I have been back stateside for almost three weeks now and I still don’t know how to explain Bosnia and my experience to people who ask. For my friends who are interested and study genocide, peacebuilding, and development it is easy but for other friends and family, not so much. I’ve been asked ‘How was your trip?’ too many times to count in the past three weeks.
Here’s the short list of questions I’ve been asked:
How was your trip?
What did you do all summer?
What language do they speak?
How was it?
What was it like? Were they different?
Why would you go to Bosnia?
Here’s my answers:
It was wonderful but it wasn’t a trip, not even close to a trip. It was an educational opportunity to learn about the past and present. It was a learning experience. It was a cultural experience. It was a cross-cultural experience. It was Bosnia.
Well, I interned at an adventure tourism company that is contributing to community development in Sarajevo and other towns and cities they work in. Plus, we learned about the Bosnian War and its aftermath.
That’s another interesting question. Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, to outsiders like us all three are the same spoken language but politically in the Balkan region, the three are extremely different.
It was amazingly wonderful and I learned a great deal (see previous answers for the extended answer).
Sarajevo is just like any other European city. Yes, you can still see the scars from the war but everything is as modern as here. No, Bosnians aren’t any different from us.
Why? Why not? Green Visions (my internship) had an advertising campaign a few years ago: Have you ever heard a boring person say, “Let’s go to Bosnia?” Exactly. Brave Enough?
This summer has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life and I am extremely honored to have been able to have learned from the people of Bosnia. Sitting here in my apartment in Denver isn’t so completely different from our hostel in Sarajevo. The mountains are only a quick drive from the city. I live with two other people and two dogs instead of 12 others but learning to share space is no different. I can’t thank Bosnia and its’ people enough for sharing their life with me. One day I will return to Bosnia, one day soon.
When you hear ‘tourism agency’ you probably think about the highly organized trips in big international cities. Green Visions is not your average tourism agency. Green Visions is one of the pioneers of the adventure tourism in Bosnia and the Balkan region. Adventure tourism? Yes! One of the best ways to experience a country is in its wilderness, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and rafting. I have had the amazing opportunity to be one of Green Visions interns this summer. My top priority this summer has been to create and implement a social media plan for Green Visions and the Via Dinarica Alliance. Social media is paramount to any business today, but even more so for a tourism agency. For Green Visions, Facebook and Instagram are two of the most important aspects to their social media presence. Both platforms offer the opportunity to promote their business through photographs, which is extremely important for adventure tourism agencies. Photographs are the backbone and can make or break whether potential clients will book with them. It shows potential clients exactly what they will be experiencing and exploring. I have learned a lot about social media over the course of the summer. I have learned of different scheduling applications that will post your content for you, some were useless and not user-friendly while others are so easy to use it was hard to decide which one I should recommend to my supervisor. I have learned how a business works from the inside and that it is always a good time for a Bosnian coffee break.
You might be asking, what in the world does tourism have to do with International Development? Everything. Tourism can fuel a country’s economy but it can also destroy a country’s culture. Green Visions is combining tourism and development work with the local cultures. Green Visions is not just an adventure tourism agency, it’s also a cultural tourism agency. My supervisor, Thierry told me the story on how Green Visions was born. He and a friend were cross-country skiing when they realized they wouldn’t make it down the mountains to Sarajevo before dark. They just happened upon the highland village of Lukomir and knocked on their door to ask to spend the night. Then, Green Visions was created.
Green Visions’ tagline is ‘Giving Back’ and they give back to Bosnia in the greatest possible ways. Because more and more people have been visiting Lukomir, both with organized tours and by themselves, it has to develop while holding onto its’ traditional culture. The largest obstacle? Trash. Before people starting visiting Lukomir on a regular basis there was no need for trash to be hauled out of the village. But now, trash needs to be hauled out and Green Visions is working with the local municipalities to try to work out a trash pick-up for Lukomir. Green Visions lives and breathes its tagline. In every place they conduct tours they are giving back in some way. They ask what the community needs and they find some way to get what they need.
If you’re ever in Bosnia be sure to book a day tour with Green Visions. You won’t be disappointed.
There is beauty in everything, even in destruction. We see this everyday in Sarajevo.
Out of destruction comes new life. Out of war comes healing, the healing of buildings and the healing of people. As I have explored Bosnia I have noticed this everyday.
Bosnia prides itself on its’ amazing mountain ranges, waterfalls, and glacial lakes. But this beautiful treasure trove of nature is over-shadowed by Bosnia’s history.
A whole generation has missed out from the tranquility of the mountains around them. The mountains to them were ‘bringers of death’ but as a part of healing more and more people are returning to the mountains. They are beginning to understand peace.
History is a powerful force, especially for the victors. This week we had the opportunity to visit the Institute for the Research of Crime Against Humanity, the BiH War Court, and the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) Outreach Center. We learned extensively about the history of Yugoslavia, its’ break-up, and the wars throughout the region. But it did not hit me until Friday afternoon on a cab ride to the bus station that we have only had the opportunity to hear one side of history.
Friday stated with a visit to the Institute for Research, which researches every aspect of the war and its’ crimes, then at the BiH War Court we heard about the process of prosecuting war criminals at the national level. But it was the cab ride to the bus station that made me reevaluate everything. A little background: we went to the wrong bus station to catch our bus to Croatia and we had 15 minutes to get to the other bus station half-way across Sarajevo but it may have been fate, or karma, or whatever you believe in that we ended up at the wrong station. Our friendly cab driver asked if there was anything he could do to help us since we might miss our bus to Croatia but we had already accepted the fact that we might miss it. We made small-talk with him, he asked us where we were from, we said the US, Colorado. What he said next came to no surprise to us. “I like Americans but I don’t like the American government.” We assumed it was because of our current political situation but then he added, “They bombed Serbia, I don’t like them [US government]. Now, they are doing it to Syria and Iraq.” The conversation turned to where he was from. He lived in the center of Sarajevo for a majority of his life, until the siege started. He said, “I had to leave. The Muslims were going to kill me. I paid a lot of money to get out and went to Srpska [Republika Srpska].” But by this time, we were close to the bus station so we weren’t able to have him elaborate and I didn’t think of him again until Monday afternoon at the ICTY Outreach Center.
At the ICTY Outreach Center, Almir explained that one of his office’s goals is to go into communities and schools to explain what occurred during the war. He told us of visiting a high school in a town in the R.S. where the school was used to commit sexual violence and war crimes. When he told the students, sitting in the renovated school, they had no idea about the history of their school. They did not know war crimes were committed there. In the R.S. the war and its atrocities are not taught. Young adults view war criminals from the Bosnian Serb Army as heroes. The ICTY Outreach Center tries to explain to them that they are not guilty for their ethnic past, they are not guilty of what happened before they were born. Then I thought of our cab driver from Friday. Who does he blame for having to move from his home? Does he resent what happened to him and his family? In order to understand conflict we must look at all sides, not just the side of the ‘victims.’ By ignoring the victims of one side we are ignoring history as a whole and the conflict is bound to happen again.
One week later and here we are in Srebrenica again. I thought I was prepared to come back, to visit the memorial, to hear stories from survivors, I thought, but I wasn’t. Those of us studying in Korbel, the International Studies school always joke that we don’t have feelings or emotions because if we did we would have a mental breakdown every other month. But we do feel and we feel deeply.
I always think I’m prepared to listen to survivor testimonies. I’ve heard stories from Holocaust survivors, Rwandan genocide survivors, refugees, migrants, veterans but I’m never prepared. I think I’ve heard it all but I haven’t. My heart is always ripped out of my chest and tears are always in my eyes. I don’t think I’ll ever be prepared and this weekend was not any different from my past.
First, in Tuzla we met with Nura Begovic, the vice-president of the Women of Srebrenica Association. These mothers and daughters are still fighting 22 years later to find their men and boys and the strength Nura emulated was absolutely encouraging. I felt the passion and courage in Nura’s voice as she told us about her family and the goals of the Association.
The next day, we walked the road from Srebrenica to Potocari, the same route many of the women took to the Dutch UN Peacekeeper base to escape the massacres. We stopped at the petrol station where many families made to difficult decision to split up, the husbands and sons turning left to go through the Bosnian mountains to escape to the free territory and the wives and daughters to the right to seek refuge with the Dutch UN Peacekeepers. As we entered Potocari the scene was different from July 11, there were no vendors on the street selling food and hardly anyone was outside their homes (except for a few standing in their doorways wondering what we were doing). Our solemn walk ended at the memorial and cemetery and that afternoon we heard the testimony of Nura Mustafic. Nura lost her husband and three sons to the genocide and throughout her testimony she kept saying how she wished we had grandchildren, they would have been about our ages if her boys survived. The women of Srebrenica have lost so much but they comfort one another, and they are one others’ families now. As we ate with Saliha Osmanovic that night I could see how the neighbors have come together to watch over one another. Saliha lost her husband and two sons to the genocide, the last time she saw her husband was on a Bosnian Serb propaganda video, Ramo was calling up the Bosnian hillside to their son, Nermin, at the insistences of the Serbs, telling all the boys and men to come down, that they will be safe. She was finally able to lay Nermin and Ramo to rest in 2008. But Saliha’s neighbors have helped to create a sense of home, I think. As we ate with her two neighbor boys were hanging around in her yard, riding their bicycles up and down the road, being boys. Like Nura, Saliha said that she wishes she had grandchildren, that is what is missing from her life. As we left that night I could tell she did not want any of us to leave, she didn’t want to be in her big house by herself that night.
As I woke up the next morning, still trying to process the previous day, I didn’t know how I would be able to continue. We had one more testimony to hear but I am so honored to be able to hear it. Ramiz Nukic survived an ambush on one of the hills above his family and childhood home. In 2002, after years of work and rebuilding his home, he moved back but those who died were left in his mind. He started walking the hills and he kept finding bones, and to this day he keeps finding bones. This is his contribution to life, to those who did not make it through the war and for their families who are still trying to find answers. Even though Ramiz has found hundreds of people and has helped to bring closure to families he has still not found his father and brother. For Ramiz, this is his life work now and he is proud to do it. When asked when he will be through with searching he said, “When the last bone is picked up, I will be through.”
As our weekend in Srebrenica and our visit with Ramiz came to an end I couldn’t help to think about everyone we met over these short three days. Even though I heard their testimonies of death and destruction of life there was still hope in them, hope for the families who haven’t found their loved ones, hope for their country to heal, and hope for themselves to live a full life.
Culture makes our world so very unique but lately culture has been causing me some discomfort. I studied Global Cultures for my undergraduate degree so researching before I travel is second-nature for me, but no amount of research can prepare you for the real experience.
In the United States, us women are unfortunately used to being cat-called while walking down the street or sitting at stoplights in our cars and we all have our own ways in dealing with it. We either ignore the disgusting comments being thrown our way and walk by with our head held high or we turn and give those boys a taste of their own medicine. ‘Cat-calling’ takes a whole different form in BiH, it’s a quiet form of cat-calling. Young men tend to stare, and not discreetly either; they tend to look at you up and down as if they are evaluating every inch of your body, but they say nothing to you. How do you react in a situation like this? Do you just walk by and ignore the stare? Or do you say something? If I was in the US I would definitely be giving these men a piece of my mind, but here in Sarajevo that does not seem to be the case. I have taken to observing local women and how they react to the leers of men and many of them do not react at all, they just go about their day. Then I ask myself, what would I even say to these men?
I have also noticed a difference in how older men (fathers/grandfathers) look, or don’t look, at me compared to younger men. Is it out of respect because I could be the same age as their daughters and granddaughters? Or is it the culture of their age?
But of course, this is not only contained to Sarajevo. Looking back on my life experiences in the US all this happens at home also. Everything just seems exacerbated since I am living in a new city and country.
Day 1: We left our guest house early in the morning to catch the bus from Srebrenica to Nezuk. As we waited to depart more and more people joined us on the bus, everyone from small 6-8-year-old boys and girls to elderly men and women. We set off around 5 am, with a light fog in the air and a mostly full bus. As we drove the driver picked up more and more people along the way, most of them middle-aged or older men with some teenagers, I couldn’t help to think, “Are these men survivors?” It was a very solemn drive with little conversation, just the exchange of pleasantries when people joined the bus.
Once we arrived in Nezuk, the bus driver had to drop us in the middle of the hill, because there was no place for him to turn around at the top. We started uphill with all of our gear for the walk. When we arrived at the ‘starting’ point, the place where the survivors emerged 22 years ago, everyone was in high spirits and ready to tackle the first day.
After some opening remarks, with reminders of listening to and taking care of yourself and body, and the playing of the national anthem, survivors and their families started the march. Everyone followed at the pace that was set. It had rained the night before Marš Mira so many of the forest trails were muddy and slippery, but there were always people there to help you when you fell or to catch you on your way down. There was an overwhelming sense of comradery flowing through everyone. There were ‘trail angels’ every step of the way on Day 1. People distributing coffee, tea, juice, water, and opening up their homes for people to use their restrooms. Families save their money all year just for these three days.
As we entered the camp for the night we were greeted with friendly smiles, sandwiches, donuts, and yogurt.
Day 2: The morning of Day 2 we were awoken to the sounds of the Bosnian Army saying they were going to start taking down tents in 2 minutes. Once we rubbed the sleep out of our eyes we hurried to change and pack up camp. We were warned that the second day is the hardest because of the incline we had to hike up. As we started the day the walk was not too difficult then in late morning there was a forced break we had to take. When we were on our way again we realized why. This was the incline everyone was talking about. Single-file for approximately 5 km with a 1000 feet altitude gain. When I saw the land level out I couldn’t be happier I was at the top. We were greeted with a water truck and a fruit stand to load ourselves up with. Then we started the descent. We climbed a mountain just to come right back down, but we’re used to that in Colorado. When we finally got into the valley there was sandwiches waiting for us again, and the camp was around the bend (or so we thought). We just kept walking, and walking, and walking until we finally arrived at the camp about 3 miles away.
Day 3: This morning we beat the army waking us up. After Day 2 we didn’t think the walk could get any more difficult. Let’s just say we were wrong. The majority of the day we were exposed to the sun, with little shade along the way. The morning was filled with uphill climbs with the sun beating down on our shoulders, we didn’t think it was ever going to end. I could tell we were deep in the R.S. Police officers were stationed along the trail and there was no one outside of their homes to greet the marchers like the days before. Just like there are still Holocaust deniers to this day, there are Srebrenica deniers even though the evidence is overwhelming. At the last check point we waited for everyone in our group so we could walk into Potočari together. As we walked to the memorial there was a line of motorcycles on the side of the road to escort those being laid to rest. Coming from a motorcycle family I was so happy to see riders and organizations from all over the Balkans come together to remember Srebrenica and pay their respects to the families. Motorcycle culture is pretty universal across the world, we would do anything for our community. As the coffins of those who were identified in the past year were brought in I thought of the mothers who could finally lay their loved ones to rest, they finally have some sort of closure of what happened. But then I thought of those families still waiting, still waiting for graves to be found, still waiting for their husbands, fathers, sons, to be found.
In the end, we took approximately 133,000 steps over 60 miles in 3 days but that will never compare to those who survived the Death March 22 years ago. Our small blisters and aches and pains will never compare.
I just happened across this quote from Vincent D’Onofrio, of Full Metal Jacket and Law and Order fame this week and describes Bosnia in a perfect way. These past six months leading up to Sarajevo I have been asked, ‘Why?’ each time I said I would be spending the summer here. ‘Why would you spend your summer in a ‘war-torn’ country?’ ‘Are you going to be safe?’ ‘What about the landmines?’ The negative questions and statements were endless.
My answers consisted of: 1. Bosnia is not ‘war-torn.’ And 2. Why not?
People’s first impressions are often a big mistake. Our grandparents and parents remember the news during the 1990s: the Siege of Sarajevo; the concentration camps of Srebrenica, and the mass exodus of people to neighboring countries, and many still view BiH as a war-torn society. The news reels of Sniper Alley is stuck in their heads but Bosnia has changed since 1995 and changed for the better. We see the physical scars of shelling on buildings but the healing is happening inside those buildings.
Coincidentally I had this conversation with my internship supervisor today. Throughout the day I was looking for tourism articles about Bosnia that they could post on their social media sites and I became increasingly discouraged. Every article I read mentioned the war and atrocities committed or landmines in some way, and most of the time in the first paragraph. I have to ask, do these journalists think constantly mentioning the war will help bring visitors to BiH? It’s not. People are still scared away at the mention of the war.
I took a slightly different angle with this blog post. I try to not come into situations, especially while travelling, with preconceived notions of how life is. I also feel like I’m in a unique situation. My housemate in Denver (who is also here with the program) traveled to Bosnia a few years ago and I have heard so many stories from her that I feel like I’ve already been here. Also, being in the International Development program I have to know histories and Bosnia is one of the histories I know well. So I feel I have both modern impressions of Bosnia and historical impressions of Bosnia which my mind has combined.