Final thoughts on a life-changing experience

As the summer has flown by and is starting to come to an end, I sit here to gather my final reflections about my time in Bosnia and realize that not many days have gone by that I haven’t thought about what I experienced in that special country. The people we spent time with, the friendly faces that met us with open arms, the willingness they had to openly share their stories of tragedy, trauma and suffering –and most importantly: resilience. It was truly an experience unlike an other I have ever had.

As is standard when returning from a trip abroad, many friends and family members asked me about my time in Eastern Europe. What was it like? What did you do? Who did you meet? What did you see? And although each time I found myself somewhat giving a varied response, the overwhelming reality of facing these questions time and time again was that I found it very difficult to put words to what we experienced. In that way, I stopped talking about it for a while. I think it was easy for people who are closest to me to pick up on my hesitation to discuss it, too. It’s not an easy conversation, nor one that can be had in a corner of a room at a loud party or easily done around a dinner table with multiple conversations simultaneously taking place. That said, just in the last few weeks, I found myself more willing to put in the time, effort and somewhat draining energy (honestly) that it can take to really give another a good idea of what the experience was like. How it changed the way I look at things. And why.

Although I often find the experiential learning experience hard to revisit, it is one that I wouldn’t change or give up for just about anything — and know will have an impact on my career as a social worker, and more importantly, a human being trying to navigate the somewhat terrifying (politically and otherwise) world we live in. I also recognize the importance of sitting with just why it is so difficult to revisit, and continue to put things in perspective: the two weeks we spent there were fast, often emotionally draining and physically exhausting but my experience was only that way because of the traumatic, life-changing (or ending) events that these Bosnian folks experienced first-hand. There is no comparison and I count myself extremely lucky that I was able to get a better look into the lives of these amazing people because of Ann’s partner/friendships with them over the years, and their willingness to share with us. It’s got to be difficult, I mean think about it. I say I find it difficult to revisit hearing about their stories –imagine how it must feel for them to revisit the horrors, as they recount the experiences and losses for us. It truly takes a selfless and special type of person to be willing to do this. I recognize this and don’t take it for granted. Because reading about the war, the genocide, and all of the atrocities that took place is one thing, right? But being given the opportunity to hear about these topics from those who experienced it is entirely different. And I know that, and find it especially challenging to try to do those voices justice by recounting their stories to others, per their requests. But as promised, I am going to try. It’s truly the least I — and we all–can do. Not just throughout the rest of the summer, but hopefully for the rest of my years, as this experience and those stories are some that I know I will not soon forget.

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the faces of genocide

Our time spent in Tuzla & Srebrenica was relatively short but left me with an immense amount of information and emotion that I suspect will last –and haunt– me for a lifetime. One of the primary reasons I wanted to take this course was because it seemed like it might be a rare opportunity to get a closer look into the topic of genocide; one which I fortunately have not personally experienced but have always had an interest in.  And it’s been just that. One can read as many texts as she can get her hands on, watch all the documentaries available and study the topic from those who teach it the best. But there is nothing like hearing the accounts from those who experienced it first-hand and lived to tell the stories. Ann has built such strong relationships with these individuals, over the years and because of this rapport and trust built, we were able to hear these stories. These individuals were willing to share some of the most horrific, raw, and mortifying details of their lives with us. It was truly a pleasure to meet each and every one of them, and again, I was so pleasantly surprised by how quickly I took to them. How could I not be? They are some of the most friendly, welcoming, down to earth individuals I have ever encountered. And given that they’ve experienced some of the most unimaginable and dark experiences one could ever go through, I found myself that much more aware of how wonderful they –and their willingness to share—is. These are (some of) the faces of genocide.

Hasan Hasanović

Hasan is a long-time friend of our professor Ann’s and, as I understand it, has been an essential link in connecting Ann and DU students to some of the survivors of the atrocities that took place in Bosnia during the early 90s. Hasan is a genocide survivor himself, and after losing his twin brother and father, he was 17 when was forced to walk in the Death March in order to escape further persecution + a looming brutal death. After being in the woods for many seasons, he survived and is here to tell the story. Not only that, he has a very warm and welcoming demeanor about him– always smiling and completely willing to answer any and all questions we had for him. Asking someone to recall the darkest, most unfathomably horrific time in his life is something I quickly learned can be uncomfortable, and understandably so. But Hasan is an open book and given that he is a good friend of our professor, we were given the opportunity of connecting with him on a more personal level. He shared deeper personal details with us than he said he typically does, as he now works at the museum of the genocide of Srebenica and give tidbits of his story each day. His energy is truly contagious. During our time with him, he found a way to be light, tell jokes and be goofy— so much so that one might not know that he is someone who has experienced the worst that could ever happen. But during the time when he recounted his story for us, it was easy to see how his spirit had once been broken – the dark room and echoes of heavy rainfall aside. It’s hard, or nearly impossible, to fully grasp what happened to him and even imagine putting myself in his position. But he showed no signs of hatred towards those who changed his life, and ended the lives of those he loved the most. He described himself as “psychologically destroyed. Totally” but also noted that he holds no hatred in his heart, and a man like this is one everyone could learn a thing or two from. His resilience, strength, and courage to get up each day and tell his story is something I did not take for granted, and will never forget.

Saliha Osmanović

We were lucky enough to spend an evening at the home of easily one of the warmest, most gracious, and sweetest women I have ever met, Saliha Osmanović. Although we could not communicate with one another through a common spoken language, I was instantly touched by her presence and her inviting nature. I was also quite taken when Sladjana translated Saliha expressing that she wished she could speak to me; in that moment, I thought ‘add to the list of wonderful for Saliha, she’s a mind reader!’, as I was thinking the exact same thing. Saliha lives on the outskirts of Srebrenica in the same home she resided in during the war, but now she lives alone. She is a widow and a mourning mother of 2 boys who were killed during the genocide. Knowing what she had been through, I cant imagine even having the will to get out of bed each morning and if she at all felt the same, you wouldn’t really know it. She keeps a beautiful home with one of the most magical and expansive gardens I’ve seen. She cooked a wonderful meal for the 16 of us and treated us with such kindness, generosity, and indescribable hospitality. In just a few hours I found myself having the same reaction to her as Ann said she did at their first meeting: totally fell in love with her. You really couldn’t not. She’s just one of those people you are instantly drawn to and want to be around. She also was graciously willing to tell us her story of the war, her losses and how she has gone on. It was just unfathomable for me. I just cant imagine or fully wrap my head around her pain. But was so humbled and thankful to have spent time with her. And per her request, I will share her story—and the narrative of what took place during the war—with others for as long as I can.

 

Nura Mustafić

Once we reached Potočari, we were again given the rare and indescribably eye-opening opportunity of hearing from more survivors of the genocide in the Srebrenica area. Nura Mustafić came to speak with us and for the first time, I found myself recognizing her pain in a way that I could imagine would be similar to my own, had I been in her position. Unwilling to revisit it without breaking down.  Somewhat unlike the others we spoke to, Nura was visibly heartbroken as she struggled to get the words out between catching her breath from sobbing. To me, it seemed as though her pain was truly palpable . And unfortunately, contagious. She explained that she was “left behind to live” without her husband and 3 sons, as they were killed during the mass executions carried out by the Serbian Army. After having her children literally ripped out of her hands (SOUND FAMILIAR? Aheeeem, Trump administration), she found herself alone with unanswered questions, so she scoured the mass grave sites and anywhere she felt she might get information about their well-being. Eventually, the results of DNA tests showed that her 2 boys and husband were slain in the mass-killings, but she has yet to get definitive information about her last son. He has been missing for 20+ years and it is likely he was also brutally killed, but the lack of closure must eat at her every. single. day. That coupled with her unquantifiable loss, I was even more touched by her willingness to meet with us and make herself vulnerable by awakening the pain by recalling her story for us. Her tears and vulnerability showed her strength and resilience. Just as I was by the others, I was so honored to meet her; and to say I was touched by her words would be an understatement. They certainly helped me to see my life, my struggles, or any pain I have experienced in a different light and with a new perspective.

 

Nedžad Avdić

After Nura spoke, Nedžad Avdić took the floor and I can confidently say his words have changed my outlook on my life, as a whole. Nedžad is one of the 10 identified survivors of the mass execution sites and with every word that came out of his mouth, I found myself more and more enthralled –and truly horrified—by what he was describing as his reality. When he was just 17 years old, he was rounded up with many other men, crammed into a truck for 2 days with no water, space or much air to breathe, and brought to the place where he thought would be his last. He described the setting as “chaos” and I couldn’t help but paint a picture in my mind of the torture and horrible conditions he and the others endured. The men were lied to, fed falsities of how they would survive and things would get better if they just cooperated, in an attempt to calm the chaos, I suppose. He explained that they were ordered to remove their shoes, clothing down to the waist and lined up face- down with their arms bound behind their backs. He waited to die. He wanted  to die. After many rounds of fire, screaming, excruciating anxiety awaiting his final bullet, he described turning his head to the side in a way that would be more comfortable to be shot. His recollection of detail was astonishing and very telling. His description painted the most vivid image of the atrocities that we had heard yet, and I could feel my skin crawling and blood boiling, as tears streamed down my face. Even writing this is extremely difficult and I’m finding myself short of breath recalling only what I had heard. Imagine living through it.  It’s truly heart-wrenching and makes me feel so discouraged about mankind is capable of. And I am only recounting the story second-hand. He lived it, and although he was shot multiple times that day, he managed to hold on and live another day. Another decade. And continues to get up, go about his life—and thankfully, and luckily for those of us who want to know, tell his story. The bravery, courage and again, great showing of resilience is truly in a league of his own. It is just truly truly unimaginable to me that man can be such a brutal beast, at times. Then, and NOW. And if there’s one thing I feel I can do to bring a tiny sliver of justice to Nedžad and the others’ stories, it’s to spread it around, it far and wide. He asked this of us, and I will make it my mission to speak about this with anyone who will listen.

 

Ramiz Nukić

Finally, we found ourselves high up in the hills at the home of Ramiz Nukić, or the bone man, as they call him. Ramiz is also a survivor of the genocide, and he also lost many many loved ones to the Serbian’s ethnic cleansing of the land. He lives with his wife, children and grandchildren in a home that boasts stunning views, and soothing sounds of silence that can only be found in remote locations—well, between the almost inviting tune of the clanging cow, or sheep, bells as they grazed. With the numerous animals and people combined, they greatly outnumbered our fairly large group of about 20 and one might imagine it gets a little tight in such close living quarters. But they didn’t seem to be bothered; they greeted us with ear-to-ear smiles and his grandchildren’s curiosity was endearing. Ramiz is known as “the bone man” because he, as he explained, has made it his life’s mission to continue to search for the remains of those who were killed during the war in the 90s. And not without success, either. He has found and helped identify over 200 (maybe more at this point) individuals who died at the hands of the Serbs. Since the beginning of our studies, it has been stressed that so many who managed to survive the war are still not at peace for many reasons –one of which is that they don’t have answers to the question of how their loved ones passed away. Closure, in so many circumstances, is so important and if you’ve experienced this open-ended feeling, you likely know how crucial it is to feel as though the healing process can begin. Ramiz is truly an amazing man, and not just because he survived some of the worst atrocities imaginable. But also because he cares enough to help others find peace. And without any compensation, I might add…which is a disgrace in itself. We didn’t spend as much time with him as some of the others, but his warm welcome and amazing spirit is enough to stick in my memory, just as any of the others.

As I do my best to reflect on this, I find myself having a really difficult time processing everything. And have a steady feeling of overwhelm; first, I want my recollection of this experience to do some justice for those who were willing to let us in. And secondly, the war, the genocide, the atrocities, they’re all so disheartening and I find myself discouraged. There’s no clear silver lining, as far as I can see –at this point, anyways. Additionally, I am truly disturbed and horrified by some of the parallels drawn between the situation that took place in Bosnia and the current state of affairs in the US.  History has a way of repeating itself, over, over and over again and it seems we don’t want to learn from our mistakes—which is probably one of most discouraging and upsetting aspects for me. Either we don’t recognize the repetitive patterns, or simply choose to turn the other cheek. Unfortunately, I am fairly confident it’s the latter. And more generally and obviously from what’s described above, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the brutality of mankind. Hasan, Saliha, Nura, Nedžad and Ramiz’s stories were all recounted to us in a matter of about 24 hours, and it’s been about 24 hours since then; that said, I hope with more time and reflection, I will find a way to feel as though I can make a difference. Not that any of us can really do anything now that would change the suffering of their past. And the lasting effects of their trauma now. But I, we, have got to make sure this does not happen again. Not without a fight, anyways. I plan to honor their requests of spreading awareness. So, for now, that’s where I will begin.

the beauty in detours

Almost a week into our trip, and I still feel as though I don’t know quite what to expect from each day here. The twists and turns on the roads we’ve traveled seem akin to our daily routines, or sometimes lack there of! There seem to be surprising factors abound here in Bosnia, and I actually (mostly) enjoy the detours along the way.

I have also noticed that the weather we’ve had has been unpredictable, much like the feel of the trip sometimes. As noted last post, I didn’t have many expectations for the trip; I had the basic background for the topics we would be covering, but quickly found that what little I had expected, would not always play out. The weather has been the same. It has been raining off and on for a few days now, but once the claps of thunder and raindrops roll through, we’ve been left with warmer temperatures and beautiful sunsets. This seems to also ring true regarding some of the landscapes we’ve come across; some tell stories of the many empires of centuries past, or the visible damage from times of war. But it’s also important to note how through the ups and downs of the past, the people seem resoundingly resilient and have rebuilt and attempted to move past some of the not so pleasant history.

The town of Mostar is a place where I felt this the most. Old City, Mostar was one of the most beautiful and vibrant small stretches of land that I have seen in a long time, maybe ever. Although crowded and full of tourists, it was still so exhilarating to experience the buzzing of the markets—full of the greatest variety of vibrant colors, wonderful smells, different textiles and sounds. And then we came upon the old bridge, which sits above the stunning turquoise waters of the Neretva river. Walking across the bridge was sliiiightly daunting, as one must take each step with caution, as the marble is quite slippery! The bridge is beautifully constructed and the difficult feat of its construction is easy to see. From the top, there is one of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. I found myself walking around in awe of the beauty + unfamiliar sights and sounds—with a smile plastered on my face. It was an exciting, new, and exhilarating experience. Very easy to only focus on the current state of its wonders and forget what happened there not long ago.

Once we reached the other side, we viewed a quick 5-minute film about some of the history of the bridge and the city itself. It was humbling and immediately I felt the energy within myself, and of the group, come down a bit from the highs of what we’d just experienced as we walked through the market leading up to the bridge. I was quickly reminded just how important it is to recognize the history of Mostar’s past and perhaps equally as important, to ask questions about things I didn’t have answers to regarding its current situation. The people we came across in Mostar were all so welcoming, friendly, and many of them had truly been through such an ordeal in the last 20 some years –it’s sometimes hard to imagine. They’ve worked to rebuild so many of the physical aspects of the city’s beauty and have done such a marvelous job that it can be easy to forget what had occurred there, given how it sits today –aesthetically speaking, anyways.  We had been told that the Bosnian people were resilient and extremely friendly before coming, but I still find myself pleasantly surprised with every day that goes by.

And so it begins

“Oh, Bosnia? That’s cool.

So, you got all your shots? Cuz I heard that’s pretty important when you’re traveling in Africa!”

I swear I had this conversation with more than one –-and a slightly different version with more than 2…Americans… before coming to Bosnia for this incredible opportunity. Looking back, it does not seem my geographically well-versed loved ones, nor I, really knew what to expect. Originally, I was drawn to the idea of traveling somewhere I’d never been, and for the opportunity of experiential learning in order to broaden my global perspective in the field. Now having been here for a little more than 48 hours, I am pretty confident I will be taking away more from this experience than I had even anticipated.

My very first impression when landing at the Sarajevo airport was that those from the films I’d seen were right on with their descriptions of the beautiful hills that flank the city. They’re stunning. And, that Ann was right: everyone smokes and there are neither people nor places that are the exception to that rule. But even through the sticky/smoky air, it was clear to see just how beautiful the land and city ‘scapes are here. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit in Western Europe but was immediately thrilled with how different the architecture, culture, and general feel of this city are as I took my first steps through Pigeon Square.

The day that we spent touring the city with Jadranka then piqued my interest further, as we started to delve into the extremely complicated, and deep seated history that makes this special country as it is today. I very much enjoyed having her wealth of knowledge at our disposal; and having the commentary of someone who has such a connection to the city, lived through the war, and is still here to tell the stories made easier to connect and understand (further, but not fully) the complexities. I was really moved by the Jewish cemetery, as well. Honestly, I was a little surprised to hear that Sarajevo is the home of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. 1630 is almost un-relatable to all of us –or myself, at least— given that we hail from the New World. And walking through those arches felt like going back in time.

From the rose bushes hanging over the old stonewalls that border the grounds, to the clear damage on the graves from the frontlines in the 90s. It was all somewhat surreal to think that today it sits with aesthetically alluring scenery, but is rich with tragic history and represents lives lost, in more ways than one. Sure, we get some ‘cool’ history back in the states in places like Philadelphia (woooopwooop, hometown priiiiide – Fly Eagles Fly!) and some others, but especially given that we all live in such a newly settled place like Colorado currently, it was such wonderful exposure to something more. Something older. Something deeper. And deeply complex in its historical values.

And speaking of complex, something I have been trying to wrap my mind around and get a deeper understanding of is the political, religious, and ethnic factors that (arguably) shape the country today. I’ve had a hard time understanding the reasons that sparked the war in the 90s and further, my lack of historical prowess about WWI , the Ottoman, Austro-Hunganian empires, and even the division of Yugoslavia all contribute to my confusion. Clearly my middle and high school history expertise elude me, at this point. I think I need to do some more google searching instead of watching Curb Your Enthusiasm before bed – but…yeah. I digress. Happy to say, however, that I finally feel like I am getting a better grasp. And given that we’re here now, and I’m trying to place some of this intel with what I’m experiencing in the culture each day, it feels prettttttty prettttty prettttty good. Ayyyyy, Larry. (I just asked Sierra if she knew who Larry David is…she said no. So maybe she should do some Curb research. Best show on TV, yall) But anyways……………. The opportunity to hear Professor Osmić speak on the topic…and being able to ask 176 questions…was immensely beneficial. One of the most important take-home points I gathered was how the term ‘ethnicity’ is defined here differently than my understanding of the word. My impression is that here, ethnicity is synonymous with religion, which is synonymous with political affiliation, which encompasses and indicates tradition, and so on.  This not-so-insignificant detail was huge for me in order to properly grasp what is means when people are describing the “ethnic cleansing” that went on, and how certain areas are now “ethnically clean”. I had a really hard time understanding how a war that seemed to overwhelming persecute Muslims was not a religious war, nor was it internal. Or, as I’ve been told: “well yes, both those things. But also neither of those things.” Point being: the centuries of history that are so evident with every turn here are actually rather essential to understand in order to make sense of something that truly seems…pretty senseless, indeed. But I’m gettin’ there! And excited to see what’s next.