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

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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.”