I did something last weekend that may seem small to some, but for me it was quite big. I went to Slovenia alone. I had never taken a trip by myself before and never saw interest or reason as to why someone would even want to do such a thing. When you live with 12 other people eager to travel on weekends what is the point in going somewhere alone? I’ve taken many planes across the US alone, I got myself to Bosnia alone, I spend time hiking alone but never saw the need to travel alone. I like sharing my experiences and memories with people.
I do love challenging myself and forcing myself to try new things knowing that in the end I will usually find a liking for it. In this way, my time alone in Slovenia was no exception. I enjoyed wandering and exploring Ljubljana at my own pace, stopping to take pictures when I pleased. I discovered a food festival going on outside along the river and indulged in different flavors and people watching. I made friends with my hostel mates and we laughed and explored the local beers over funny travel stories and puppy watching. I spent time at Lake Bled writing and reading amongst the trees and beauty of nature. Traveling alone was the peace I needed to ground myself. I loved stopping to listen to musicians playing in the streets and think back on the treasures this summer has brought. Ljubljana is a special place where the smiles are infectious. Everyone has a dog and everyone rides their bike. The recycling system there puts most American cities to shame.
I know I will look back on this experience as a highlight of the summer. There were no life altering realizations but I did leave Slovenia a little bit more whole.
“Wings of Hope” a foundation I feel especially fortunate to be apart of this summer as an intern. The mission statement reads: “Improving the social inclusion and strengthening of women, children, youth and other vulnerable groups by promoting and protecting human rights, mental health and support in education” These words are important and I am proud to stand behind them. As a clinical social worker my experiences typically involve working one on one with clients, however here in Sarajevo I am working an entirely different side of the field. We have translated documents, edited and drafted the annual report and wrote the executive summary. I have learned a great deal about human rights, peace building, and the complicated intersections of trying to help marginalized groups in such a troubled economic state. Currently we are working on a project that I am very excited about. We are developing programs to better support the LGBTQ community in Bosnia with a focus on those living with HIV. The stigma and hate towards these individuals in this part of the world is a dangerous issue and I feel proud to be apart of finding and researching solutions. Aside from the work itself, the people we work with are such a joy to be around. Everyday I look forward to the goofy and philosophical conversations that take place over coffee. I have learned so much already and I am saddened that it has to end so soon.
Fear can be controlling, paralyzing. It holds power and the ability to make us act in ways that surprise us. Some of us hide, some of us fight. This type of fear isn’t the fear of a giant spider like the many scattering our tall ceilings and eat me while I’m sleeping. This is the type of fear that comes with the fight for survival, the uncertainty of whether your life will go on much longer and the fear of not knowing where your loved ones are – a feeling only a handful of the world knows too well. This corner of the world lived under this power for years and the PTSD that resulted is a daily reminder of how paralyzing fear can be. I cannot speak for the survivors of war or their stories and struggles but in the work I do, I’ve heard again and again how fear changes people. Through fear, we earn resilience and through resilience we move on.
Last weekend we returned to Srebrenica. A place where broken promises cost the lives of thousands after it was announced to be a UN Safe Zone in a time of desperate need. The cemetery/memorial is conveniently placed across the street from the former Dutch UN base in Potočari, sending a message to the failure of the UN in protecting the people and refugees occupying this place 22 years ago. I am happy to share these experiences and the stories that have moved me, but my words only paint a small corner of the greater picture. I was excited to revisit this part of the country in hopes to ascribe deeper meaning to the journey we embarked on a few weeks prior (the Peace March). Testimony after testimony, haunting images and abandoned places spoke volumes and I felt it. We felt it. We visited the International Commission on Missing Persons and saw where people made a career out of identifying the bodies scattered in mass graves. We saw the abandoned battery factory and the images that hung the walls felt as haunting as the place itself.
Hearing Hasan’s story (a genocide survivor and friend of our program), and getting to know his struggles over our time with him has reframed my understanding resilience. In social work we talk of this subject often and in my own experiences I have seen resiliency as the key to survival in trauma. Hasan spoke of the atrocities he witnessed, the fears and memories of losing family and friends, being hunted through the woods and survival. When I asked how he was able to live his daily life so close in proximity to the spots he nearly lost his own life and witnessed others murdered, he told us that hate was not in his heart. There is a higher power and it does not serve survivors like himself and the others we listened to to live their lives in hate and fear. This theme of resiliency carried through the weekend as we listened to Saliha and Nura share stories of the horror experienced in losing their sons and husbands to the genocide. Saliha lives without fear and has bravely testified against war criminals in Serbia without protection status. I only hope that justice comes through, but as we were told often – no amount of justice will bring back the loved ones of so many innocent people.
I am still processing the images we saw of men being marched to their executions, shot and killed in a ditch, the thin faced boys escaping for their own lives into the woods on roads we walked 2 short weeks ago, the abandoned sleeping quarters of Dutch UN officers where obscene doodles littered the walls – these images could foreshadow the lack of protection that followed. The events of last weekend struck me and proved the pain of the Peace March to be that much more of an honor.
I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with a handful of incredibly moving and hospitable people here in Bosnia. People who have been complete strangers just moments before and were now going out of their way to help us or explain things. During Marš Mira, there were times when I would walk past a sign or a memorial of some sort and just stare at it in wonder, only able to guess exactly what it meant. A few times, men would approach me and in English ask me if I needed a translation. They would explain to me the tragedies that took place on the beautiful land I stood before and thank me and my group for taking part in an event that means so much.
After the 3rd day of walking – tired and painfully numb from the heat and distance, we arrived back to some bad news. We had to go find the army trucks that held our night bags with all of our belongings. The camp was stretched long and we were unsure where to go or who to talk to. We walked the stretch of the camp 5 times back and forth being given false hope about the exact location of our stuff. We had a young Bosnian woman with us who showed a great deal of empathy and made it her mission to help the vulnerable Americans. The army had lost her bags the year before and she was determined to fight the disorganization. We also had with us an off duty soldier whose face grew doubtful as we searched through every truck. Our bags were nowhere to be found and it was getting dark. Cold, hungry and exhausted, the 5 of us who stayed to collect the belongings for the group were growing very concerned. We took turns with the flashlights walking every inch of the fields, checking through tents and asking anyone who spoke English if they might have seen the missing bags. Over the course of 3 hours we had collected roughly 10 different Bosnians who were determined to help us find our things. I sat down on the pavement feeling defeated while standing above me were the strangers we had accumulated yelling and strategizing with one another in their language about where the bags might be. Every 5 minutes or so one of them would sit next to me and explain to me the newfound inferences and details. The Bosnian woman kept offering us food and clean clothes to change into while we waited, she even brought over a sweatshirt when the temperatures dropped. We received the bags roughly 18 hours later thanks to the kindness of our new friends. These people owed us nothing and without them who knows if we would have ever found our things.
While not everyone shows this trait of goodness, I have been moved and inspired by those that do. A handful of other examples of Bosnian hospitality come to mind as well, but that one was the most impactful.
After 3 days and roughly 60 miles of trekking through exposed sun and mine fields, mass graves and rural villages, we ended our journey in Potočari. A place where just over 20 years ago, thousands of men and boys escaped into the hills in effort to save their lives. Some were successful, while most were not. As we stood to witness the 70+ green coffins pass through the crowd to their final resting places, the intense aching pain in my feet and legs had meaning. I thought about how the victims families must have felt – I thought about my younger brothers and how different the pain I experienced during the journey would feel if someone I knew had lost their life in such a cruel, unimaginable way. The image of slim green coffins being passed through the long line of men respectfully grazing the sides one by one is something I will never forget. That vision powerfully moved the aches in my feet to an ache in my heart.
I met a handful of incredible humans during this journey. One man I met had begun his journey in his small town in the middle of Bosnia – on the 2nd day of the Peace March, he had already been walking for 10 days. On day one, before the journey started, I was standing at a drink stand to buy something with sugar. As I went to hand the girl 1.50 KM, an older man signaled for me to put my money away, I tried to say ‘no thank you’, still holding out my money. He continued shooing my money away and insisted on buying my drink. I gave in and thanked him in Bosnian as he did not speak any English. Having woken up at 3:45 AM to be there and no coffee, my Bosnian was rusty that morning. He took me through the crowd and tried to find individuals who spoke English so he could translate something to me. We came across a reporter who spoke some English. He started speaking in numbers and words and the reporter communicated to me that my new friend was a survivor of the genocide and had been on the original ‘death march’ 22 years prior. He gave me advice on pacing myself and told me I chose good shoes. I thanked him again and kept my eye out for him the entire way.
While there is so much to be said about this experience, words are not easy to find.
The honeymoon week has concluded and I find myself settling into new roles, a new place and a heavily new understanding of the world. A new understanding of myself is brewing in the meanwhile and I am working on honoring that state. As a first time traveler this place is everything all at once. I feel overwhelmed with awe and wonder while simultaneously being hit between the eyes with the history and trauma of the past. I’ve learned valuable lessons in the past 7 days, for example:
- Children here are used as bait for pickpocketing and begging (something that as a child social worker I find impossible to ignore)
- Just because someone tells you they have a villa in Montenegro does not mean they have a villa in Montenegro
- A new adventure is behind each corner, and the corner is worth exploring
- The street dogs make my day although the recent “dogocide” has me saddened that I do not get to experience as many as there once was.
- Sometimes people will tell you they don’t understand you simply because they choose not to
- Bosnian coffee is much better than American coffee – along with a long list of other things I have discovered here
There are more lessons but articulating them is still something I am working on. I love this country and this city in ways I did not imagine possible in such a short time. There are so many places and people I urge to see and meet, and I am grateful this opportunity. The people (for the most part) are genuinely lovely humans and their resilience amazes me. The food is great, but I am choosing to ease into that slowly. Navigating a new place has never been so easy and natural. The mountains are stunning and their beauty puts me at ease. I love old town and hearing the call to prayer. I feel more Americans should experience Bosnia for themselves in order to adopt a more open minded perspective on Islam and the people who live here and the community we are so enveloped in.