Final Blog -Dental Care in Sarajevo (Pirović)

My last two weeks in Sarajevo were spent experiencing the outstanding healthcare system in Sarajevo. Let me explain… This all started the night of my birthday Aug. 1st (my bday is Aug. 2nd), I had just finished taking an overnight bus from Sarajevo to Belgrade on Friday night. I arrived to Belgrade on Saturday, Aug. 1st early in the morning, to a rather eerie sight. I walked off the bus and arrived to a bus station that looked somewhat like a refugee camp. Outside of the bus station, there were dozens of Syrian refugees sleeping on the ground like a camp site. It was 4am in the morning, I had literally woken up just a few minutes before and still had not gotten my bearings when I walked into this. It was very sad and difficult thing to see, lying on the ground outside of the bus station there were dozens of refugees, most of which did not have sleeping bags or tents. A few of them  had made little camp fires (even though it was a bus station, this area looked like a very small park directly next to the bus station), I spotted two small tents, and about 3 or 4 people with sleeping bags -out of several dozens of people. That memory will remain vivid in my mind for a very long time.

Eventually I made my way to my hostel and arrived there sometime around 6 am. The rest of the day I spent exploring Belgrade and walking around the city. That night was going to be my only night in Belgrade before returning back to Sarajevo and my birthday fell on the following day, so I decided I would celebrate that evening. Everything went well until around the time I headed home around 3am, one of my teeth on the top right part of my jaw started hurting a lot. It was a throbbing pain that I just couldn’t seem to shake. I spent the entire night sleepless because of the pain despite not having slept very much the previous night on the bus. The following day the pain just seemed to be getting worse, the first thing in the morning I went to a pharmacy and bought aspirin, but that did little to help. By the time I was getting ready to leave Sarajevo I was in so much pain that the guy at the front desk of the hostel gave me two pain killers. I took one immediately around 4:30 (just before boarding a van back to Sarajevo) and it lasted about two hours. By the time 6:30 rolled around I was in pain again and decided to take the second one; unfortunately, the weather was rough so we didn’t make it back to Sarajevo until 11pm. I immediately rushed up to the hostel didn’t say a word to anyone and took 6 extra strength aspirin and went to bed. That lasted until around 4:30am, when I woke up straight out of my sleep because the medication had subsided and my pain had come roaring back. I took 3 more extra strength aspirin and tried going back to sleep.

That morning I was out of bed by 7am and Naida directed me to a dentist office right by the hostel. That morning would be the first of SIX trips to the dentist I would have to make. After seeing how much pain I was in they immediately took me in -even though I didn’t have an appointment- and they took an x-ray of my mouth and diagnosed that I needed a root canal. After that they numbed me up and drilled a small hole in my tooth, this was to relieve the pressure I was feeling. At this point it was really confusing for me. Here I was in this dentist office in Sarajevo, they had just treated me excellently, they had attended me very quickly, they were very professional, very quick and efficient, and now I was expecting the bad news… how much did I need to pay? The dentist told me not to worry about it, that I would need another appointment to do the actual root canal, and that I would pay then.  They gave me the number for another dentist office close to my work at the American Embassy and sent me on my way. At this point I was feeling better, but still a little concerned, so I asked them if they could give me an estimate of how much I should expect to pay altogether. I couldn’t believe her, she told me around 140-150 km, so around $70-$80. That day I showed up to work, I had notified them that morning saying that I probably wouldn’t be in until around noon, instead because they the dentist office had been so quick and efficient I was back at work by 9am.

Altogether I had to do five more appointments with a different dentist over the course of the last two weeks of our program -the final visit was the day before I left Sarajevo. This dentist was just as professional as the first one I met, he was extremely kind and squeezed me in the very next day even though he really didn’t have any available slots until Wednesday. He was so good and all of our visits were very short visits, no more than 30 mins, and everything was excellent. Best of all when it finally came time to pay my TOTAL bill for SIX appointments including a root canal came out to $60 US. It was UNBELIEVABLE, the year before I had had to get my very first root canal when I was living in Austin, TX. I went to a low income dental clinic and the total had come out to $500, and that wasn’t including the price of my very first appointment to find out what was bothering me. I really couldn’t believe it, I was dumbfounded by how incredibly cheap it was. Best of all, the treatment was very good! Both dentists that worked on me were very very good, they were friendly, professional, and were willing to squeeze me into their schedules even though I hadn’t given them any forewarning.

After this experience, I told my girlfriend (who works at a dental office), that if I EVER need to get some serious dental work done, I’m just going to schedule a trip back to Bosnia. I’m not kidding either, I mean the cheapest I can get a root canal in the US is $500-600, and a crown costs around $1,000-1,300, so for me, it’s actually more economical to book a round trip flight to Bosnia ($900), stay a hostel for a week ($12 x 5 days), and get a root canal or a crown that having it done in the states. It’s both amazing and a sad indictment of the state of our healthcare in the US.

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Week 5 -Srebrenica

My reaction to our trip to Srebrenica this weekend was very mixed. The weekend was long and exhausting, and we absorbed a tremendous amount of information over that period of time. It was an honor to speak to Fatima and Saliha and have the opportunity to listen to their incredible survival stories. After meeting with them I was left with a deep feeling of admiration for those two women and for Hassan who was able to escape the death march. But frankly, I was also left with a lot of anger by the end of the weekend.

After listening to Fatima and Saliha’s stories and visiting the sites of former mass graves, visiting the Dutch Battalion base and watching the videos on the ICTY, I was left with a lot of anger and resentment towards the Bosnian Serbs. A very small number of officers seemed to have been convicted during the ICTY, the length of the sentences of some ranged from 5-10 years, and many other injustices. I find it appalling that survivors like Saliha who moved back to their homes after the war have to live under a government (the RS) that were largely responsible for the atrocities that were committed against her and her family. It’s repulsive that the towns that we stopped at during our trip (outside Zvornik) consist of many of the same peopled that abetted or at the very least acquiesced to the genocide committed by Serb forces.

Like Hassan pointed out, in many of these towns the present population of the town is virtually the same as what it was 20 years ago, once you deduct the number of Muslim residents that were rounded up and killed or displaced. For example, if the town had 2,500 people before July, 1995, and 300 Muslim people were rounded up and executed, the present day town might only have between 2,200 and 2,300 people or so in present day. It’s absolutely gut wrenching to think about that. To know that the overwhelming majority of people there stood by and either did nothing to help those poor people or often times aided Serb forces by notifying them that there were people escaping through the hills.

Like I said earlier, overall it was a mixed bag of emotions: anger, fatigue, joy (in getting to meet Fatima and having dinner with Saliha), sadness, and disbelief.

Week 4 -What I Miss the Most

What I’ve missed the most since I got to Sarajevo has been my dogs and my girlfriend. I have two Saint Bernards (Harley & Nana) and they are among the sweetest dogs anyone will ever meet. One of them, Harley, has his first birthday coming up on Aug. 1st, and I’m pretty bummed I won’t be there for it. They’re both great and I’m accustomed to having them around me most of the day, so it has been pretty noticeable not having them around. Other than them, the other person that I’ve missed has been my girlfriend. We live together so being apart for such a considerable amount of time has been tough, although thankfully technology such as iMessage and Facetime have helped make things a little better.

Week 3 -My Favorite Image

So far this trip, my favorite image has to be when I went up to Bijeljina with my internship, in northern Bosnia for USAID’s Sustainable Housing groundbreaking event. I watched as U.S. Ambassador Cormack handed the keys of a lovely, brand new, flood resistant home to an elderly 79 years old grandmother. She had been internally displaced multiple times since the war and this was her fourth shelter since then, but this was her first real home since then. The woman was weeping with joy and just kept saying thank you over and over again. USAID partnered up with UNDP to provide 150 families that were victims of the devastating floods last year, with new flood resistant homes. They were lovely houses whose foundations had been constructed 4 feet about ground. They were each small in diameter but were two stories tall and had solar panels to cut down the electricity bills. The families had to agree not to rent or sell their new homes for the next 10 years, but other than that the American Embassy was providing these homes for free, courtesy of the American people. That’s an image I’ll never forget and one that made me very proud of our country and of all  the work that goes unnoticed and under the radar.

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Week Two -First Impression of Sarajevo

My outlook on Sarajevo has changed substantially from last year to this year. When I visited Sarajevo last summer, my impression was just that it was a nice, peaceful, small city and that was about it. It was just another stop on my tour of the Balkans. This year, it has been different because of everything I have learned since then about the siege that took place from 1992-95. One thing I’ve noticed is I have caught myself staring up at the hills surrounding the city quite often. Last year, I hardly paid attention to them past the first day, but because I now have a more nuanced understanding of how those hills were used to lay siege on the innocent people in Sarajevo. Serb military forces embedded themselves in those hills and launched shells and sniper fire directly into the city. I think because of that I’ve been catching myself scanning those same hills frequently.

Week 1 -First Blog

The first day of my internship was incredible! I drove up to Bijeljina with the rest of the USAID team for the ground breaking ceremony on a USAID/UNDP project that was providing 150 Bosnian families with new homes. That day when we arrived to Bijeljina, on the Republika Srpska (RS), side we had the chance to meet with the beneficiaries and it was such a warm, positive experience. We were there early to prep for the groundbreaking ceremony that would take place the next day with Ambassador Cormack handing out house keys to five of the families.

After the meeting with the families and prepping the site for the event that was going to take place the next day, we headed back to the hotel for dinner with the Ambassador. Ambassador Cormack was very gracious and I had the opportunity to sit across from her and talk with her a bit, it was a great experience.

The next day we arrived to the site an hour early and kept preparing to make sure the event would go as smooth as possible. Even though it rained a little bit, the event went off without a hitch. The ambassador met with five of the recipient families and it was wonderful to see their faces as they received the keys to their brand new, energy efficient, flood proof homes with solar panels! All five of these families had been internally displaced multiple times since the civil war and the flooding last year had wiped out the little that they had. One woman was a grandmother, head of her household, and she lived with eight other family members; she couldn’t stop thanking Ambassador Cormack and even broke into tears.

An hour later when we were at the small town on the Federation side, the reaction was very similar. One woman that received her new home couldn’t stop crying uncontrollably, and she wagged her finger at the Bosnian mayor present for the ground breaking ceremony stating, “You said you would do this, you said you would come back.” Later she came over to our staff and told us in Bosnian, that if it was not for you all this NEVER would have happened. Again she expressed her gratitude and stayed behind until the very end of the ceremony even though it had started pouring by then.

This was an unforgettable experience. It was fantastic to meet new people in Bosnia (including my new coworkers), but most of all I was very proud to see the type of work our government was doing here. I’m not sure how many people, outside of USAID, know that this happened, but I hope this shines a light to some of the incredible work that our men and women in the foreign service are doing overseas.