it so far. There are buildings here from the 1600’s which is a little mind blowing. The streets are colorful and the area is walkable.  People are out and about day and night and everything feels so alive.  Trees grow in the best places, stray animals (that I want to find homes for) look cared for and seem welcome in the city.  There are organizations here to help keep the stray population from growing but no shelters for the animals to reside. They just reside everywhere. There are many pet dogs in outdoor cafes with their owners and walking about the city.  It’s truly lovely here.Bosnia first full day 012 (2)Bosnia first full day 070 (2)

My internship with World Visions International officially started today. As of now, I am working with the Education and Livelihood team and the People and Culture teams.  I will learn more after my meeting with my main supervisor and I am hoping to be in the field visiting their partner organizations and program sites.  The focus of World Visions International is child protection and vulnerable populations (like the Roma population here) and I think it might be a great fit. There are already so many connections between my education, passions, and their projects.  I’m very excited to jump into their organization.

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My first impressions are of a beautiful city with welcoming and beautiful people. The history of war is in their everyday lives from the traumas they have experienced to the shrapnel, missal, and gunfire damage in their buildings and homes.  Like I said, it is hard to imagine that this city and these kind, resilient people I meet have experienced a genocide and the traumas associated with war, displacement, and loss.  Their spirit of strength is beautiful.