“…the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters”

I came across the above bit of wisdom while re-reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on a train from Budapest to Bratislava during my post-Bosnia trip. While Sirius Black uses this argument to assuage Harry’s fears that Dolores Umbridge could be working for Lord Voldemort, I think its applicability extends to Muggle society as well.

When learning about genocide, whether in the field or from a book, a lot of people tend to focus on the incomprehensible force of evil that drives the perpetrators, or the innocence of the helpless victims. I’m not trying to argue that Ratko Mladić was simply misunderstood, or that any of Srebrenica’s Bosniak victims and survivors deserved to experience a genocide, but that the default narrative of black and white does a disservice to an understanding of what genocide (or ethnic cleansing, or any other crime against humanity) is.

While the people who order acts of genocide certainly make some appalling decisions, their plans could not be carried out without some level of popular support, or at least apathy. Maybe it’s easier to think that every person who participates in an act of genocide is an evil maniac, but throughout history we’ve seen countless ordinary individuals commit heinous acts in the right confluence of circumstances. And while it’s easy to remember the individual victims of a mass atrocity as “innocent,” their unfortunate and undeserved persecution for their identity does not negate any past misdeeds. Conversely, a lack of agency is not a prerequisite to victimhood; a group that actively resists or with forces fighting back on their behalf can still become the targets of a genocide or other human rights violation.

So why are these Harry Potter-inspired musings relevant to my wrap-up Bosnia blog? In both Bosnia and Rwanda, I’ve had the privilege of meeting genocide survivors, many of whom have stated that their hope when sharing their experiences with outsiders is to prevent future genocides from occurring. If you want to prevent a genocide from happening in the first place, or intervene in a mass atrocity already underway, you have to understand what you’re dealing with. If you’re looking for a “perfect” conflict, in which the roles of villain and victim are clearly dichotomized, you’ll quite possibly analyze the situation incorrectly or mistake it for a “normal” war.

For as much as I’ve heard people with good intentions speak of genocide as an aberration, I’ve yet to hear of a genocide which occurred in a vacuum. Past decisions and relations, and particularly issues which remain unresolved, will continue to affect present and future events. I could play the what-if game until this blog post reaches book length: if the victims of WWII-era Ustaše violence had received adequate recognition or compensation, would there have been enough support for the war in the 1990s? If different leaders had risen to power after Tito’s death, would Yugoslavia have had such a violent demise? If other countries had intervened sooner, would the violence have escalated as it did? These hypotheticals can’t change the past, but they represent considerations that can be taken to prevent future atrocities.

Reconciliation is an extremely important part of sustainable peacebuilding, as it promotes social cohesion. That previous statement is nothing groundbreaking, however I think it is important to emphasize the importance of inclusive reconciliation, meaning that the grievances from parties on all sides of the conflict are aired and addressed appropriately. That’s not to say that one side of a conflict won’t have endured a disproportionate amount of losses and hardship at the hands of another, but that what each side has experienced must be acknowledged.

Bosnia, with its three presidents, two entities, segregated schools, self-segregating population, and prevalent ethno-nationalism, has yet to achieve such a reconciliation. I’m not trying to predict Bosnia’s future from what I learned in two short months, but from what I can tell, the type of social cohesion that can inhibit violence like the Bosnian War has yet to be built. And it seems to me that purposeful separation and a lack of inter-ethnic interaction and relationships are a big part of this. It’s easy to believe that all of the Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs are Death Eaters when you’re repeatedly told of their evil deeds against your kind of people, and you don’t know any of them personally to contradict that idea. Perhaps this mentality is a piece of what does lead otherwise nonviolent people to participate in largescale killings. But we can’t say that definitively without listening to them, no matter how much we might not want to. And it is through listening to all sides that conflict can be effectively understood, resolved and prevented in the future.


Niti jedna žena nevidljiva


Decorations on the office walls at Fondacija CURE

Last week at my internship I spent a solid 20 minutes scrolling through photos of sculptures of topless women on the internet. It’s not exactly what I had envisioned working on this summer, but it turns out that sometimes when you’re looking for information on feminist sculptors, much of the available content is visual. And I can’t complain about receiving academic credit for it.

Fondacija CURE is a feminist activist organization in Sarajevo with an extensive list of projects. I stumbled upon the stone breasts while researching an artist who will be attending CURE’s annual feminist art festival, to assemble her bio for the website. Researching some of this year’s guests has been my main project for the last couple of weeks, as the festival is about three weeks away. Unfortunately, I won’t be here to see it, but this event is a pretty big deal for the organization.

They invite NGOs, a variety of officials from Bosnia and Sarajevo-based embassies, and the media to the opening of the festival. I’m told that in addition to the attendees from all parts of Bosnia who come, there are regular contingents of (primarily) women who make the trip from neighboring countries. There are great efforts taken to ensure that young women, economically disadvantaged women and women from marginalized communities can attend the festival, and to ensure that they are represented on the stage.

In addition to celebrating feminist art, CURE’s activities include monitoring of policy and lobbying of political leaders, coordinating activist demonstrations in Sarajevo, holding educational workshops for youth around the country, and various other projects, such as screening the textbooks used in public school for content which normalizes domestic violence. In short, they’re kind of a catch-all for feminist causes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Which you kind of have to be when you’re one of the only organizations doing this kind of work.

One of my personal frustrations while learning about Bosnia’s history has been my perception that women are not adequately represented in much of the material or public commemoration of the violence in the 1990s. There are many reasons for the way in which the culture of memory has developed, and it’s certainly not my place to come in and dictate how someone else’s experiences should be memorialized. As any self-aware feminist in development should know, it’s not the outsider’s place to impose their beliefs on another community; a well-meaning foreigner who dictates how women (or any marginalized group) should act just perpetuates their oppression in a different manner than the power structure that has oppressed them in the first place.

In my role as an intern, it’s my duty to listen to my supervisors at work and then decide how I can best assist with what they need, in their context. Not surprisingly, the best contribution I can make looks different in practice than I might have imagined it to look prior to being here. While it seems to me that assembling an issue brief or research report would be my optimal work output, sometimes what my supervisors actually need is for me to sift through the nude sculptures to find the background info. And if I want to contribute to the feminist movement in Bosnia, or to the field of international development in general, this is how I feel I can best do it responsibly.

But, aside from taking the opportunity to condemn imperial forms of feminism, I mention the issue of women’s representation here to illustrate the importance of an organization like Fondacija CURE. They’re a small NGO created and run by Bosnian women with the intention of elevating the voices of other women to create a gender equitable society. On the front page of their website right now, there are links to articles about female survivors of sexualized violence, rural widows, and queer women in Bosnia. They design projects and events that suit their communities, using tactics to mobilize and empower local women in their own lives, while also advocating for institutional change in Bosnia. Rather than trying to achieve gender equity by enforcing it on the unreceptive masses from a position of power, CURE works directly with marginalized groups to determine how best to serve and advocate for them. As with anything new, they encounter some resistance from the more conservative elements of society, but their fight is their own. And who better than Bosnian women, of various intersectional identities, to create and define change that will benefit Bosnian women?

A bandaid or a barrier?

Following the news of President Paul Kagame’s re-election in Rwanda this week, I was reminded of an argument my friend made in support of Kagame’s ownership of Rwanda’s historical narrative and suppression of alternative perspectives. In response to my assertion that the inability of all sides to express themselves would impede true reconciliation, he countered that in the aftermath of a violent conflict it might be good that have a period of stabilization before moving forward; “when you’re bleeding, don’t you want a bandaid?”

Decades later, Rwanda’s bandaid maintains the nation’s restrictive status quo with no shake-up in sight. Five years after first hearing this particular analogy, I’m sitting in Sarajevo, contemplating its application in Bosnia. The division of the country into Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (and the neglected little Brčko District) has largely separated the Bosnian Serb population from the Bosniak and Croat populations, which share control of the Federation. A blog post describing all of the challenges this system creates in BiH would become a book, so I’m going to limit myself to education.

In FBiH, the entity controlled by a Bosniak and Croat coalition, government is highly decentralized. In response to numerous disputes about how to best re-integrate Bosniak and Croat students in aftermath of the war, the “Two Schools Under One Roof” policy was born. Bosniak and Croat students have been segregated throughout much of FBiH, as the policy’s supporters argue that the persistence of ethnic tensions will create an environment hostile to learning. Throughout FBiH there are schools where Bosniak and Croat students attend different classes taught by different teachers (of their own ethnicity), study different textbooks, and attend classes in shifts or use different entrances so that they won’t interact.

Bosnia’s own supreme court ruled this policy unconstitutional in 2012, finding that it violated the nation’s anti-discrimination laws. However, under Bosnian law, the ruling only applies to the parties in the suit; thus the decision only actually desegregated one district.

Aside from the illegality of this policy, there are a number of other criticisms. Students who protest it say that receiving such a one-sided curriculum, and a lack of exposure to other people and stories compromises the quality of their education. Further, maintaining the segregation of students by ethnicity will perpetuate the ethno-nationalist ideas that culminated in the war and genocide in the 1990s. In addition to the criticisms of the direct impacts of this policy on students, it complicates any attempt at education standardization or policy reform. The organization where I intern in Sarajevo has been working for a while to identify gender stereotypes and normalizations of domestic violence in school textbooks, and lobbying schools and politicians to remove the offending content. Two Schools Under One Roof means there are two separate sets of textbooks to search through and edit.

I stand by what I said five years ago (as someone who hasn’t live through a war, in fairness); that a real and lasting reconciliation requires a space for open dialogue. As authoritarianism prevents this from developing in Rwanda, the state of education in FBiH prevents this for many youths in Bosnia. Given the state of politics in Bosnia, it’s hard to envision an institutional change being enacted by those in power, for a multitude of reasons. But if the student-led protests in Jajce can start a trend, perhaps grassroots change can occur.

On names, places and war history

The above photo was taken from the bus on the way back to Sarajevo from Split, Croatia this past weekend. The window could have been cleaner, but the clouds were nice. I took the photo because the town was mobbed, and I was hoping my phone would geotag it so I could later find out what was happening that day. My phone didn’t geotag it, but I persisted, and after looking at a map of the bus route and Google image searching random towns along the road I found the church in a photo from Kupres.

I had assumed that some sort of cultural festival or commemorative event must have taken place last Sunday, especially given the number of people wearing what appeared to be traditional costumes and carrying Croatian flags we saw walking on the side of the road. As it turns out, it was just a gathering of 2,325 people named Ivan.

Croatia Week reports that all of these Ivans came together to break the Guinness World Record for the largest number of people with the same first name gathered in one place. Many of these Ivans came over the border from Croatia for the day, which is unsurprising, as I have now learned that Ivan is one of the most common names in Croatia. The article also mentioned that the event was organized by the Kupres in Zagreb Club, which I think we can pretty safely infer to be a Croatian organization.

So why Kupres? Unclear. It’s a rather scenic town, on a main road, and fairly easy to get to, from what I can tell. According to 2013 census data, the vast majority of the population is Croat (a major shift from 1991, when there were more Serbs than Croats), so perhaps there is already a high concentration of Ivans living in Kupres.

It turns out that Kupres has its own interesting history as well (full disclosure: I turned to Wikipedia for much of this information). Because it’s located in a plain between the Dalmatian Coast and Central Bosnia, Kupres is a strategic village to control in war time. During World War II, Kupres sat within the bounds of the Independent State of Croatia, a fascist German proxy state in the Balkans. In the 1942 Battle of Kupres, the Yugoslav Partisans, an Axis resistance group, unsuccessfully attempted to seize control of Kupres from the Ustaše militia. And thus, the town remained under the control of the Independent State of Croatia until the end of the war.

A quick aside: in addition to being Axis-aligned, the Ustaše militia committed large-scale war crimes, including mass executions, against civilian Serb populations and ran about 20 concentrations camps in the region. The Ustaše militia was comprised of Croat and Bosniak soldiers, whose crimes eventually became one (invalid) justification for the actions of the Serb militias who committed war crimes in the 1990s. These cycles of violence aren’t unique to Bosnia, but I would like to take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of historical context in understanding mass atrocities once again.

In the early ’90s, Kupres once again saw violent conflict. In 1992, the Serb army won control of the town after a violent, week long battle, and controlled the territory until a Bosniak-Croat alliance formed and seized back control in 1994. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which divided the country into three territories, put Kupres into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and as census data shows, the Serb population of Kupres has nearly disappeared into Republika Srpska. Today’s Croat and Serb political leaders have accused each other’s armies of committing war crimes against each other during the conflict. The town still has a lot of war damage, but they do have that nice new church, and I’ll bet the gas station did a lot of business on Sunday.

Is the political history and status of Kupres related to the decision of the Ivans to congregate there? At this time, I don’t think that there is sufficient evidence to proclaim it so on the internet. But I will credit the Ivans with inspiring me to seek out a history lesson about a town that I would otherwise have driven through and likely not thought about again.

The Politics of Memory

Walking through Srebrenica today, one would not realize that the town was ground zero for one of the worst massacres in modern European history, the continent’s only genocide since the Holocaust. The nearest public commemoration is 7 kilometers away in Potočari, where the official memorial to the victims of the genocide is located. Several execution sites are located in the vicinity, as are notable portions of the path taken by the people fleeing to Tuzla, however none of these are marked as such.

Although all of these areas lie within Republika Srpska (RS), Potočari differs in that the property dedicated to memorialize the genocide is owned by Bosnia’s federal government. The population and administration of RS generally prefer to deny that the Srebrenica genocide ever occurred, either minimizing, justifying or just plain refuting historical facts. While at one point the government of RS acknowledged the murder of over 7,000 Bosniak men and boys by Serb forces, the current leadership has since backtracked, stating that these numbers are not accurate and that the massacres do not constitute a genocide. Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the entity which is dominated politically by the victim group of the genocide, it is more common to see official or unofficial signs or artwork acknowledging the violence that occurred in Srebrenica.

The culture of remembrance in Bosnia differs from my experience in Rwanda (where I participated in a study abroad program in 2012), most notably in the customs of visual commemoration. The single biggest difference I’ve noticed is the on-site commemoration in Rwanda. Several locations where especially large massacres were perpetrated in the 1994 genocide now serve as memorials to those killed, and tourists and visitors to the country are encouraged to visit and learn about Rwanda’s history, including the genocide. This contrasts Srebrenica, where one could wander into the battery factory or drive past the dam and never realize that mass executions had been carried out two decades prior.

There are ceremonies held on the anniversaries of the atrocities in both Rwanda and Srebrenica, and I have now had the privilege to be present for both events. Rwanda’s official commemoration falls on 7 April, the onset of the 100-day genocide. In the weeks leading up to that date, it felt like I saw reminders of the upcoming anniversary everywhere I looked; there was an abundance of posters, adverts, and commemorative wristbands. Walking around Srebrenica four days before 11 July, the anniversary of Srebrenica’s fall to Serb forces in 1995, there was nothing. Arriving back to Srebrenica the night before the memorial, the town was more crowded with those who had just finished the Peace March, but still no visual acknowledgement of the genocide was present. While I’ve not visited the execution sites around the town, I am told that beyond refusing to recognize them, the locals make them as uncomfortable for the victims’ families to visit as possible.

The comparison of cultures of commemoration in these two places inevitably leads to the comparison of political climate, which begins to explain the respective practices of memorialization. As previously explained, RS is controlled and largely inhabited by those whose image it does not suit to acknowledge the Srebrenica genocide of its Bosniak residents and internally displaced persons. Many individuals, both private citizens and government officials, in the RS had some form of involvement in the events that culminated in the genocide, and thus probably prefer to sweep the atrocities under the figurative rug as much as possible. Rwanda, on the other hand, is now dominated politically by members of the group against whom the 1994 genocide was committed. The current President was actually the leader of the armed Tutsi rebel group that fought its way into the nation’s capital to seize control and halt the genocide, and since coming to power in 2000 has constantly invoked his anti-genocide stance in the process of building his political legitimacy, especially in the international arena. Unlike the leaders in RS, it benefits those in power in Rwanda to maintain a certain level of public awareness of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis (a version of history preferred by the Rwandan government that conveniently omits the war crimes committed against Hutu civilians by Tutsi rebel forces during the civil war).

It’s not exactly news that the victors write history, but that proclamation was made before we had the internet. Higher literacy rates and increased capacity for dissemination of information (in all mediums), have allowed voices that would previously have been silenced to find an audience. I can do a quick Google search from my apartment in the USA and find the other side of the Rwandan story online, an ability I wouldn’t have had a few decades ago. Organizations like Zene Srebrenice Udruzenje, and survivors of the violence in Srebrenica have worked for years to bring attention to the atrocities of July 1995; in RS, where the discourse is dominated by deniers, one wouldn’t realize that a contradictory narrative existed. But arriving at the Peace March in Nezuk, it is evident that the story of Srebrenica is known abroad. In addition to participants from all over Bosnia, there were marchers from the US, Turkey, Iran, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and elsewhere. With support from the Federation and from allies and organizations abroad, the victims and survivors of Srebrenica have begun to overcome their local political culture by building collective memory of the atrocities beyond the borders of RS. It is doubtful than anything resembling justice can be achieved for this community until the crimes committed against them are acknowledged domestically. But until that can happen, the story of Srebrenica will be preserved in other places rather than drowned out by other, louder historical narratives.fullsizeoutput_1a10

Language and Life in an NGO

English language skills are a huge professional advantage in Bosnia. Especially in the world of NGOs, as they compete for limited funding, much of which comes from abroad. A well-written grant proposal has a much better chance of winning the award than a poorly written proposal for an overall better project. As a native English speaker (and former TEFL teacher), it’s easy for me to spot grammatical errors that seem innocuous to those less practiced with the language.

For example, Bosnian doesn’t use articles the way English does; “I have a cat” becomes “imam mačku,” literally translating to “I have cat.” It’s not a big deal in casual conversation, but to a foundation committee member an application that reads “we plan to hold a workshop” is stronger than “we plan to hold workshop.” It’s a small error that doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence at all, but repeated mistakes such as this can lose vital funding for an organization.

Considering that English is not the official language of Bosnia, it seems a little unfair that English language skills have become such an important factor contributing to an NGO’s ability to exist. Beyond grant writing, a multilingual staff can greatly expand an organization’s networking capacity, and a good English language version of a website can attract outside support in a way that a Bosnian language webpage will not. Unfortunately, the dearth of domestic funding necessitates the acquisition of proficiency in a “global” language, and “global” languages just so happen to be those of the most financially prosperous nations, which more often than not have acquired their wealth at the expense of others.

The United States is a glaringly obvious example of this. As I’ve been researching grants, I’ve found that even foundations based in wealthy, non-anglophone European countries accept applications in their own languages and in English. Because I am fluent in English my value as an intern increases, even though I have no real experience with grant writing or website maintenance. While it is undeniably helpful to my NGO that I can assist with these tasks, my language assistance also perpetuates the system that favors speakers of my native tongue. Simply having had the good fortune to be born and raised in the USA gives me the privilege of working in my first language in many parts of the world, whereas all the Bosnian employees in my Sarajevo office are at least proficient in a second.

As long as the majority of funding comes from abroad, outside actors will also continue to exercise a disproportionate amount of influence over the types of projects that will be implemented in foreign countries. If there is one grant and multiple NGOs apply for it, it is the foundation that chooses which project will receive the funding it needs, based on what they think sounds best. The proposal has to sell the idea to an outsider, who accepts or declines to fund it based on what the author writes; the populations that stand to benefit from competing projects don’t have a voice in the process that determines which project will be chosen. And this circles back to language again in that a local, grassroots NGO with strong ties to the community may have the strongest proposal for their population of beneficiaries, but a bigger, more removed NGO with greater resources may have a stronger presentation for their audience and thus win the funding for an inferior project.

While I would love to change this system with a wave of my magic wand, I’m still waiting on my Hogwarts acceptance letter. As long as the balance of power and wealth in the world remains stacked in my favor, perhaps the best thing I can do is listen to my host organization when they tell me what I can do for them. They know best what their own organization needs, and if that’s proofreading from me then so be it.


Mapping Divisions

I once read a hiking memoir about the Pacific Crest Trail that spoke of “trail angels,” people who give food, drinks, shelter, etc. to hikers. Bosnia’s Marš Mira has its own community of good samaritans along the trail. In addition to the foreign governments, NGOs and philanthropists who donate snacks, drinks and supplies for the event, many individuals who live along the route offer things like fruit and coffee to marchers who pass by.

We encountered many of these wonderful people as we marched along the three-day route, although we noticed fewer people coming out to support the group as the march continued toward Potočari (2). My companions and I floated several theories about why as we walked, and in the time since returning to Sarajevo, I’ve done a bit more research to refine my personal hypothesis.

The main march originates in a village called Nezuk (1), where in 1995, the men who successfully fled from Srebrenica began to emerge from the woods. If you look at a map, Nezuk is very close to the border between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, the two entities that comprise the country.

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 A 2013 census shows that since the 1995 Dayton Accords, there have been large demographic shifts in the territory; the areas surrounding the march are ethnically Serb dominated now. The genocide in Srebrenica is still hugely controversial in Bosnia, as much of the Serb population disputes the facts, insisting that the extermination of Srebrenica’s male Bošniaks was a hoax. As the march traverses their escape route in reverse, it takes participants further into Republika Srpska, and thus farther away from those who support its mission. Other factors like population density probably also contribute to the differing levels of spectator enthusiasm, however it was obvious as we marched when we moved further into Serb-dominated areas.

In addition to finding fewer supporters along the route as the days passed, we encountered larger numbers of mass graves as we progressed toward the origin point of the massacres. The number of mass graves (both those comprised of bodies first buried at the site and those of bodies that were relocated) juxtaposes the beautiful landscapes of the hike, and directly contradicts the notion that this violence never actually occurred. Like the physical borders between the Federation and Republika Srpska, this shift in support was a reminder that in spite of the 2+ decades of peace, the country remains divided in many ways.




Home Decoration

My first impression of Sarajevo is that it is covered in graffiti. And I think that’s nice.

So many other cities I’ve visited seem sanitized in an effort to appeal to the tourists upon whom the local economies rely; in contrast, Sarajevo is very obviously lived in by locals who maintain a presence not for the purpose of catering to foreigners. A range of graffiti is visible across the city, from scribbled profanities to artistic murals, representing the voices of Bosnia’s population and the occasional traveler from abroad. The proliferation of Bosnian language graffiti demonstrates that, for better or worse, this serves as a means of expression by Bosnians, for Bosnians.

fullsizeoutput_1a08Despite the negative connotations generally associated with the word “graffiti,” much of it is quite nice. Just outside of the city sits the abandoned bobsled run from the 1984 Winter Olympics, which was used as a sniper’s nest during the war. Today it bears graffiti from a number of sources, local and foreign, repurposing it yet again. Messages take up residence on the sides of buildings throughout Sarajevo, and murals featuring characters like goats (considered especially valuable in wartime) adorn the walls of underpasses. And not all graffiti is political in nature. Names and symbols from a number of organizations, such as local football clubs, frequently appear.fullsizeoutput_1a04

My personal favorite symbol is actually the work of a French artist. Monsieur Chat is a winged cat who smiles from a number of walls around the city, often accompanied by roses. The roses are probably an allusion to the Sarajevo Roses made by pouring red resin into depressions where shells hit the city’s sidewalks to memorialize the lives claimed by those explosions. A quick Google search reveals that Monsieur Chat’s smile is meant to bring light to those on the city streets. In Sarajevo this is especially poignant, as war damage remains visible on many of the buildings neighboring the various depictions of Monsieur Chat. Even though this is the work of a foreign artist, it is clearly intended for a local audience, demonstrating again that despite its growing tourism economy, Sarajevo exists first for Sarajevo.