Back in the States

Ok, it’s been almost two months since I left Bosnia now. I’ve been reflecting, but not really intentionally. Every so often, something just reminds me of Bosnia. I’m trying to figure out how to relate the experience to my studies going forward. After leaving Sarajevo, I traveled for a week to Beirut, another post-conflict society. The conflict there occurred longer ago but like Sarajevo, there is still evidence everywhere. And like in Bosnia, Lebanon’s civil war was caused partially by religious tensions. I found myself boring my friend and her family (my travel companions) with random facts about the war in Bosnia because so many things in Lebanon reminded me of it! Of course, now that I am back and heavily immersed in my second year of grad school, I can’t think of anything in specific to write about as an example. Probably should have written a few things down…

 
I learned a little more about myself this summer. I learned that I process things internally and privately. Group discussions about difficult issues, in which we were encouraged to share our feelings, were exceptionally uncomfortable for me as I feel that my emotions are my private business. I suppose I was raised this way and also that I learned how to keep a strictly professional, emotionless look on my face when told personal, heart breaking stories while working with refugees and then briefly as a social worker. I stand by my internal processing of heavy material, such as stories of genocide, as I believe that when one hears a survivor’s story, the focus and attention should be on the survivor and the words they are saying, not on me. To be honest, I was quite relieved to come back to the US and be able to process my summer experience at my own pace and alone.

 

I’ve been trying to assess what skills I gained over the summer and it has been hard for me to put on paper. I did get a great perspective on the Bosnian conflict that I have been able to use in arguments with strangers. That’s always fun. I learned a lot about feminism and LBT rights that translates across cultures. I learned that fundraising is difficult and I really do not like it. But at this moment, I have a lot of regrets. I wish I had dug deeper into the world of the Roma. I wish I had been more active in making contacts and delving in to what I was really interested in. I wish I had known what I was really interested in. Lessons learned from this trip – have a plan going in. Life is short and I will only have so many opportunities to travel. I spent way too much time at the hostel. I should have crammed every day full of adventure. I should have found a way to volunteer somewhere else, since my internship did not require much time from me. I was lazy and unprepared, and I am ashamed of myself. Next time I move abroad, it will be for my career, and I know that I must be much more motivated and actively involve myself in the community. Lessons learned. Advice to next year’s group who may be reading this – take advantage of your time! Sarajevo is an incredible city with so much history and diversity. Explore and enjoy it to the max!

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Life Goes On

I find strange beauty in all the hollowed out old buildings with plants spindling up inside them, beautiful, fresh, and green in contrast with the dusty, crumbling stone.  I have been noticing these sorts of buildings all over Bosnia, abandoned and destroyed during the war with only pieces of the beat-up exterior walls still standing in defiance, gaping holes from shells carved out in the middle.  It was hard to choose just one picture, but with this one comes a story, an experience.

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It was silent as I explored, eerie almost.  Or so it felt at first.  Then I started to notice small noises.  The cars crossing the road behind me, the birds chirping in the distance, the bugs buzzing in the field, the breeze rustling just a few leaves, something that sounded like running water in the distance.  I was enchanted by the tragic beauty of the abandoned Dutch Battalion buildings with shreds of glass still clinging to the window frames and the sun shining through the long lost ceiling.  Trees and plants were sprouting through the floors, pigeons flying by overhead, bugs zooming past my ears.  I began to think of this as a sort of theme for Bosnia – life goes on.  The building is still here, untouched, left crumbling just as the war made it look but here all around life was happening.

This is true of so much of Bosnia.  Buildings still have holes in them from bullets and shells.  “Sarajevo roses” cover the sidewalks.  Memorials stand in parks and on street corners.  But still people walk by, going to work, shopping, meeting friends for coffee.  Life goes on.  Always.

Srebrenica

I was wondering how I was going to process everything I had seen and heard about the Srebrenica genocide.  The films we watched were somewhat graphic and very intense, the stories we heard were told through tears, still fresh to the survivors even after twenty years.  This was not the first time I have heard horrible personal stories or seen graphic films detailing gross violations of human rights.  I think I am fairly good at compartmentalizing and keeping a straight face.  But I do internalize what I hear and see.  This became evident to me after these two truly awful dreams I had.  While they were not about Srebrenica, I know they were my brain’s way of processing through what I had experienced.  I can only imagine the nightmares that the survivors must have, probably many nights a week.

I will describe the dreams in vague detail here because they are still fresh in my mind, making my stomach turn, and I don’t want to remember all the details.  The first I am sure came about as a mixture of stories I have read and pictures I have seen of Mexican drug cartels and the extremely graphic and gory things they do, and the images I saw in films of the Srebrenica genocide.  In my dream I was loosely involved in a drug cartel, against my will as so many are, and my “boss” had just been killed in a very violent and public manner along with tons other completely innocent people.  I won’t describe it as I can’t believe my brain even came up with these things, but I am sure I dreamt this as a way to process the mass murder of thousands of innocent Muslim men in Srebrenica, just because they were Bosniak, and my brain for some reason made the connection with the people whose lives are negatively affected daily by drug cartels in Mexico.

The second dream was stranger.  Two adults, one man and one woman, had been chosen to fight each other to the death for public spectacle (Hunger Games style, but much more intimate and grotesque).  They had to torture each other and make it as bloody and drawn-out as possible.  But at the same time, they had to try and trick each other, having conversations, trapping each other, earning each other’s trust only to turn on each other later.  I am sure that this part of the dream was created by my mind after hearing many witness testimonies and perpetrator confessions about Srebrenica.  Mladic and several of his men tricked the Bosniaks and Dutch peacekeepers, handing out candy to the children and pretending that they were safe.  One story, told by one of the Dutch peacekeepers at the ICTY stood out to me.  He had observed the men being separated from the women, stripped of their belongings, and crowded into a house.  He asked Mladic what was going on and Mladic responded that his army was going to check for war criminals among the men.  The Dutch peacekeeper noticed that the men’s belongings, sitting in a huge pile outside the house, included passports.  He asked Mladic how they were going to prove the identity of any potential war criminals from among the men if they didn’t have identification and Mladic grinned and said, “They won’t be needing those anymore.”  All of the men were later murdered, mostly by firing squad.

The depth of human depravity is something I am still coming to terms with, clearly, and my mind does not know how to process that anyone could order the things that Mladic ordered – genocide of all Muslim men and boys, just because they were Muslim.  Mass exodus of all the women and small children, separated forcefully from their fathers, husbands, and brothers never to meet again.  Another story that stood out to me was told by a woman who had watched helplessly from the bus she was shoved on as men were marched past her window with their arms up in surrender, knowing they walked to their death.  This image I am sure will never leave her mind.

No matter how many times I hear such horrible stories, I still cannot grasp how a person can place so little value on other human life and feel so superior as to justify such a slaughter.  Why does that person lack empathy?  Why doesn’t that person feel the fear of the victims and be broken down by their pleas?  Just hearing the stories made several members of my group cry, and yet men like Mladic felt nothing.  How is this possible?

Internship Reflections

My first surprise was that they only wanted me to work for four hours a day, four days a week.  I was in shock.  Only four hours a day? When I am willing and able to work up to eight?  I was prepared for a regular 9-5.  They only wanted me for four hours?  But such is life in Bosnia.  Things just work differently here.  Interns are rare (in fact, I was told there is no word for “intern” in Bosnian).  People don’t have the luxury of working for free.  Some organizations in the US practically run on free intern labor, but here, such large amounts of willing volunteers do not exist.

In addition to organizations not being used to having interns, I was perhaps not the most efficient intern they could have had because I don’t speak Bosnian.  There is only so much I can do.  I can’t help write reports, which is what CURE does a lot of in the summer.  I can’t conduct interviews.  I can’t help run workshops.  I can’t really even observe the workshops since I wouldn’t understand any of it.

I’ve felt so limited because of my inability to speak Bosnian.  I want to work in the field.  I want to talk to people, to interview them, to get to know them.  I want to help with the workshops.  But how can I without speaking Bosnian?  I could bring a translator, someone else from my internship, but what good would that do the organization?  They could just do the interviews themselves.  It would be a hassle for them to interpret the workshops for me – it would get in the way of the effectiveness of the workshop.  This experience, with the language barrier, has really motivated me to work on my Arabic so that in the future, when I hope to find myself working in the Middle East, a language barrier will not again be a problem.

It has also pounded in another feeling, something I had been thinking for a while but had never experienced in reality.  Sometimes, there is a mentality (American, Western, I don’t really know), that people need help and so we can just walk in and help them.  Often this amounts to nothing and in some cases it actually makes things worse.  Walking in to another country and assuming that my knowledge and experience is somehow superior, that I know more about the situation than the actual Bosnians, is foolish.  What meaningful insight am I supposed to contribute to a country in which I have only lived for a few weeks?  What do I know about anything?

Being here to learn sometimes seems self-serving.  I have learned a lot and I am so grateful to have been able to work with such an amazing organization.  But what did I contribute?  I have another line on my resume.  I can speak with more confidence on women’s and LBTQ rights in the Balkans.  I have a great appreciation for how long it takes to make any significant change and for how much work goes into it.  But what did I do for CURE?  Potentially maybe raised a bit of money for them?  I am so incredibly thankful for this internship as CURE is an inspiring place filled with highly intelligent and motivated activists striving hard to make positive changes for women in Bosnia.  I can only hope that I managed to contribute even the tiniest bit to their efforts since they have done so much for me.

Srebrenica and the 7/11 Memorial

On Saturday, a few of us went up to a hotel with a rooftop balcony to watch the truck carrying the remains found/identified this year of Bosnians massacred in the genocide at Srebrenica.  What a somber event, watching this truck, proudly, defiantly displaying the Bosnian flag.  Though I am not Bosnian, though I have to connection to Bosnia, no roots, nothing, I felt sad, haunted, watching people lay flowers on the truck.  They probably didn’t even know the people inside, but they were fellow Bosnians, victims of a ruthless genocide, killed just because of their identity as Bosnians, as Muslims.  The streets were so quiet as everyone stood together in solidarity.  I wasn’t expecting to feel much of anything, but I was so moved by the significance, the symbolism, of this small, simple processional.

On Sunday and Monday, we went to Srebrenica for the 7/11 Memorial to watch those remains be buried.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t belong, that this memorial was not there for my spectacle.  I’d heard from multiple Bosnians before I went that they didn’t approve of the media there, people sticking their cameras in the faces of grieving mothers to get a good shot.  My Bosnian acquaintances had said this was rude and inconsiderate.  I did not observe too much of that while I was there, but there was a lot of media.  I was honestly wondering what new story they were getting.  This is the 21st year after the genocide.  Surely they’ve told all the stories they can tell and can back off a little now and let the people grieve in peace.

Upon my arrival back in Sarajevo, I was speaking with another young Bosnian woman about the memorial and she said she felt it was an embarrassment to the country because it had become so commercialized, with souvenir shops and tourists, and of course the media.  I realized that she voiced a lot of what I had been feeling.  It was somewhat commercialized, and I felt very much like a tourist.  I did not understand what was going on during the burial service, since I do not speak any Bosnian, so I was just staring.  I wasn’t “bearing witness.”  I wasn’t supporting anyone.  I wasn’t learning anything to pass on.  I was staring.  Although I had been assured by a few Bosnians that we were welcome there, that our presence was wanted, I didn’t feel right about being there.  It wasn’t my history, my family, my ceremony to take part in.  I agree that it is important to know what happened, especially since there has been a great effort by some (specifically members of the Serbian government) to cover it up and deny the genocide, but perhaps being there on that specific, significant day was not the time.  I felt like an intruder.

 

Here is a link to a video (made by the aforementioned media) that gives a little more background on Srebrenica and the 7/11 Memorial.  I did not take any part in this video and take no credit for it.

http://share.ajplus.net/shared/17759

Week 3

I’ve been very impressed here by how many international cultural events there are here and how welcomed we have been at all of them.   We went to a summit on Islamophobia one day.  Scholars had come from all over Europe.  The talk we attended was held in English, but translations were set up, available through headsets.  The attendance, however, was quite low in my opinion, too low for such an impressive program.  I wonder if that level of attendance was expected.  Would they still have flown in all these scholars for so few people to listen to?

I had a similar sentiments towards a panel discussion held at the WARM festival.  The panel was about portraying violence in the media, a debate on whether or not showing the most extreme graphic images was necessary or helpful.  I was very grateful for the opportunity to attend this panel as I have been considering these questions myself.  It seems not a lot of others felt the same way, however, as the audience was even more sparse than the Islamophobia summit.  Perhaps it was not well advertised, perhaps the fact that it was in English (this time with no translation) was a deterrent… Whatever the case, I was so surprised to find myself seated in front of a panel of professionals from all over the world (Mexico, France, Italy, and UK), such highly educated people in high-ranking positions with such valuable insights to share, and to have so few people there to listen.  I found myself wondering how much money they’d spent to bring the scholars in and if they felt it was worth it.

Internship Expectations

This week, we are writing on what surprised us most about Sarajevo.  Several things surprised me, but I suppose the one that has stood out the most this week is the completely different take on internships and what an intern is meant to do.  I was prepared to be worked to the bone.  I mean, I’m an intern.  Free labor.  The ideal participant in any non-profit organization.  The one who does the menial tasks that no one else wants to do.

However, so far the reality of my internship has been quite the opposite.  First, there was a mistake in communication and the organization for which I am interning thought I was starting a week later.  Then, the woman meant to be my supervisor had to make a last-minute trip and was gone for the week. After that, I went for the meeting with my stand-in supervisor.  She told me she only wanted me to come in for four hours a day.

I was shocked.  I insisted I could work more.  I could work eight hours a day, ten if they needed me.  She assured me that four was plenty because I’m here to learn, after all.  When would I have time to go out and explore Sarajevo if I was always working at the office?  I should make the most of my time and do as many things as I could!  So four hours a day would be plenty.

I was pleasantly surprised by this answer.  She genuinely wants me to learn, wants me to make the most of my time, wants me to get experiences.  She doesn’t even know me, really, but for her, interning is about learning, is about experiencing.  It’s refreshing, although I’m still not used to it.  I asked to adjust my Thursday hours so I could attend a panel discussion and she gave me the whole day off!  I’m still trying to determine how I feel about this much more relaxed system, but I have to say I can see some benefits.

First Impressions

I came into Sarajevo by bus from Zagreb which made for quite an interesting introduction to the country.  I had assumed that due to proximity and both being parts of former Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia would be nearly indistinguishable.  That was not at all the case.  Immediately after the border crossing, the roads became considerably worse, bumpy and unmaintained.  There were mere shells of buildings scattered throughout the countryside and houses littered with bullet holes.  Even there, so far from the city, war had touched every piece of land.

The rest of my week one experiences I would like to tell in pictures.  Unfortunately, I have been using my phone camera, so forgive the poor quality of the photos.

 

1

This is the house in Sarajevo, by the airport, that was given up so that a tunnel could be made connecting the center of the city (which was almost completely surrounded by Serb forces) to the outside part.  Food, medicine, animals, and all kinds of other things were snuck through the 800 meter tunnel.

 

2

The old Olympic bobsled run was used by Serbian snipers to attack the city of Sarajevo below.  Now it is being “reclaimed” by the people of Sarajevo via spray paint.

 

3

A sniper hole that was carved into the bobsled run.  During the war, I assume there were fewer trees and this view would have been of the city below.

 

4

This is the view from another snipers’ nest in the mountains near the bobsled run.

 

5

Not even tombstones were left unscathed.

 

6

This country is no stranger to war.  The plaque marks the very spot where World War I was started.

 

7

We spent about three hours hiking up a mountain to reach the secluded city of Lukomir, established by a group of people seeking religious freedom.

 

8

Lukomir – rural, high in the mountains, self-sufficient.  It was like going back in time to be there.

 

9

A few of us were lucky enough to go to a part of this conference.  To those who may not know, as secular as it is, Bosnia is a Muslim country.  Also, European Islamophobia is a big problem right now, especially with the Syrian refugee crisis.

 

10

On a happier note, this is how Bosnians serve coffee.  Everywhere.  This is not a fancy or special thing.

 

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Throwing in a snapchat photo might be a bit unprofessional, but I wanted to show that Sarajevo is not a sad city, full of depressed people.  On first impressions, it seems a lot of people spend afternoons just like I did, enjoying some food at a café, using the wifi, and talking to friends.  It also shows that I am perhaps way too dependent on internet!