Had Things, Lost Things, Needed Things, Found Some Things

Being back in the states for almost a week, I’m still trying to figure out what I truly think about my experience in Bosnia. The first 24 hours I was back in the states, I noticed that I was explaining what I did in Bosnia. And I felt myself tear up each time, I don’t think it hit me until I left the depth of what I felt after hearing survivors share their story and experience life in Bosnia. Though I may have spent more time trying to explain to Americans that Bosnia is not in Hawai’i and isn’t controlled by Putin. Those were two very common thoughts that have been expressed by those I’ve interacted with. It was also so odd to not see buildings covered in bullet holes. I found myself staring at buildings and trying to figure out why, until I realized that it had become odd to me to not see post-conflict city buildings. The biggest challenge I’ve found that I’m left with is working through finding a way to adequately explain the stories that were shared.

As friends and family have asked about my experience, I’ve struggled with sharing the story of more than one person at once. I stated by telling my parter everything and as more people asked for details, I found that the more stories I’ve shared, the more emotions I experienced when sharing the stories. I want to share each story with every person who asked about my experience, but I’m finding that explaining the lives that were shared with me becomes very different from the words that came directly from each human. Though I’ve found so much passion, and courage and genuineness from each story, I struggle in giving those same words the same passion that I received when I heard them. Though It’s only been a few days since I have returned, I think this will be something that I will struggle with each time I share my experience with another person. As each human shared their experience asked that their stories continued to be shared I will continue to strive to do so, as that is the way each wished to be honored.

Coming back to America, anti-muslim thoughts still seem to stand out. Spending time in a muslim country and experiencing the generosity and selflessness of the Bosnians that I met, was very unexpected in a county that’s part of the former Yugoslavia. Seeing the very negative views regarding those who identify as muslim, I wish there was a way I could better explain my experience. The fact that every person was so welcoming and genuine with all that they had, even if they had little to share, was inspiring.

Thinking of my time in Bosnia, I came in with few expectations. I did not know what to expect each day and I had no idea the impression I would leave with or that it would be so powerful. As our time continued throughout Bosnia, I appreciated the framing of each day. This was something that became so powerful to me when our time brought our group to The Hague. It seemed fitting that after hearing and seeing Srebrenica, we got to see the space where the law came in to conduct a version of justice. Though I do not agree that a 40 year sentence for crimes against humanity is enough, it is a conclusion and consequence of one’s actions as seen by the laws in this courtroom. It gave me a sense of closure, though it will never be enough.

From spending time by the sea, visiting Mostar and exploring Sarajevo, what stands out to me as I finish this was all the references to flowers that seemed to be present in the way the war has been immortalized in the city as Sarajevo roses, to the smell from the roses that grow throughout Bosnia. Its very interesting the ways in which life continues to thrive int he face of extreme atrocities and adversity. I came with little expectations, lost the beautiful vision I had of Bosnia, gained a deeper sense of the scars that are still healing within the city and its people and as time passes I will work on my own need to understand the selflessness and generosity that came from those who experienced deep and lasting trauma. IMG_1615


The Best Place to Start Is At the Beginning

But even then, where to begin? Over the past few days our groups has traveled through Tuzla, Potocari and Srebrenica. Thee sites are well known in Bosnia as they are part of the genocide that took place in 1995. Throughout the towns, survivors took time out of their life to share their experiences with us. I think this is the part that I will focus on, are the words and my experience hearing them from the survivors, as life has a way of intersecting between the past and the present. It was also an ask that the stories continue to be shared so I will try to put them into the words that feel appropriate:

Family is the root of the culture here in Bosnia. Many of the women talk about losing that part of their life, in the loss of their husbands and sons. Saliha hosted us for dinner at her house outside of Srebrenica. After soaking in her gorgeous home, lush garden and wonderful meal she told us her story. I would like to tell it her, as her request was to continue telling others about the genocide, but I feel that there are not enough words and they will not be hers so I will abstain. The biggest impression she left upon me was talking about how she must endure the rest of her life without her family. Her sons and husband were killed during the war. She has gotten some closure as their bones were identified in the ICMP. Though she speaks about her love of visitors and being surrounded by company, she has suffered many years without her family. This is what makes life so lonely for her, and she shared a very vulnerable part of her current struggle, in her quest to continue to find a reason to continue to wake up each morning. 

Nura, who is the Vice President of the Association of Women, turned her loss into activism. Inside the association’s now permanent residence, the walls are covered with pictures of the men that were lost in the genocide. Her story talked about how she used her identity as a mother to empower herself and those around her to seek answers and action from international forces. Her story was filled with passion, from the love of a mother to her son. Her work led to the memorial that now stands outside of Srebrenica.

At the genocide memorial museum in Srebrenica, Hassan Hasnovic, took time to share his story. His experience gave the image of a prosperous and content Srebrenica before the war. He shared so much about his story,  I feel like my words will never do justice to his story. Which is a great thing as it is his and he has a greater impact when telling it. He has found humor and laughter and love as his life continued and is very passionate about spreading the story of Srebrenica. That was the greatest takeaway, that he continues to live life after so much horror.

At the memorial, hearing from another mother Nura, and Nedzad, a survivor of mass killings, broke my heart. Nura was very emotional and seeing her tears for her husband and sons, is too much for any one human to bear. I’m crying as I writethis, remembering her words. She also called for sharing her story and her words, to bring awareness to the killings in Srebrenica. Nedzad story was also so powerful. He has only just recently, started to share his story. He was one of 2 survivor of a gravesite where over 1,200 people were murdered. He has suffered so much and his wisdom in asking that we learn to live together in peace, as humans, was so humbling. 

The final speaker was that of Ramiz. He and his family have lived in a remote section of the Bosnian hills for generations. Behind his house, was a mass execution site. He takes the time, when the conditions are right and he has completed his duties on his family farm, to go through the hills and collect bones that the ICMP will collect and work to identify. He was also a survivor who lost his family members. His want to give closure to families is through finding the bones. He said that he knows what he felt to not know where a family member lies and what it feels like to know that they were found and now rest in peace, and that is something that he said no mother should have to live with. His spirit to do what he can for families also reminded me of Dragana, a forensic anthropologist from the International Commisson on Missing Persons (ICMP). She works to identify remains of the war in Bosnia because she knows that finding a loved one can relieve the unknown. Seeing the locker for the bodies yet to be identified, that stretches on through a warehouse, and the bagsof clothing, one expects that there is a certain type of resilience to do this work. 

After experiencing a survivors perspective, small problems like a squabble with a loved one, seem so insignificant. The reason these stories are so powerful is that many of these survivors have chosen to live in Srebrenica, a part of the town under the influence of Serbian propoganda. A part of Bosnia that denies the genocide so deeply that it is completely omitted from history taught in schools. To live in a place that denies a huge part of one’s existence and identity so deeply, seems so gross to me. And to live there as a survivor, that act carries so much strength and is the greatest act, to stand up to those that chose to do wrong. The great resilience of all the survivors, the strength it took to retelling their stories, is so unbelievable and gives me courage to continue to share their experiences.

“Start Where You Are. Use What You Have. Do What You Can.” – Arthur Ashe 

A Bridge, The Sea and Everything In Between

Adventures in Mostar! Phenomenal bridge. A bridge connects the main two sides of Mostar the Croatian and the Serbian side. And I made of purely marble which has been worn smooth as hundreds of visitors has crossed it over hundreds of years. It also hurts when you slip coming down, especially on marble. In case that was a lingering question, there is your answer.

A mosque on the other side of the river has a video of footage of the bridge coming down in 1993 during the war and of the bridge being rebuilt after the war, in the same design. Just the fact that a bridge that has stood since the time of the Ottoman Empire, can fall and erase that portion of history, is something to consider. I wonder what those who built it would have felt to watch it fall, this landmark that connects the two sides of Mostar. To be able to cross it myself and enjoy seafood overlooking a river was a wonderful experience. The river was a breathtaking shade of turquoise, and so clear you could see straight down, even in the deepest parts. Mostar also hosts a diving group that would dive off the bridge. The highlight of Mostar was being able to put my feet in the water under the bridge and look up and try to marvel how all that marble made its way there hundreds of years ago. 

Passing through Mostar and arriving at the coast of the Adriatic Sea was a bumpy ride but a beautiful ride. And according to some, only took abut 20 minutes, though the clock said 4 hours. My perception has been that when traveling through Bosnia, to be fully in the present, you must understand that you will get to your destination, even if you didn’t plan on arriving late. It is the journey that is the true gem of travel in this country.

The view across the Adriatic Sea is nothing like anything I’ve seen before. A salty sea ringed with green mountains, and Croatia in the distance, was a backdrop to remember. The water was chilly, not Colorado cold but it shocked the breath out me each time I jumped in. Being able to spend a day soaking in salt water, trying octopus and eating gelato was wonderful. This must be what traveling as an adult feels like.

The staff and Bosnians that the group has met have been so gracious. At the coast, they joked with us, laughed and even wanted to join in on a video that was going around the table. It was nothing like dining in an American resturant. The camaraderie during something as small as a meal is something I will miss. Though hopefully recreate ine day in my own. The spirit of the Bosnian people can be seen through their generosity and willingness to help all others, not something I’ve experienced in other parts of the world. 

After returning from what felt like a luxurious spa retreat by the sea, a wonderful hike happened. Though before that, there was quick stop at the local hospital to help out a group member and some wonderful ice cream was had at a local gas station. Catching up on FIFA was a treat! So back to the hike. Our group was given a tour through Lukomir on foot. The town is incredible! It is located in the hills outside of Sarajevo and it felt like I was walking through a commercial to travel the hills of Scotland. It was foggy and cold so the mist hanging around the mountain tops was magical. It felt like a strenuous hike at times but the guide was wonderful and brought bananas and dates. It seems that a banana can really come in handy in Bosnia. After reaching Lukomir, our group got to interact with three generations of residents and explore the mountain town. Conclusion: The food will be more that you’ll want and every bit will be worth it; this town makes the most wonderful wooden spoons, and is host to the most scenic view from an outhouse I’ve experienced yet. 

Though it feels like the past few days have been slow, so much has happened. What stands out most of me is the length of history that exists and is recorded in this country. There are still tombstones from medieval times when it was populated by the Celts. They can be seen in Lukomir and are still standing. The most impressive experience for me so far has been that I am constantly blown away by the amount of history Bosnians know and are willing to share, about their country and to readily question the history of others.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page” – There is so much more to Bosnia than war, and for that I am grateful.

First Look at Bosnia

This is the most spectacular view out of an airport terminal I think I’ve seen yet. The way the sun blazed over the mountaintops, highlighting the airstrip, it did not appear immediately to the eye or the mind that this country had experienced a war 25 years ago. 

Second thought: this small airport is so full of love. As I sat outside the airport, feeling so grateful that clothing arrived with me, I heard so much laughter. I thought something must be wrong, was everything laughing at the American wearing two day old clothing? Those around me who had also arrived had left the airport greeting each other, laughing, kissing, and smoking. From my vantage point it looked like everyone on my flight from Istanbul to Sarajevo knew each other and were getting ready for dinner, instead of returning from international flights. There was the sound of people truly enjoying the closeness of their relationships with others. This scene was so startling to me as many American airports have designated sections to say hello and then move off to the side, as if such Bosnian laughter wouldn’t be welcome there.

After being in Sarajevo for 48 hours, the fact that this country has survived a war is clear. In all parts of the city, holes from bullets still leave their mark in the elaborate architecture and modern buildings spread throughout the heart of the city. During a tour, the guide spoke nonchalantly about witnessing a massacre of 15 people as we pass her home, as one would discuss a new pair of shoes or a day at work. Coming back down from the hills that surround Sarajevo, the views of the city are breathtaking. It is also very quiet, as if they still remember the snipers that were there during the Siege of Sarajevo. The bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics that once shone, has been reclaimed by younger residents of Bosnia, rifle posts holes now patched and covered with colorful messages of peace for the future. The hardest part for me to take in was the second oldest Jewish cemetery, located in Sarajevo, with tombstones cracked and marred by bullet holes, as well as graffiti. For a place of such historical significance, it was difficult seeing it in such disrrpair.

Our group met with a Sociology professor from the University of Sarajevo who introduced a thought: Is Bosnia Herzegovina a failed state? The looks would be deceiving. A beautiful country with 60% unemployment  in the youth population and 126 political parties gives a better picture of great unrest in this country. Bosnia is a very complex place. It’s evident that the country has remained segregated in governmental practices, even if it may not be discussed around dinner tables. As each head of government recognizes one people, either Croatian, Serbian or Bosniak, it is extremely difficult to pass laws that will create change to better support those that live here. Schools in certain areas are heavily segregated as a result of the war and genocide. Some can be seen painted in two colors that split the building on the outside, in certain parts of the country, effectively stating which side is meant for those of Serbian ethnicity or Croatian ethnicity. It makes sense that many of the youth are leaving this country to seek other income opportunities elsewhere, as they want to be treated as equal to those around them. Though this is a beautiful country to experience, many still find that the war and Siege of Sarajevo is discussed differently. 

Schools in one part of the country may deny the genocide, if they were the perpetrators. While others may tell more, if that part of the country experienced genocide as a victim. I could only speculate what living in a country as a child, where you are reminded of war in daily reminders that your school may say didn’t happen the way your family tells you. The Sociology professor also brought up another point, that many of the youth here are also willing to kill in the name of their religion, from a study he discussed. If that happened once, could it not happen again? If you deny your country’s history, no mater how horrific, are you not doomed to repeat it? The city has seen war but has it fully recovered? Watching a film that showcased the human spirit and hope in the middle of the Siege when a rock band came to play, shows that there can be hope in times of darkness, if people are willing to come together.

I find that many of my questions are starting to be answered, I am still left with others. Though my first impression gives me a sense that love and laughter are alive in this country and all of its people, after a further dig into the history and current state, it seems that there is a deeper healing that must occur for the people to begin to trust one another to feel safe again for lasting change to occur.