Final Thoughts About My Experience in Bosnia

I have now been home for a week and have been trying to get back into a routine. At times this is hard because of how impactful meeting the survivors throughout Bosnia was to me. When friends and family members ask how my trip was I respond with, “Amazing and sad at the same time.” Bosnia is such a beautiful country yet it has such a dark past that is still very recent compared to how long Bosnia has been mentioned in historical texts. When discussing the genocide with friends and family I emphasize to make sure that they realize that it was the Orthodox Christians and at times Catholics who were waging war and death on Muslims. I feel like this is important especially in current times with the Islamophobia that is occurring in the United States at present time. This was further emphasized by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upholding the administration’s travel ban 3.0. Many of my friends and family have little to no contact with Muslims on a daily basis so all they know is what Fox News, CNN, or other media platforms tell them about the religion. Each person who hosted or spoke to us in Bosnia was a follower of the Islamic faith and their hospitality and generosity was like nothing that I have experienced in my three plus decades of life in the U.S. It is my hope that people in the U.S. would take time to get to know someone who is not like them and maybe we can move forward from where we are now.

As the division continues in the U.S., it becomes more and more parallel to how it was in Bosnia in the early 1990s. The “othering” of a different population than your own is exactly what happened in post-Tito Yugoslavia with the breakup of the different countries based primarily along ethnic lines. In the U.S. members of the left are telling their followers to protest individuals just because they work for the administration and we have members of the right supporting a policy that separates children from their parents at the southern border. Similar to present day Bosnia, the political ideologies need to understand as people we aren’t that much different than the next person. We may have different thoughts about what right looks like and we can still be civil. Bosnia has not been able to make effective strides forward in reconciliation due to the fact that the perpetrators of the atrocities refuse to acknowledge that they happened. It is going to take some strong leadership on all sides to do what needs to be done to take positive steps forward and be civil with each other. Unfortunately, in both countries, there is little encouraging politicians to act in a manner that would advance their country towards compromise and effective governance. Until this status quo changes there will be little confidence in either country’s elected representatives.

I will forever remember the beauty and tragedy that is Bosnia. There is still hope that reconciliation can occur. My biggest takeaway is the amount of resilience that the human spirit can show is amazing. It further reinforces to me that we can be bothered by the little inconveniences of life because there are others that wish that that was the worst thing that they would be dealing with at the time. My experiences have caused me to be introspective to realize what is important in life. Listening to the mothers who lost their sons and husbands I realize that my time with my family is what is most important and the little things like projects, papers, and other school/work related tasks are secondary.

 

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Trip to Tuzla and Srebinica

This week took on another mood compared to last week. We started our morning off early by being picked up at Hotel Kovaci by three drivers and Hasan Hasanović. Prior to coming to Bosnia we had been assigned Hasan’s book, “Surviving Srebinica” for our class. It is both a tragic and amazing story that Hasan has been through. It is a tragedy what humans can do to each other and did on Hasan and the other Muslim men, boys, and a few women on the Death March from Srebinica to Tuzla. It is equally amazing at what the human spirit can do in order to survive such tragedy.

Our first stop outside of Sarajevo was at Franck Espresso to get coffee and traditional Bosnian pancakes. They are nothing like American pancakes. It would be a better description of something similar to a wheat pita pocket filled with a homemade cream cheese concoction. It was very good and everything was made from scratch. You could watch the proprietors put the dough into the wood-fired, stone oven to bake. Once everybody got their fill of food and coffee we were on our way to Tuzla and the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) office.

Once we arrived at the ICMP in Tuzla we were greeted by their senior forensic anthropologist, Dragana Vučetić. Dragana talked to us about the mission of the ICMP and how they identify skeletal remains now compared to when they first started in the mid-90s. Originally they placed the recovered remains outside in the open air for family members to come and attempt to identify based upon clothing and personal effects. They then changed their policy and started to take photos of personal effects that were associated with specific human remains and printed them out in a book for families to go through and identify. This process was long and tedious with little success. Once DNA technology became available to the ICMP their identification process became streamlined and many remains were identified each year. They have identified over 6500 of the approximately 8000 victims of the genocide at Srebenica and the surrounding villages. Dragana told us that she feels that there are still at least 1 or 2 mass graves that have yet to be found and she wished that there were more people like the Bone Man, Ramiz Nukic, who walks the hills looking for human bones. She showed us the morgue where all of the remains are kept until identification and burial. As soon as I walked through the door I felt a strong sense of sadness in the room as though I was entering hallowed ground. I was amazed and thankful for people like Dragana to continue their mission to identify every last person so families could have closure and be able to bury their relatives.

Next we went to Saliha Osmanović’s house to hear her story and eat dinner with her. The last footage of her husband was recorded by Serb forces calling his son and other Bosniaks out of the hills after he was captured during the Death March. Saliha lost her husband and two sons during the war. She told us that she has no one left to keep her company and looks forward to each summer when Ann brings her students to visit her. I do not know if I could keep living after having been through what she has. The amount of resilience that she has shown throughout her life is inspriing. She has an amazing house and garden. Her front yard is full of flowers and several different types of fruit bearing trees. In the back her garden is about as long as a basketball court and at least one and half times as wide as one.

On Tuesday we went to the Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide. Hasan met us outside and brought us in to the museum. We started off in the media room where he told us his personal story from his childhood through the aftermath of the war. I strongly recommend his book to understand what it was like to survive the Death March and continue living your life with hope for a better tomorrow. One of the things that Hasan said that was truly amazing was that even after everything that happened with the genocide there has been no retribution by the Bosniaks towards the Serbs. I am doubtful that that would be the case in the U.S. these days. Hasan has done a great job with the curation of the museum. I was very impressed by the story and recreation of the UN base. The cemetary was breathtaking and painful. Nura Mustafić spoke to us there. She is one of the few women who started the Death March with the men. She lost her husband and three sons on the Death March before and after she was captured. Nedžad Avdić then spoke to us. He is one of ten execution site survivors. He talked about his process of working through his silence and eventually deciding to speak out about his experiences during the atrocities. The walls of names reminded me of the U.S. Vietnam War Memorial as it is name after name etched into white stone. It is clear that entire male sides of families were killed during the genocide. I walked up on the hill which is the tallest part of the cemetary to look back and saw thousands of burial markers for each person that was buried there from the genocide. The rows went on and on and until it was hard to see them anymore. It was a sobering sight.

Our last visit was to talk to Ramiz Nukić at his farm outside of Potočari. He also lost family members during the Death March. His farm sits below the site of an ambush sight that occurred while the Bosniak men were on their Death March. After he completes his chores on his farm he goes out into the woods to search for human bones to provide closure to other family members who are still waiting on their loved ones to be identified. He has found over 200 individual remains that have provided closure to numerous people. Ramiz is not compensated in any way by the Bosnian government, ICMP, or family members. He does this out of the goodness of his heart and because he knows what it feels like when you don’t have any closure or body to bury.

These two days have been an exercise in understanding the resilience of the human spirit. I have had my own trauma, though not nearly as much as the people that I have met over the past several days. It can make it frustrating to hear people complain about little things when I have heard what these Bosnians have gone through.

Thoughts from Bosnia

On 13 June we went to the University of Sarajevo to hear from professors from the Faculty of Political Sciences that was organized by Sanela Sadic of the Sarajevo School of Social Work. It was a great opportunity to visit a foreign campus and talk to other professors about family violence, politics, active social work, and the history of social work in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

In our first lecture we learned about the history of family violence (what those from the United States would consider domestic violence) and its prevalence throughout the country. The Bosnian interpretation of violence as taking control and power by physical or psychological means. I was surprised to hear that only in 2003 did family violence become a crime. Prior to the enactment of this legislation that was spearheaded by non-governmental organizations the problem of family violence was considered a private problem. The unfortunate thing is that because of the political system being so complicated in the country that equal application of the law is nearly impossible. It is up to each canton (what we might consider states) how they uphold the law. Becuase of the political system or the history and culture of the country the punishment for family violence is very weak. Unfortunately, similar to my experiences in the U.S., the victims typically stay with their perpetrators their entire life. There is an unfortunate cycle of family violence in the country as most victims grew up around it and see it as a normalized behavior, similar to the perpetrators.

Next we received a lecture on the complex history and political system of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Throughout its history the country has been home to several empires including the Ottoman Empire, from 1463-1878, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from 1878-1918. The country held their first multi-party elections in 1990, 10 years after Tito’s death. There was a rise of nationalism that is reminiscent about the current state of affairs in the United States. Everyone began identifying according to their heritage as Bosnian (Muslim), Croat (Catholic), or Serb (Orthodox Christian). This is the powder keg that set the conditions forthe start of the war. The United Nations recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina as an independent nation in May 1992. The Bosnian war started in 1992 and carried on until 1995. Sarajevo was under siege for 1,365 days, which is the longest siege in modern history. The war was formally ended by the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. Because of this peace accord the country was split into two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. The only thing that I can think of that could be used as an analogy to this is that if at the end of the U.S.’s Civil War there was still a United States as the nation-state and it was split into two: the Union and Confederate states and left like that. Seems like not much of a good idea to me. The Federation is further split into ten different cantons and the lowest form of government are municipalities of which there are 74. Republika Srpska does not have any cantons and is made up of 63 different municipalities. This is where it gets confusing (if it hasn’t already). The country has three presidents! One for each major ethnic group: Bosniak, Serb, and Croat. These state level presidents share time representing the country on the international level and in order to get anything done they have to all be in agreement, which never happens. Each entity level also has a president, so technically the country has five officeholders who have the title of President. Each level of government has its own ministers and councils that makes for a very bloated government. The conservative party and libertarians in the U.S. would lose their minds because of how large the government is overe here. I had heard that roughly 60% of the country’s expenditures is salaries for government employees. They have, throughout the country,  136 ministers, 760 legislators, 1,200 judges and prosecutors all at four different levels of decisionmaking. This amount of bureaucracy and the level of consensus that needs to be made to get anything done effectively ensures that nothing gets done. They have no reason to try and tackle the three biggest problems of Bosnia and Herzegovina: unemployment (over 50% in 2017); poverty (17.9% of the population lives below it); and the labor market (there are very few jobs for young people in the country). There are no changes during elections because everyone votes for their party because of their ethnic identity.

Other topics discussed during the day were a daycare center for street children as it is a real problem in Sarajevo and Mostar, and social work in Bosnia. I have had multiple kids come up to me begging me for money and food. Most often their handlers are lurking around the corner to show or mime them what to do or who to go after. It is disgusting that these kids are exploited that way but because of a lack of funding there aren’t many options for them to be taken off the street. The daycare center only has 30 beds for kids to stay overnight with additional facilities for kids to come and take showers and get a hot meal. The last topic was social work in Bosnia. The University first started teaching social work in 1958, it became a four-year degree in 1985. Back then the country was a communist state of Yugoslavia. Social work was state run until just after Tito died in 1980. The war, I found interestingly, caused social workers to split along ethnic lines as well. Post-war social work in the country is made up of NGOs, alot of them, to the tune of over 20,000. Yet the country and their social problems are no better than during the war, most likely due to the lack of resolve by the politicians.

As you can tell, there are no easy fixes to this complex and beautiful country.

First Impressions of Bosnia

The road was long and winding to get here as I missed my connecting flight in Chicago to get here on time due to weather. Fortunately with patience, luck, and kindness I was able to get one of the two last seats on a flight to Munich and a transfer to Lufthansa to get to Sarajevo. Once I arrived I had to deal with the airport’s baggage claim people as my baggage did not make it onto the flight that I was on. The experience was pleasant as the customer service representative apologized but there was no record in the system of my bags. She said that she would input the claim in the system and I would get updates when it was found and enroute.

Since I had no need to go to the hotel because I did not have my bags my driver took me to catch up with the rest of the group at Trebević. The hotel was beautiful as well as the scenery. I got the feeling that the local Bosnians and owners of the hotel took pride in the hotel because it was very well taken care of inside and out. The manager of the hotel gave some of us a tour and the rooms were large yet inexpensive compared to what one would expect in the U.S. In order to get to the newly opened cable cars we had to go back down through the city becuase our bus would not make the climb.

On our trip back into the city we stopped at several spots along the road to take in the view from what were former sniper’s nests and mortar firing points. From my experience serving in the military the Serbs had some very advantageous viewpoints encircling the city that came at a great cost to the Bosniaks that were under siege in Sarajevo. Ann found remnants of the war in the form of some old Serb links from one of their heavy machine guns.

Continuing our journey through the city we stopped at the Old Jewish Cemetery that was part of the front lines and had some heavy fighting occur in it. It was sad to see that many of the headstones had been either damaged or destroyed during the fighting as they had many holes and cracks due to gunfire and mortars. Most of the headstones in the lower portion were all pushed over as well. Some of these headstones were marked with graffiti that included messages similary to “A + P = Forever.” The monument to all of the Bosnian Jews that had died during the Holocaust was also heavily damaged during the war and had graffiti.

The amount of graffiti all over the city was astonishing as it seemed like nearly every surface within reach of ground level had some form of graffiti on it. Denver has some graffiti around town but not nearly to the same level as what Sarajevo has. Some of the graffiti just seems like vandalism yet other seems like art. There also is some symbolism in the graffiti as various messages and similar drawings are seen throughout the city that I have seen.

The ride up the cable car to the top of Mount Trebević was beautiful. The opportunity to see most of the city as you are pulled up higher and higher was amazing. The highlight of the day, besides finally getting to Bosnia, was definitely walking part of the way down a bobsled and luge track. Similarly to the city nearly every turn’s wall had a massive amount of graffiti. It was interesting to sit on the edge of the bobsled run as at one point it can be imagined that it represented so much pride to the people of the former Yugoslavia when the Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo in 1984. And yet, at the same time, so much sorrow as Serb snipers used various portions of the run to shoot at men, women, and children in the city. It seems that much of Bosnia is like this for the people who were alive before and during the war. The same places have a duality of conflicting memories, good and terrible.