Final Bosnia Reflections

Following the two weeks in Bosnia, I spent an additional three weeks traveling. With the stories of survivors in mind and transitioning to recreational travel, I was considering the different purposes of travel. While off in new countries with freedom to choose my activities and next destinations, the purpose of those explorations was for my own enjoyment, or wonder, or sense of adventure. Travel for me. Bosnia feels different. While I am affected and changed by my experiences in Bosnia, there is more responsibilities to others. These others include the people we met, and to those I may share what I have learned and witnessed with. The act of sharing survivors’ stories is the one request each made. Further, in a time where my own country is storming with acts of dehumanization, othering, and violence, understanding the horror that was the war and genocide, and the still open wounds from those, gives us the unique perspective of seeing what we will lose if the United States continues this path.

Perhaps this sounds like sensationalism, but when it a country starts to feel currents of violence, when is the moment to say that this is really happening? No one can know how events will unfold, but we should be listening to the histories and stories of those who have lived through when the currents did not subside.

In my last days in Bosnia I went to the Children’s War Museum and a gallery of photographs depicting moments following the Srebrenica genocide. Both these exhibits strove to give their visitors insights into the experiences of Bosnians during the war but went about them in very different ways, one with items shared or created by people who lived through it and the other images created by someone who did not. When art is created around war, what are the ethics and how do these choices inform what the viewer takes away? Seeing the photographs of bodies uncovered from mass graves and grieving women hoping to identify their loved ones are jarring subject matter. In the context of just being with people who had survived, the images did not stand alone for me, but stood as visual representations of small parts of the stories I had heard. Unable to know how the strangers at this exhibit had come to be here, I wonder how these images impacted them. Was the artist’s goal achieved? Did seeing these images make them witnesses? As for the artist, is he the one to tell this story? If he is, did he tell it in a way that does not harm the owners of these experiences?

Visiting the Children’s War Museum was a different experience, as everything was contributed by those who had lived through the war. For me, this exhibit built the feeling of connection, as many of the objects were from people who are similar in age to me. One sticks out in my mind because of how it reminded me a childhood experience of my own, a barbie with cut of hair. It’s striking to think about meeting this person and discussing the similarities and differences of our childhoods, or to think of my young self, safe in my neighborhood while across the world other children were under siege in their own.

It is difficult to summarize the major takeaways of my trip to Bosnia. In this moment, I feel focused on how I can use this experience to better my own community, the stories of survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, and happy memories of good tea, conversations, and the country.

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Tuzla and Srebrenica Reflection

I know these past two days spent in Tuzla and Srebrenica will be times I continue to process and hold space for the memory. I want to express how grateful and privileged I feel to have met with survivors of Srebrenica, and for how welcoming and open they were with us. That I can travel to this country with a professor like Ann, and meet Hasan Hasanović, Nura Begović, Saliha Osmanović, Nura Mustafić, Nedžad Avdić and Ramiz Nukić, feels surreal. Unfortunately, the genocide has not been a part of my previous education, and while I can hear the timelines, data, and read the accounts, I believe listening to survivors is essential to justice and this belief has been reaffirmed ten-fold. I intend to honor their wishes and repeat their stories to the people in my life so that the impact they have had on me can ripple out.

Prior to coming to Bosnia, I became interested in an author who advocates for transforming American death practices. A theme from this has been the meaning of a good death in different cultures. Visiting the International Commission on Missing Persons caused me to reflect on this idea. Trauma, mass killings, genocide, and those left behind cannot be transformed into the peace and dignity that the closing of life deserves but finding the remains and some details of a loved one’s death is what can be given to those left behind. I have taken for granted knowing the circumstances and being able to bury those who I have known that have died. I am struggling with what it must feel like to have the process drawn out, wondering if it is possible for someone to have survived and accepting that you will never see these people again. What is the day that you know you are a widow, and then once you know this, how do you grieve without the ceremony of laying your loved one to rest?

As we continued our days in Tuzla and Srebrenica, something I was struck by was the willingness of the women to access their emotions in sharing the accounts of their trauma and what followed. Not understanding Bosnian, this was apparent in their voices and faces, and I am grateful that they were willing to undergo this emotional work for us. Nura, of the Association of Women in Srebrenica, recounted the loss of her brother and her days as a refugee in Tuzla. We frequently use the word strength when talking about surviving horror and dealing with the aftermath, but I think Nora and other survivors, really showed that going on living demands of you to organize and share your story. Working for justice is strength, but also a cry of grief.

Coming to Saliha’s home, it felt warm and lovingly created with her garden and fruit trees. To know that it was supposed to hold her husband, sons, and by now probably grandchildren, is difficult to feel. The video of her husband being forced to call to his son in the hills being shown in the aftermath prompts the ethical considerations of videos made by the Serbs being shown in news media, or shortly after the genocide. Knowing that there are those who deny the genocide pushes the case that evidence should be widely circulated but thinking about what showing videos such as this does to the family members urges hesitation. I don’t have an answer, and I am not sure there is one.

Before attending the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial and viewing the film, I was cognitively aware of what I was about to view. However, seeing the violence and how the soldiers treated the men elicited a strong reaction that I had not expected. Following this we met Nura and Nedžad, and while I felt emotionally heavy, I experienced it as necessary emotional work to stay present and absorb their stories, and as work that I wanted to do.

I will be remembering and processing their stories for some time, but in this moment, I want to reflect on what physical contact means in these meetings when we do not share the same language. Without always having someone next to me to translate, I found that all these women allowed us to express ourselves with a hug. I do not know if this gesture was in service to myself or them, but I feel connected to them through their stories and am grateful for the opportunity to have shared that time with them.

Marble, Salt, Sheep

These past few days have taken us through Mostar, Neum, and Lukomir. My initial view from flying into the Sarajevo airport was orange roofs in pockets between mountains. Traveling between these cities has given me some sense of the diversity of Bosnian settlements, city to city and coast to mountaintop. Each place has been welcoming and allowed us to glimpse some of the history or pattern of life in that place. For Mostar, we walked across the marble bridge, or slipped a little, and viewed a film about its binning during the war. Although Old Town seemed to cater to us tourists, it maintained its history and did not erase the hardship of the past. I would have enjoyed some more time to wander, but a roof top lunch gave us the chance to talk to our waiter. I was surprised that he knew if Denver as I certainly could not tell you a long list of cities in most other countries. He seemed to be coming off a lunch rush and appreciated the American style of being to the point with our ordering. On the way back from lunch we stopped at the bridge again and took pictures of the scenery. I think the view from that bridge is something I will hold with me, as the natural beauty blended with the architecture spectacularly. A funny moment on the way back to the bus was a young girl who came up to me and started stroking my dyed green stripe of hair. She walked alongside me talking excitedly in Bosnian. When she stopped she gestured for money, which I declined based on my understanding of the business and coercion that puts her on that sidewalk. I wonder if her excitement about my green hair was genuine or a tactic to flatter foreigners before asking for money. It made me think of children I have worked with and the bonding we’ve had over playing with each other’s hair, and if she is getting that from the adults in her life when she leaves that sidewalk.

Upon arriving in Neum, I was immediately struck by the blue water of the Adriatic Sea. I swam as many chances as I had during our stay there. I have never been in a Sea with that much salt before and have never been so buoyant. My favorite moment was treading water while the reflection of a cloud passed over me and it looked as though my feet were moving through it. During our time there it did not seem to be dominated by tourists, and instead locals or maybe people from other parts of Bosnia. I can see why those we encountered were in such good spirits being so close to water like that. I also notice that parents seemed to be more relaxed with covering their children’s bodies while swimming than we typically are in America. I appreciate that attitude, as instead of teaching children to be ashamed of their bodies or that it is inappropriate to be uncovered they are able to play without learning stigma. In the work I have done with children, I think we do them a disservice when we are so focused on their presentation and send the message that their bodies are something to be ashamed of.

Today we went to Lukomir and climbed to the small village at its top. The hike was amazing, and along the way I heard about the movement of the town from a slightly lower elevation to higher where it stands now. Considerations of erosion and drifting in not something I have had to consider in my life. As the town is now made up of five families, I wonder how much longer this special place will exist. While I do not fault those who leave, as I too would likely be drawn out to cities, I hope those who remain are able to maintain their lifestyle.

Bosnia, first impressions

Arriving in Bosnia has so far given me many moments of just simple pleasure from the atmosphere, people, and scenery, to working to grasp the evidence of history as we move through Sarajevo. I am frequently thinking about the war and people’s experiences within the time frame of my own lifetime. Such as, I was this many years old when the tunnel was being used. Or when seeing shelling damage on buildings, how life goes on and with balancing the aftermath of war, and if my family and had lived through this would we repair the hard to reach wall of our house. I don’t think we would.

The first moment of really feeling like I had arrived in a new country, was when I walked out of the hotel and through the market place. I have decided that small, pedestrian streets, like the market place, bring me a lot of joy. Seeing the architecture, public water fountains, craft work, and people gathered eating feels lively and I intend to take the time to slow down and look more. I have a few souvenirs in mind that I plan to acquire. I know I will enjoy having items in my living space to remind me of my time here.

Before coming to Sarajevo, we viewed documentaries about the siege, and saw images of the hills. In stopping at a point that was used by snipers, it is odd to experience a beautiful view from a vantage point where someone sat inflicting violence on those below. Yet at the same time, this is probably one of the reasons why people love this city, and built houses going up the hills. In a similar way, walking along the bobsled run shows how shortly before the war this was where the Olympics were held. What did it feel like to live through the pride of hosting this world event to not having the international community intervene during war and genocide? How does that shape a country’s sense of global community?

Today we started with lectures from the school of social work. Personally, I have just begun to learn how to really affect change in my own political system, so it is so interesting to learn about Bosnia’s, and how such recent history created its structure. I really appreciated how engaged the lecturers were with us, and their willingness to take their time for American students. I think the exchange between social work communities is so important, as we can learn from Bosnia’s strengths and challenges, especially as the United States is in a place of political instability and injustice. In discussing social problems, such as interpersonal violence or segregation between social groups, I don’t think the problems are so different from what is happening in the United States, however there are different systems to navigate or protective factors present, and the events that exacerbated or shaped these problems played out differently.

Another moment that struck me was when we went to dinner. There was a table nearby with a large group. At this table musicians were playing, and most of those at the table sang and moved along to the music. Seeing multiple generations gathered and enjoying the music together felt different than what I experience in my own life. I appreciated seeing that group of people together enjoying the same music without the apathy that I think Americans can express when gathered in mixed age groups.

Lastly, I want to reflect on the food. As a vegetarian, it can be interesting to travel and find what options are available. I am enjoying the selection of cheeses and stopping for gelato. We’ll see how many tiny spoons I collect by the end of this trip as memorabilia from each frozen treat I enjoy.