Souvenirs

I started writing this on a dreary, rainy day in Žabljak, Montenegro, a small town that is surrounded by landscapes that feel like they must have inspired Tolkien himself. It’s the kind of physical beauty that reminds me that there is magic in this world. Intermittent peaks jut from the earth, creating towering canyon walls that hold the setting sun like a spirit. Sheep and cattle herders guide their flock, bathed in a peach lantern luminescence, to houses that stand as pointed, abrupt, and lonely as the peaks themselves.

But today, the fog is thick and it’s difficult to see 100 feet out the window. Surely there is magic in this too, but at the moment it carries a substantial weight, a perfect alignment of the physical world and the emotional one following our two weeks in Bosnia. In this setting, time moves in an irregular way, and I can’t help but think that perhaps this warp exists permanently in Bosnia. There is no shortage of cliché to describe time and its impossibly fast — but often just as slow — passing, but there is something about our stay in that enigmatic country that muddies perception. It was a fog, a blur, a blink of an eye, a plunge (can we really be done? Can it really be over?). No matter what I want to call it, it is steeped in meaning and feeling that is visceral. Everywhere I look, every interaction I have, every person I see somehow reminds me of my time spent in Bosnia. It grips my ribcage. It is in my footsteps and it is in my shadow.

Speaking in these abstractions may feel dramatic, but it also feels necessary because finding the proper words to describe such an overwhelming experience really is impossible. Perhaps more important than finding the right words, however, is finding the right action in response to those emotions.

Because I am traveling for a number of days following our class in Bosnia, I was able to stay to listen to Ann give a presentation at the University of Sarajevo’s Economics Faculty. Her talk covered the connections between nationalism here in the Balkans and the rise of nationalism under our current administration in the United States, and it was a sobering one. While anyone who has been paying attention to the social and political climate in the United States can clearly see the rise of the vitriolic “us vs. them” mentality, the “othering,” the America first ideology, what might be more difficult to identify is the consequences of these changes — although, really, that’s pretty hard to miss, too. As Ann highlighted, there are currently 954 hate groups in the United States, and the FBI recently released statistics charting an increase in hate crimes corresponding to Trump’s rise to political prominence. Ann tactfully and concisely charted the rhetoric Trump used and continues espouse, highlighting the danger of labeling, of referring to a group of people as animals — a danger that is all-too-familiar for Bosnians — and how these same techniques have been used in every genocide.

In this context, the recent spate of Supreme Court rulings are as alarming as they are discouraging, with the decision to uphold the third iteration of the Muslim Ban particularly devastating. The legality of the president’s authority aside, the underlying racism and prejudice are terrifying and demand action. We already know what happens when we go down this road, and despite our cries of “Never again!” genocide is happening now, in Myanmar, in Yemen, in south Sudan, in Iraq and Syria.

It can happen anywhere. This was a refrain of the survivors we met in Bosnia and it must be taken to heart, maybe the most important souvenir I can bring home. 

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What Clings to Us

The sun is setting slowly on the Potočari memorial, casting its golden light onto the endless rows of white pillars, markers for the more than 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica genocide. If you listen, you can hear the birds beginning to sing their lullabies, beckoning the evening to bed. The laughter of children visiting the memorial with their families cascades between columns. It is almost beautiful, in its own right.

The names on the marble slabs read endless. Only the person’s birth year is given: 1920, 1923, 1975, 1944, and so on; all were murdered in one week in July of 1995. The youngest killed was 13 years old, the oldest, 77.

We have been graciously brought here by Hasan Hasanović, a survivor of the genocide at Srebrenica who works at the memorial. He tells us his story, the details of living in what was at the time the world’s largest concentration camp, surviving intolerable winters and brutally hot summers without the most basic needs. He watched over 70 children playing soccer torn to pieces by a mortar; he survived simply because he was waiting to play the next game. During the genocide of Srebrenica, his father and his twin brother were killed. Hasan walked for six days and six nights to free territory.

Hasan and Ann introduce us to other survivors. We sit first with Nura Mustafić, one of the few women who fled Srebrenica through the woods on what would later be known as the Death March, the same that brought Hasan to safety. She left with her husband, sons, and hundreds of other men and boys. Her sons were wounded on the way, and she tells us of tending their injuries, of surrendering to the Serb forces, of being forcibly separated from her sons for what would be the final time. She apologizes for her tears.

Next, we sit with Nedžad Avdić, one of just ten survivors from the five primary execution sites where the 8,000 men and boys were murdered; his was the Petkovci School site, where today, elementary school children learn addition, subtraction, and history — but not the history of the Srebrenica genocide. 

He recounts in detail the process of being rounded up into trucks, nearly suffocating in the hot July sun, of being refused water, of being transported to the school where hundreds would ultimately die. He describes walking through congealed blood in bare feet, his hands bound behind his back, ordered to stand in front of a truck. He remembers thinking his mother would never know where he died. He apologizes for taking so much of our time.

In such incomprehensible situations, what details do we choose to share, what specifics become important? What memories do we cling to, or cling to us? “My sons were beautiful children, they were good students, nice to everyone,” Nura tells us.

“I used to love this river, but now I hate it because there are dead bodies under it,” Hasan says of the Drina River, the natural border between Serbia and Bosnia, as we drive to Srebrenica. It is slow moving, expansive, quietly beautiful. It is poisoned.

What is there to say? When the ugliest of atrocities are committed against humanity — when all that makes us human is lost — words become wholly inadequate. As an outsider, this is especially true. These experiences are beyond my comprehension, and they are not my stories. But they are stories that need to be told. Ann asks Nura and Saliha what they would like us to do, how we can help.

“Go home and tell everyone what happened here,” they tell us, “so that it may never happen again. To anyone.”

And in this answer is perhaps one of the most profound and moving pieces of all this horrible, nasty mess: for Nura and Saliha, for Hassan and Nedžad, it seems there is no hatred or desire for revenge. There is pain — deep, inconsolable, unimaginable — there is anger, a desire for justice, of course, and there is so much more that I cannot begin to understand. But above all, there is a wish for recognition, a burning insistence that this never happen again, anywhere, to anyone. This is worth clinging to.

Heart and Hearth

It does not take long once we leave Sarajevo on our way to the coastal town of Neum via Mostar to become completely lost in the country’s natural beauty. Driving along the winding road that climbs and falls along the contours carved by the Neretva River, we are treated to fleeting but stunning glimpses of slot canyons, steep cliffs, and daily life in small mountain villages. The river itself is a deep turquoise vein that demands attention. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, even outside the city of Sarajevo, history is built, sometimes violently, into the landscape. Our wonderful and generous bus driver, Nino, helped give us a brief introduction to the bridge in Jablanica, a critical connector during WWII that was destroyed in the Battle of Neretva. Today, the bridge is toppled, standing like a giant ladder in the Neretva, but according to Nino, hundreds of wounded Partisan soldiers were able to escape over this bridge thanks to some brilliant maneuvering by Tito; it is one of his most celebrated war-time accomplishments.

Unfortunately, there is no contemporary Tito to unify Bosnia, and as Nino proudly recounts the benevolent dictator’s accomplishments, I wonder how Nino conceptualizes the history of the country’s most recent war. Nino is originally from Mostar, a Mediterranean resort town that is most well known for its 16th-century Ottoman bridge called Stari Most (hence the name, Mostar). While the Bosnian War impacted the entire country, Mostar felt its effects in uniquely brutal ways, and the bridge was a targeted casualty. I think its destruction was very likely as symbolic a decision as it was tactical, a demolition of what had been an historical piece of pride in Yugoslavia (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less), and while all war is horrible, it seems to me that there is no way to rationalize the Bosnian War using pride or heroic figures. Even the reconstruction of Stari Most did little to unify or facilitate reconciliation — the city is one of the most staunchly divided in the country.

You may not feel this tension as you stand on Stari Most watching men making slow, graceful dives into the turquoise river below, a river of tourists breaking and eddying around you on the bridge itself. There is excitement and curiosity in the air, just as there is at many major tourist attractions, and it spills over into the surrounding old market with stalls selling everything from traditional tea sets to tablecloths.

But one cannot reach this space without first passing the war-torn remnants of buildings crumbling along the road, and even the history of the war has become a part of the attraction; crafts made from bullet casings are as common as the tea sets for sale. Churches and mosques are neighbors, often playing host to dozens of tourists at a time.

We take a significant step away from all these tourists when, two days later, we walk into the house of Ann’s dear friend, Salija, following a stunning (if drizzly) hike to Lukomir. Roughly 20 of us crowd into a small living room/kitchen/possibly bedroom, greeted with warmth of hearth and heart, cookies, coffee, and a homemade lunch — all on Salija’s birthday. The generosity of spirit here is palpable, the connection real, and the setting overwhelming. Yet again, Bosnia seems a living contradiction. It is as if its past and present are in an elaborate dance, each taking turns playing lead, blurring into a single spin that is simultaneously tragic and beautiful.

Can You See?

Some things are worth reiterating. Can you see? This oft-repeated question from our tour guide Jadranka was, it seems to me, filled with a certain weight and a meaning that does more than simply draw our attention to the stunning scene that is Sarajevo. Of course, there is much to see in this city — as much hidden as visible — but some things are impossible to miss. Five minutes outside the airport, Jadranka steered our attention to the pock marked buildings that were once a part of the Olympic village, 23-year-old scars from bullets and mortars dotting the walls and offering a poignant welcome to this beautifully city.

Can you see?

For me, it then became impossible not to search the buildings for war damage; the reminders are everywhere, whether in the bullet holes or vast rows of white memorial pillars. It is omnipresent. Indeed, it seems it is built into the city’s history. Can you see? Just there, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were assassinated — the spark of World War I. An inevitable war, they say. Or here, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, with headstones carved in the 1700s that provided cover for snipers in the 1990s. And here. There is the library, burned during the siege along with its 2 million books. The ash rained pages.

All of these landmarks are visible at multiple high points around the city, lookouts offering truly unbelievable views. And it is exactly these views that made the spots so appealing for snipers and mortar launches. We watched footage of tracer rounds launching through the air from such vantage points, but what felt so far away in the photographs and videos are in reality so close. The proximity is profound.

For me, there is suddenly so much more meaning in the bustling market, as full as goods as it is with people, and I suppose it’s easy to get lost in cliche here. Amidst such normalcy in such an amazing city it really is impossible to imagine the siege here, and there is so much to be taken for granted, none of which should. Yet an astronomical unemployment and poverty rate belie this normalcy, and growing nationalistic rhetoric underpin the fragility of a fabricated peace. Still, it seems to me there is much commonality that is ignored. Those rates of unemployment and poverty are felt equally by Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats alike, but as Mr. Amer Osmić noted, the placement of the presidential office is more likely to dominate the political debate.

Such contrasts, both political and physical, make the experience surreal. The city is vibrant, it is alive, but sometimes I find myself imagining the echoes of laughter bouncing of walls the same way bullets must have ricocheted off them. I find myself scanning the faces of the people of Sarajevo, trying to render the unthinkable, to understand the impossible, projecting an emotional experience that I can truly never imagine. 

But what can we really see? What happens when we only look for evidence of an unimaginably horrible war on the facades of buildings and the faces of people? The city and its residents are so much more than a three-year siege, than the war, than trauma; it does no one any good to be pigeonholed. As much as we must never forget the genocide, we must also cherish the daily life that bubbles in Sarajevo because that vibrancy is in all of us.