What? It’s Over?

It’s been quite a while since I last posted. Classes have started back up at DU and Bosnia is somehow feeling like a distant memory. The first few weeks back felt the strangest. It was weird to be back and understand all the side conversations once again. It’s kind of interesting noticing the banality of every day conversation when you can understand it and aren’t trying to decipher it with your limited vocabulary. It made me appreciate being back home but it also reminded me of the place I had just left.

The first 24 hours back were the oddest. I had spent a few days getting back, having made stops in Vienna and then Frankfurt before coming back to Denver, and so in addition to the time I spent in Bosnia, I had been separated from the English-speaking world. By then I had gotten used to letting people’s conversations meld into the buzz of the background noise. It starkly contrasted with eating at Chipotle – because of course you need to get that burrito as soon as you’re back in the States – and effortlessly understanding all the side conversations again. It made me realize that the past two months had actually happened.

It’s something I am always surprised with when I go abroad for an extended amount of time. When I’m there, life quickly normalizes to the new location and ebb and flow of daily life, but it doesn’t quite feel real for a while. For me at least, there is always a nagging suspicion that at some point I’ll awaken and find myself back in the bed I am used to. But when I return and actually get back to that bed, it hits that it was real and the experiences I had have formed a new exciting chapter that has unfortunately, like all others inevitably do, come to a close.

But I suppose the final question to pose to yourself at the end of the experience is: how did you grow as a person? For me the greatest thing I learned was not so much as something new, though there were plenty of those, but a reinforcement of the idea that people all across the world have the same experiences in their lives. They experience joy and sorrow just as we do and they have the same day to day errands to run. In essence, they become a body of people you relate to and care about and cannot simply dismiss as “those people over there”.

In academia, I feel that a great deal of analysis attempts to do so from an unemotional, detached, objective view of the human condition. While it may be useful, I sometimes feel that in doing so we glance over the emotional, psychological and otherwise social complexity that underpins humanity. While we must be conscious of the political and economic ramifications of what we do, emotion and the ability to relate to one another is also important.

We cannot truly comprehend the costs of what we do if we are unable to grasp what they entail to all involved.

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A Hodgepodge

The photo I have chosen for this post is one of a sort of zoo located at the Mercur bus station in Budva, Montenegro. Even though it isn’t one of specifically Bosnia, to me it was a good representation of the entire experience I have had while here this summer. Like discovering a smattering of rabbits, deer, turtles and peacocks at a bus station, some of the things Bosnia presents are at times confusing. It feels like a hodgepodge sort of thrown together without a larger cohesive vision and at times seems out of place. It isn’t bad but it seems like a temporary placeholder rather than a permanent arrangement.

It’s kind of how I feel about the museum where I intern. There is no single overarching narrative being displayed and the resulting effect for many is one of general confusion. The exhibits themselves may be interesting but the storytelling is not necessarily linear. Since my field of study is in conflict resolution, we focus a great deal on the importance of storytelling and how the story being told influences how willing groups are to interact and especially reconcile after conflict. It would follow that if one group continues to denounce the other or prominent members espouse that atrocities did not occur it hinders the normalization of relations.

However, it seems that because such topics are still so contentious there can be pressures not to deal with them. For me it is slightly paradoxical that a history museum, an institution of social memory, must tiptoe around certain topics of history that are internationally accepted as true. Therefore, when you get to a country that has recently suffered a war you might expect that it might be something deeply explored in a history museum. And when it isn’t and it isn’t just that institution that doesn’t really talk about it you are confused by its absence of not outright omission.

When I first came to Bosnia, I expected there to be a great amount of focus and almost promotion of the war as a thing for tourists to learn about while here. But when I saw that there is not such an exhibit, or at least one that focuses on the aspects you would think to be the most important (who did what, where things took place), I was surprised. But after talking with people I saw that they feel like they can only say certain things since they want to get embroiled in the politics. And so I saw a reason for the hodgepodge. It isn’t the ideal setup and people know it, but they do what they can and hope that people can gain from it what they will.

Like a smattering of animals at a bus station in Montenegro, I saw that things are in a sort of placeholder mentality. People may want things to get better but there is no single initiative to do so and there is no single vision to guide the improvement needed. But that doesn’t mean that no one is interested in taking that initiative. If anything, I have seen that there are a large number of smaller groups of people at the grassroots level that are very much achieving the change not happening at the top. They focus on their own domains but the overall intent to make a stronger Bosnia is the same.

And so while things may take a while to change, I remain hopeful for this country and accept that sometimes things may simply resemble a rabbit-turtle-deer exhibit at a bus station.

Tuzla and Srebrenica

Over the course of this past weekend, the program took us to the cities of Tuzla and Srebrenica. These two cities are located in the east of the country and are of moderate to small size. While Tuzla is a fairly cosmopolitan city located in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Srebrenica is in the Republika Srpska(RS), the Bosnian Serb side of the country. To say that there is a marked difference of atmosphere between the cities would be an understatement. It is to be expected given that Srebrenica is primarily known for the genocide that took place there and there is denial by locals that the genocide even took place.

My first thoughts on the trip are that it is an intentional reminder about the toll of war and the horrific nature of hate when fully manifested. I think that in school we often think about terms like genocide, ethnic cleansing and trauma in academic terms to be analyzed, however, in doing so we separate ourselves from the human emotional dimension that must also be understood. For me I feel torn between two arguments. Part of me thinks that how can one fully appreciate and therefore understand the costs of conflict without taking into account the emotions that drive it? While another side argues that being involved at a personal level fundamentally compromises your objective ability to evaluate the conflict and make the practical decisions necessary to bring about peace.

My second thought on the trip was that it was yet another reminder of the war. I think that every day I go to my internship at the history museum I am reminded about the war and in a sense I am always thinking about it rather than on how things can get better. For me it is the third time being in Srebrenica (the first and second times being before and after the Peace March). When you read and hear about the political situation here, where there are intentional institutions of structural division between the ethnic groups, you ask yourself how can people be brought together if the structure in which they live divides them from the outset? One thing demonstrating this is the subject of education in the country. Power has been so decentralized that there are multiple regional and municipal governments that are given jurisdiction over issues that would ideally be consolidated into a single decision making body. Of these issues, the one that bothers me the most is education. In the RS, there is active denial about the genocide about the number or that it even happened. In the textbooks, on all sides, include terms of Us vs Them. It is frustrating that the socialization process foments division from the outset. I find there is so much focus on the past, and necessarily so, since reconciliation can’t really occur until there is truth telling and recognition about the events of the war. But the focus on the past limits the ability to look to the future or the change one must have within themselves to achieve that brighter future. In essence, the country doesn’t seem to be at a place for reconciliation to occur and there does not seem to be enough incentive to motivate changes in attitudes.

Lastly, my thoughts on the trip are that I don’t know what to do. Naturally, after seeing the memorial and hear that there is denial about the genocide, you feel that you need to do something. But then you realize that you will soon be leaving, that you will soon be distracted with your own life issues and needs, and that you will soon remember that what happened here goes on today all over the world. It’s depressing to say the least, but it would be inappropriate to take light heartedly either. What is important, however, is not to think that this is the only way things can ever be. There is change happening even if only on the small scale. It may take time, but people are doing things. In other words, you can’t lose hope. I may not feel hopeful at the moment, but realizing that even though I may not be the one that resolves all of this country’s issues, at the very least I can bring awareness to them and maybe in a small way make sure that no one forgets.

How has time flown by?

When I initially began the pre-departure meetings for the program, I was a little concerned that I did not know where I would be working or what I would be doing. As the time to leave grew closer, my anxiety only increased. And when I arrived and had yet to find out what I would be doing, I was understandably still concerned. However, what I did not realize was the sort of opportunity that I had been given. Instead of being told my exact duties and what precisely I would be doing over the course of the next seven weeks, I was given the opportunity to in effect create my own internship and method of utilizing my time in Bosnia.

And so that’s what I did. I created my own program proposal that would allow me to do my own research and work with some of those there as well as contribute to the practical needs of the museum. It would mean that while I would be doing the kinds of things I was accustomed to in my graduate program, I would get to see how the museum works from behind the scenes and handle historical artifacts. At the same time, I would get to see how a museum with very little resources operates and provides their services to the public.

One of my favorite experiences with the museum was in helping them move rifles, pistols and grenades from the Second World War (all disarmed of course) to a new exhibit. I suppose that playing video games doesn’t quite prepare you for the actual heft the weapons carry. It was quite funny to see myself holding grenades in my hands like I would apples and handing a bazooka from one person to the next. Though at the same time it was also a realization and bringing about of consciousness to their intended purpose. I would be lying if I said my heart didn’t skip a beat when a grenade fell from my hand and onto the floor.

As for my personal project, I’m going to try to do some primary research –though I doubt I’ll be able to get much data since I leave soon – and I’m going to do some conflict analysis on the country. It probably won’t be published or make it to any journals, but for me at least, I will feel that I have a better grasp about what is going on here beyond what you might read in the news.

I’m happy that I finally know what I’m doing in Sarajevo. For the first few of weeks, I was concerned that all I would be doing at the museum would be providing free labor and moving things around the museum. But instead, I found that I had been given an opportunity to really test my skills and do something that truly interests me. It was definitely not what I expected and I’m happy it wasn’t. I’m sure that it will continue to be a truly growing experience for the rest of my brief time here.

This Weekend

Over the course of the past week I have done things that I never imagined I would have done before. I participated in the Peace March from Nezuk to Potočari just outside of the town of Srebrenica and I never imagined my feet could hurt so much from just walking. Over the course of the nearly 60 miles, I walked past many mass graves and saw testaments to the inconceivable hate possible of mankind. And I saw some of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen.

When I first considered participating in the march, I was seated in a very comfortable chair in Denver having just eaten a very good meal from Noodles. I initially focused on the physical dimension of the March and what it would mean if I completed it. I had never done anything nearly as long and the prospect of accomplishing that feat was very exciting. However, when it came time to committing to registration I realized that my motivation had shifted. I knew that beyond the physical trial it proposed, it was not to be a focus on me necessarily but on those lives lost and their memory.

When it came time to begin the March, people were telling me that it was going to be an emotionally and physically hard experience but that it was an important memorial to the atrocity and those affected. I was somewhat doubtful that by the end of the March I would be an inconsolable mass but I knew that there was a very real possibility that others could have a visceral reaction to passing mass graves and relating to those killed in the massacre. In any case, over the course of the three days of walking, I began to notice that during the periods of silent walking I stopped thinking about all the things that occupy normal life and more about what it musts have been like for those fleeing through these woods terrified and ill equipped. Those would inevitably lead to my own realization of my privilege. Unlike them, I was wearing hiking boots, I knew for certain that at the end of the path a tent and sleeping bag awaited me, and that there was a system of support to ensure that I made it back home.

However, I also saw that in spite of the horrors that transpired there, despite the disgusting executions and tortures, and efforts to conceal the atrocities, the mountains were beautiful, the sky was blue, and sheep calmly grazed. That isn’t to say that life simply goes on, but that despite how horrible we may be to each other, there is hope that it will end and that there may be a better tomorrow.

I got to meet some very interesting people over the course of the march. Some people seemed to have just found themselves there and others were repeat participants that had chosen to participate out of moral compulsion or because of a direct connection to the massacre or war. One of these was a woman from France that I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with on the final day. She works at an organization that helps children in Paris. She had been coming Bosnia for many years, but only recently became aware of the march. She did it first last year, on the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, and she returned this year. She was at first surprised that there were people in the US, and particularly in Colorado, that knew about the march and participated in it. To me it was a demonstration of not only our international reputation but also the relative minor significance the march may have in the international zeitgeist.

I was amused by how many people came up to us as we walked and asked us about our Colorado Flag. They would ask what country it was and we would clarify that it was one of the states. The French woman didn’t know that each state had its own flag apart from the US one. Some of us got interviewed by different press organizations and it was interesting to think that you might suddenly become a representative of an entire state or even an entire country.

When we arrived in Potočari, it felt as though much more time had passed. It had in reality been less than three full days but it seemed to have been ages since we had been in that city. The thought of it ending was strange and alien compared to a sort of normalization of walking twenty miles every day. Finally arriving at the memorial, we walked in silence into the cemetery rounded the central pavilion, and exited again to meet with the others in our program that had stayed. For me at least, I was in a sort of daze. Was it over? Was I really going to relish the shower like I thought I would? Was there a going back to Sarajevo? What was normal life again? Soon thereafter hundreds of men began to bring out the coffins of those that were to be buried the next day. To see that effort was incredible. You saw young and old working to put to rest those that had been lost, more than twenty years since they died.

The following day, we attended the prayer service at the memorial. During the prayers, the crowd bowed and raised their hands. It is unfortunate that the majority of my time during the service was devoted to thinking about how intolerant many people in the US are towards Muslims. There were thousands there taking part in the service and bowing towards Mecca and doing a call and response. To far too many back home, the very practice of the religion makes them uncomfortable and worse afraid.

The ride back to Sarajevo was interesting. I got to see the rolling hills pass by. I laughed at how quickly we traversed distances in hours what it would take days to do on foot. But when we pulled back into the center of the city, it felt more alien than when I first got here. The thought of all my needs being met in a square kilometer was weird when I was just a couple of days before concerned about having to use the bathroom in the woods.

I think I’ve changed. I’m still trying to figure out how and it may just take more time to process just what I went through. But I think that like I was told when I started, it was an emotionally, physically taxing experience, but one I would do again.

Two weeks? Already?

I can hardly get my head around the fact that I have already been here for two weeks. The amount of experiences I have had in such a short span of time has been extraordinary and I am sure that the best ones are yet to come. For this post, I have decided to talk about some of the common attitudes I have noticed among Bosnians. I haven’t spoken to anyone directly about this topic yet – mainly because I don’t feel I have established enough of a relationship to do so – but I think they have been partially subtly revealed at times.

The best example for me was while I was moving some furniture at the museum where I am interning. The table we were moving was clearly quite old and creaked loudly when we were moving it. The cleaning lady that was standing nearby remarked that the table, like Bosnia, was falling apart. Everyone chuckled and then went on with moving the table, but it struck me as a potential underlying attitude that things are not getting better or are in fact getting worse. While this one experience is anecdotal at best, it is important to recognize those that feel that way. Hopelessness is a terrible thing and I can’t imagine how it is to live with a mentality that things not only are not getting better but that they won’t.

Attitudes are a part of one’s identity and I wonder how that is reflected in this interaction. Could it be that she deeply feels that the country is falling apart, or could it just have been a side comment to add humor to the strenuous activity? I will likely not know until I get to know her better but I hope that it is less the former and more the latter. When it comes to sources of conflict, we often analyze the various dimensions that exist within. There are those from identity, substantive, procedural and relational sources of conflict to name a few. These can stem from conflicts over territory, to misperceptions and stereotypes that encourage the limiting of personal interaction between members of different groups. When I hear a statement such as that voiced by the women, it doesn’t fit into the nice box that I have been given from school. Rather, it reaffirms that while we have certain tools from our studies, we will need to find ways to use them in a dynamic and amorphous world.

However, my ability to connect with those here is extremely limited due to the fact that I do not speak their language. Sure, I know a few words here and there (mostly for the sake of being polite), but there is no way I could have the necessary depth of conversation regarding this difficult topic unless they were extremely comfortable speaking in either English or French. I have said before that this trip has been the one in which I have been the least linguistically prepared than I ever have and I feel that that it is one of the greatest sources of my frustration.

However, I think that over the course of the next several weeks, I will pick up more and continue to build relationships. I’m optimistic about how everything will turn out and I’m certain that this will end up being an unforgettable experience based solely on those I’ve had so far.

Surprises

When I first came to Bosnia, I expected there to be much more rubble. That may seem like a stereotypical expectation of a post-war environment but it was one I had. In turn, I became aware of the stereotypes I had brought with me. It became clear that I had almost expected to step off the plane and see de-mining efforts going on around the airport and perhaps even some buildings still on fire. It’s ridiculous in retrospect and even quite funny. But it is an ignorance that may not be unique to my case. It is likely there are those that have only heard of Bosnia in the context of the war and as a result may think it is still in that state.

In my earlier post, I mentioned how I had expected those remnants of the war to be more prominently featured. Instead, I found a modernizing city. While the trams seem to be leftovers from a time long past gone, there are multistory malls with shining floors and luxury stores which many people visit every day and nearby there are buildings with pieces blown off or riddled with bullet holes. There is a very visible contrast between the old and new and the dynamics of those interactions are some that I will certainly find interesting as this experience goes on.

I learned that there is no stereotypical war. Each has its nuances, of course, and in turn each aftermath is also unique. So in short, what surprised me the most has been the stereotypes I brought with me. In some ways it made me moderate my expectations of the quality of life here – cold showers are a very real thing – but it also almost made me expect less. I came with a certain level of ignorance and I think that is something that I should be comfortable recognizing.

In all of our studies, we become experts to a certain degree in those fields. But we must always be conscious that we do not know everything, nor should we expect to. The sheer quantity of information available should make that obvious but many are very defensive about their assertions and maybe fear the possibility of being wrong. I was wrong in my expectations of the country and its people and I am happy that that ignorance has been quickly rectified.

What an Impression

Why Bosnia? When I first chose this program, it was originally because it was such a different choice than the one I had first considered. Originally, I had thought about doing the DU program in Geneva and trying to find an internship at the UN but not only did the cost dissuade me, but it seemed like such a stereotypical place to go for those that want to go into that field. Bosnia, however, offered a proximity to armed conflict that seemed to provide the most potential to see the full dynamics of the remnants of war. I think coming here was definitely the right choice.

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Originally, when I arrived, I expected bombed out buildings, landmine warnings and otherwise, but everything seemed to be quite well developed and very cosmopolitan. Instead of unexploded ordinance, I found luxury shops and large commercial centers and even McDonalds. I had much lower expectations of the recovery and I was pleasantly proved wrong. That isn’t to say that everything looks clean and pristine. Many buildings still bear the scars of the war. There are bullet holes on my buildings, cemeteries are all over the city, snipers’ nests dot the outskirts and places where shells and grenades fell are denoted by the Sarajevo Rose painted on the street.

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If anything, I think that this city and the people within it are an example of the resiliency of humanity. During the Bosnian War, the city was placed under siege for almost four years, the longest in history. During the siege, the Serbian army would shell the city and snipers would shoot at civilians trying to move about. In one particularly horrifying event, 68 people were killed in an attack on a marketplace in the center of the city.

Yesterday morning, I went to that market and bought a number of groceries from smiling vendors with large assortments of offerings. To me, these people refused to make that memory the focal point of their being. They returned even after the carnage and kept surviving.

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I suppose, my first impressions of the city are of the character of the people here. They are some of the nicest I have ever met – especially our hosts at the hostel – and they are very generous and willing to help. Yesterday I was trying to find a shop and the address we had been given was incorrect. Understandably, we began to think that we were not going to make it in time before it closed, and as we were about to leave a woman and her daughter came out of what was actually the apartment building we were standing in front of. We asked her if a certain person lived in the building or if the business was located there and she did not speak English. However, instead of just walking off, she used her little English to make sure we didn’t leave and had her daughter try to find someone who spoke English. She then was able to find someone on the intercom and through them we were able to get some leads on where the business was. To me, it was a testament to the generosity people could show one another. I don’t know if she was going to run an errand or just going for a walk, but she was willing to take part of her time to help a stranger, and a foreigner. It was a good impression.

 

Over the course of the next several weeks, I’m sure I will have many more such interactions with the people of this city and around the country. I look forward to getting to know them better and understanding how they cope, or perhaps don’t, with memories of the war. Until next time!