Final Reflections

I debated writing my final blog from Bosnia, that night, after I packed my suitcase in preparation for the long trip back to Colorado. But sleep won out. And I am glad, since it turns out that I needed several days to even begin processing what we experienced in Bosnia.

When asked about the “highlights” of the trip, I find myself internally wincing. Throughout the trip it was emphasized over and over by everyone we spoke to that the hatred, polarization, and othering that tore Bosnia apart can happen anywhere. No country is above it or beyond it. Discussions with other students about the similarities between what happened in Bosnia and what is happening here in the United States were very sobering. And honestly, now that I’m back I can’t stop thinking about it. When discouragement about the state of our country and the future of Bosnia threatens to overwhelm me, I want to remember that there is more than hatred and inhumanity in this story. There is immense kindness and resilience too.

The kindness of Saliha, Hasan, Nino, and so many others we met will always stay with me. They demonstrate such courage and generosity of spirit despite the heartbreak and sorrow they have experienced. After telling us horrible stories of barely surviving the war and losing many loved ones, each survivor thanked US (us!) for being there and wished us well. Many said they hoped this would never happen to us and that we would live happy, healthy lives with the people we love. The survivors of Bosnia asked us for only one thing: that we would tell the story of what happened there, share what we learned, and never let this happen again. It seems like a staggering request, but one I’m already trying to fulfill here at home.

Resilience was the overarching theme I took from the War Childhood Museum. It was a fascinating display, an idea originated by a man who grew up in the war and wanted to tell what being a child during wartime was like. As the story goes, he asked the question to the internet, “what was being a child during war to you?” and got thousands of responses. He began to compile these short answers into a book, and then decided to visit a few of the people who had responded. As he visited and spoke with them, he began to notice that people, even as successful adults decades afterwards, still had relics and remnants of growing up in the war. He realized there was something really unique about a childhood during wartime, and wanted to share this with the world. He collected these relics for a museum display, right alongside the stories of their owners.

One group of children banded together with others in their apartment building to publish a full-on magazine complete with articles and hand-drawn illustrations that was printed in 50-100 copies each month and delivered around the neighborhood. Other exhibits pictured stuffed animals alongside stories of how siblings learned to be friends playing with each other when they had no electricity and were bored. Chalkboards with shrapnel holes and bikes that were used to race through the streets collecting life-saving water were also included.

I appreciated leaving the War Childhood Museum with a feeling unlike that of all the other museums I had encountered. Rather than just walking away with a heavy heart, I found myself in awe of how children are able to process and experience war so differently from adults. And to see the reassurances that the children of these stories were going to college, leading successful careers, and living happy lives was very powerful for me. The entire experience was an encouraging testimony to the ability of children to “bounce back” and make the best of miserable circumstances.

I continue to process all these often-competing concepts of good and evil in the world. And as I tell the story of my trip to friends and family, I discover new bits of the journey that astound me and remember stories that bring me to tears. Bosnia has become a part of me, and I will never forget.

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Srebrenica

Srebrenica. There are no words to describe the things we have seen and heard in the past two days. And yet, I am trying. We first went to the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP), where the forensic anthropologistDraganaexplained the process of identifying bodies exhumed from mass graves. The sheer number of primary andsecondary graves means this process is extraordinarily difficult and so far, they have uncovered thousands of bodies. At first, identification was based on clothing and other physical articles found on the bodies, or by bone fractures and diseases that could be validated by the families. Only 50 bodies were identified in this manner. When DNA matching was developed in 2002, they were able to positively identify over 7,000 bodies and are still working. To date, there are about 1,000 more bodies that need to be found and/or identified from this area alone.

After the emotional shock of visiting the ICMP, it was somewhat comforting to visit Anne’s friend Saliha that evening for dinner. Going to Saliha’s house was like visiting the home of a long-lost grandmother. Her flower gardens and yard were immaculately pruned and blooming profusely. Her vegetable garden was huge and flourishing. She immediately escorted Ann out to pick fresh garlic and onions, gesturing to the rest of us to go try the pears in the front yard. They were crisp, ripe and juicy. One of the driver’s wives had made a giant feast for us, which he set out along with fresh rose water and minty lemonade. The rose water was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tried – with the faint, but not overpowering, taste of rose, honey, and mint mingling in a sweet sip.

After dinner, Saliha sat down and told us her story of being separated from her two sons and husband in the genocide. She buried one son one week, then got separated from her other son and husband in the flight of the country and mass chaos. She became a refugee fleeing from camp to camp searching for her loved ones. She saw a picture of her husband in the newspaper, then later on the news a video of her husband calling her son down from the mountains. This video became widely distributed as an example of the atrocities happening during the war. The Serbs had captured her husband as he was fleeing and were forcing him to call his son down from the mountains where they were all escaping, yelling that he would be “safe” if he surrendered. Saliha saw the film and with it sprang hope that her husband and son were alive. But she could never find them. Years later his bones and those of his son were exhumed and their bodies identified. Finally, Saliha was able to bury them. As she spoke, her voice grew weary and sad. “I’m alone,” she said, “I have no one.”

The next day, we went to the Srebrenica Potocari Genocide Memorial & Cemetery. Here a good friend of Ann’s, Hasan Hasanović, told us his personal story of growing up, life before the war, and of surviving the death march. As hewandered through the woods, split from his twin brother and father, he barely escaped death on many occasions. Narrowly dodging shelling, gunshots, and captures, he climbed through the mountains with a group that had been cut off from the rest of the column. He was one of the few to survive, starving as he arrived half dead at the refugee camp. His father and twin brother unfortunately did not survive. Now Hasan is the curator of the Memorial and speaks at international events to spread awareness about the Srebrenica genocide so that it will never happen again.

When we went to the cemetary, Hasan had arranged for two more genocide survivors to speak with us. One, Nedžad Avdić, was at one of the mass execution sites and was one of only two people to survive the massacre of hundreds. Another, Nura, was one of the few women who attempted the death march with all the men. Her husband went to get water and never returned (they later found and identified his body), while two of her sons were injured on the march. They were captured by the Serbs and she was separated from them. She never saw them again, and later their bodies were also found.

At the end of the day we met Ramiz, the “bone man,” who walks the mountains searching for bones in order to turn them into the ICMP so they can identify more bodies. Ramiz has aided in the discovery and identity of over 200 bodies. All in all, it was an emotional few days in Tuzla and Srebrenica. And the disjointed nature of this post accurately reflects the disorganization currently felt in my thoughts and feelings after having seen these sites, heard these stories, and felt my heart breaking with this pain.

Got Water?

In the last blog post I reflected on being sad about the state of Bosnian politics and history, but since then I have had a change in perspective. The world is not black and white, nor are countries. As I’ve grown and matured as a person and as a social worker, I have come more and more to appreciate the many shades of grey. There are always pros and cons, goods and bads, and some things that are both at once. There is always another side to the story.

In the past few days, I’ve been so impressed by the kindness and generosity of people in Bosnia. Our bus driver Nino is a perfect example. He honks for birds so they’ll fly out of the road before we get to them. He cracks jokes and takes excellent group photos (a feat of patience with sixteen boisterous Americans). He regales us of stories about driving all around the world, and has endless patience when we needed to pull over for bathroom breaks or some fresh air.

After spending the day on the sunny coast, we headed back from Neun along a very bumpy and curvy road. I had just eaten dinner, and in the stuffy back of the bus, felt almost immediately nauseated. I kept it together, but was hit with intense stomach cramps next. I stumbled up the aisle for a Dramamine to see if that would help my carsickness. Instead, I just felt worse. My face went white as a sheet. I felt lightheaded and was shaking with internal chills. Nino pulled over and I broke out of the bus, bent over almost double in pain. Suddenly my arms and fingers went numb, tingling all the way up and down. My fingers felt frozen, I couldn’t move them at all.

It was clear that something more serious was afoot. Nino bundled us back in the bus and headed to the closest hospital, about forty minutes away. He helpfully suggested he had a relative of some sort that worked there and he would make sure I got the best of care. Upon arriving, we noticed some rather apathetic hospital staff just smoking (everyone smokes) and wandering down empty hallways. Nino began to advocate that someone see me, and quickly. He spoke to multiple staff about the symptoms I was having, all of whom seemed distinctly unconcerned. But Nino would not give up. Eventually, we were directed to another corridor of the hospital, having been told this section was the wrong one. There was no one anywhere, and the lights were off. Creepy.

Within minutes, a nurse sauntered by and Nino began to speak up for me again. The nurse called a doctor, who turned on the light and began to inquire about my birthdate in Bosnian. When Sladjana translated my answer, he trotted into the room, gesturing for me to follow, then turned and said clearly, “Hello, how are you?” Upon hearing he spoke English, I almost cried for joy. What a relief.

The doctor asked about my symptoms and got a verbal medical history. No documents, no piles of paperwork. Then he declared what we had suspected – dehydration. The most skilled nurse I’ve ever seen popped two needles in, one for a blood draw and another for my IV. She somehow found my veins with ease and it was as quick and painless as needles can be. I could only wish she spoke English to somehow convey my gratitude that she didn’t stab me one thousand times.

The doctor explained that while the IV would drip for fifty minutes, they would test my blood to be sure all else was fine. Just as promised, fifty minutes later (I know, shocking) he came back in, announced that my blood was just fine, only a bit low in potassium. Then he set down the paper and said, “But that’s just the results. The patient is not the paperwork. So how are you actually feeling?” I could have cried for joy.

I did feel much better, and said so, all while wishing that doctors in the U.S. were more like this. He then told Sladjana in Bosnian that since my bloodwork had all come back just fine, there was no need to pay and we were free to go. For the record, I must note that Nino’s relative who worked at the hospital never showed his/her face and that was not the reason for my pro bono visit. In addition, Ann, who has taken people to hospitals in Bosnia for a dehydration IV before, told me that never have any of those visits been free. So my free visit was not the “usual” thing. He was just a kind doctor who chose not to charge me for his time and effort, although he certainly could have. On the way out, he wished me well and gave me a hug. Then we continued on our way.

Nino, the doctor, and the nurse have all shown me a different side of this country. I left feeling humbled and thankful for this experience – certainly it was the most positive doctor’s visit I have ever had, and it happened here in Bosnia. Suffice it to say, I’m beginning to see the varying shades of grey… there is much more than sadness to discover.

First Reflections

When I first heard about the Bosnia class through GSSW, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be honest, I thought Bosnia was in Africa (as did many of my friends!) and I had never even heard of a genocide here. Beginning to read about the war and genocide as I started studying in preparation for this trip was like opening a box of horrors. Mostly, my shock stemmed from the fact that I had never heard of a genocide happening in a European country since WWII, and certainly not in my lifetime (hey, I was one!).

It’s been a whirlwind of a trip from the start. Leaving a day earlier than I had anticipated and getting stuck for seven hours in the Vienna airport was just the beginning of a true adventure. We’ve been on the move ever since we came, and our leisurely breaks for lunch and dinner have been a blessed respite for my weary feet (and heart). It’s a busy itinerary, but I love that our fearless leader has a full schedule prepared for us. I came here to learn, after all!

Bosnia is beautiful. Red-roofed houses are piled on every hillside and the air is hot, reminding me of Haiti. The food reminds me of France, with lots of bread and cheese and little marketplace vendors everywhere. The streets are a bit like London – pedestrians walk wherever and whenever regardless of the traffic signals (what traffic signals?) and the cars just GO. Crossing the street is taking your life into your hands. You gotta commit and just hustle. The gondola ride and foliage made me think I was back in the mountains of Colorado, with furs and pines right alongside deciduous trees. All the different shades of green here harken good ol’ Ireland, as does the city’s famous brewery and frequent corner bars. And yet, despite similarities to other places I’ve traveled, Bosnia strikes me as very different.

I can’t even quite put my figure on why. All I can really say on day two is that after the sun is down and my gelato cone is polished off, I go back to my room and feel like a weight is on my chest. There’s something heavy, and it isn’t the humidity level. We were told this trip was like a pendulum or a boomerang of emotions, from one extreme to the next. But so far, I mostly feel sad.

Today we learned about Bosnia’s complex history and government. While I’m sure it would take years to get any solid grasp of exactly what happened here, I left with the impression that Bosnia is between a rock and a hard place, and always has been. Everything, from the very system of government – five presidents, one Federation, one Republic, three nationalities (it’s complicated) – to the schooling of children and available employment, is segregated.

The entire country is kept from moving towards a peaceful and powerful reunification due to the ongoing commitment to let non-existent differences divide them. They practice different “religions,” but mostly don’t seem to know what they’re practicing or why, apart from it being an ancestral tradition. They speak different languages in theory, but in practice there are three identical sentences on every cigarette box warning that smoking kills (and everyone smokes). In external physical characteristics, Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats all look similar. So why do they fight? It’s hard to explain, because it’s hard to understand. At least for me.

Yet, there is plenty of good here – good food, good lemon beer (a new favorite), good colleagues to explore with, good air conditioning, good attitudes, good conversations, good water, and good architecture. Just today, I felt a spring of hope for this country that came, most unexpectedly, from a documentary about a rock concert that helped Sarajevo youth survive the three-year siege of their city. Having just completed an entire class on risk and resiliency, I’m struck by how music and the arts are crucial protective factors, especially in times of crisis and trauma. Not even a concert, or your favorite soundtrack, can be taken for granted.

My eyes are open, my heart is waiting, and I look forward to discovering more of the good here.