Back in Sarajevo- Reflections and Concerns

After 6 days of relative relaxation while visiting friends in Dubrovnik, I’m back at Hotel Kovaci in Sarajevo. Its as if nothing has changed, and simultaneously everything has changed. None of our cohort is here, so I am reflecting alone. As I type I can hear the last call to prayer coming from the nearest Mosque. It’s a comfort to me, and somehow makes me feel less alone. I had a fairly enjoyable van ride back to Sarajevo from our friend and driver Muhamed, and when we crossed the last checkpoint into Bosnia, I realized I was oddly comforted by the sight of Mosques again, which had been noticeably absent in Croatia.

I’m struck by my reaction to this, because I disclosed to our cohort halfway through the trip that I had never before seen a Mosque in real life, and it was an entirely new and foreign experience for me. I’ve been an atheist since my early teens, but my time in Bosnia has often made me feel impressed and humbled by the quiet, respectful faith of the Bosniak Muslims we have met. A lot of my family is Catholic, so it seems reasonable I would feel more at home in largely Catholic Croatia, yet all I could think about when I saw Catholic cathedrals there was the absence of any Mosque. I think it really drove home the point of how divided the Balkans are on ethnic and religious lines. While Yugoslavia was, perhaps in someways, an idealistic utopia that could not last, I think Tito was headed in the right direction. Yugoslavs lived in a mainly secular society, but where they were still welcome to privately practice their own religious ceremonies and beliefs. They did not burn down churches, temples or Mosques. They did not attack others on ethnic or religious grounds. Apart from, perhaps, Sarajevo, all that I have witnessed of the Balkan region seems highly divided. The disparities can be subtle, yet I cannot help to notice them, and feel the tensions hanging in the humid air; these tensions seem to be quietly tucked away, but ever present.

I think it would be impossible for me to fully express how grateful I am to ever person I have encountered on this trip. It is even more impossible to express how grateful I am to the people I was not able to meet, will never be able to meet- those who have passed on, who lost their lives to various tragedies and atrocities during the war. I don’t feel grateful in the way that some might feel towards the soldiers of their country, who they feel lost their lives valiantly in an effort for the ‘greater good.’ I don’t think that there were many ‘martyrs,’ because the majority of the dead wanted no part of a senseless and cruel war. They were innocent victims, who lost their chance at living a full life. So what I am grateful for is their continued presence through their loved ones, through their stories, through their experiences that were captured by photojournalists. Their memories are valuable and important. They existed- even if some Serbian officials and civilians would like to pretend otherwise. Their lives mattered and their deaths mattered.

Tomorrow I will make the long journey back to the U.S., and while I’m excited for the comfort of home (and seeing my dog) I cannot help but feel apprehensive, and even a little sick at the thought of returning to a homeland that is following a trend of nationalism and racial hatred, not unlike such sentiments that led to brutality and genocide in Bosnia and other former countries of Yugoslavia. Muslims are similarly targeted and ‘othered’ in current American society, and the welfare of any person who is presently undocumented in the U.S. is at serious risk. People from neighboring countries to the U.S. (especially Mexico and Central America) are being treated as if they are less human, less worthy of dignity and respect than those that reside slightly north of them. I fear we have already begun to repeat many of the steps that were taken by certain Serbians in the early 90’s, which led to death, destruction, and moral and cultural decay. Why does the greater community state “Never Again” after a genocide, and then state the exact same phrase a few years later? After the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Rwanda, after Bosnia, after Kosovo…is there an end in sight, that can be found intellectually or otherwise? Or are humans merely doomed to repeat the past, and form new tragic histories? I don’t have the answer to these answerless questions, so I can only be more steady in my resolve to challenge myself and others to have courage in the face of fascism, and to not give into nationalist rhetoric that preys on the the civilian fears needed to uphold them. I will not forget what the people of Bosnia have taught me, and I will not forget the warning echoes from the graves.

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Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

I have been struck, horrified, and amazed over the last three days. It would be impossible to put every experience into words- some things simply have no verbal expressions powerful enough to describe them. Up until our trip to the greater region of Srebrenica on Monday, things have been able to remain somewhat lighthearted. We learned about how painful and violent life was in Sarajevo during the war, but we have also experienced a lot of joy and liveliness here. That was not the case in Srebrenica.

We were met by Hasan for our journey. He is a remarkable person, and exudes a steady and strong confidence in his presence, despite having endured a tragic life. Having survived the Death March of Srebrenica as a young teenager, it does seem fairly appropriate that he would not be fearful of much else in life.

We drove through steep and winding roads to get there, and with my habit of motion sickness, I took a dramamine and tried to close my eyes for most of it. I wish I didn’t have this affliction, so that I could have seen all of the countryside and territory that we crossed. What I did see when we closer to our destination, further northeast of Sarajevo, that many houses were standing empty, blown out, and burned out. They looked like that had been uninhabited for years, and that is exactly why they looked that way. After the genocide and mass deportation of Bosniak Muslims in the area, many homes were destroyed and never returned to. It is an eery, depressing environment, surrounding by beautiful landscapes and lush greenery.

Our first important stop that day was at the ICMP- International Commission on Missing Persons, located here in the town of Tuzla. It is so small and unassuming, without clue as to the immensity of the content inside. Human bones. So many human bones. It was overwhelming in every possible way to the senses. Sight, smell, sound…listening inside of the tiny to Dragana (a woman who is instrumental in running a ridiculously underfunded DNA identification program) I can hear something else in the background. It’s a light clattering sound, and somewhere in the back of my mind I know its the sound of bones being moved around, though I’m trying to and hoping to think its anything else. That is later confirmed for me though, when the tour of the unimaginable is over. At the far end of the room the door is open and I walk into a room that is largely empty except for several bags of bones tied up in material that you can see them through. Earlier I must have heard someone moving them around. These are the bones that are mysteries to the analysts, not knowing who they possibly belong to. Many mass graves were dug up and moved around by the Serbian army, as a way to try and cover up their brutal crimes.

Our final important stop that day was at the home of Saliha, another incredible survivor. Her home was a beautiful oasis in the sad landscape, with the most amazing garden one could imagine; an amazing feat in my eyes, as she lives alone and does this entirely herself. Saliha lost her entire family in the genocide of Srebrenica- a husband and two sons. She wakes up everyday reminded of her pain and loss in beautifully and humble home that was rebuilt, and that is empty. She has withstood the most unbearable experiences imaginable. And she does not keep a fence around her garden to keep deer and other creatures out, because she says simply that she grows enough food for everyone.

The same remarkable presence can be said of the two other survivors we met on the following day, at the genocide memorial in Potocari. Nura was another mother of Srebrenica, who lost four sons and her husband during the Death March. She was one of few women to attempted to walk it herself, in her determination to not be separated from her beloved family. She cannot speak about this without crying, and you can see how heavily it weighs on her still. I’m crying along with her, as many of us are.

Nedzad is a survivor of an execution site, of whom there are only 10 survivors like him. He was only 17 years old when this happened to him. He is brave enough to tell his harrowing tell in an effort to make the truth known, and bring consolation and recognition to the loss of loved ones to so many- so narrowly avoiding death himself that he many times wished it upon himself in the grueling and torturous hours of his experience. I find myself so amazed at his poise and presence as well, and I feel that he must be one of the strongest men alive today, living on to be a husband, father, and presenter on his experience of the crimes and genocide of Srebrenica.

I will never forget any of these people. Their only wish is for others like us to spread their story so that their loss and their loved ones are not forgotten. The truth cannot be denied, though many try to suppress it. I hope to be able to honor their wishes, and help to combat hatred in society that leads to such violent ends. The simple passing of time will not be enough to heal the wounds of Srebrenica, and the world needs to be a part of offering some hope for healing.

From the Coast to the Mountains

These last couple days have proved to be as interesting, challenging and unique as the beginning. I have learned to expect the unexpected in Bosnia, and that adaptation to changes is something that really must be embraced.

We had the opportunity to spend a day and night on the coast in Neum, which was beautiful, and a welcome change, especially coming from landlocked Colorado! We swam in the Adriatic sea and it was an amazing color of turquoise-green. I have been looking forward to doing some swimming all year, and it really felt like a privilege to be able to partake in that, while I have been dreaming of immersing myself in water after every hot day we trek through. Our driver was SPECTACULAR and I loved talking to him at dinner; he had many interesting stories to share, and though the language difference was a barrier, it did not stop us from connecting and learning.

Today we hiked up Mt Lukomire, in spite of the cool, rainy weather. I am not one to usually hike on a rainy day, so again, it was an expected occurrence I decided to go with, and embrace the experience rather than feel negatively about. At first I was rather annoyed, because we were walking through long wet grass, and my shoes were not waterproof, not did I have any kind of raincoat. If I was in CO, I could easily see myself complaining heavily or turning around. And what a wasted opportunity it would have been, had I decided to ride in the bus rather than brave the cold and rain. It was a beautiful hike, unlike I have ever done before, with more wildflowers than I think I have ever seen in my life. The cool mist made the surrounding mountains look like something out of a fairy tale, or Lord of the Rings, as I kept finding myself thinking about.

It also felt so rewarding to finish the trek, and reach the top of the mountain where the village of Lukomire was. What a comforting feeling to get out of the rain and spend time inside of the warm, humble home of our hosts, who were incredibly gracious and generous. It was quite powerful to see how these Bosnian families live in such a remote area, without access to many comforts of the modern world. I think I was most surprised by the outhouse/toilet, which was simply a hole in the ground inside of a small structure. Before this trip I had never attempted to use such a bathroom, and though it was rather shocking and uncomfortable, it was certainly not an impossibility. It increased my admiration and respect for the people of Bosnia, especially the families in this tiny village. They are strong, resourceful and seem to have an empowerment and sense of self that is entirely their own. Salima and her family made us traditional food that was delicious, and you could tell they were proud of their traditions, no matter how simple their surrounding.

It was really nice to meet Nahima briefly; even though she had not been feeling well after fasting for Ramadan in her old age, she came out to see us all the same. She greeted us with warm smiles, and for me- warm socks! I purchased some colorful socks from her that she had knitted, and it was such a great feeling to wear those home on the bus rather than my soaking wet shoes and socks. I hadn’t expected to be able to get socks from her (likely made from the wool of their mountain sheep!), and it was another reminder to me that things will eventually work out somehow, even in situations that might initially be uncomfortable or out of the norm. I hope that these experiences carry over with me to Denver, so that I can continue to embrace the unexpected and uncomfortable with open arms. Without leaving your comfort zone, some great experiences can be easily missed…

Good Morning Sarajevo

We have been in Sarajevo for 3 days and already I feel I have learned and gained so much. I’m not sure I have ever done/seen so many things in a days time as we have so far in such a brief amount of time. It is really a very different kind of travel experience. Not much about this trip has felt self-indulgent, which is how most travel vacations often feel. Of course, we are not missionaries, nor are we saviors. We are not here to assist others, we are here to learn from others about difficult life experiences that we have been fortunate enough to never have experienced ourselves.

My decision to embark on this Bosnian adventure was not necessarily an easy one. Travel and anxiety go hand in hand for me. I think that my anxiety has been exacerbated to some degree on this trip, because I never had to leave behind a dog before now. My dog Riggs is my best friend (he has lived with me for almost 2 years), and it breaks my heart on a daily basis to be away from him, especially when I wonder about how he is perceiving this change, wishing I could somehow reassure him that I am definitely coming back. Riggs is also my emotional support animal, and I am reliant on him to an extent for helping me manage my anxiety and depression. I think in some ways this is an important growing process for me though, because this trip is really an experience of learning about sacrifice, hardship, and going without; while maintaining hope and love for what is meaningful in life.

The people of Sarajevo lived under the longest siege in modern history, and that they ‘went without’ is an incredible understatement. Years without access to proper food, water, shelter, medicine, electricity, and really, basic human rights, was a harsh reality for the people of Sarajevo during the Bosnian civil war. I think about the lack of water here most often, I think because I cannot imagine a life without constant access to water when I need it.  Without water, life ceases to exist. The days here have been very hot so far, and I have relied on the sources of water in the city to stay hydrated. There are several places in downtown Sarajevo where sprigs continuously flow cold clean water for passerby’s to collect and drink, and it breaks my heart to think of how difficult it was for the people of Sarajevo to get a drink of water during the siege. Extreme thirst is something no human being should have to endure, and I am sometimes ashamed of my privilege, in that I have never gone a day in my life where I was not able to have a drink of water. We really take it for granted- I know I do. You do not appreciate what you have got until it is gone.

On a happier note, I was so happy to learn more from the creators of ‘Scream for Me Sarajevo.’ It is such a beautiful and powerful film, rich with music, imagery, and pure life force. It is something else that makes me recognize my privilege, and makes me want to reevaluate the way I approach music and concerts. Though a little less physically urgent than the need for water, I cannot imagine a life without music. Music gives life context, meaning, and freedom of expression. The fact that the people of Sarajevo lost their access to music (for the most part) during the war, is something I think people do not often think about as one of the tragedies of war. In a way, music also seems like a human right, and something else that I take for granted. I like the idea that Bruce Dickenson was ‘the one true ambassador’ to the people of Bosnia during the war. Rock and Roll can often be a selfish, indulgent world, but in this case, it was exactly the opposite. It was exactly what the young people of Sarajevo needed in order to have hope, and to feel that they were not alone and forgotten in the world.

Each morning when I step outside of our hotel, I think to myself ‘Good morning Sarajevo,’ and I am excited to see what the rest of these days bring.