On July 15, 1995, Bosnian Serb armies infiltrated the UN declared safe haven of Srebrenica. Approximately 15,000 Bosniak men made the brave and dangerous decision to flee on foot to the free territory of Tuzla. Having to march in a single-file line because of landmines, these men were largely unarmed and ill-equipped for the treacherous journey. Of the 15,000 men who started out, only about 3,500 men survived. This tragedy has become known as the Death March.
I had the privilege and honor of participating in this year’s Peace March, a three-day 60-mile annual walking campaign, that raises awareness about the genocide that took place, how the international community failed Bosnia, and to honor the lives that were lost. This was the hardest thing that I have ever done, but at the end of the day, I was safe. I didn’t have to fear for my life or worry that we were going to be ambushed. When things got tough or I needed help, there was always someone willing to provide a hand. As we marched through various towns, we were met with families handing out food and drinks that they had saved up all year for the march. On the second day of the march, I had an extremely difficult time because my Nikes did not have as much traction as I thought they would and I was unable to climb the mountains due to the rain and muddy trails. I was having such a tough time that I even contemplated calling it a day and asking for a ride to camp at the next Red Cross tent. But right when I stumbled for the hundredth time, a man reached out to grab my elbow and steadied me. He didn’t speak any English, but this man was the sole reason why I was able to finish that day’s hike. Without any complaints, he had helped/pulled me up a mountain for at least 5 miles. Afterwards, we met up with one of his friends who did speak English and I was expressing my immense gratitude for all the help that I had received that day. The man simply told me “that’s the Bosnian way, we lend help when we see that it is needed.” I must have said thank you and hvala a million times that day because my new friends ended up telling me to stop saying thank you so much as “thank you isn’t needed when helping someone in trouble.” I am completely in awe of the strength, resiliency, and generosity of Bosnians even in the face of such adversity.
At the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, no singular event has ever changed my life as much as the Peace March has. Before the start of the march, my classmates and I met two older Bosnian women who were marching for the sons that they had lost. One of them had started out on the original Death March with her sons before being forced into surrendering to the Bosnian Serb armies. For two women who have lost so much in their lifetime, they were so kind and welcoming to random American students that they had just met. Having the opportunity to march with them was such an invaluable experience because I learned so much more from survivors and family members of survivors from the Srebrenica genocide and the Death March than I ever could from textbooks and videos. I chose to march because my parents were refugees and survived a war as well. It is because of them that I had the luck and privilege of being born in the United States. I marched for those who were not as lucky as I was. I marched for those who had lost a father, uncle, brother, or son. I marched because there is so much more we need to do to aid in Bosnia’s healing as a country.
I have been in Sarajevo now for almost five full days and truthfully, I haven’t been out as much as I should be because of how much it has been pouring rain. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to just slow down a bit. With the abundance of free time, I have been reflecting a lot on what the next 7 weeks will look like. How do I process the events of the genocide and, more importantly, the lived experiences of the people that I will be meeting? Where do I find the best čevapi? What are the most promising ways for me to interact with individuals through my internship placement without exploiting their lived experiences?
My first day meeting with my supervisor, Sejdefa Bašić Ćadić, coincided with the seventh anniversary of the opening of the first Center for Healthy Aging. Right from the beginning of our arrival, we were already met with such genuine and warm hospitality. They even shared their lunch with the four of us! Because of the need to have things ready for the party and the arrival of (very) early guests and media, our time with Sejdefa was short, but still incredibly impactful. We learned how the center grew from a unique idea in wanting to establish a much-needed sense of community to the opening of the first center, where they were unsure if this idea would be successful. Currently, the success of the Center for Healthy Aging is demonstrated through the existence of numerous other centers throughout Sarajevo and Bosnia; this success continues to grow as Sejdefa was recently in Macedonia helping to implement their own Center for Healthy Aging!
My actual first day at the internship was met with even more Bosnian hospitality. Our first task was to help deliver some paintings for a member of the center who had just hosted his fifth art exhibition during the anniversary party. Even though they didn’t know any English, the artist and his wife were so welcoming and apologized profusely for not having any cookies or cakes to share. But they were so proud to give us a tour of their home and so excited to show us their albums of family photos. We were even gifted a copy of a painting of Sarajevo that the artist made for a collector (which is now proudly displayed in my room at the hostel). At the end of our visit, I realized that not many words were exchanged directly (Sejdefa acted as our translator), but the human interaction was so pure and authentic in that even though we were only able to communicate through smiles and gestures, I felt that we were still able to form a connection.
The rest of the day was spent exchanging personal stories and learning Bosnian words. We even had the amazing opportunity to learn how to make traditional Bosnian pies. I shared my story as a child of Vietnam War refugees and while I had the privilege of being born and raised in the United States, my parents’ experience of being refugees in their own country and subsequently being forcibly displaced was a large reason behind my desire to come to Sarajevo. It was incredibly humbling to share stories as I could not fathom the strength and resiliency it takes to live my life under siege. What I love most so far about my interactions with people have been the sheer generosity and kindness, even in our initial meetings. I have never met a community of individuals who are so willing to give and share and welcome strangers with open arms despite all that they have been through. If there is anything I hope to take away at the end of my stay here in Sarajevo, it is that I hope to be as gracious and compassionate.