Final Reflections

I’ve put off writing this post for a while because I’m not sure how to sum up eight weeks of my life in one blog post. Someone recently asked me to list the top three highlights of my time in Bosnia and I had trouble answering that as well. One of the biggest highlights was definitely the Peace March. It’s a little hard to express what that experience meant to me to people at home. I think it’s difficult for people to understand what it was like unless that have experienced it for themselves. One thing that I’ll never forget is the kindness that people expressed towards me during the march. People that I didn’t know prior to the march gave me food, clothes, a place to sleep, carried my bag at times, and walked with me so that I wasn’t alone. In the States, I feel like a lot of people are just looking out for themselves so this experience kind of restored my faith in humanity a bit. If that makes any sense.

One thing that I really miss about Bosnia is the food. Before the trip, I was worried that I would have a hard time finding food that I could eat since I’m a vegetarian. However, I quickly fell in love with sirnica and krompirusha. I ate some almost every day and it always made me so happy.

Another highlight for me was definitely hanging out with the people at my internship, especially the men that took the time to teach me to play chess and the women that I worked out with. The exercise classes at the Centers for Healthy Aging were always a bright spot in my day. They’ve inspired me to go to the gym more now that I’m back in Denver. At one of the centers, the women liked to sing and dance so that was always a joy to watch. The work that Sejdefa is doing with the centers is so important and I think it’s fantastic that more centers are opening up in Bosnia and Macedonia as well.

One thing that I never got over was how crazy beautiful Bosnia is. I was obsessed with the mountains, especially those between Konjic and Mostar. I could drive through the mountains for hours and hours and never get tired of looking at them. It’s sad that such a beautiful country is still littered with so many mines.

Before I travel somewhere new, I try to have as few expectations as possible because you never know what a place is going to be like until you get there. There have been times where I’ve built up a place so much in my head that when I arrived and saw that it was so different than what I expected, I was kind of disappointed. So I had no idea what to expect before I arrived in Bosnia and the country just constantly amazed me. Some of the people that I met blew me away with their courage and stories of survival. When I look back on my summer, the people are always the first thing to come to mind.

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Internship

I’ve spent the summer interning at the Centers for Healthy Aging, which have four locations throughout Sarajevo. I’m not really sure how to sum up my experience here in a blog post so I figured I’d just write about what I did at each center last week since it was the best week that I’ve had here.

Monday: I went to the main center, which just celebrated its 7thanniversary. There is a pretty good Buregzenica nearby so I stopped there to pick up some sirnica after I got off the tram. Once I got to the center, I ate and then went to painting class. The women in the class were so friendly and welcoming. I was in awe of their painting abilities, as their paintings looked just like the pictures that they were inspired by. One lady was painting a Monet and it blew my mind.

Tuesday: I walked to the Titova center after stopping at my favorite Buregzenica along the way to pick up some krompirusha, aka potato pie. After eating, I partook in exercise class, which is one of my favorite things to do at the centers. I oftentimes can’t understand the instructions so I just copy what everyone else does. Afterwards, I played games with some of the members as well as the staff. They have a game that is like shuffleboard but isn’t shuffleboard and it’s fun to see how into it people get.

Wednesday: I went to the center up on the hill in Veleshichi. This center is small but it’s really cozy. There are always fresh flowers and a lot of the members bring food and/or drinks to share. The people at this center are super friendly. I played chess for a long time with one of the members who tried teaching me but who also really wanted to beat me. I gave him a run for his money but he ultimately won every game. We took a break from playing chess for English class and then everyone gathered around to listen to a man play the accordion and sing songs. Some of the women at this center really like to sing and they even danced a bit this time, which was fun to watch. I normally take the exercise class with some of the women but the physical therapist was on vacation this week.

Thursday: I went to the closest center, which is less than a five-minute walk from the hostel. There is a guy at this center that has been helping me improve my chess game but unfortunately, he wasn’t there today. I played chess with some of the other men and actually won my first game without my opponent letting me. I’m so bad that my opponents are usually just playing against themselves. I was so slow during a game that my opponent got distracted by the game taking place next to us and I was able to swoop in with a checkmate. This center is relatively small so I usually exercise with the women, play chess with the men and then call it a day.

Overall, I really enjoyed this week because of all the small human interactions that took place despite the language barrier.

White Water Rafting

Before I came to Bosnia, I didn’t really have much of a bucket list of things that I wanted to do this summer but there was one thing on it: white water rafting. When I realized that we’d be driving through Konjic on our way back from Mostar on Friday, I figured it would be the perfect time to go rafting on the Neretva River. I managed to convince a friend to join, booked a last-minute room in a guesthouse and off we went. We lucked out with the guesthouse location as it ended up being really close to the meeting point for our rafting adventure.

We met up with our rafting companions at a restaurant on Saturday morning. Breakfast was included in the trip so we had steaming hot donuts with kajmak and the day was off to a great start. We then piled into a van for the 45-minute drive to the entry point on the river. The mountains between Konjic and Mostar are unreal. I could stare at them for hours and never get tired of them. Once we got to the entry point, we unloaded the gear and put on our wetsuits. We “helped” carry the raft down to the river but I really wasn’t of much help. I held onto the rope as a sign of solidarity but I don’t think I carried much of the weight. To be fair though, the group was moving down the hill so fast that I was just holding on and trying not to wipe out. The river was so cold but it was absolutely beautiful. The water was so clear that you could see the bottom of the river the entire way.

I’ve rafted a couple of times before but this was my first international rafting experience. I figured that the guide would have some type of safety spiel but he just showed us how to hold the paddle and where to sit and that was about it. We just hopped on the raft and away we went. The guide would sometimes tell us the commands in English, such as “left paddle, right paddle, all together,” but he usually said the commands in Bosnian so we didn’t always know what was going on. We would just be going down the rapids and the commands would get louder and louder but we didn’t know if we were supposed to be paddling forward, backwards, on the left, on the right, or ducking into the middle. Needless to say, we had a blast. I figured that if five out of the seven people on the raft knew what was going on, that was probably good enough. At one point, we apparently didn’t follow directions very well and the raft got stuck on some rocks in the middle of a rapid. The guide got out and tried to push us around but when I looked back at one point, he had disappeared. Apparently there was a drop-off that he fell into but he got our raft off the rocks in no time.

The scenery from the raft was amazing. We rode through several canyons, some of which were massive. We also saw some underground springs that led to the river, which was really cool. We stopped a couple of times along the way to swim and have a snack. After the trip, we got dropped back off at the restaurant. Lunch was also included in the trip but we didn’t have time to sit around because we had to catch a bus back to Sarajevo. We got our food to-go and then got dropped off at the bus stop. We didn’t have any utensils to eat with so we just ate with our hands and the food was delicious. The bus pulled up right as we finished and the timing couldn’t have been better. Overall, it was a really good day and I’m entertaining the idea of rafting the Tara before I leave Bosnia.

Mountains

Bosnia-07.jpgI’m constantly amazed by how beautiful Bosnia is. I chose this picture to write about because I’m kind of obsessed with the mountains. I never get bored during long car rides here since the scenery is so amazing to look at. We hiked to Lukomir last weekend, which is Bosnia’s highest and most isolated mountain village. The mountains were unreal. Even though it poured down rain for a while and lightning struck eerily close to our group, I still really enjoyed the experience. I haven’t been taking many photos on this trip so I stole this picture from the internet. I’m not sure where it was taken but I think the mountains look similar to those near Lukomir. Photos don’t do the experience justice though.

Sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend the atrocities that took place in this country since every place that I’ve visited is stunningly beautiful. While on the Peace March, it seemed like every time I came across an amazing view of the mountains, there was a mass grave nearby. And those were only the mass graves that have been found. I probably passed other mass graves that have yet to be discovered. I felt guilty for enjoying the Peace March at times because it really wasn’t supposed to be a happy occasion. I really want to explore all that Bosnia has to offer so I’m really hoping to get in a few more hiking trips this summer.

Tuzla and Srebrenica

Last weekend, we went to Tuzla and Srebrenica to meet with survivors of the genocide. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for them to talk about such traumatizing experiences so I admire their courage. I often wondered what motivated them to speak with us, a small group of strangers, so I was grateful when Ann asked them. A common reason was because they wanted to spread the truth about what happened because so many people still deny the genocide. It kind of blows my mind that people deny what happened at Srebrenica. I don’t entirely understand the purpose of denying the genocide aside from fear of prosecution of those responsible or acts of revenge. I feel like certain acts of denial are kind of acknowledging the genocide in and of themselves. If nothing happened at an execution site, then why aren’t people allowed to visit it and lay wreaths? I can’t imagine what it would feel like to not only have your loved ones murdered but to then have people deny that it ever happened.

It was such a privilege to meet the survivors. Listening to their stories was heartbreaking at times. It’s one thing to read about genocide but it’s a whole other ballgame to meet people that have been affected by it and listen to their firsthand accounts. It really humanizes the concept of genocide as these are real human beings that have experienced the unimaginable. I thought it was interesting that many of the people that we talked to weren’t angry about what happened to them or their families. If anything, they were just angry that people deny the genocide. I can’t imagine going through something like that and not feeling resentful afterwards. I guess anger and resentment don’t really help anyone though and they’re just additional burdens to bear. Perhaps the act of forgiveness makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning.

On Tuesday, we went back to Tuzla to visit the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). I had really been looking forward to the visit but something about being inside that building made me feel nauseous. I’ve visited several genocide memorials where I saw the bones of some of the victims but seeing bones at the ICMP felt different. Victims of the Cambodian genocide were identified like the victims of the genocide here so I felt a sense of detachment when I saw bones as I toured the killing fields in Phnom Penh. However, looking at the bones at the ICMP, I couldn’t help but think about the person that they belonged to and what their family must have gone through looking for them. It is kind of sad that there isn’t enough money to do DNA testing on every single bone. If the ICMP had more money, perhaps more people would be identified and more families would be able to have a sense of closure. Although there is really never closure in circumstances like this. There is never truly justice as the victims can never be brought back.

One of the saddest moments over the weekend for me was when Saliha talked about being alone. There are so many women out there who lost their husbands and sons. They don’t have anyone to celebrate holidays with and they will never be able to have grandchildren. They have to live the rest of their lives alone. I wish that there was something more that we could do to help Saliha so that she doesn’t feel so alone. I want to be able to repay the kindness that she showed us when she welcomed us into her home. I’ve met so many people here that have been so incredibly kind to me and I feel like I need to pay it forward.

Free Choice

This week’s topic is free choice but I’ve been having a difficult time deciding what to write about. All I’ve really been thinking about for the past week is the people that I met during the Peace March but I don’t feel that it’s appropriate for me to write about them on the internet.

One experience that really stood out to me during the Peace March was that a family welcomed me into their home for an evening where I was able to take a hot shower, eat a nice meal, and sleep on a comfortable bed. It’s hard to imagine strangers back home doing such a thing. While I was eating dinner, a man at the house asked how the march was that day. Without really thinking about it, I said, “It was long. It took me 12 hours” (it was actually more like 15). He just looked at me and said, “It took me 16 days.” It was a humbling conversation as the family then talked about who they lost during the genocide. I think it’s interesting how open many people that I’ve met here are when it comes to talking about their deceased relatives. It’s been making me reevaluate how my family talks about the people that we’ve lost since we really aren’t that open about it. I think that part of the reason that people are so open about death here is so that their loved ones are never forgotten and their memory lives on.

I have a hard time comprehending how people affected by genocide have been able to move forward with their lives. I can’t even imagine the trauma that they have endured and their sense of resiliency amazes me. I recently spoke with someone who lost family during the genocide and they talked about how they forgive whoever killed their relatives even though they don’t know who they are. That was a really powerful conversation for me and it made me feel like I need to be more forgiving and let go of insignificant things that may bother me.

The Peace March

I’m not even sure where to start when it comes to describing my experience doing the Peace March. There really aren’t any words that can do it justice. As much as I’ve read about genocide, it still seems like this abstract foreign concept but my time in Srebrenica and in the Peace March really humanized it for me. Meeting people whose lives were so affected by genocide was really humbling and such an eye-opening experience.

One thing that really stood out to me during the march was how people were helping one another, including myself. I injured my knee at the end of the first day so the next two days were a real struggle. At the beginning of the second day, we had to cross a mountain and I wasn’t able to keep up with my group so I told them to go ahead. As I was hobbling up and down the mountain on my own, so many people stopped to check on me and see if I was ok or if I needed any help. At the bottom of the mountain, I stopped at a house where people were handing out food and drinks. The family that lived there gave me pants to wear as I was a little chilly just wearing shorts. They invited me to join their group, which consisted of small children, young adults, and grandparents. I couldn’t keep up so they suggested I quit and get a ride with the Red Cross to the campsite. I refused to give up that easily so I declined and continued on my own. It got to the point where I was in so much pain that I could barely walk and I started to question if I would really be able to finish. As I passed by a house with a lot of people drinking coffee, a group saw me struggling so they came to check on me. They refused to leave me and they walked with me even though I was really slowing them down. They convinced me to seek help at the next Red Cross ambulance, which really helped alleviate my pain. One of the members of the group had survived the death march so I was amazed and humbled, if those are even the right words, that he chose to walk with me every step of the way for the rest of the Peace March. After seeking help with the Red Cross, we came upon a mountain of mud, which was pretty difficult to hike up but so many people were helping each other. Every single time that I started slipping or felt stuck or I didn’t know how I was going to continue, I would look up and there would be a hand or a person with a stick reaching towards me to help me. I never would have been able to make it up the mountain on my own.

I feel like the Peach March helped me begin to comprehend some of the physical aspects that people were subjected to on the Death March but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand the mental aspects. I knew that I was safe the entire time. Food, drinks, and medical assistance were available along the way. I was able to prepare for the march ahead of time and bring the appropriate footwear and anything that I thought I might need. The people on the Death March didn’t have any of those luxuries. I can’t even imagine the psychological toll that it must have taken on people to be hunted as they ran for their lives. While the Death March exemplifies the worst of humanity, I finished the Peace March with a renewed faith in the human spirit by witnessing such resiliency and kindness.

First Impressions

I’ve had such a good experience at my internship at the Center for Healthy Aging so far. On the first day, the center celebrated its seventh year of operation with a party and an art exhibit by its oldest member, a 92 year-old man. His paintings were displayed around the center and they’re going to be exhibited in a museum in Sarajevo pretty soon. Members of the center sang and one of the highlights for me was when a man played the accordion. The director of the center handed out awards to members and staff and Ann was recognized for the work that she has done. After the party, we had cake and as I left, I noticed that some of the members formed a circle were dancing to the accordion music. I really wanted to join in so I’m hoping there will be an accordion at the next party.

My second day at the center was really nice and relaxing as we spent time getting to know the staff and some members. We helped transport artwork from the exhibit to the painter’s home and I was so excited to be welcomed into his apartment. The walls were covered with really amazing paintings and he gave us copies of a large piece that took him four months to paint. I had such a lovely time at his apartment where we chatted with his wife and looked at family photos.

Another highlight of the day was watching one of the center’s staff members make sirnica, which is one of my favorite foods so far. It’s referred to as cheese pie but it’s more like cheese rolled in phyllo dough. I’ve been really curious as to how it’s made so I was fascinated to watch the process. The dough was made from scratch without measuring the ingredients because the lady just knew exactly what to do since she started learning the process when she was eight years old. She stretched the dough out on a tablecloth until it was paper-thin. Then she spread a cheese and egg mixture along the edge and then picked up the tablecloth and shook it so that the dough rolled down. Next, she cut the roll into smaller pieces and formed them into spirals. She also made a meat and potato version. The food was made to celebrate the July birthdays of the staff members. Staff from the other centers came for the party and it was lovely to see the sense of community.

There are four Centers for Healthy Aging in Sarajevo and we spent the first two days at the original one. We’re going to be interning at a different center each day of the week, which I feel like will give me a good opportunity to explore different parts of the city. Today, we went to the second center and we partook in a group exercise activity right off the bat. We did stretches with rubber exercise bands and we definitely worked up a sweat during the 20-minute workout. Afterwards, we hung out with the staff and some of the members of the center and played cards. I had a really nice time just chatting about random things and everyday life. They gave me some tips on good places to get sirnica and other types of local food that is vegetarian friendly. They also mentioned some really cool places around Bosnia that I want to check out while I’m here. Overall, I’m really excited about interning at the Center for Healthy Aging and just getting to know people and hear their stories. I feel like this is going to be a really great cultural experience that I definitely would not have been privileged to have if I had just traveled here on my own.