The Transition

My phone blew up (figuratively) the moment I landed in Chicago on the afternoon of Friday, August 18th.  “Are you coming to work tomorrow?”  I responded as calmly as I could; explaining that I wasn’t coming in until Monday.  However, there was the part of me that felt like texting something back such as, “Are you ****ing serious?  I haven’t seen my kids in two months,  I’m coming back to a house that I’ve never slept in (so it doesn’t even feel like coming ‘home’), and I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a clean pair of skivvies in the morning since all my crap was thrown into boxes by someone else.  No!  I’m not coming to work tomorrow, so take me off the damn flight schedule…I’m resetting my currency on Tuesday!”

It seemed to go downhill from there; finding out Monday about members of my team who had moved on (not to mention the one who had coordinated his departure prior to my absence), 953 emails, and a couple of dozen voice messages….so much for the out-of-office voice prompt.   And of course, everyone seemed to think their crisis was somehow my problem.

Tuesday was a welcome reprieve from the pandemonium.  It felt good to climb back into the cockpit for a few hours and have a sense of normalcy even if it was fleeting.  And fleeting it was; Harvey pummeling Texas with the associated necessity of sourcing crews for response, finalizing end-of-year fiscal execution, coordinating several trips, etc.

So, in a nutshell, my transition home has been less than harmonious although our Pub Theology group provided a supportive forum for sharing my Bosnia experiences.  The processing is still a work in progress and probably will be for some time yet to come.  However, I can look back at the experience and see the faces of friends that I have made; connections which will last a lifetime.  It will not be my last visit to this beautiful land.  After all, I drank of the water from fountain at the old mosque; a portent of ensuring my return.

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Banja Luka

This past Wednesday and Thursday was a trip to Banja Luka (95% Bosnian Serb population) to meet with Tihomir Dakic and Duska Kudra of the Center for the Environment about their group’s efforts around environmental advocacy to help reconciliation.  While this group has done some tremendous work in spearheading efforts to block the construction of hydro projects along Bosnia’s river system, the sad fact Tihomir and Duska kept emphasizing is the constant struggle to fight the exploitative tendencies of financial short-sightedness on the part of politicians who seem more interested in personal wealth building than in conserving resources for future generations.  While we did have plenty of good discussion about their projects, much time was spent listening to them speak out their frustrations about Bosnia’s inept political system and endemic corruption; corruption which feeds ethnic nationalism and inhibits a unified sense of a country.  They shared stories about politicians giving lip service to environmental issues, yet spending government resources in a manner that reflects the greed of a consumerist mentality.  Much like in Livno, they emphasized the importance of citizen initiatives in countering profiteering at the environment’s expense.  The ‘us vs. them’ mentality of citizens attempting to influence government decisions seems to lie at the heart of their frustrations.  In fact, Duska’s sentiment reflects many of her generation in that she doesn’t really feel that Bosnia is her country; rather just a place she’s living.  And, although she understands the need for economic development and the jobs that are created from projects their group is fighting, she also understands the unsustainable nature of the proposals and sympathizes with her well-educated friends who move abroad to find unskilled labor jobs.

Livno

Livno…It was enough to make me homesick for Wyoming’s arid climate and craggy, rolling hills.  I’d rented a car and made a solo day trip to this small 11th Century (at least when it was first recorded) Western Bosnian town this past Monday to talk environmental issues with Zeljko Kristo; specifically about the Vukovi Motorcycle Club’s conservation efforts around Livno’s herd of wild horses.  Zeljko serves as the secretary of membership for the Vukovi and arrived at the Hotel Dinara for our meeting with his sixteen year old son Mario to share about their ongoing efforts and issues they face.  I was struck immediately by Mario’s grasp of the English language and was appreciative of his attendance as Zeljko’s English was not great and my Bosnian virtually non-existent.  It was also refreshing to have a youth perspective for the environmental issues I wanted to discuss.  This area had seen heavy fighting during the ’92-’95 war and the land inhabited by the herd essentially became a front line for the conflict.  Post-war estimates indicated that the herd had been reduced to 170 animals and their habitat required extensive remediation.  As this area is 80% Catholic Croat, I inquired about the impact of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” as it relates to regional conservation efforts.  Zeljko indicated that Bishops and Priests hold enormous sway in terms of conveying the importance of environmental advocacy and routinely do so.  This has helped inspire the sense of community involvement which has generated efforts to fight illegal timber harvesting and other activities detrimental to the herd’s habitat.  The good news is that, trough the Vukovi’s efforts, the herd has rebounded to around 500 animals and the community is planning the construction of artificial lakes to help mitigate damage to the environment which is affecting the availability of water for the herd.  Although I had not anticipated seeing any of the horses, I was blessed on my drive out of town to have two mares and foal cross the road in front of me…by the time I stopped the car and grabbed my camera they were wandering into the distance, but it’s a scene I’ll never forget.

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Accomplishments?

Perhaps my expectations of accomplishment were somewhat misguided by my systematic approach to work; here’s what needs to be done and here’s the sequential steps to completing the task.  I am used to having a phone sitting on my desk, Outlook on my computer, and relatively timely responses to my queries.  However, I forget that my culturally inculcated work ethic is not necessarily the global norm and, in fact, may be anecdotal to my own vernacular.  I’ve known this well enough through time spent in various places throughout Central & South America,  Europe, or the Middle East, but this awareness quickly this passes from my consciousness.  I find myself somewhat frustrated with my endeavors toward ‘project completion’ and the urge to have concrete results versus the pace at which work unfolds around me.  However, this frustration is no doubt misguided. While tangible results are important, the more critical factor is the relationships which are built during the process.  It is something which cannot be quantified; a handshake, a long chat about family over Bosnian coffee, a smile, the sincere and genuine curiosity at finding about the person and what makes them tick.  I honestly don’t know what kinds of measurable results I will have related to my projects when my time here is up, but I am confident that the friendships which have been fostered through my presence (even if fleeting) have been more productive than any ‘project’ I was ambitious enough to embark on.

What Can I Even Say?

MirI’m honestly not sure where to even begin describing my reactions about our group trip to Tuzla and Srebrenica.  The Tuzla trip was, for me, heartwarming on many levels.  Having spent almost a year at Eagle Base during my deployment with NATO’s SFOR (Stabilization Force), it was an opportunity to revisit one of the locations that spawned my love for this country.  Simply having the opportunity to stroll around town brought a torrent of fond of fond memories cascading to life; the smells of fresh baked bread triggering an almost Pavlovian response to thinking about the Nutella filled croissants I’d pick up at a small bakery in the heart of city, the people strolling around causing me to recollect the friendly welcome from the city’s residents, or the charming ‘old-world’ feel exuded from the buildings themselves reminding me of time spent throughout Europe.  The opportunity to listen to Amir Kulaglic (an electrical engineer from Srebrenica who was one of the lucky twenty-five percent to survive the grueling trek to Tuzla) discuss current approaches to transitional justice was phenomenal.  The way he wrapped up what I’d spent the last few days looking at for a project with the PCRC (Post-Conflict Research Center) was certainly timely and appropriate.  His description of transitional justice being built on four pillars (judicial action, truth telling, reparations, and institutional change) succinctly rolled the information into a manageable concept.  Our visit to Nura Begovic (Vice President of the Women of Srebrenica Assn who had lost her husband and son in the Srebrenica massacre) reinforced several similarities among many of the widows; her frustration and quest for justice were driving factors in her aggressive stance to ensure the Srebrenica massacre is not simply swept under the rug of international disinterest or ignored in hopes that the underlying societal tensions will somehow simply resolve themselves.  The opportunity to visit the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) gave me an appreciation for the extent of the forensics involved in helping families find some modicum of resolution to the vacuum which remains with the disappearance of their loved ones during the genocide.

After driving from Tuzla to Srebrenica first thing the following morning, we had an opportunity to walk from Srebrenica to Potocari.  The idea of following the very footsteps of tens of thousands of people as they fled toward what they thought would be the safety of UN protection during the fall of the city to the Bosnian-Serb army was disconcerting, but not as disturbing as walking into the abandoned battery factory (and former Dutch compound) now serving as part of the memorial.  The silence of the place somehow added emphasis to the photos placed on its walls; each of the caskets which had once been here during their journey to the cemetery still haunting the cavernous room.  The powerful sense of place was reinforced by listening to Nura Mustafic recount the tragedy of losing her husband and sons in the genocide; her pain not diminished by the passing of time.

The last day was emotionally rough and I am grateful to have started the day with a walk along the cobblestone path to the old spa.  While it’s one thing to study genocide from a purely academic perspective (or watch propaganda videos of the perpetrators enacting their deeds from the comfort of an air-conditioned building), having first-hand experience of rocket attacks and the tangible, visceral, and catastrophic results of armed conflict changes the dynamic on a very personal level; the sounds, the smells, the dazed and confused sensation wrought by the initial concussion from indirect fire yielding to an awareness of dirt, debris, and shrapnel suddenly consuming the very essence of space and time.  It was the testimony of Hasan Hasanovic which thrust the emotions associated with my own past to the surface of consciousness; the heart-wrenching account of his time in Srebrenica (and the experiences living through the Bosnian-Serb siege of the city before he fled to Tuzla) somehow enabling me to feel a connection, even if very insignificant, with his experience.  The contrast expressed between life during the siege (along with his subsequent terror of being hunted through the forests of the Bosnia’s Balkan Mountains) and his description of childhood experiences which would be similar to those of any other child growing up in rural community presented an almost incoherent dichotomy; one side being perhaps utopic and the other a nightmare.  That evening, our trip to visit Saliha Osmanovic was somewhat of a respite.  I was struck by the presence of history on the drive to her house while passing the excavation of a Roman fort along the Drina River in the village near her home.  Knowing the story of her husband and son ahead of time (Ramo caught on film calling to their son Nermin to come out of the hills and surrender to the Bosnian-Serbs who had promised they wouldn’t be harmed) helped a bit, but it was her fearlessness that was most inspiring; everything she loved had been stolen from her and being an active participant in the process of war criminal prosecutions was reflective of her life’s mission.  However, she was not filled with anger.  Rather, she still sees good in the very people who had participated in the conflagration; some of whom were her own neighbors.

A demonstration of this culture’s quest to find its missing, over 500 of who were gunned down in one Bosnian-Serb army ambush alone while attempting to escape to the safety of Tuzla, is exemplified by the work of the “bone man”, Ramiz Nukic.  Visiting him on our drive home on Saturday certainly added credence to the ongoing work (and the work that remains) in the quest for justice as he has personally found the remains of over 250 victims of that particular ambush; remains which eventually make their way to the ICMP in the hope of bringing closure to those families who yet wrestle with doubt and uncertainty.

Lukumir

Not much to report on the internship front.  After the WARM (War Art Reporting and Memory) Festival concluded, I spent a couple of days compiling notes from the Why Remember conference sessions and film panel discussions I’d attended and then rolled into working on a Peace March reflections piece.

However, what I feel has been significant was our group hike to Lukumir this past Friday.  I had expected a nice hike to quaint mountain village, but ended up with much more than I bargained for on the trek.  While I recall the rugged beauty of much of the Bosnian mountains with clarity from my time here years ago, interacting with it in this up-close and personal way unveiled the majesty of the Balkans in a whole new light; the fresh mountain air carrying the faint scent of wildflowers, quiet tree-lined paths replete with the sounds rustling leaves and fresh mountain streams, and the stark relief of rugged wind-swept hills poking above tree line seeming raw and untamed.  As someone who admires the anthropologic aspects to history , I was struck by the medieval stecci calling forth the memories of peoples long departed from the Bosnian consciousness, the mosque which served as a covert home to the Sarajevo Haddadah during Nazi occupation demonstrating the complimentary and supporting nature of a diverse religious milieu, and the 16th Century Ottoman era tombstones next to the trail greeting the passerby with an invitation to pause and share the eternal view of grandeur where the grave’s residents rest.  This certainly emphasizes an appreciation of the country’s storied past much more than simply viewing history through the lens of a static museum exhibit.  The viewer becomes an active and living participant playing a role in what continues to unfold before them; just as the small village itself continues to serve not only as a witness to the past, but a vital link to the future.

 

2017 Peace March Reflection

One of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the past few days and the 2017 Peace March is overwhelmingly trivial in the context of the event – feet; how I wish I’d prioritized the weight of my heavy duty Vasque boots in my checked bag for the trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina knowing in advance that I’d be participating in the 80k march from Nezuk (Tuzla) to Potocari (Srebrenica).  Not that the Keen hiking shoes I was wearing were inappropriate, but my ankles told the tale of needing some more support after day two of the event.   It had been several years since I’d undertaken a trek of this magnitude and I’d somehow managed to forget how different the impact on my feet during this type of activity is from running long distances on relatively level terrain.

I knew going into the event that here would be several thousand participants, but somehow I had not been mentally prepared for the throng of over 6000 people vying for trail space and, as someone who tends to be a bit claustrophobic, I was not the least bit reticent to hold back as the masses hit the trail before embarking myself.  The initial chaos of the crowds milling around eating breakfast and listening to speeches soon gave way to the quiet attentiveness of the Bosnian national anthem before the Srebrenica survivors broke ground on the trail with the participants falling in behind them.  I had been a little apprehensive about accepting, from a gentleman who was kind enough to relinquish his after we had been unable to locate the source of the books that several people were carrying, the Marš Mira Planinarska Transverzala (trail guide and stamp book) out of fear that the experience may become ‘Disneyesque’ in focusing on getting the stamps from the various checkpoints rather than the solemn purpose of the march.  However, the booklet became an invaluable tool in helping keep track of the distances and elevations between points and provided a much needed means of breaking the journey into mentally manageable segments.

Thunderstorms the previous night (including an almost surreal lighting show) had rendered the ground a soupy mess and swollen streams.  And, aside from those brave souls who simply trudged through the water without concern for the sanctity of keeping their feet dry, passage on more than one creek was restricted to a single width foot-bridge consisting of little more than wooden planks thrown across with the resulting bottle-neck as thousands crossed single file.  The path itself was generally well maintained with obvious trail improvements having been made to those locations that appeared to be susceptible to the effects of erosion and fresh, cool water available from tapped artesian springs.

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However, beyond the mundane aspect to the physical tribulations of the march, or the logistical prowess of the Bosnian army as they diligently set camp for the marchers, I was struck almost immediately by the yellow caution tape along trail segments prominently displaying “POZOR” (mines) with its associated skull and crossbones marking.  “Now there’s something you don’t see everyday” was my first thought, but this reaction was only indicative of something emotionally deeper that began to surface as the miles passed.  A small and relatively benign sign appeared next to the trail portraying a grim picture of a latex gloved hand holding what appeared to be the decayed remains of another hand protruding from the soil.  The sign read “Masovna Grobnica” (mass grave).  It was here, at Crni Vrh, that 629 innocent human beings had been disposed of; their bodies haphazardly thrown into a makeshift hole in the ground and left to rot.  While this particular grave dated to 1992, and was not part of the subsequent genocide to occur three years later around Srebrenica, it was the first of many the trail would wind past; the emotional impact growing more cumbersome with each passing marker.  I lost count after the first two dozen sites, but the signs told the same sad story with the images reflecting the magnitude of the atrocity: the site at Snagovo, which had held ninety-four bodies, and its haunting image of a dirt encrusted skull (bits of hair still visible) staring at the viewer through empty and vacuous eye sockets; the site at Hodžići with a lone wrist watch marking the moment time stopped for its wearer and the fifty-six others dumped there; or the site at Liplje with the 191 bodies discovered there displaying the image of a decomposed arm still bound by the wire used to tie the wrists of its victim before he was executed being only a few of the many that passersby would bear witness to.  On the second evening of the march, we were privileged to hear Nedzad Avdic (who, as a young boy, was left for dead amidst a pile of corpses) share his experience and describe lining up in groups of twenty-five (five abreast and five deep) in their final moments while simultaneously watching Bosnian Serb children ride past on their bicycles.  I couldn’t help but think of John’s Gospel and the words penned by the author therein, “Jesus wept.”  I did too.

The incredible dichotomy that struck me about this experience was the palpable anguish present in the air itself over against the stark beauty of the surrounding landscape; the green rolling hills, sunshine, lush vegetation, and seasonal wildflowers bearing witness to, and holding the memory of, the tragedy which unfolded within the very embrace of paradise itself.   It was the theme of hope embodied in the timelessness of nature which spoke to me; the depth of goodness capable within the human psyche is reflective of the resilient nature of the peoples who have resided here for millennia.  Just as the trail passed 11th Century stećci marking the passing of generations long since faded from our ability to recall them, it also passed the remnants of houses destroyed by modern explosives through which trees grew strong and tall as nature reclaimed the site in a refusal to yield to an agenda of hate.  Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of this than the old woman selflessly providing tea, coffee, and a place to rest for the march participants as they worked their way past her humble home.

Here we go!

Brandon Erdmann – First Impressions

My initial reaction upon landing in Sarajevo was somewhat mixed.  I was surprised to arrive at a civilian international airport and disembark without a jetway.  Not that I hadn’t done that before, but I figured a ‘major’ cosmopolitan city would have more of an airport…and I remembered the airport being larger than it seemed this time around.  The last time I flew into Rajlovac (Butmir) there were still demining operations going on and we were forced to approach the ramp for landing at designated altitudes to prevent detonating the ordnance.

The drive to Traveler’s Home felt somewhat similarly disjointed. On one hand it was obvious that the city and its people had made tremendous strides in reconstruction during the past two decades but, at the same time, I was surprised that there was still the visible volume of war damage on buildings, etc.  The city itself, replete with graffiti everywhere seemed to share this dichotomy.  On one hand vibrant and full of life and, on the other, exuding a longing and desperation for something more…perhaps a demonstration of how far the healing process has come yet how far it has to go.

The first couple of days for me were somewhat frantic being thrown full speed into the WARM (War Art Reporting and Memory) festival and the associated activities the PCRC (Post-Conflict Research Center) was involved with.  Without getting into the specific exhibits, movies, conferences, panels, etc., I’ll just say that it was a bit overwhelming on an emotional level.  I felt somewhat like a wound with an itchy scar was picked at and bled a little bit.  Certainly not SFOR specific memories, but rather the forced confrontation with other memories and events subsequent to my time here which were thrust to the forefront of my conscious for analysis.

Although my impression of the WARM activities was overall very favorable and, I think, a very necessary medium for conveying the issue, I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of veteran’s voice in the dialogue….it was generally very academic in nature; my fear and concern with this being that excluding a critical piece of the issue at hand limits the effective nature and intent of the project.  Additionally, there was a perhaps an excessive liberal bent to much of the panel discussion and addresses by various board members.  Not that this point of view is in any way bad, but it could be detrimental to the point of ostracizing and alienating to certain audiences that should be included in the conversations around conflict.

The couple of days of time off for walk-about reminded me of time spent in Kiev and Kotovosk, Ukraine; the lively hustle and bustle, the small markets which carry the essential staples and the relaxed atmosphere of simply being able to sit with a cup of coffee and watch the world go by.  There is a certain feeling of human frailty and reinforcement of our mortality and insignificance at sitting in a 16th century han and a sense of ennui in thinking about the many generations which have walked the very ground upon which we tread.  I have especially enjoyed the early (relatively speaking) morning runs along the river and through the quiet market streets.  Watching the city wake up and come to life while running by the shop keepers unlocking their doors, lighting a morning cigarette or having that first cup of coffee, sweeping their doorsteps or washing their café sidewalks almost seems like being welcomed into the most private and intimate parts of a stranger’s life; a welcome which invites us to learn and grow together in building on a relationship whose foundation was laid long ago.