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.