Reflections on a Summer in BiH

So many of this summer’s blogs I’ve focused on Bih and how I see the country. I started writing this reflection after seeing a symphony/ classical music in an old Czech church in Prague and decided that Bosnia is like Bach’s Toccata in D Minor  played by a crowd measured through history and performed into a valley without an audience. This is possibly the most pretentious comparison I’ve ever written down. And I guess the point of sharing this with you is to say that in addition to being pretentious in my snooty cultured corner, Sarajevo and BiH as a whole transcend my vocabulary. Bosnia to me will forever be music not words.

Music is emotion and history written in a language that is universal. In some ways Bosnia is tragic in a common way. Ethnoreligious wars are not unique to Bosnia or Europe or even this century or millennium. But, like Bach’s piece, Bosnia is not common. Bosnia is anger and relief and chords that are complicated and sound a bit sour. To play his piece you have to be athletic. I play piano not organ but to play it on the original organ one must constantly move hands and feet like a hyperactive octopus-human. Bosnia does not roll over, Bosnia fights. Bosnia is not forgotten. Bosnia is bold. Bosnia is kind and beautiful. Bosnia is subtle and also obvious. Bosnia is an epicenter, and so rarely the center of attention. I guess the comparison means that I am not and never will be a composer or a player in a metaphorical Bosnian symphony, but I will be listening. Bosnia’s music made me dance and sway and understand, and I am richer for it.

I am impacted by listening to Bosnia and like I said, so much of this summer has been about me thinking of comparisons and writing about how I see Bosnia, I think for this final reflection I’d like to think about how Bosnia really changed me. On the surface I learned a lot in the obvious categories. When I first came to Bosnia in 2016, I knew there was a war in the 1990s and that it was a terrible war. I didn’t know who fought who. I didn’t know that it was former Yugoslavia. I didn’t know the events that took place in Bosnia. I had never heard of Vučko, the lovable wolf mascot of the 1984 Olympics who I now love. I could not have pronounced Baščaršija to save my life. And I couldn’t have written 500 words on BiH let alone the thousands I have this summer via blogs and reports for my internship. I know a lot more about the ins and outs of the war, though I’m still missing a lot of the specifics. I can identify the key players in the war and I can recognize how devastating this war was and how the U.S. failed and continues to fail Bosnia. I can talk coherently about where things are and the events that happened. I know Bosnia like a new friend. But this knowledge is easy to come by, its the deeper stuff that I am thankful for.

This summer was not an easy couple months in Europe. It was difficult on several levels and it forever changed all of us. I think the best thing BiH does is let you fall in love with the country. I don’t know why. I have traveled to a lot of countries and seen a lot of cities and I can find things to talk about in many of them, but BiH really stole my heart. It is an old soul of a place. Bosnia is not like other places where you have to work to know it. There aren’t tourist attractions to present you with a facade. You know it because it is like a classical music piece. You know it because it is honest in all its glory, horror and complexity. It’s an old story that sounds familiar. It is a place that is heavy with what humanity has done there. It is simple and straight forward despite endless complications. Bosnia is a country living in each moment. Unfortunately I think this comes from knowing war, but I want to be a person the way Sarajevo is a city.

Here is where I want to end my blog, but it feels unfinished. Bosnia is not a place I can forget. I cannot finish with it and move on. Bosnia has become a growing living piece of how I see the world. I don’t know how else to say or reflect on our summer other than to say thanks to everyone we met (especially Hasan) and to continue to listen to the music.

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Research Assistant

This summer I had the honor of working for Enis Omerović a local human rights attorney working on a book about the genocide in Bosnia. More specifically he is writing about the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the implications of the court decisions on genocide case law moving forward. There are a few other international courts who have issued judgements on the genocide, but the ICTY holds the most power. While I would have loved to spend more time with Enis and learn the lens through which he approaches his work, the research itself has been fascinating and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

To summarize the research, the only official genocide in the war in Bosnia in the 1990s was in Srebrenica. The Peace March many of my colleagues participated in commemorates the events that took place there. Briefly, Srebrenica is located near the Drina River which forms the border between BiH and Serbia. As the Republika Srpska (RS) forces took land in Eastern Bosnia, the UN declared Srebrenica a “safe zone.” The town of approximately 6,000 people grew to 40,000 people in early 1995. The UN was able to transfer some people to Muslim-controlled areas, but tens of thousands of people remained in Srebrenica in July of 1995. For strategic reasons, the RS wanted to take Srebrenica. Even though it was a UN “safe zone,” RS troops under direct orders from RS President Radovan Karadzić and under command of Ratko Mladić (the #2 in command behind the president) and Radislav Kristić (commander of the Drina Corp) began shelling and attacking Srebrenica. On July 10th, 1995 Srebrenica fell and the tens of thousands of refugees fled to the Dutch UN base in Potočari or chose to run on foot over the mountains to Tuzla which was under BiH control.

Approximately 10,000-15,000 men, boys and a few women chose to flee to Tuzla. The rest who went to the Dutch base were ultimately denied protection and the women and children were deported to Muslim-held territory while men and teenage boys were detained. Mladić and the RS forces realized that most of the men had fled over the mountains and began ambushing the group of men. Some were captured, others were killed on sight and some survived. The RS soldiers were able to severe the column of men and boys fleeing to Tuzla by blocking a road. Only about a third of those in the column made it across and the others were captured. Over the next week the captured men and boys as well as those separated from the women and children in Potočari were transported to detention centers that were schools, warehouses, and other buildings before being transported to mass execution sites where they were systematically murdered by RS troops. In total over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men were murdered. Most of them were civilians.

The ICTY found that genocide had been committed in Srebrenica, and drew charges against several members involved in the events of Srebrenica. The 3 most note worthy cases are those of Karadzić, Mladić and Kristić. Kristić was the first to be convicted under the 1948 Genocide Convention that codified genocide in international law. As a crime genocide differs from most other crimes as the actus rea of the crime, that is the actions that took place, could vary. Genocide could be forced deportation, murder, mass rape all of which are crimes in their own right. For a genocide conviction, it must be established that a person not only willfully and knowingly did an action, but that they did so with the intent to “destroy in part or in whole” a protected demographic. This means that it is not as important what a perpetrator of genocide did, but the spirit in which he or she did it. Since mental status during war and even specifically the perpetrating of the crime is difficult to determine, the ICTY was tasked with deciphering whether and how this could be proven.

The prosecutors submitted hundreds of witnesses and thousands of pieces of evidence to establish not only the timeline of events, but the mentality of those involved in carrying out the crimes. Since Rwanda and Bosnia were the first two major cases to be tried in a tribunal since the genocide convention was signed into effect, they created the first case law in trying and convicting genocide. Much of the evidence were photos and videos taken by journalists, and the troops themselves as well as leaked written orders and the testimonies of RS officers who bled guilty and agreed to testify against commanders. Survivors of the execution sites were also instrumental in establishing a historical record of what happened. Each case has its particulars and contributed to the legal understanding of genocide in their own ways, but I will need a longer blog post for all that.

And so at the end of the summer preparing my personal statements for law school and thinking really intently about my future I have to wonder if this is the best course of seeking justice. At a dinner with 3 survivors of the genocide, Nedžad Avdić, Hasan Hasanović and Saliha Osmanović I asked a question about the ICTY and justice. Basically I asked, “how do the court decision make you feel?” Some of them had testified in various trials, but none of them reported feeling anything close to justice. Nedžad said that no earthly punishment could balance the tide for what was done to his family. He had lost so many people. His loss and his unlikely survival from an execution site near a dam were to the degree that President Bill Clinton met him. That is to say his loss was profound and his existence amazing in its own right. And if justice is beyond our realm, to what end does the time and money of the ICTY serve? While none of the survivors thought the court decisions could ever be justice, they said it brought light to what happened and created a reliable unimpeachable narrative of what happened in Srebrenica. And for me, who started in journalism to shine light on the corners of our reality, I found it comforting to know the work I did this summer and the career I am pursuing can still accomplish that goal.

The Privilege of Travel

In addition to seeing Bosnia during this brief internship, I’ve been fortunate to go to Turkey, Serbia, & Croatia and plan to go to Slovenia, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany. Some of these are repeat locations for me and some of them are new. And as I fill in spaces on a map of the places I’ve been I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have these experiences. I come from a town of 6,000 people in rural Indiana. There’s people from my hometown who have never left the state or even the county. And all of this raises the question of how did I get here? Why should I have this many soul-changing travel experiences when so many people I grew up around didn’t get these chances? Why me? I’d like to believe that I am somehow special–that on some level I have earned the experiences I have had and continue to have, but that’s not true.

So much of what I have done and continue to do comes down to some sort of fate. Yes, I’ve jumped at a lot of opportunities and there’s work and determination in that, but without some sort of destiny I would not be able to travel, let alone to the extent I have. Whether it has been my ability to finance trips, have places to stay, earn entry into programs, build relationships or just possessing a US passport, so many things have been out of my control. It’s sudbina, Bosnian fate.

When I worked in refugee resettlement, one of our clients was in hospice care and wanted to say goodbye to her family. She had about 5 years from diagnosis to passing and even with an “expedited” visa process, we needed about 7 years to get her family through the visa process to say goodbye due to where they lived. In the end we ran out of time and my heart breaks every time I think about that case. It just seems so unfair that something so simple could take so long and be so sad in addition to all the other heartbreak that predated and filled their refugee status. I have this same feeling here in Bosnia. Especially as refugees are starting to get stuck in the Bosnian city of Bihać on the border with Croatia that is currently locking people out of the EU.

Without taking away from all the things I love about Bosnia such as the sense of community, the welcome of the people, the moments when we get to really see other people and know them, the work I’ve done for my internship, the relationships Ann has with locals, meeting Hasan and other people, the beautiful land and a thousand other things, Bosnia has real problems like a stumbling economy that disproportionately impacts young people, growing and ongoing nationalism in the RS and existing as a country irrevocably changed and scarred by war. In addition to blocking Bosnia from progress in a variety of senses, it makes it more difficult for Bosnians to travel. They need visas to get to the states and it’s an expensive, demanding, long process. This means that while I can come to Bosnia for an entire summer with little effort, Bosnians could not do the same in the states. And more than that, I think about how much I would love to take a class taught by Hasan and how far that prospect seems at this time. When we live in a globalized war and power is often concentrated to the governments of a few specific arbitrarily drawn lines on a map, it severely limits the opportunities available to people for no good reason.

And so again I’d like to thank all the people who allow me to be here, and recognize what a tremendous privilege it is to be here. I am falling in love with this place and I am so thankful for being here.

Photography & BiH

For this week’s blog we were supposed to choose a photo and write about it. There’s a cliche that says a picture is worth a 1,000 words, but I’d need a million to encompass my time here in pixels. After all photography is not often about content, it’s about light. One of my favorite professors from undergrad routinely posts photos to facebook with the caption “It’s all about the light.” And isn’t that what this program is about–shedding light on what happened here and what has changed since the 1990s and what has not and how people feel and what people in Bosnia want from the rest of the world and how to wrap your mind around genocide and how to wrap your mind around the hatred that allows for the taking of life and how the peacekeepers did indeed keep peace–they hoarded it under blue helmets and watched as the world crumbled around them and what restorative justice is and isn’t and I told you I need a million words.

But like I said, photography is about light. Capturing light. Taming the waves and particles. Forcing them into a lens. Flattening it out. Producing an image that conveys something beautiful, profound, baffling, memorable or emotive. Light after all is ingrained in the way we relate to our world. We say to shed light on something is to explain it or expose something. To see light at the end of a tunnel is to find relief after a difficult time. To find light in a dark place is to find hope. To let the light in is to cheer up. To be blinded by the light means to be awakened by a profound experience. Light is in the spiritual realm. Light is good and dark is evil. Light is a metaphor for truth. We mark time by light, first light, high noon, dusk etc. We even have light years. My point is light permeates our existence. It is a necessary component of life. We need light.

And so photography is, in a figurative and literal sense, to preserve life. The prompt for this week then becomes what moment of life do you want to talk about and how did you experience that moment. While light might be metaphorical truth even the purest forms of photography can be manipulated. I have an affinity for photographing tree bark and water. Largely because it’s a power to manipulate reality.

Tree bark with low contrast can look like watercolor. Tree bark with low saturation and vibrance and high contrast and clarity can look like concrete.

Water with a fast shutter speed can look like glass or plastic. Water with a low shutter speed can look soft. It’s all the same. You can even get vastly different photos in the same light of the same material.

You can frame things as you experience them. (For an anecdotal illustration click here). It does not matter that the molecules and conditions and reality is the same, you can see it how you choose. And in this way photography mimics life. We all bring our own light to the shoot, our own spin, our own perspective. Our own reality.

So to bring this back to BiH, not everyone is seeing the same light. There are vastly different realities in the same space, and all the squinting in the world isn’t getting people to see the same reality. The war in the 1990s in Bosnia was one of the most documented wars we have ever seen. Journalists were there in Sarajevo under the siege, they were in the camps and they did their job. The militaries also documented the war. There is video and photos of civilians being murdered. There is video of Mladič saying Srebrenica was revenge from centuries ago carried out on Muslim men. There are bodies in the streets committed to film. To me, in my light, this is unimpeachable evidence of what happened on this soil. There is no amount of light bending that could change what I see. Especially for photography technology in the 90s, there is no way to create those images. There is no way to see those images and not know, but it’s happening. And this leads to the photo that I wanted to talk about for this post:

IMG_0047This photos is an art installation in Tito’s bunker. Tiny fans spin at different times to blur and distort the word if you photograph it with a long shutter speed. I chose this photo because this is so often the shade that keeps us from peace. We fear our neighbors who practice a different religion, or hail from a different geographic place or look differently than we do. This fear blinds people from peace, but also from prosperity from community from love from so many ways we answer those existentialist questions of why we are here. Fear often springs before hatred floods. If the people I have met here in BiH have taught me anything it’s that harboring fear and hatred does not heal even the most broken, unfair, extreme suffering. This is a lesson I wish I could articulate with greater presence and persuasion.

Never Forget

This weekend was a strange weekend we were fortunate to meet with wonderful, warm, welcoming people who also were genocide survivors. In between rounds of coffee, meals, museums, bus rides, etc. they told us their stories. Each of their stories is horrific in its own way, and each emphasizes why we should learn from Bosnia. When we asked why they would tell us (strangers) their stories they all said something to the effect of knowledge will prevent people from denying what happened in Srebrenica, and they wanted us to remember them so that the world could know what happened here. It feels like a minuscule contribution–a mandate to tell the people I know about Bosnia, and to let what happened here reside in my head. There isn’t really a way to thank people enough for what they do for us. I can’t think of anything to repay their grace in retelling the worst days of their lives so that we can just know. And so, here are the moments I will never forget from this weekend.

  1. Sitting in Nura’s (the vice president of Women’s Association in Srebrenica and Tuzla) office in Tuzla with the walls covered in photos of dead and missing men listening to her tell her story. One line in particular will stick with me: “They took the men and boys to be executed, they beat them, they took the women they liked to be raped, I have seen these things with my own eyes.” Nura works in many arenas from organizing protests, to meeting with international authorities, to memorializing the dead, to just opening her heart to the people who lost love ones. And to think that so much evil was around her that she could witness with her own eyes breaks my heart. She shouldn’t have to know what she knows, but she does and she doesn’t harbor hate. That moment changed me. IMG_0273
  2. While in Nura’s office surrounded by photos of dead and missing men, my cousin was in a horrific car accident. He was dropping his daughter off with someone to watch her while he was at work when his car hydroplaned into oncoming traffic where they were hit by a semi hauling lumber. His daughter has a broken leg, but she is fine. He broke his skull, the bones in one ear, his c-1 vertebrate, had a massive concussion and at the time his brain was bleeding. These are fatal injuries, but he didn’t die. He doesn’t have brain damage, or nerve damage and he isn’t paralyzed. He should make it and recover, it’s a long road, but it’s really unbelievable. As this news slowly traveled across an ocean, I kept thinking about all the ways this would change life–for my aunt, for his daughters, for the family, for his siblings–the world is forever changed without him. Luckily, we don’t have to know all that. But, it really put into perspective what each of those photos represented. They were lives with all the love and potential in the world that would never be realized, and the holes those deaths leave are not fillable. There is no justice or reparations for what happened in Srebrenica. It’s irrevocably broken. It’s easy to think about the numbers, but to understand each human loss feels like the world is over.

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    The Car my cousin was in.
  3. The stories we heard this weekend were tough to tell and tough to hear. We heard from 9 survivors in 3 days. That’s a lot of emotion and heartbreak to hold, and so in between these horrendous, important stories we couldn’t dwell on what was said too much. It’s a processing mechanism. On our way from the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial to the home of a women who lost all her children and her husband in Srebrenica, we had what can only be described as a 40-minute Beatles sing-a-long. There’s tremendous power in music. And I will always remember singing and laughing with Šefik our driver, Hasan, Professor Ann, and the other people of our group as we drove along the Drina–Serbia only a stone’s throw from where we were, passing anti-Muslim graffiti and to quote one of the songs we sang, “our troubles seemed so far away.” There’s these rare moments of pure happiness and this is one I will always hold onto, and the way I will remember Hasan. I think people tend to remember survivors of mass atrocities for the moments they endured instead of as the individuals they are. I wholeheartedly enjoyed breaking through knowing Hasan as the curator and survivor to starting to see him as his greater self. What a burden it must be to be seen as such a small part of the whole of your existence.
  4. I will always remember the moment Nura and Mafia walked into the old battery factory that was the UN Dutch soldier’s base where thousands of people sought shelter before being turned over to the Bosnian Serb forces. These two women lost their husbands (one from the genocide and one from the illness), 3 sons, and 1 son. To honor their husbands and sons they walked the Peace March this year. They walked with a few members from our group, and there was an incredible bond formed through walking together. It should also be said that they are not young women, their sons would be in their 40s now, and they were pace setters for the people in their 20s. Since I wasn’t there, I can’t explain it, but when they walked in the women in our group who walked with them started tearing up and so did Nura and Mafia. I generally don’t cry in these situations, but they got me. I think it’s the realization that they had experienced something profound and impactful together. I know they will never forget walking and I will never forget the love they shared with our group.

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    The old UN Dutch base where we met Mafia and Nura
  5. Another moment was with Ramiz “the bone man.” (See the Al Jazeera mini-doc on him here) He was another death march survivor who lives about a kilometer below Kamenice Brdo, an execution site where hundreds of men and boys were separated from the rest of the group and murdered. He spends his life working his farm and searching for the bones of those killed on the hill. To date, he has found over 260 complete or incomplete people. He gets no compensation for his work and does it to bring a small peace to the families who lost loved ones. As he was telling us these things, there was a storm brewing overhead, two ram sheep fighting in the background, a mild traffic jam on dirt roads, his grandsons stealing the chocolate out the gift bag Ann brought for them and Ramiz giving a short explanation of his work with an apology that he didn’t have any bones to show us and a shrug as he told us that he de-mined the land himself using his knowledge from his days in the JNA. It was such a Bosnian moment. So much going on, some of it tragic, some of it funny, some of it nature, some of it heart warming kindness and the extraordinary spoken as if it was nothing.

These moments can’t encompass the entirety of what we heard this weekend, but they are the moments that I will hold onto the hardest and remember the most.

 

Remembering and Learning from Srebrenica

We attended the July 11th commemoration in Potočari for the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. This a difficult blog post to write. In so many ways this is not my story to tell. It’s not my memories or loved ones or past life. But, I am deeply impacted by the gravity of the haunting reality that thousands of defenseless people were hunted, murdered and, nearly 25 years later, still missing. To stand on that ground among survivors of the death marches and the people who lost loved ones invariably impacts my understanding of the world.

I think the place to start is a place of gratitude. First and foremost I need to thank the people who allowed us to be in their sacred space. The commemoration is also an extremely complicated and painful funeral. I don’t have a frame of reference for this, but I cannot imagine inviting strangers to a funeral of someone I loved who suffered senseless violence. I think I would resent the cameras, the crowds and the other distractions from remembering my loved one. So I am deeply moved by the invitation to be there. I am also so thankful for the people who organized the logistics of getting us there and the hospitality of everyone we met. From the guest house owner and her family who welcomed us with family-style dinners and a rare warmth to the driver who had lost family in the genocide but spent hours transporting us to the cleaning staff in Sarajevo who lost family in the genocide, to Hasan who runs the memorial and lost his twin brother and father in the genocide (for more on his story, see his book “Surviving Srebrenica”)  to Ann who set an example of how to be respectful in such a complicated setting to each person who cared for us, welcomed us or included us. This event was not about us, and yet somehow us wanting to understand and connect with Bosnians was appreciated. I really don’t have the words to express my appreciation for the small ways we were included and welcomed.

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The memorial in Potočari on July 11th. Thousands of people came to commemoration.

In addition to attending the commemoration, we were there on the 10th when the participants of the Peace March, the cyclers and motorcyclists who had been criss-crossing Bosnia in memory of the events of Srebrenica arrived at the cemetery. Despite large crowds, the place was largely silent as people laid flowers on graves and grieved in their own ways. Survivors led the peace march and as they arrived covered in mud, remembrance and a kinship forged in tragedy, there was a palatable collective heaviness. Some of my colleagues wrote about the peace march in detail, but the moment that struck me was watching people finish a massive 60+ mile hike that usually brings relief and pride at having completed something physically demanding replaced with a shrinking of physical discomfort and outpouring of emotion. There was pain and remembrance and guilt and loss and grief and injustice and gratitude for survival and those gut wrenching questions of why life had to come out the way it did and so many other difficult to understand emotions. I think that moment revolutionized my understanding of restorative justice in a way that no book ever could.

Beyond this there isn’t a lot I feel comfortable saying since it isn’t my story to tell. I guess I feel as if the U.S. and NATO should have intervened earlier since there was an abundance of evidence suggesting something like Srebrenica was around the corner. I think our inaction cost people their lives, but that is a heavy and complicated burden to lay on anyone’s doorstep besides those who perpetrated the violence–and I mean the individuals that ordered or participated in the violence, not any group at large as collective guilt helps no one. I think the politics of intervention seem ridiculous in comparison to the damage that occurred there. I feel those hallowed and haunted grounds are a lesson and warning for the U.S. as nationalism takes root in the hearts of people I know to be full of love.

 

Spacial Studies

Recently a co-worker’s daughter told me she was graduating from college with a couple majors and a minor in spacial studies. I had never heard of spacial studies and asked her what it meant. It was the idea that the physical geography of where we live is intricately tied to the way we experience life. For example, Denver is popular because of the Rocky Mountains, would the city of Denver be as popular without them? Would the economy experience such growth? I would argue that Denver’s fate is somehow linked with the physical geography. And, by extension, this realization amplifies the value of what the U.S. stole from both Indigenous Groups and Mexico. Another example are the fates of Jamaica and Guyana. Jamaica’s physical location and beauty have been habitually exploited; whereas, Guyana’s dense forest and dangerous wildlife protect it from the same forms of exploitation. Of course, the idea that our fate is tied to the geography of where we live and sometimes literally to the dirt we walk on, is not my idea. In addition to the emerging field of spacial studies, this concept has been widely accepted by native people all over the world since humans were around.

That said, it made me wonder about how the physical landscape of Bosnia impacts the fate of the people living here. Bosnia’s physical location has deeply and sometimes gravely impacted the identity of the people living here. Empires from the East and the West have occupied this land bringing with them their religions. As early as the 9th century–before “Bosnia” is mentioned in any historical text,  Bosnians were introduced to Christianity. Catholicism took root under the Franciscan Order in the late 1200s, and the Ottomans brought Islam to Bosnia in the mid-1400s. Bosnia is truly a point where East and West fought for identity. These labels from hundreds of years ago tied so dramatically to the value of the land, are the same labels that divided the country during the war in the 1990s. We see this again, at the end of the Ottoman Empire when the Young Turk government lost the Balken Wars, it changed the course of history for the Ottomans–most dramatically for the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. Again, in WWII and the following years of the USSR, Bosnia (then part of Tito’s Yugoslavia) was outside the iron curtain, but wholeheartedly communist. Again, a point where East meets West, and Bosnia, due to its physical placement and vast resources, stood in the gap between. I’m skipping through over a thousand years of history so forgive me for the brevity and simplicity of this argument, but it holds that historically Bosnia is a point between East and West, and the identity of the people here are tied to this quasi-transient location.

Then there are the specific geographic features of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia is forested with plenty of rich arable land with a small but important coastline. To talk about Bosnia and fail to mention water, would be to wholly miss an identity of this place. So many of the roadways and cities fall along the rivers of Bosnia. Clean, crisp natural water flows through the country and is stored in the vast old-growth forests of Sutjeska National Park–known by some as the “lungs of Europe.” And this water, made ever-more significant by the hills and mountains, dictated where people built cities. The cities and most notably, Sarajevo are built along the rivers. There’s an obvious practical reason for this–people need water to survive. So all of this brings me to a point about Sarajevo: if the water wasn’t in the valley, if the land was flat, if the land was dry, if so many other things happened, Sarajevo may not have been built in a valley and the siege may have played out so differently.Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor, water and nature

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There’s an inescapable truth that our surroundings have a hand in our fates, but walking along the river in Sarajevo, it is so beautiful and tragic that water, this necessity of life, would be both the strength of the city and a tragic flaw that made Sarajevo so vulnerable during the siege.

First Impressions… Well, Second Impressions

I have been to Bosnia before–more specifically I have been to Mostar in Herzegovina before and so I have a matching passport stamp, but have never really been here.

In many ways a stop in Mostar on a backpacking trip and beginning a summer internship in Sarajevo could not be more different. For one, in Mostar it was so hot that I spent my day running from shade tree to shade tree and eating all the čevapi my belly could handle–we even brought some on the bus. This trip, my umbrella is slowly 36318887_10216674092748433_8217154808214192128_nbecoming an extension of my left arm in addition to the extra layers of clothes. But, these are superficial changes. In the summer of 2016, my world was very different than it is now. I was returning to the U.S. after my Peace Corps adventures excited to return to working in refugee resettlement. Now I am on the other side of several immigration policy shifts that are fundamentally changing how the U.S. views immigration, and I moved across the U.S. to begin a new life in Denver. It has not been an easy few years, and I am intrinsically different than I was in 2016. These changes have impacted the way I travel and the way I see Bosnia in that each interaction seems to carry a significance. There’s the heaviness of knowledge that makes this trip deeper, more meaningful and complicated. This same knowledge also makes me feel more connected to the physical spaces of Sarajevo. Stories live in the stones of the bridges and the paint on the walls. This city is alive and infinitely complicated. I am meeting the city the way you meet a new friend.

In Mostar, I knew very little about the wars in Bosnia. My love for Aleksandar Hemon’s books cast some insight into Bosnian-American identity, but he is not a historian.  I knew the basics of the war, but not many complexities. Now, I have studied Bosnia in small pieces–though I am definitely no expert on it, I am learning as much as I can as quickly as I can. One of the biggest differences is an awareness of the ground I walk on. I recognize the locations that were instrumental in war. I can see the parliament building that burned, the bright yellow former Holiday Inn built for the ’84 olympics that was damaged, the market that was shelled, the bridges that people had to cross to get water from the still-operating brewery, etc. The siege is omnipresent here. Perhaps, these are thoughts based on my role as student, and I’m a bit hyperaware, but it feels unescapable.

As far as Sarajevo, to me, it seems a city of impact. I went to a tea shop ran by a 36343724_10216689534334463_9045525983817367552_nwonderful man named Hussein. He speaks a few words of English, and I speak very few words of Bosnian, but even without language he welcomed us with compassion. He floated from table to table attending to guests, making jokes, meeting people, walking them in and out of his shop. There was a warmth to his place that is very rare in the states. Time here is fluid, and people make time to greet each other. Coffee and tea are served as a center piece for conversation, not on the run. There is a sense of community that makes the states feel lonely. But, there is also a rigid divisiveness that prevails at moments. For example, Sarajevo has lots of street art and some graffiti. The messages range from pronouncements of love to pronouncements of hate. There seem to exist multiple realities in one space.

This contradiction of love in a space of tragedy can be seen in the Jewish Cemetery overlooking the city. A cemetery is a place for resting in peace, for honoring those who came before us, to say that someone was loved and someone mattered. This Jewish cemetery in particular has a memorial to those lost in WWII with special sympathy toward people who were in concentration camps. And this beautiful memorial is the sight of a particularly deadly sniper nest during the world. A site of peace became a site of war. There are bullet holes in gravestones and chunks of missing marble blow away in the war. The point of highlighting these seeming inconsistencies is to say that Bosnia is tragic and beautiful and loving and rigid and complicated beyond my understanding.

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So in closing, I will say that I am grateful to everyone who allows me to be here and I am excited to learn as much as I can while I am here. And, as a disclaimer, these are my first impressions and I do not speak with authority on matters of Bosnia.