It almost feels weird to be back. Especially after spending the entire summer romanticizing the idea of finally being able to come “home.” Instead of feeling a sense of overwhelming relief and comfort, I feel foreign and misplaced. Like someone has plucked me from an amazing adventure of new beginnings and strange people and has filtered me back into a fishbowl of practicality and boring, mundane routines. To have experienced so much personal growth in only three short months is a true gift. I am so thankful to have been able to have the opportunity to experience Bosnia this summer with the Global Practice Bosnia Program.
Whenever people ask me “How was Bosnia?” I’m never quite sure what to say. Is there even a word to explain my experience? Of course it was positive overall, but there were definitely some moments of devastating sadness. We were confronted with the realities of war and acquainted with the survivors of a genocide. Not every moment was full of light and happiness. Seeing the remains of those who were killed in Srebrenica, meeting Saliha and the Bone Man, standing amongst the final resting spots of thousands at Potochari–these are some of the saddest yet most profound moments of my life. These memories will stay with me forever. If there is one thing I learned in Bosnia, it is that you can take away just as much from something awful as you can from something good. That in the end, we can learn from the horrors and evil parts of humanity, and at least attempt to prevent them from happening again.
“How was Bosnia?” I can’t ever answer this question honestly. Because being honest means reopening wounds and reliving memories I do not want to relive. It means explaining things I wish I didn’t have to, and telling stories for those who never lived to tell them themselves. It almost always means tears. Only my fiancé, my parents, and my closest friends know the intimate details about my time in Bosnia. And of course, the people that were there.
Before we began this trip, I didn’t ever think that Bosnia (of all places!) would be able to weasel itself into my heart and impact me the way other people had claimed it did for them. Fortunately, I was wrong. Bosnia has burrowed itself deep into my heart and soul, and whether I like it or not, it is now a part of me. I know I’ll be back someday. After all, I drank from the Sebilj.
If there is one thing that I am thankful for, it is how our lovely host and the owner of our hostel, Naida, has taken in our Global Practice Bosnia group like we are her own. The hostel which we are staying at is Naida’s childhood home. She grew up here and continued to live here as an adult, even during the siege of Sarajevo. She raised her family here, and yet she opens her doors to people from all over the world. She is one of the kindest, smartest, and most fiery women I have ever met. If I grow into even half the woman that Naida is, I would be more than happy.
Naida spent her life teaching as a university professor, and later worked as a government translator. She has traveled the world, and has stories and photos from her time all over the Middle East. She has seen places that I wish to see (Homs, Hama, Damascus, Aleppo), and she even took her students along with her. She speaks several languages fluently, including English, Arabic, French, and German. At one point, she was a personal translator for the wife of Muammar Gaddafi. I asked her if his wife was as crazy as he is, but she assured me that she wasn’t–according to Naida, she’s actually a very nice lady.
On the fourth of July, as we were celebrating our nation’s birthday, Naida let us take over her kitchen and cook all sorts of American food. Little did we know that earlier that day, she had taken the time to bake us a traditional Bosnian cake, writing “Happy Birthday America” on it in Bosnian. When her and her husband presented it to us, I couldn’t help but cry. The fact that she did something so special for us, this loud, messy group of Americans who leave dirty dishes all over her hostel… was beyond special. I’ve never felt so welcomed by anyone before. The fact that we were in another country thousands of miles away made it even more touching.
Naida and I became close because her grandson, Ekrem, took an unusual liking to me and over the summer, became very attached to me. One night, while doing work downstairs, he sat on my lap and started drawing. Suddenly, we were watching Youtube videos of every single Disney song I could remember from my childhood. “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” from the Lion King, and “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. Every time he is here, he will ask Naida “where Meggy is.” Together, we watch Pokemon, and sometimes we even draw pictures of our own Pokemon and make up names for them. Some of the pictures we have drawn over the summer are still taped to the doors downstairs.
When the Center for Healthy Aging threw a Bosnian-American themed party, Naida made sure to come. Along with her, she brought Ekrem, who was carrying the toy Pikachu that I had bought for him from one of the stands on the street. That night, we all danced together, and Naida and I even convinced Ekrem to dance with us. We taught him the Macarena, which he really seemed to love. I stayed with Naida and Ekrem until the party ended, and afterwards, she treated me to some coffee and dessert at the restaurant across from the hostel. “You are a good person, Meggy,” she told me. “I can tell because Ekrem likes you. Children know these things,” she explained, as she took my hand in hers.
I am lucky to know Naida, and I tell her that one day, when I am a professor like her, I will try to bring my students to Bosnia and stay in her hostel. She laughs when I tell her this, but she always tells me that she hopes that I do. I’m sad to be leaving Bosnia, but especially to be leaving Naida. She is like a grandmother to me. A fiery grandma who wears red lipstick and smokes cigarettes with me when I’m having a bad day. I’ve never felt so welcomed by a complete stranger. Thank you for everything, Naida. I will never forget you or the memories we have shared.
“…Those who devise and implement genocide seek to deprive humanity of the manifold richness its nationalities, races, and ethnicities and religions provide. This is a crime against all humankind, its harm being felt not only by the group targeted for destruction, but by all of humanity…” – Appeal Judgment in the case of Radislav Kristić, 19. Apr. 2004
When you study security, genocide isn’t a word you often pay a second thought to. It’s a horrible thing, yes, but when you study security, genocide just seems to be another one of those ugly consequences that happens during war. Sometimes, it often seems inevitable. Other times, it appears to be strategic—for a piece of territory or political survival. As a security student, I have been taught from the very beginning of my academic career to separate “abstract moralities” from the cold, hard calculations of interests and objectives. We are expected to think about political interests like they are mathematical equations—to close the door on our emotions and leave our sympathies behind us. If we bring them with us, even tucked away carefully somewhere in the back of our minds, we risk compromising the overall mission. At least that is what I’ve always been told.
Before this trip, I did everything I could to study the political history of Bosnia, to try to understand the war through the lens of security and political interests and failed agendas. I tried to understand why the United States stayed out of the conflict for as long as possible. “We don’t have a dog in that fight,” Secretary of State James Baker infamously said of the Balkans. I tried to justify the lack of authority the United Nations exerted. That’s just how the United Nations is, that’s how it’s always been, I tried to tell myself.
All of this changed after visiting Srebrenica. There is no excuse for letting 8,373 people die over the course of nine days in a declared United Nations “safe zone.” There aren’t any national interests that are achieved by sitting back and allowing defenseless people to be slaughtered. I am no longer able to think about the word genocide in plain calculations of rationalized policy objectives and national interests and overarching strategies. I can no longer think about human lives being represented by just a number. I have smelled their bodies, seen their graves, and heard their stories. I have viewed the things they carried in their pockets as they fled their homes and expected to reach safety, and I have peered into paper bags that still hold their earth-covered blue jeans. For every life that makes up that haunting four digit number—8,373—there is a story that we will never get to hear.
Writing this blog is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to write. I’ve been avoiding it for so long, because to go back to Srebrenica and to relive the second-hand horrors of what happened there is akin to ripping a scab off of a wound that still hasn’t healed. To think how painful it is for me, someone who just visited Srebrenica and heard the stories of survivors twenty years after the event makes me realize that the pain that people live with every day after personally going through such an ordeal must be indescribable. Words will never be enough to convey it or to bring anyone justice. But it’s the best I can do.
When I first was accepted to the Global Practice Bosnia program, I knew immediately which internship I wanted to apply for. Before applying, I had spoken to a few students that had done the program the previous year, and the Atlantic Initiative sounded like the perfect fit for me. As a security student, there are very few options that allow us to fulfill our degree’s internship requirement, but the Atlantic Initiative is one of the organizations that is actually accepted by the Korbel School’s career services office.
I knew there was a chance that the Atlantic Initiative wouldn’t offer me an internship spot, but I was extremely fortunate, and found out that I would be working for them about a month before our departure. The Atlantic Initiative (AI) is a non-profit and non-governmental organization, established in Sarajevo in 2009 by a group of university professors, lecturers, and journalists who share common concerns for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly related to the slow pace of its accession to NATO and the European Union. The Atlantic Initiative partners on projects with the governments of Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and enjoys support from NATO HQ Sarajevo, the Bosnian Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, the George Marshall Alumni Association in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a number of non-governmental organizations in the region that share or reflect their mission.
AI focuses on several different projects, but is currently working extensively on gender and justice reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as violent extremism and radicalization that leads to terrorism (right up my ally!). My first assignment with AI dealt with researching the status of women in the various armed forces throughout Balkan countries. Focusing on whether or not women in the Balkan armies had access to avenues that deal with and punish sexual harassment within the armed forces, my research proved to me that so far, very little has been done to address these issues. Although some countries that have made their way into the European Union have vowed to end sexual harassment within the workplace and in the branches of the armed forces, there is very little reporting that takes place, and hardly any data to support if any actual progress has been made.
Currently, I am working on a project that has yet to be published and is politically sensitive, so I cannot speak very much about it. Although I can’t talk much about the project itself, I am honored to have the opportunity to work with such amazing women on such an important topic that needs to be discussed. The Atlantic Initiative has given me a lot of new experience in terms of research, and I hope that I have been as much as an asset to them as they have been to me. I truly value my time that I spend working with them, and it is an opportunity that I believe will make me stand out in the future, whether it is for PhD applications or looking for a post-grad job. Not many people can say that they have worked for a security organization abroad, and I am forever grateful to have been given this chance to do so.
As some people may already know, my fiancé has been working for the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Russia during my time in Bosnia. Before I left for Sarajevo, we had planned to meet up in Moscow halfway through my 8-week stay. Call it ignorance, or just chalk it up to being an American, but I truly did not think I would have any issue applying for a Russian visa in Sarajevo. Especially because Russian citizens can apply for an American visa virtually anywhere. I found out about a week into my trip that I would NOT be able to apply for a Russian visa abroad, only in the United States. Freaking out, my fiancé and I began scrambling for another destination. Looking at flights to various European cities, we finally chose Paris, France.
After we decided on Paris, I told my fiancé that I had to come clean about something. When we first started dating, he had shared all of his amazing travel adventures with me. Impressed that he had traveled to over thirty countries, I decided to stretch the truth about where I had actually traveled. When he came to my apartment for the first time, he looked at my collection of Eiffel towers on one of my bookshelves, asking me if I had ever been to France. Embarrassed to say no, I casually answered “Oh, yeah. I went to Paris on a trip with my French class in the eighth grade.” I had no idea that we would end up dating, and then eventually engaged. When I told him that this was actually going to be my first trip to France, he burst out laughing, “I can’t believe you did that, you’re ridiculous.”
I’ve wanted to go to Paris for as long as I can remember. One of my favorite movies growing up was “Passport to Paris” with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who play the granddaughters of the U.S. ambassador to France in the movie and fall in love with cute French boys. Instead of taking Spanish, I opted for French all throughout middle school and high school. When I got to college I made it to the intermediate level, quitting during my junior year when things started to get too hard. I couldn’t believe after all of these years I was FINALLY going to experiencing Paris for myself. When the plane started to descend, I looked out the window and could see the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, which looked like miniature figurines from the air.
I waited in arrivals for my fiancé’s flight to land for a little over two hours. Lost in my phone, I didn’t even realize he had arrived. Suddenly, I felt two hands on my shoulders. There he was, standing right behind me. I felt a rush of overwhelming joy come over me. We’ve never been apart from each other for more than two weeks.
That night was crazy. France had won one of the final Eurocup 2016 games against Germany, and the city was going wild. Cars were honking in celebration; people were hanging outside of their windows flying French flags, screaming. Crowds begin to form around every major landmark. We passed by every sight that I had waited years to see. Our cab slowly made its way through the traffic and finally we arrived at our AirBnB, which had an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower.
The next morning, we woke up and took a cab to the Louvre. Luckily, the crowds weren’t that big, and we had gotten there early enough to not wait on any lines. We started with the Islamic art, and then went on a mission to find the most famous work of art in the world, the Mona Lisa. Passing by masterpiece after masterpiece, we finally found her. There she was, a tiny little frame protected by a glass shield surrounding her on all sides. Tourists from all walks of life pushed forward, gasping in awe (or maybe disappointment) and crying out in different languages. Several people stopped to take selfies (I’m also guilty of doing this). Finally, Dan and I made our way to the front. “That’s it?” I asked. “That is what all the fuss is about?” We both laughed. It was amazing that people had come from literally all around the world to catch a glimpse of this tiny, underwhelming painting. The crowds surrounding the painting were more of a sight to see than the painting itself.
After the Louvre, we made our way to the park, which is also home to a little amusement park of sorts, with a giant Ferris wheel. I begged Dan to get on it with me. We paid, and got on, and rode all the way to the top. Immediately I started to regret it. Here we were in this tiny little metal basket, over a hundred feet in the air, swaying back and forth. I tried to focus on the view, but I was hanging tightly to the edges of our little rusty carriage. I was relieved when we finally got down.
Afterwards, we got some slushies (which I ordered successfully en français) and made out way to the famous Love-Lock Bridge. I had brought a tiny little travel lock with me, which included two keys. I wrote our initials and the date on the lock, and we found the perfect spot to put it. Counting to three, we both threw out keys into the Seine. Legend has it that any couple that puts their lock on the bridge and throws the keys into the Seine will be together forever.
On our way back, we decided to find a place for lunch. Both of us missed eating Thai food, which is a usual thing for us back in Denver, and decided to find a Thai restaurant on Yelp. After 45 minutes of walking, we arrived to the restaurant and found out that it was closed (even though Yelp said it was open). We sat down at a nearby bar, had some drinks, and plotted to find another Thai restaurant. Eventually, we found one that was more than authentic. We had an amazing red curry that seriously beat most Thai food that we have eaten in Denver. It was extra spicy, a luxury for me because spicy food is virtually nonexistent in Bosnia. We spent the rest of our day wandering around Paris, and that night we laid in bed watching our favorite TV shows while feasting on sushi (another thing that’s extremely hard to find in Sarajevo) and Pizza Hut. It was perfect.
On our second day in Paris, we made our way to the Palace of Versailles. This is somewhere else that I’ve always wanted to go, because I love Marie Antoinette (she was a feminist for her time!) and the 2006 movie “Marie Antoinette” by Sofia Coppola is one of my all-time favorite films. The soundtrack, the visuals, and the historical accuracy are incomparable. Versailles itself is breathtaking. It’s so decadent—the architecture, the gold, the gardens. They even have a Ladurée on site. After touring the main grounds, we took a tram to Marie Antoinette’s special hideaway, known as Le Petit Trianon. I was lost in awe. Finally, I was walking through the same hallways and down the very same stairs that Marie Antoinette herself had walked. It was a dream come true for me. I’m still amazed that Sofia Coppola had been granted permission to film her entire movie at Versailles and in Le Petit Trianon. It was like walking through a little piece of history, where I was Marie Antoinette for the day. Thank you Danny for organizing our trip to Paris and for making sure I got to see Versailles. You are the kind of partner that everyone deserves to have in his or her life. When we got back to the city, we spent the rest of our night eating baguettes and candy and drinking champagne. Just hanging out in our little Pied à Terre indulging ourselves in every way possible.
Our last day in Paris was a little hectic. We didn’t realize that the Eurocup Finals would be shutting down almost every street and the Eiffel Tower. The city was crazy, with crowds everywhere. We could hardly move in the area around the Eiffel Tower. Everyone around us was sporting either a French or Portuguese flag for the game. We walked our way down the Champs-Èlysées and found a Ladurée, where we stopped for some macarons. It’s one thing to have Ladurée in New York, but an entirely different experience to be eating Ladurée macarons IN PARIS. I was in my glory. Getting a cab back to where we were staying was almost impossible, but luckily we were able to make it back safely. Once again, we got Thai food, only this time we ordered it online and decided to stay in for the night, due to the crowds. I was successful in answering the phone and speaking to the delivery guy in French when he arrived! #SoProud. We spent the rest of the night finishing up Game of Thrones, because the last few episodes had aired while we were away. All night long we kept hearing banging, which sounded like fireworks. Later, we found out that the crowds at the Eiffel Tower had gotten rowdy during the game (France had lost against Portugal, 0-1) and started setting things on fire. The bangs that we had heard weren’t fireworks, but water cannons and tear gas being fired. Good thing we had decided to stay in.
Saying goodbye to each other at the airport was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do. We had a weekend away from reality, and now we had to go back to it. Being together in Paris made me realize how much I had missed Dan, but it also made me realize how strong our relationship truly is. We have spent the entire summer away from each other, following our dreams while still supporting one another and making sure we each achieve our independent goals. I hate to brag, but I truly have one of the best men as my other half. We are each other’s rocks, and we are a team. We are strong because of each other. If we had to do this summer all over again, we would, in a heartbeat. We know that the opportunities we are experiencing this summer are once-in-a-lifetime, and that no matter what, we will always have each other to fall back on.
When I first got to Bosnia, I knew that it would be likely that some of my free weekends here would be used to explore other parts of the region. The one cool thing about Bosnia, and I guess Europe in general, is how inexpensive it is to travel to another country. Traveling to another country here is a lot like traveling to another state in the United States. You can rent a car for a little less than $50 USD per day (and yes, they are automatic… you just have to look a little harder), and it’s even cheaper if you decide to take a bus or hire a taxi (between $10-40 USD).
During the first weekend of July, a small group of us (10 people, so maybe not that small of a group…) decided that we would go to Croatia for the weekend to celebrate a birthday (Annalisa’s 25th!). Although I have never driven in any other country besides the United States, I volunteered to be the driver for my group’s car. It was a 6-hour drive to Orebić, a small little town directly on the coast between Dubrovnik and Split, but every hour of driving was worth it. On our way we drove through Mostar, which is one of the largest and most known cities in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia. We couldn’t help ourselves, and had to take a break from the car just to take some pictures and capture the beauty of Mostar’s famous aqua-blue river.
Driving through Bosnia wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but once we got closer and closer to Croatia, the roads became tinier and tinier. We wound around the mountains, sometimes feeling like we were driving uncomfortably close to the edge. I tried not to peer over from the road, but knowing how steep the cliffs were that we were driving next to made me a bit anxious. Most of the drivers stay in the middle of the road until another car comes, but there were a few times where the cars came around those bends so fast that we barely had time to shift over. There was never a moment where I felt like we were truly in any danger, but the drive was definitely nerve-wrecking and I kept my eyes glued to the road and gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands the entire time. Not to mention being responsible for the four other lives riding in my car… no pressure or anything.
When we finally got to Orebić, it was almost 10 P.M. and most of the restaurants had already closed. The host of the house that we had booked was incredibly gracious, telling us that we were the first Americans that have ever stayed at his rental home. I would like to think that we were also the best Americans that he ever will host, but I might be a little biased. We ended up finding a small little seafood restaurant right on the water to have dinner at. Hoping to try the local delicacy, we asked for an order of fish. The waitress literally brought out a fresh fish that had been caught that day, and asked us if that was the fish that we wanted to eat. When we said yes, the cook immediately started preparing it in the wood-fired brick oven. It was served to us completely whole—eyes, tail, head, bones and all. It was still delicious, though.
I passed out pretty early that night because I was exhausted from driving all day. The next morning we decided to take a boat to the island of Korčula (pronounced CORE-CHEW-LA), a tiny little island with an even tinier walled city (more like town). If you have ever seen Game of Thrones, Korčula looks just like King’s Landing. Although the birthplace of Marco Polo is still disputed by historians, most agree that it was likely that he was born on the island of Korčula, and then taken prisoner by the Genoese in the naval battle of Korčula, between the Venetian and Genovese states. One thing that was surprised me the most about Croatia was how prominent religious symbols were. As a Catholic country, there are crosses every. It was quite a contrast from Sarajevo, where mosques, hijabs, and the call to prayer had become part of my daily backdrop.
Our final destination for the day was another small island, which required a water taxi to get to. Once we were there, it was easy to see why Annalisa had picked this spot out for her birthday celebrations. We spent the entire day enjoying our own private beach, swimming in the turquoise water (which was incredibly warm), and sunning ourselves. Of course, there was also some wine and Rakia involved… for celebratory purposes. I couldn’t help but channel my inner mermaid, staying in the water practically all day. The beach was different from most beaches that I have ever visited, because instead of sand beneath my feet, there were tiny little rounded pebbles. After a fabulous day enjoying the sea and sun, we took the water taxi back to Korčula and had an amazing dinner overlooking the water. After dinner, instead of taking the ferry back to the mainland, we found a man who was willing to drive us back in his tiny water taxi for a very small price.Very strategically, the ten of us piled into his boat, cautiously moving around to make sure it did not tip over. Although it was only an eight-minute ride to the mainland, I was a little more than relieved when my feet finally touched the dock.
Our last day in Croatia was spent at the beach, except this time we stayed in Orebić. We only had a few hours to enjoy the sun, but we all got a chance to swim one last time before heading back to Sarajevo. Once again, I was the driver for our trip home… only this time, I felt much more prepared and knew what to expect. The drive home was much faster than our drive there, probably because we didn’t stop as many times for bathroom breaks, snacks, and gas. When we finally returned, it was almost time to celebrate the 4th of July.
Celebrating a national holiday in another country is a strange thing. Especially when it’s your country’s Independence Day. Growing up, the fourth of July was always a major celebration for my family, but as I’ve gotten older, it has become much more significant for me. Understanding the sacrifices my family and friends have made during their military service has given me a different perspective on things. I am grateful for the men and women who have risked their lives for my freedom, and I have never been prouder to say that I am an American.
As cheesy as it sounds, I was a bit emotional on July 4th. Here I was, internally reflecting on what that day meant for me, and all around me people were living their lives as if it were just another ordinary day. Not that I expect other people to celebrate my country’s Independence Day. It just felt bizarre to be honoring the sacrifices and loss that our country has experienced while sitting in a café surrounded by different languages, laughter, and cigarette smoke. In some ways, I’ve never felt so foreign. I started thinking about the men and women who were spending the 4th of July deployed and away from their families, serving our country. Suddenly I felt selfish for feeling the way I did.
At the hostel, we decided to have our own celebration for the 4th of July. Everyone got together and cooked staple “American” dishes. I made my fiancé’s famous macaroni and cheese, which was a huge hit. During dinner, the group started playing all of our typical “July 4th” songs, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.” During dessert, the owners of our hostel surprised us with a cake they had baked. On the cake, they had written “Happy Birthday America” in Bosnian. I couldn’t hold back my tears. Not because I was sad, but because I had never felt so welcomed by complete and utter strangers before. It was the sweetest thing for them to do that for us.
Towards the end of the night, we started getting a bit rowdy. After a hilarious game of “Cards Against Humanity,” everyone broke out in drunken song to “You’re A Grand Old Flag.” As we sang (more like screamed) and waved our miniature American flags, the door to common room where we were celebrating flew open. An angry German girl came stomping in. “We are trying to sleep, you need to be quiet!” she yelled at us. After she stormed out, I made a joke about her just being jealous because German nationalism is sometimes controversial (Thanks, Hitler). Trying not to laugh, we collected our things and moved the celebration to a bar around the corner. As we walked into the bar, donning our miniature flags in our hair, a crowd in the bar started cheering for us. Happy Birthday, America.
There are a lot of things that surprise me about the city of Sarajevo, and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. Although there are areas of the city that seem to have never witnessed any type of conflict, it doesn’t take long to find yourself stumbling over concrete scars still left in the pavement from the thousands of mortar shells that were dropped on Sarajevo during the siege. Walking around certain parts of Sarajevo, you don’t even realize that a war ever took place. The streets are filled with tourists, trendy clothing stores, and tons of cafés. But when you take a closer look, you realize that the buildings here are still riddled with tiny holes and pockmarks from bullets that once littered the city.
When you venture out further from the city’s center, it becomes obvious that the war is still haunting most of the country. There are a number of homes that were destroyed and never rebuilt. Windows are boarded up, and some buildings still stand tall, despite their structures being utterly destroyed and charred from the war. Physically, mentally, and emotionally there are a number of Bosnians that are still recovering. “Everyone here is crazy, they all have post-war syndrome,” one restaurant owner told me. He himself still has small pieces of shrapnel in one of his legs. “I get goose bumps every time I hear that damn cannon,” he admitted, referring to the loud bang that signals the end of the day’s fast during Ramadan. Every individual I meet has their own unique story, and their own way of coping with what happened here. Some people choose not to talk about the war. Others are eager to share their stories, in an attempt to teach and inform an outsider like myself of what happened here. I learned quickly that it’s better not to ask anyone about the war, but for a lot of people, it’s an inevitable subject that they cannot avoid. For most people here, their lives are split into two parts: Before the War, and After the War.
I can’t really put into words what I thought Bosnia would be like before I got here. But it’s definitely a lot more comfortable here than I imagined it would be. A lot of things in Sarajevo are very similar to what you would find in the United States. The girls here love Michael Kors, and almost every café has staple “American” food, like pizza and French fries. When people aren’t drinking Bosnian coffee, Coca-Cola is the drink of choice here. I didn’t think there would be such an active nightlife culture here, but alas, the street that our hostel is on turns into a crowded tunnel of cigarette smoke and thumping music almost every night. While girls in tiny miniskirts and four-inch heels make their way down the street, I find myself running down the stairs of our hostel in sweatpants and a dirty t-shirt for some late-night pizza. Without any make-up on and dressed like I just crawled out of bed, they stare at me like I am committing a crime against humanity—or at least basic girl code.
Yummy pizza… all for less than $5 USD.
It took a while, but I finally found GOOD SUSHI in Sarajevo!
I’m surprised that so much of this city’s history remained preserved throughout the war. Although there was massive intentional destruction of cultural and religious property during the war, there are a number of things that somehow survived. Ottoman mosques from the 15th and 16th centuries still stand throughout the city, and although it has been long-abandoned, the bobsled and luge track from Sarajevo’s 1984 Olympics still remains to be a popular tourist attraction—despite being used as a sniper nest by Serbian forces during the war. Once seen as a symbol of great success (the 1984 Winter Olympics were the only Olympic games to ever be held in a communist country), the track is now a tribute to locals and tourists alike, who come to spray paint their professions of love and political frustrations up and down the track’s walls.
Finally, I am in Bosnia! For months I have been thinking about this trip, planning for it, and anxiously waiting for my internship placement. But now, I am officially living and working in Sarajevo for the summer! It doesn’t even seem real.
In some ways, it’s a major relief to actually be here. The week leading up to my departure was incredibly stressful. Finishing final papers, tying up loose ends with professors back in Colorado, and trying to enjoy the engagement party my mom threw for my fiance and I all while attempting to prepare for two and a half months abroad in another country wasn’t easy. Every single day was filled with scrambling, packing, making lists, unpacking, repacking, and buying last minute items I swore I would need. Little did I know that most of my essentials are actually available here in Sarajevo (they actually have Lush and Sephora).
On the plane ride here I read excerpts from Samantha Power’s “A Problem From Hell” in order to really understand what exactly I was stepping into. Her chapter on Bosnia spoke about an “exit tax” of nearly $1,000 that Serb forces had begun charging Muslims and Croats who were attempting to flee Sarajevo during the war. When I landed in Sarajevo, our hostel owner’s husband (an older man who is very sweet) picked me up from the airport. As we drove through the city, he mentioned that he had lived in London for part of the war. Curious, and remembering what I had read earlier, I asked him if he had to pay Serbian forces the “exit tax” I had just learned about. Immediately, he jumped into a defensive conversation about how the war affected both Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs in the same way, and that he had many Serbian friends that he love dearly. Although that wasn’t the exact answer I had been looking for, I quickly realized that some questions just shouldn’t be asked so casually. Lesson number one.
When I arrived at the hostel, I didn’t even bother to unpack. I set my things down and decided to explore the city along with everyone else. The location of our hostel is smack dab in the middle of Sarajevo, directly in between the famous bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and Baščaršija, which is Sarajevo’s old bazaar and the city’s cultural and historical center. The city of Sarajevo reminds me of Istanbul in many ways, but it definitely has it’s own European flair. Most of the architecture is Austro-Hungarian, but there are plenty of buildings that are still standing from the Ottoman era. I love how the city perfectly blends “western” and “eastern” influences. One minute you find yourself walking down the street hearing the call to prayer from a 15th century mosque and the next minute you’re passing by a bar blasting techno music in the middle of the day. In this city, churches and mosques coexist without any visible tension. It’s refreshing to see given the current circumstances that exist elsewhere.
One thing that really surprised me was how modern Sarajevo is. I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be so… European. I guess my version of Sarajevo was stuck in 1995. There are tons of trendy clothing stores, and the fashion is incredible. Girls here could probably give American girls a run for their money when it comes to style. Even the hijabs here are styled, decorated, and colorful. And everyone loves anything “designer.” So many knockoff sunglasses, bags, etc. for sale (and the prices are definitely better than NYC’s Chinatown). I literally got a pair of “Ray Bans” for 15 KM, which is about 7.5 EURO (like $8-10 US dollars). When I hold them up to my pair of authentic Ray Bans, you cannot even tell the difference. #Winning!
Although the food is a bit heavy (lots of bread and meat and cheese), I don’t mind it because it is delicious. It definitely is going to take some getting used to, though. Good salads are hard to find around here, but if you know the right places to go it’s definitely possible. Some of my roommates have started cooking in the hostel’s kitchen, which I think I am going to start doing once I get myself together and get some groceries (which are also super super cheap). It’s just so hard to get cooking when you can have a three course meal at a restaurant here for less than what it costs to cook.
On our first official day here, the group took a tour of the city. One thing we got to see was the “Tunnel of Hope,” which was built by the Bosnian Army in order to link the city of Sarajevo, which was entirely cut off by Serbian forces, with Bosnian-held territory on the other side of the Sarajevo Airport, an area controlled by the United Nations. Basically, this tunnel became the lifeline of the city during the siege. People, food, medicine, livestock, and even cars were smuggled through this tunnel. It was narrow and claustrophobic and incredibly uncomfortable to walk through (I only walked through a tiny part of it, too!). I cannot imagine how people walked through that tunnel for hundreds of meters. I guess in the middle of a war, walking through a tunnel like that is the least of anyone’s problems.
On Friday we took a day trip to the village of Lukomir, which is the most remote village in the entire country. THAT was a culture shock. The area itself is incredibly beautiful, and the people were so gracious and welcoming. Only two families live in the entire village, and they completely sustain themselves without hardly any contact to/from the outside world. The people there lead very simple, yet happy lives. Just being there for a few hours made me want to go home and purge my apartment of all of the useless crap I have. Material things do not equal happiness.
I really look forward to seeing more of the city, and even more of the countryside. Although my Bosnian isn’t amazing, I am practicing it every day. My internship at the Atlantic Initiative (a non-profit NGO supported by Bosnia’s NATO HQ) is honestly the perfect fit for me. My first assignment is researching gender-based violence in Bosnian’s armed forces (very appropriate if you know what I study). I’m really excited to see what’s in store for me here. I can’t wait to see what happens next.