Final thoughts

This summer was certainly one for the books. I made many friends, both those from the university and those from Bosnia. I read countless articles on varying topics for my internship, and wrote six papers in response to them. I saw many cities and towns around the country and was lucky enough to interact with people at many of them. I experienced the food of the country – which was one of my favorite parts – and how it differed from region to region (I’m looking at you, lamb of Jablanica). I had highs and lows, many of which were shared between my program-mates and created a collective identity having shared those experiences. In short, I learned a great deal this summer, and it’s truly hard to sum up easily.

This is by far the biggest part of the summer in Bosnia aftermath that I have struggled with; I find it difficult to put into words how this summer went. Of course it was positive, but it wasn’t all positive – the discussions of and time spent around genocide sites are not exactly something I found enlightening. The reality of the situation that occurred there in the 1990s and the legacy that continues today is dark, and cannot be excluded from a discussion of my summer. However, I also feel that to focus only on the negative parts of the country is an injustice to what it really was like. Every day was not genocide, was not war, was not sadness. In fact, none of them were. The discussions of genocide were of or by the people who were there, and while of course their stories were troubling, they were not describing life in Bosnia today. Life in Bosnia today, from my interactions, seems to be troubled at times, but is a wonderful thing as well. The country is beautiful, the people are happy – though like any other group, there is internal strife and struggle.

In the same way that I struggle when people ask me “what was it like?”, I’m finding it difficult to put into words here what it was like. While many of my social media posts revolved around seeing the beautiful geography and historical sites of the country, that doesn’t cover it. And as noted above, the problems the country faces do not cover it. While I do not think that anyone expects me to describe two months in a matter of minutes or hours, to even encapsulate one week there in a sensible way is no easy task.

One of the somewhat alarming things that I have experienced since my return is how little people know about Bosnia. Really, I did not know much about it either, before living there for two months. However, it creates a situation where I feel as though my words are extremely important – I have to be somewhat precarious in my articulation of the country, as it may be the only perspective they have of Bosnia. For example, I do not want to focus wholly on the genocide, nor do I want to exclude it – both sides of the country are important in its definition. One of the most difficult questions to answer comes from when people call it a “developing country”, which I have found to be a very common adjective used. It is of course not a developing country, but again I hesitate to normalize the heinous acts of the 1990s and the rebuilding that it continues to work on. It was under attack by all definitions, and these attacks need to be remembered. But where does that leave Bosnia now? I’m not sure. Not developing by any means, but I have found it very difficult to describe, probably stemming from the fact that it was very much a developed nation before the war, and this status has not left it.

I assume that after struggling to explain my summer these people will likely not go and research the country on their own, so I try to do my best – though, as mentioned repeatedly, two months is a long time to try to summarize. Like any country, Bosnia has its ups and downs. Hopefully for the sake of the beautiful country and the amazing people that live there, the downs will fade away and the ups will be what people know, of course, while ensuring that the history of the country is not forgotten.

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Internship

Having touched on my internship in last week’s blog I will expand on my experiences there for this week. My internship was with a security think tank called Atlantic Initiative. This group is hired by a number of groups from around the world to conduct research and analyze information on a variety of topics. This year their projects have ranged from Russian interference in the Balkans to gender violence in international bodies such as the European Union. My assigned tasks have primarily worked with the former of these, having researched Russian involvement in the Republika Srpska, Montenegro, Macedonia, and most recently the interesting relationship between Russia and Turkey. Stepping away from Russia, I have also done some research on the increasing presence of Saudi Arabia in Bosnia and what the Gulf state’s interest here may be. In sum, I have been given a number of research topics each of which relate to Bosnia and Herzegovina either directly or indirectly; each has been of increasing relevance with the upcoming elections in October of this year in BiH. Different from many other research projects I have taken on over the years, this one emphasizes the importance of my sources being much more recent than in more academic contexts, which makes sense considering the rapid development of international relations.

As far as the structure of my internship it was typically as follows. I would meet once a week with my supervisors where we would discuss my work over the previous week and assign a new topic, as well as discuss my personal opinions and theirs as well. The rest of the week I would work from the hostel conducting research and formulating a paper based on my findings. Initially I was unsure what the expectations of my research were, but I essentially aimed to exhaust the content available on the task at hand. While this is ultimately impossible, there is a point where each article I found would begin to be repetitive, at which point I would consider the research stage complete and begin writing my paper. I found this process to work quite well for me and appreciated having freedom on what the papers would look like and how to work on them but was still given however many days to figure it out. Having a hard deadline but flexibility in the working process proved to be a really positive experience for me.

One part of my internship that I really appreciated was that I feel as though I learned at least as much as I was able to provide. Each topic covered was new information to me, and hopefully to Atlantic Initiative as well. While I did not come to Bosnia expecting to become an expert on Russian relations in the region (and I certainly am far from an expert), I feel as though I was able to go on a self-guided journey through the history and modern state of foreign affairs here in the Balkans and benefitted greatly from this. Every source I found provided new information that I will take away and bring back to my studies and potentially a future career. There was nothing repetitive about my internship and I really appreciated that as well; I’ve had internships before where each day was monotonous and provided little for me other than a bullet point on a resume and perhaps a free lunch once in a while. At Atlantic Initiative I felt like part of the team and appreciated that I was trusted with tasks that required a high degree of focus and dedication, and not once did I feel as though I was any less than an equal and therefore prescribed “easy” tasks. Ultimately, this was by far the most beneficial internship I have had, and I am excited to see how the skills and knowledge learned this summer translate to the second year of my master’s program and beyond.

Experiential learning

For this week’s blog post I decided to cover the opportunities that this trip has afforded to me. While I have always been hesitant to enroll in study abroad programs – they’re expensive, and often seem to be simply an opportunity for students to party their way around Europe for a few months at a high cost – I thought that this experience in Bosnia would not mimic this. As I predicted, it did not. Of course, all study abroad programs are not like this, but I wanted to be sure that this program was worth the high cost of travelling abroad and the program expenses that accompany it. For a number of reasons, it was very much worth it.

There are several experiences here that I am especially happy with. First of all, the program did not contain the educational component that study abroad programs have and prioritized both the internship and cultural experiences. Not only has this program checked the internship box on my degree requirement but has provided me with a valuable set of skills and a series of papers that I am proud of. Too many times I have heard of people either not appreciating their internship as it was not a good fit for them or having had a typical intern experience where it revolves around filing papers, responding to e-mails, and even sometimes the somewhat mythical task of getting coffee for superiors. In my time here as an intern, my experience could not be more unlike those noted above. I felt like part of the team, and each task I was given seemed like it carried actual weight, and my research findings were read and appreciated by the higher-ups at the thinktank. In addition, I learned from everything that I did. Each project was new to me and while I certainly am not an expert on any of the topics (read: Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other international players), I am much better versed on topics that I would not have so much as considered researching outside of the context provided by my internship. It was a perfect fit for me and continues to provide learning opportunities each day – most importantly, I am proud that I was able to assist my team in various realms of research.

Second, regarding the cultural aspect of this program, I am grateful that I was given a number of opportunities of immersion into the Bosnian culture. More importantly than the bobsled track, the gondola ride, the exploration of old town and other neighborhoods in Sarajevo and elsewhere, we were given the opportunity to meet so many people and hear their experiences. While these experiences have been elaborated on in earlier posts, more broadly it was amazing to meet these people that a typical tourist would not have any idea about. We were truly graced with their presence, and it was these experiences that each of us will remember. It is by far one of the most valuable components that this program has provided.

Thirdly, I appreciate that this program has given me the opportunity to discover Bosnia, and neighboring (and less neighboring) countries on my own. It has allowed each of us to choose our own adventure and I believe that this component of the program is not the case in every international program offered through higher education. Combined with the fact that my internship allowed me to work during the hours of my choosing, I was able to explore new parts of the country almost every day. Bringing a bike here gave me a degree of mobility that many others to not have. I’ve seen beautiful roads, stunning overlooks, and more livestock on the road than I was prepared for. I’ve gained more elevation in my time here than I ever have in the same amount of time elsewhere in the country. And with that, I feel as though I know the land here. I appreciate the people, the animals, the views, the roads, and each café where I was able to re-energize four hours into a ride (I’ve never been offered a plum from a tree out back of a restaurant until yesterday, that was pretty cool). I’ve experienced the food both in Sarajevo and as far as Bihac and Olovo, and just about everywhere in between – not the mention the seafood of the Croatian coast or the coffee of gas stations everywhere, ranging from delicious to really quite bad. As an aside, I love gas station convenience stores – and I’ve enjoyed sampling the wares of the best that Bosnia has to offer. Cycling as gifted me the opportunity to befriend a number of people in the country, many of whom I intend to stay in touch with. The same can be said for those at my internship – our relationship has grown beyond security research and we have bonded over lunch and coffee. It’s truly been amazing to see a region and meet its people; especially considering that the Balkans are a region that I never had any intention of visiting. I am so glad that I was able to have this experience, with my University of Denver cohort, with friends made since arrival, and on my own.

 

Maraton

When I took this picture I was quite excited about all that it contains. Of course, the content is not entirely positive – the background shows the coffins of the 35 people buried this July. However, I feel that it captures our experiences – those of us who rode from Bihac to Srebrenica – but also the experiences of the people who we were there to honor. Not only those arriving in coffins, but those watching as their friends or family are finally laid to rest. This photo was taken immediately following our arrival to Potocari, and while I was completely exhausted I recognized what was happening in the background; how our bikes somewhat organically ended up arranged precariously but in an orderly fashion along the wall of the cemetery, and how the setting sun seemed to tie together the events of the preceding three days together. Of course, I had to take a photo.

The first three bikes pictures are those of Thierry, myself, and Tamas – the three of us rode together the entire way, and I was glad that I was able to form a bond with each of them. After all, spending 300 miles on a bike offers a lot of room for conversation and a way to get to know each other. Spending 107 of those miles in the pouring rain strips away almost everything pleasant from the ride – but when it’s done, you have a mutual experience to reflect upon. We arrived together to the cemetery, before sunset, which is apparently unusual, but we were fortunate that it happened as we were able to see the arrival of the remains. The camaraderie experienced during the ride, not only between the three of us but with their friends from Jablanica, as well  as the other 280 or so participants shows that while disaster primarily takes, it also provides an opportunity to collaborate and to give.

What is most significant about this photo is that it shows how something as enjoyable as cycling can be combined with the death and hardship that many of the people of Bosnia either faced or continue to face. This further highlights the duality that is experienced in the lives of many Bosnians; trying not to move on (moving on allows a reoccurrence), but to enjoy the life they have now, while continuing to remember those lost and in many cases to continue fighting for justice.

Bosnia is very much a recovering state, but at the same time it has so much to offer that is enjoyable. Between the war museums and monuments to genocide, there are rolling country roads, steep alpine (of the Dinaric Alps range) climbs, gravel roads that lead to nowhere but are exactly what one is looking for – and that is only from the perspective of a cyclist. There is the upcoming film festival, thousands of restaurants offering fantastic meals; both traditional Bosnian dishes and local variations on foreign meals alike, a rich culture of art and performance, and so much more. That is what I think this picture encapsulates; there is so much enjoyment to be had here, but at the same time, there is still a legacy of destruction that must be remembered.

Finally, the number 14 indicated on the front bicycle’s plate shows that this was the 14th time this cross county marathon has happened. This is the 14th time that people have come together to remember those lost during the genocide. The first time it was one person (and possibly a few friends of his), and completely unintentionally, this became a nationally-recognized event. Suddenly the man who once rode from Bihac to Srebrenica was in charge of orchestrating a way to navigate hundreds of people along country roads and highways alike, and it was clear from the way he communicated with us and the messages that he gave us that it was not a chore or a duty, but was something he truly loved being able to do. So here, 14 years later, after some 280 people crossed the country to remember those lost, with federally-provided police escorts, small towns offering lunch and a place to rest, hundreds or thousands of cheering people along the roads, we arrived just in time to see those 35 people finally laid to rest. In the 15th year, the same dichotomy of the beauty of the country and the cause we rode for will be experienced by more people than ever before.

 

Genocide Revisited

This weekend was spent listening to a number of people who were and are prominent figures within the community of victims of the Bosnian War and more specifically of the Srebrenica Genocide of 1995. Each of the people who spoke to us, not at all surprisingly, struggled to tell us all of the experiences that they were forced to have. However, each was eager to tell us of their experiences to be heeded as a warning and with one consistent message; do not let it be forgotten. Never forget seems to be a common slogan of all sorts of disasters, both natural and manmade, and after hearing each of these people speak it becomes obvious why this is their wish. Forgetting what has happened may lead to it happening again, which is of course an extremely dangerous risk.

Initially it almost felt wrong to expect these people to talk about seeing their families for the last time, or in some cases, seeing them killed directly. Especially heart-wrenching was the story of escaping a mass execution, an experience which most people would likely wish they had not survived. I was nervous that presenting these experiences to us was something that they did not want to do, but did so only begrudgingly when asked. Of course, this was not the case. While the stories were tough to tell, they all wanted to tell them; we learned that some did not speak for many years, but once they started to talk about their experiences, they wanted nothing more than to spread their messages of what happened, and that was extremely powerful. Interestingly, I am quite sure that the offenders in the genocide wish that they did not talk of their experiences, which likely inspires them to do so even more.

One emotion that I did not anticipate coming from these survivors was one of gratitude. I still believe that we, as listeners, were the only ones who have anything to be grateful for. Each of our speakers granted us a significant gift by speaking to us about unbearably difficult topics, and to hear them thank us, repeatedly, for listening was both surprising and unnecessary. Of course, I have not been in a situation akin to theirs, so I do not know how I would feel in this situation. As the recipient of their stories I would never expect a thank you, and simultaneously feel as though thanking them was not enough considering how much they gave us.

Apart from the speakers, the museum and experience that Hasan gave us there was something to be truly grateful for. I learned a considerable amount from the exhibits, particularly concerning the failed efforts of the UN to control the situation, but even more from Hasan’s two presentations; the first of which contained his personal experience in detail, and the second which was more broad, but expanded upon the genocide as a whole. The personal experience was captivating, which seems to be the incorrect term to describe his actual story of survival. His story was so horrific that it seems almost unreal, as though written as the storyline for a post-apocalyptic horror film. With that, thank you Hasan, for sharing your experiences with us – your message will certainly not be forgotten in my mind, and I will not hesitate to share your story with any and all others.

On a brighter note, I had my first experience with the so called Bosnian dark humor that I was told about. On the car ride Nedžad refused to sit anywhere other than the third row of the van while we attempted to persuade him to move up. When in the car it was quite hot, and someone asked if he had air flow back there. At this point he said something along the lines of “Don’t worry, I’m not being taken to be killed again, so I’m fine back here” – it was laugh-out-loud hilarious, but also somewhat startling. I do appreciate that he can make a joke like this when the basis for it was obviously not funny at all.

 

New Ideas and Affirmations

This past week was a mix of all sorts of new experiences ranging from visiting a war crimes court to my first time crossing an international border by car; of course, the latter was decidedly more upbeat. To start with the war crimes court, we initially visited the UN ICTY Outreach Program, where the international criminal court is able to extend its breadth from Holland to Sarajevo. Here we received a presentation on the functioning of the ICTY and the outreach program, and it truly opened my eyes to the atrocities that were committed during the war. While it is hard to imagine that mass murder in the context of genocide is not as bad as it got, it was explained to us that many of the crimes were – in my opinion – worse than murder. The offenders sometimes capitalized on the physical and mental weakness of the prisoners for the purpose of shaming them in various ways, which is decidedly a more severe method of torture than death. It was truly shocking when we were given concrete examples of some of the crimes committed, and I found myself struggling to comprehend how people can commit such crimes.

The following presentation at the war crimes court was also quite interesting as it focused not on the criminals but on the victims. Specifically we were shown how psychologists at the court are responsible for ensuring that the victims who testify are cared for, as needless to say much of what they speak about is extremely emotional. Considering that one typically only hears about the defendants in a case and their punishments, it was interesting to hear the other side of the story.

On a brighter note, several of us went to Dubrovnik, Croatia to watch and celebrate the World Cup in one of the participating countries. While I am a soccer (football) fan only once every four years, I am consistently a fan of international sports as a whole, and hope to pursue a career where I can combine this interest with my learned knowledge in the security realm. I feel that sports are something that bring people together like nothing else in the world, and I was incredibly excited to get to experience this huge event in Croatia. While Croatia did not beat France, I was both surprised and impressed that the attitude of the thousands of fans in the streets of the Old City of Dubrovnik was nothing but positive. While of course people were sad, at the end of the game there was widespread clapping for France, and a much louder round of applause as the Croatian players were shown on screen. The people of Croatia were so enthused that they had made it that far, and it was truly inspiring to see this much positivity in a scenario where I imaged people would respond with negative energy. This experience built upon my philosophy that sports bring society together and do not divide it, and I’m so glad that I got to experience that for myself.

Beyond this experience I was able to explore yet another country by bike, spending two hot summer afternoons cycling up and down the coast of Croatia while more rational people were relaxing on the beach. I did make sure to get in some beach time as well, but it was not my priority. It would be incomplete to wrap up this blog post without mentioning the eleven hours we spent in the car; not only was it a great opportunity to get to know a couple of the others here, but also a great way to work on my patience while sitting in the border patrol line for 2.5 hours. We got to experience many of the winding mountain roads that Bosnia has to offer that we may not have seen otherwise, as well as several stunning lakes and Dolomite-looking grey rocky mountains protruding well beyond the tree-line. Each of the small towns we passed through each gave us something, whether that was ice cream or human interaction. In short, this week was one for the books, whether that was the beauty of Bosnia, the coast of Croatia, or the confirmation of the rationale behind my fascination of international sports.

Second Impressions

This week, having been given complete freedom on what to write about, I think it is appropriate to simply talk about the primary component of my week; cycling from Bihac to Srebrenica in remembrance of the genocide, and to remind people of the perils of nationalism and hatred. While many of my companions here in Bosnia took on the (arguable, more) challenging-60 mile hike to the memorial, I was invited to cover 300 miles from the northwest edge of Bosnia on the Croatian border town of Bihac, through Jajce, back to Sarajevo, and on to Srebrenica. Being an avid cyclist, I was excited to do so. Three days were spent on the bike, with roughly eight hours of moving time per day as well as four or five hours spent relaxing, recovering, eating, and learning between portions of the ride. While initially the slow pace of the ride was difficult, I had to remind myself that times had been much, much, worse for the people who we were memorializing, and that it is nothing short of trivial to complain about the ride being too slow.

Beyond the beauty of the country and to experience the winding and “bumpy” roads of Bosnia, I was able to interact and identify with many Bosnians (and a few from other countries, including a handful from Texas) both by verbal communication and when no language was mutual, smiles and handshakes. The most prominent figure for me on the ride was the orchestrator of our three-person group (and two who drove the van and took care of us at each stop, whose importance cannot be overstated), Thierry. Thierry moved to Bosnia in 1992 to assist the many Bosnians who were in need of assistance, and that he did. Thierry became so attached to the people, and from my understanding felt as though he needed to stay here longer than he initially intended to. 26 years later he is still here and now runs Green Visions, and eco-tourism company that focuses on promoting travel to Bosnia and exploration of the many hiking and biking opportunities that it offers. His friend, and now mine, Tamas joined us from Hungary and apart from being a wonderful person to ride with, was also able to experience confusion with me as neither of us spoke or understood more than a hint of Bosnian. Each time someone approached us and said something, we would typically make some sort of noise, smile, and hope that that was sufficient for them to move on – if it wasn’t, one of us would say “English” and we’d all have a good laugh. Sead and Haris, our support team, truly highlighted everything that is good in the world, and the generosity of the Bosnian people. The effort they went to to ensure that everything was perfect, all the time, was noted, and wholly appreciated – especially on Monday when we spent 106 miles in the pouring rain.

While I recognized the intention of the ride across the country from the beginning, I did not anticipate the warm welcome that we received virtually everywhere we went. Whether it was people standing from their balconies clapping, families cheering from the sidewalks, or women crying – knowing that we were there for them in recognition of the war where they likely lost their husbands or sons, we were always welcome. Midway through each day all three hundred of us plus support persons would be welcomed into a town to enjoy lunch prepared for and paid for by the townspeople. This ride was almost entirely unfunded, yet it felt like a ride one would pay hundreds of dollars for in the United States. The people who would line up near the edge of town to applaud us in was incredibly special, and knowing all that many of them went through resonated quite loudly. One woman who I recall standing just after children handed out water and threw flowers on us as we rode past was standing on her porch, gesturing with her hands as if she was giving us her heart, and bawling. This moment made me tear up completely, as it was so emotional and frankly heart-wrenching to imagine the pain she went and continues to go through, and seeing how much it meant to her that we did this ride for people like her. This woman, some 250 miles into the ride, was the most dramatic example of when it hit me that this ride means so much to so many people, and that I was honored to be able to participate. Solidarity in healing I found is extremely important, and I am so, so glad that I was able to show some degree of solidarity to all of these people from Bihac to Srebrenica.

marathon start

First impressions

After arriving with slightly less luggage than I had brought to the airport it became quickly apparent that language incompatibility may be an issue – while the luggage was soon found and returned quicker than I have had happen in the States, the inquiry about its location and the resulting response were not particularly confidence-inspiring. The first night was quiet, with most of us exhausted from travel and so on. The next day was the first of many with gray skies and rain, but this was not a deterrent that kept us from exploring the city as planned. The old city was immediately quite beautiful and it wasn’t until I glanced up from the awnings and windows that I noticed the scars from shelling and machine gun fire that still plague nearly every wall. It is apparent that life goes on and the conflict is not likely at the forefront of the minds of locals, however to foreigners such as myself, it is all but impossible to ignore what has happened when the architecture remains a constant reminder. I think that the gloomy weather experienced the first several days in the city inspired a greater degree of recognition of these scars, as the sunny skies and warm air that followed seems to have dissolved the constant sadness that initially seemed inescapable.

Living with a group as a whole has provided insight into the situation greater than I would have been able to experience individually, as each member of the program has their own experiences, insights, and knowledge to share about the past and present state of Bosnia. I’m sure these varied perspectives are only likely to broaden as we spend more time together; something that I am looking forward to.

Thursday we began our internships, some more brief than others. Personally, my experience as Atlantic Initiative (for the thirty minutes I was there) was exciting and slightly overwhelming, though I also experienced the laid-back nature of the people of the Balkans, even in the context of an important security analysis firm. The first task assigned will certainly test my research skills, and after a couple days of research I find myself becoming increasingly knowledgeable on the region, Russia, Serbia, various members of the government, and the issues that locals are likely quite familiar with but as an American I had little-to-no knowledge of. I think that it’s a really cool scenario to be placed in as my assignment is two-pronged; firstly, I am able to assist in security research which may have significant influence in meaningful work (a first for me), and secondly, I am able to broaden my knowledge base. In short, I am both providing, as well as gaining a lot of information for and from Atlantic Initiative. My first impressions of the think tank are extremely positive, and I hope that I am able to provide for them something equivalent in value to what they are providing for me.

Outside of the requirements and the program as a whole I have had the opportunity to explore the mountains and neighborhoods surrounding Sarajevo by bike. Nearly every direction I go, the blue and yellow national flags of Bosnia become quickly replaced by the red, white, and blue flags representative of the Serbian population. While the people look the same and speak (essentially) the same language, it is clear that their sense of identity falls with their Serbian heritage rather than BiH as a whole. To be able to experience the geography by bicycle is unlike by car and I think that it is the best way to experience an unfamiliar area. The steepness of the roads here is unlike anything I’ve experienced in America, and that says a lot, coming from Colorado. It made it immediately obvious that the roads were note designed for bicycles, or anyone who wishes to get anywhere quickly, but also is a reminder of the difficulty of the mountains that Bosnians had to pass by one means or another during the war. To quote Ernest Hemingway, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them…. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motorcar only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”