Leaving Sarajevo

Leaving Sarajevo was a bittersweet moment for me – I was filled with the excitement of continuing my travels, while at the same time feeling sad my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina was coming to an end. Now, as I sit writing this final blog, at home in Colorado, I am able to reflect on my time in Sarajevo, Mostar, Neum, Lukamir, Konjić, Tuzla, and Srebrenica.

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I admit that before taking this course and traveling to Bosnia, I knew very little about the rich history of the country. My time in Bosnia was spent observing aspects of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences, discovering WWI and WWII significance of areas and events, and, of course, learning about the conflict and tensions that led to and fueled the war in the 90’s. I was struck by how layered the history is and how it is possible to perhaps make connections between the various conflicts that touched Bosnia and the underlying ethnic tensions.

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Photo retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federation_of_Bosnia_and_Herzegovina

I think, again, of my first impressions walking through the marketplace near our hotel: that of a diverse Bosnia. This stemmed from having seen the Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Mosque, and Synagogue all within a few streets of one-another. Understanding the history and the current tensions pierced this illusion and led me to wonder how healing might occur when the country is divided into two parts and the education systems between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska differ in their content and message. How can a country heal and become one when it is so divided? I think, too, of how the people can heal on an individual level when members of part of the country deny that atrocities were committed against members of the other part of the country. Is it possible to heal and move forward when one’s children are taught that their parents’ lived experiences never happened?

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I remember we stopped, as we drove in our vans from Tuzla to Srebrenica, below a mosque atop a cliff. This Ottoman-era mosque was destroyed in the war and had been rebuilt roughly 5 years ago. You can’t access this mosque by road and instead have to make the trek up to the top of the cliff to reach it. This made me think of healing and moving forward. That perhaps simply moving forward is a means of healing.

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When I returned to Colorado, I was asked by family and friends what the biggest take-away I have from my experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I had no hesitation to reply the resilience of the people – not just to survive and keep going, but to continue loving and connecting. The ability to lose so much and still have kindness and still choose not to hate. I cannot easily, nor do I think it possible at all, to put into words the profound impact that has had on my understanding of the war and of people. As a budding social worker, I know this recognition and insight will carry me forward and remind me the importance of speaking out against polarization and hatred – meeting it with love and compassion. While my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina is at an end, I will continue to tell the stories that have been told to me — following the hopes of those whose stories they are that their stories are told.

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My time in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a rollercoaster of emotions. I feel I am changed by my experiences and know more than I did before this journey. I’ve learned the importance of seeing the thorns with the roses, finding the light in the darkness, and understanding that rain can represent both sadness and new beginnings.

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Raindrops and Roses

I woke up early this morning and sat on the porch of the hotel, watching the city of Sarajevo bustle with life. I sat contemplating and reflecting on the last few days, the experiences in Tuzla and Srebrenica. I was gifted some flowers, beautiful and red, bringing my thoughts to the rain and Srebrenica and to the rose and Sarajevo.

The weather the last few days has been overcast and rainy, creating a somber ambiance that’s fitting for the emotions of our experiences. I think of the rose metaphor I’ve been using to describe my time in Sarajevo and find the rain fitting for my time in Srebrenica. I’ve always had a fondness for rain, finding peace and solace in the falling rain drops and the gray skies—and yet, here, it also held a melancholy tone.

In Tuzla, we first visited the International Commision on Missing Persons (ICMP). The organization works to identify the bones that are found in the execution sites’ primary and secondary mass graves. They have identified roughly 80% of those who were unaccounted for, but still have roughly 1000 still to find and identify. Dragana Vučetić, the forensic anthropologist at Tuzla’s ICMP, highlighted something that stuck out for me: the importance of continuing to search for those still missing because of the families who are impacted. I was struck by the determination of those at the ICMP and their commitment to these families.

We next visited the Association of Women in Srebrenica-Tuzla and met the Vice President, Nura Begović. Walking into the home the association operates out of was an intense experience. Covering the walls are photos of men and boys who were killed in the Srebrenica genocide. I’ve found it is easy to get wrapped up in the facts and dates of the war, yet seeing these photos and hearing Nura speak her story connected a very real and human aspect.

We also visited the Srebrenica genocide memorial in Potocari, located now in the former headquarters for the Dutch battalion of UN soldiers from 1994-1995. Inside are rooms describing the different aspects of the Srebrenica genocide: the tensions leading up to the Bosnian referendum for independence, the genocide and failure of the international community, the Dayton peace agreement, and subsequent actions to identify those missing. A film and multimedia room accompanied these rooms, which, for me, added names and faces and personal stories.

This human aspect is so important for remembering the Srebrenica genocide and those who were affected—highlighted again and again in speaking to survivors of the genocide. Hearing from and spending time with Saliha Osmanović and Nura Mustafić was awe-inspiring and heartbreaking. As mothers who had lost their husbands and children in the genocide, their resilience and strength is indescribable in its magnitude. They want their story to be heard and spread by those who hear it in the hope that nothing like this happens again. Hearing also from Hasan Hasanović, Nedžad Avdić, and Ramiz Nukić, each of whom had survived the death march, was horrifying and awe-inspiring. I was left speechless by each of their resilience and strength.

It rained for the majority of the day in Srebrenica, as though even the clouds were weeping for those affected by the genocide and the war. I found it difficult to forget the war had happened while in Srebrenica, despite the reconstruction of homes and a lack of acknowledgement (or outright denial of the genocide) by many members of the community. I wonder now how it is possible for anyone to deny what took place here, especially in the face of the stories of those who survived.

A journey as thrilling as the destination…

Bosnia is full of surprises, from the wide array of flowers in many of Sarajevo’s yards to WWII significance in a torn down bridge. Perhaps the most surprising thing for me has been the abundance of diverse learning opportunities and rich history, in Sarajevo, Mostar, Neum, and more.

Following several days in and around Sarajevo, we headed down to the Bosnian coastal city of Neum, passing through Mostar and by the river of Neretvi. The journey was certainly as exciting as the destination and I was awed by the landscape of mountains and rolling hills—reminiscent of Colorado. One mountain in particular, Mount Pren, stood out to me on the horizon. From my vantage point viewing this imposing mountain, I thought about how mountains and hills survive through the ages and I wondered what this mountain had witnessed overlooking Bosnia, especially given the rich history of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule, the world wars, and the most recent Bosnian war of the 90’s. If mountains could speak, I’m sure Mount Pren would have much to say.

One of the highlights of this cross-country trip for me, being interested in WWII, was learning about the “Bitka za Ranjenike na Neretvi.” There is a particular bridge there that has significance for both WWII and Tito. We learned from Nino, our bus driver, that this bridge had been the last chance to save 5,000 wounded people in 1943. Tito made the order that all wounded people were to cross the river, and once they were across, that the bridge was to be torn down to prevent the Nazis from crossing, who were behind them. Tito’s plan worked and saved many lives. My fascination stemmed from a lack of knowledge regarding how WWII had found its way into Bosnia and Herzegovina. When I return to the U.S., I plan to watch the movie Battle on the Neretvi to get more information about this battle and a better understanding of WWII in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I had seen pictures of the bridge in Mostar, but seeing it in person is a completely different experience. I had listened to a podcast by Rick Steves on the bus and understood the bridge was built by Suliman the Magnificent, an Ottoman sultan, but was stunned by the architectural genius of the bridge. It was bewildering to see on video the destruction of the bridge in 1993, but it was encouraging and seemed a beacon of hope when it was reconstructed using the original plans (found in Turkey and used in the reconstruction). Gazing at the bridge after watching this video, I had a new appreciation for it and wondered how this bridge might be a metaphor for Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole in the aftermath of so much conflict. Despite obvious differences, such that the bridge was rebuilt from its original plans and Bosnia and Herzegovina through a new plan, the Dayton Peace Accord, I think it could be a metaphor for how a city can in many ways look like how it might have before a war, and yet feel much different.

While the journey was exciting in the approach, it is quite hard to put into words seeing the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Neum. The town overlooks the water and provides an exceptional vantage point to admire the clear water and the incredible hills of Croatia in the distance. Being in Neum and swimming in the Adriatic Sea reminded me of my initial metaphor for Sarajevo, that of a rose. Neum was certainly the epitome of a flourishing rose, admired for its beauty and slightly separated from thorns.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is full of many surprises and I look forward to seeing and experiences those to come…

The Rose and Sarajevo

I found it fitting, upon first entering Bosnia, that our first class meeting had been to see the movie “Sarajevo Roses — A Cinematic Essay,” as I couldn’t help seeing the city of Sarajevo through this metaphor. The beauty of Sarajevo was evident from the plane window as we descended into the airport. The hills surrounding the city seemed to cradle it, exuding a sense of calm emboldened by the clouds hiding the most distant peaks. Upon entering the city itself, the diversity was evidenced by the many mosques, churches, cathedrals, and even a synagogue. The people, too, exemplified the beauty, the petals, of the city—despite the language barrier, I felt welcomed into Bosnia.

Every rose has thorns, the counterpart to the petals. I first noticed some of the thorns of Sarajevo when looking at buildings demonstrating the history of the war—the bullet and mortar holes. They were seen on some buildings in stark contrast to neighboring buildings that were updated and repaired.

My first day in Bosnia was capped by hearing the call to prayer from the mosque beside my hotel. The voice carried out into the city and, together the bells I heard from one of the cathedrals on my second day, reminded me of the petals of the rose that is Sarajevo. It also reminded me of the movie Scream for Me Sarajevo and how music can transcend other aspects of reality and bring or return awareness to the good and beauty in life.

I found this awareness extended to other aspects of what I’ve seen so far in Sarajevo, especially seeing and learning about the Tunnel of Life. The tunnel, used in part to transport resources into Sarajevo, did provide a life-line for those trapped in the siege. This seems to me to be a literal beacon of hope, much like the blooming of a rose.

Conversely, experiencing the sniper nests on the side of the hill and in the Jewish cemetery reminded me of the history of this beautiful city. The same hills that had initially seemed soft like petals when I first arrived in Sarajevo suddenly became thorns in the history of the city. The very landmarks that had caught my eye when landing in Sarajevo I now viewed through a different lens. Our tour guide, Yadranka, mentioned the saying “seen from Jewish,” meaning that a location could be viewed and targeted by snipers in the Jewish cemetery. Hearing her describe how homes were included in being “seen from Jewish” allowed me to view the hills in a more sinister light.

The Olympic buildings and event areas also seemed much like a rose to me, with some of the areas seeming withered and others thriving. Looking out over the Olympic arena, an area that will be filled with many excited people for a concert coming up, reminded me of a rose that is thriving, albeit in a different manner than it was initially intended. The arena itself serves as a reminder of the 1984 olympics and the joys that went along with that—especially since it is still being used. On the other hand, while walking down the abandoned bobsled tracks was surreal. This rose was wilted and abandoned—and also became consistent with my thorny metaphor in that something that had brought such excitement during the olympics now lay abandoned and seemingly forgotten.

Riding down the hill in the cable car back toward Sarajevo, I was struck, again, by the beauty of the city and the buildings and the river that runs through it. It seemed fitting to think of the Sarajevo as a rose—a beautiful, diverse rose with thorns that can’t be ignored and shouldn’t be forgotten. It seems poignant, then, that it was a rose that was used to paint over the scars left by mortars.