Bosnia’s Continuing Education

How does one have final reflections on an experience that will continue to impact you for the rest of your life? Now that I have been home for a few days, I don’t think that you can.  The experience I had and relationships that I made while there will continue to change and grow with me even now that I am home.  There is absolutely no part of my time in Bosnia this summer that will not be with me forever.  The country is truly incredible and I already miss so many things about it.  The people, the landscape, the history which carries both tragedy and strength and the future of the place.  Being fortunate enough to be welcomed into a culture that is so warm and inviting.  It isn’t just something that one experiences.  It is something that changes you.  Something that makes you look at life and the things that were once so normal a little bit, or a lot, differently.  What I once took for granted or failed to notice about the world that I live in I now see a little bit clearer because of my time in Bosnia.  Because I think it is impossible to have final reflections on something that continues to impact you for life, for me it seems more relevant to reflect on one of the lessons about the world and/or myself that Bosnia has given me.

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Bosnia and the war that continues to have a deep impact on the people is a complex topic that cannot be understood by simply reading a few books or watching a documentary.  What I thought I knew about the place, the people and the conflict prior to going pales in comparison to what you learn from actually being there.  Talking to the people that the books have boiled down to facts and figures and names on a page.  Standing in the places that were once only spots on a map where tragedies occurred.  Being able to relate those places to people that you know now.  That is true understanding.  When watching the short film at the Srebrenica memorial, most of which was comprised of clips from documentaries that we had watched before coming the reaction that I had to the film and the meaning that it had for me was so completely different from watching it at home.  Because I was standing in that place.  I had now seen what before was only an image on my laptop screen.  I had met and talked with people who were the nameless victims in the films.  It was the same video clips but the impact and level of understanding completely changed.  I thought I knew about the war and its effects beforehand based on watching these videos at home.  I knew nothing.  Experiencing the country, the people and the places made that clear.  Even now that I have gone and done those things, this experience has shown me that you never really know as much as you think you do.  There is always a deeper level of understanding to be had.  More complexity to be uncovered.  Reading the books, watching the documentaries, looking at pictures were all just the tip of the iceberg.  Being there and doing what we did gave us a little more depth, but there is still more to be uncovered and grappled with.  Understanding this about any topic or event is something that will make me strive for deeper and better understandings of everything.  And it will also serve as a reminder that you never know as much as you think you do. If one is mindful of this it allows you the possibility to contemplate the complexities and the many different ways that Bosnia and the war, or conflicts in other parts of the world actually exist. By realizing that you never know or fully understand anything it humbles you and leaves you open to so many more possibilities and ways of helping.

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I could write a hundred pages (don’t worry, I won’t) and not even come close to talking about all of the ways in which Bosnia and its people have impacted me.  It would not even scratch the surface.  It has given me the understanding I talk about above.  It has given me the gift of making truly amazing friendships that I will have and cherish forever.  It has shown me just how privileged a life I lead and made me redefine what privilege truly is.  It has taught me how to slow down, find a sense of inner peace and focus on what is important, both for myself and in the world.  Bosnia has clarified for me so many things and given me so many gifts.  It is truly impossible to put them all into words.  It is a place that will be with me forever and one that I will definitely be going back to. 

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A Thousand Pictures, a Thousand Favorites and Not Enough Words for Either

Being able to choose only one picture that is my favorite from the past eight weeks is a completely impossible task.  Every time that I have taken a picture of something or someone here it quickly becomes my favorite picture…until I capture another moment in time or place that is special and worthy of remembering.  The time here has been filled with countless moments like that.  Times and places that I have tried to capture with a picture so that I can be reminded of their beauty, their tragedy, the feelings that they evoke.  Of the people that I have been fortunate enough to share this place and this experience with.  You try and capture these moments with a picture in the hopes that you will be able to convey a small bit of what you have seen and experienced with those who have not.  However, in trying to choose my favorite photograph from our time here, I have come to realize that while sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes two or three thousand words (which I always have…) and an entire picture book are needed.  There is no way to pick just one photograph that I consider my favorite because each of the 1,833 pictures that I have taken (so far) is my favorite for a different reason.  Yes, prepare yourself friends and family, you have 1,833 pictures to look at with about a thousand words per picture…and even that will only convey a small part of my time here. 

 For that reason, the picture that I have chosen to share is not one that stands above the others as my favorite, and is by no means the best picture that I have taken while here. Instead, it is simply one that conveys exactly how I feel about both Sarajevo and BiH.  It not only captures how I feel about this place but why I do as well. 

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Sarajevo has a lot of amazing graffiti peppered on the sides of its buildings amongst bullet holes mortar blasts and the lives of everyday people.  They are all beautiful in their own way and a number of my 1,833 pictures are of this graffiti.  This particular graffiti I saw in an alley not far from the Sebilj in Bašĉaršija.  It’s on the side of an unassuming old building and although there may be graffiti that is brighter or more complex, for me this picture perfectly captures the tone of Sarajevo and its people.  They love their city. They would, and have, fought for their city.  The conviction and pride behind this artwork is why I love this city.  Despite the hardships that this city has seen, it is strong because of its residents and because of their conviction to defend what they love.  Dedication like that sometimes seems hard to find in everyday life so being presented with it on the side of a building in a place whose people have seen so much seems like a moment, a feeling and a piece of art worthy of capturing with a picture. Since spending time here I love this city too.

 

Take A Sip…and a Breath

Finding that one place to settle and feel completely comfortable in a foreign country is not something often done easily.  Due to cultural differences, language barriers and a variety of other things that make one feel out of place when away from home, sometimes finding that one spot in which you feel like you can actually breathe is difficult.  Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.  Instead, you are left constantly feeling a little at odds with your surroundings and even with yourself.  Your brain and your body are always on alert: attempting to avoid cultural faux paus, struggling to communicate the simplest of words, figuring out how to get dinner.  All of them are taxing on both your body and your mind and leave you feeling frustrated and like you just need a break.  A place where you don’t have to consider every little thing you do.  A place to take a breath.

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While is often difficult to find that place to breath when abroad, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon mine early on in the trip.  While wandering with Ann, Jillian and Jon we came across the Franz & Sophie Tea House and stopped in for a cup of tea.  When you walk in you are greeted by the owner whose enthusiasm for the art of tea making is apparent.  He brings you to a wall filled with different teas, most of which he has blended himself, and helps you choose one based on the flavors that you like most.  He brews the tea just so and then gives you a little teapot full of it to sip as you sit.  He is not only enthusiastic about tea but also incredibly kind and friendly.  I immediately fell in love with this place and have spent many days here working remotely for my internship.  It is not only incredible for working remotely on my internship due to the speedy wifi (the presence of which I will never again take for granted!) but, beyond that, it is that one place amongst the cultural chaos that comes with traveling abroad where I can breathe.  It is peaceful. There is no pressure to figure out how to be, what to do or how to pronounce a word.   It doesn’t seem to matter that I barely speak the language and can’t contribute to the local neighborhood gossip.  He welcomes me in and saves me a table every day.  The other regular tea drinkers welcome me and ask about my weekend.  We haltingly talk about politics, the weather and whatever else you talk about when drinking tea.  There is no trying or forcing yourself here.  There is just being. 

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Being able to find that one place where you can just be when away from home is special enough.  But, when that place welcomes you and makes you a part of it, now that is a truly amazing thing.  Two days in a row now the owner has asked if I would watch the shop while he ran home to grab lunch or go to the market.  I feel so incredibly lucky to be considered close enough and trusted enough to watch his store, particularly considering that the most I have to offer a would-be customer is “He’ll be right back” in English which they may or may not speak.  Upon returning he has brought me fruit that he picked with him family over the weekend and thanks for being here to watch things.  Upon telling Ann about this she said that I am just like one of the street dogs here in Sarajevo…they don’t really belong anywhere and have no home but somehow they find a place to settle that cares for them.  I don’t really culturally belong anywhere in this city but Franz & Sophie’s has accepted me and made me a part of the place nonetheless. 

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Private Moments with Amazing People

I could probably write a hundred posts about my time in Srebrenica and the people that I have met never really come close to expressing all that it was and all that it will continue to be.  There are so many different facets to the experience, the emotions, and the levels of understanding that my time there will be something that I contemplate and consider for the rest of my life.  In some ways, there is no putting into words the vastness of what Saliha, Hasan, and the others that shared their stories with us have experienced.  Words also can’t do justice to how lucky I feel to have been able to meet them and get a glimpse into their world.  As lucky as I feel to have been able to do so, in some respects the experience also made me feel slightly like I was intruding on a very private thing with which I could not relate and therefore had no business witnessing.  I had this feeling initially when I went to watch the trucks carrying the caskets pass through Sarajevo on their way to Potocari.  It seemed as though the entire city was there to pay their respects and remember those that were lost. How often does one stand in a crowd on a city street in almost complete silence with everyone around you lost in thoughts and emotions about something that you yourself had no part in?  The pain and the mourning that was happening all around me seemed at once very private and very communal.  And made me feel as though I was eavesdropping on a very personal conversation.  Of course, I too was there to remember and mourn with the people of Sarajevo and BiH and to pay my respects, however modest they may seem to me, to those on the truck.  In thinking about it over the past few weeks, it was not a spectacle that I was witnessing but instead something that I was experiencing with the people of Sarajevo.

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I had this same feeling upon being welcomed into Saliha’s home and hearing her truly courageous story.  She has lived through things that I cannot even begin to understand yet she was opening her home to us.  Cooking for us, letting us into her private experience, and letting us see her pain.  What right did I have to be given such a gift?  As I sat there listening to her story it felt as though anything that I might be able to say would be so incredibly small in the face of her experience.  Although we were there to learn about her and from her, it felt as though we should be doing more for her, not the other way around.  To have her share her story with us, wipe away tears and then ask who needs more coffee was such a surreal moment.  And one that seemed to happen over and over again throughout our trip.  While driving down the road listening to Bosnian music our bus driver almost casually described where he was caught by Serbian soldiers as a young boy.  He waved his hand towards the side of the road, told his story and as we all sat there taking in the profoundness of what he had shared he turned the radio back up and on we went.   For us something that was so profound and touching was for him, just life.  Something that he survived and drives by every day.

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For us the war and what happened at Srebrenica is something to learn about and try to understand on some deeper level, for those who survived it, it is an everyday part of existence.   It is truly remarkable and inspiring to have been able to meet these survivors and share in both their pain and their everyday existence.  In some ways, their capacity to do so highlights the wide range of human potentials.  Learning about the genocide and the terrible things that humans can do to one another is the negative extreme of humanity’s great capacity.  On the other extreme is the great strength, survival, compassion and community that people like Saliha, Hasan and our bus driver have despite having seen the worst of humanity’s potentials.  In sharing their stories and their pain, they have given us the gift being able to better understand both the genocide and their inspiring ability to survive and share.  In thinking about these things it has become clear that rather than being an unwelcome spectator to their pain, we are in fact an invited and welcomed member of their experience.

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Walking with One Foot in the Past and One Foot in the Past

One of the many things that I have found myself thinking about often while here in BiH is the seemingly ever present dichotomy between all that has happened here (and continues to happen in some cases) and the amazing beauty, hospitality and grace of this place and its people. The war, the pain and the political strife are all still a very important and ever present part of this place.  However, so too is the breathtaking beauty and zeal for life that makes this place so special.  Sarajevo is beautiful and when walking its streets one can easily forget about all that has happened here.  You look at the incredibly green hills and appreciate them for their beauty.  But, then you turn a corner and find yourself looking at a building with holes and damage from a mortar blast or gun that was shot from those very hills not so long ago.  It is a sobering realization to be caught between enjoying the beauty of something and recognizing the death and misfortune that having those hills brought to the city.  For Sarajevo, those hills are symbolic of both the city’s beauty and its pain.  I suppose in some respects what you see in Sarajevo depends on the lens through which you choose to look.  Both the pain and the beauty are here, always present and at times have become one and the same.  It makes me wonder at the capacity of the people of Sarajevo in being able to do so when it is hard for me and I have not experienced any of their hardship or loss.  When they look at those hills what do they see?  It is surely so much more complex than anything that I see.  Based on the people that I have talked to in my short time here, I think some of them may see a little bit of both.  However, they make a conscious decision to focus on being here today and moving forward for tomorrow.  Perhaps they appreciate the beauty because of what they have survived.  Perhaps they don’t see them as beautiful at all and only see the pain they have caused.  I don’t know, but I am in awe at their ability to do so.

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 This same dichotomy seems to exist between the moving on and moving forward and remembering, reconciling and honoring the war and what has happened.  Between generations, within generations and even within individuals this struggle seems to be very present.  None want to forget the war, how it happened, all of those who have been lost or the healing that will likely never be complete; for how can it really.  However, it seems that there is also a need to keep moving forward and not become so mired in what has happened that it defines the country forever.  How does one who has lived through the war reconcile the need and importance of remembering and honoring with the need to live in the present and move forward, both individually and as a country?  Especially when the effects of the war are still being felt and will be for generations to come?  More than simply adopting a new policy or figuring out how to join a divided government are needed to heal, to recover and to actually consider this war a part of history.  The effects and feelings of the war are still being felt and developing.  People are still living within and amongst the effects of the war.  In some sense, only part of the war is history; part of it is still being lived every day and will be for years to come.  Although the war itself may have ended, the loss of life and the holes that it has left in the fabric of society are not so easily stitched back together.   Embracing both the past and the future, both the city’s green hills and the lives they took seem to be necessary to move forward.  Walking towards the future with one foot in the past and the other in the present; something that the Bosnians are growing adept at doing.

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You Can’t Rush Perfect Timing

As I am slowly beginning to discover in Bosnia, things will happen when they are supposed to happen.  They can’t be forced, rushed or sometimes even planned.  My natural state of being is someone who always has a plan, a schedule, a task to be completed or an errand to run.  In Bosnia, this approach to life, or any aspect of it, simply doesn’t work.  I have been forced to relax, breath and settle into this easy state of letting things happen, or not, as they are supposed to. In doing so, I have found that all of the things that I need to get done still do; somehow they just do.  Despite the slower pace of getting things done and the time spent breathing and just letting things happen, everything still gets done.  Sometimes the definition of done may need a little revision and the list gets reprioritized a time or two, but at the end of the day, the important things have happened.  What’s more, one has actually enjoyed doing them just a little bit more because of that slower pace.  While I recognize that this slower pace and focus on relationships is not by any means the norm for everyone in the country and arguably, it has impacts both positive and negative politically, developmentally and other…that’s a discussion for another blog post.  The point is that for me on an individual basis, and it seems like for many Bosnians as well, in letting things just happen and taking a moment to breath, things still get done.  Events still happen.  The details may change or as I have mentioned before be hard to come by, but when they do come together they are truly amazing.

One of my favorite events attended so far while in Sarajevo came together in just this way.  We saw posters and information about a concert that was going to be given by the Balkan Chamber Orchestra at the National Theatre.  We had a date, a time and even a place…but that was about it.  As to whether or not the event needed tickets, required prior purchase of said tickets or might be in a completely different place by the time that we arrived was all up in the air.  But, all you can do is try so we went to the National Theatre and found that we were at least still in the right location and at seemingly the right time.  However, tickets were required.  In looking around it didn’t seem as though there was anywhere to get tickets…other than the one person that Jillian just happened to ask about tickets.  She had extras, enough for all of us.  Of all of the people standing in that courtyard we just happened to ask the right person. 

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The concert itself was amazing.  It was the final concert in a series of concerts titled “The Road to World Peace” and had been organized in commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of WWI.  To be able to listen to pieces by Mozart and Beethoven performed in the kind of concert hall that they were composed to be performed in was truly a gift.  Further, it was incredibly poignant to listen to the music, here in Sarajevo knowing that the performance was meant to deliver a message of peace and hope.  This orchestra, as well as the pianist, singers and two choirs made me forget about how incredibly hot it was.  And it didn’t seem to matter that all of our legs seemed to be too long to sit comfortably.  The music in that setting and by those performers made it all worth it.  You couldn’t help but be moved by the orchestra’s performance and the choir’s powerful voices.  It was an event that came together in what I am finding to be typical Bosnian fashion and ended up being so worth letting the details work themselves out as they needed to.  At the end of the day, you can’t force perfect timing.  And, if you try to, you may end up missing all of the unexpected surprises and events this country and its people have in store for you. 

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A Culture of Inclusion Despite a History of Division

Our first week in BiH has been filled with contrasts.  Some of which have been pleasant surprises and others that have taken some thought and getting used to.  Culturally, Bosnians are in general, a much more open and warm people.  You can find this in the United States of course, but it is not what I would consider to be the norm in our rather individualistic society.  Here in Sarajevo, or even in tiny Lukomir, the people seem to have a sense of community and caring for each other that is refreshing.  You feel like you are welcomed and a part of their community immediately upon meeting them.  They are genuine and take the time to get to know the people around them.  They seem to be very oriented towards their communities, their families, even the stray animals wandering the streets.  Everyone, or every being, is a part of their community and warrants attention and time.  Not once since being here have I seen someone kick, yell at or be mean towards one of the many stray dogs and cats wandering the city’s streets.  Although living outside and ownerless, these animals are greeted with love and affection as well.  In the United States, while strays may not always be outwardly mistreated.  They are ignored, kicked away and left to fend for themselves.  We walk by them on the streets without thinking twice because as a society we are often too wrapped up in our own world to notice or care about those around us.  Be they people or animals.  It is interesting when you consider that Bosnians have just been through a period where us versus them was a part of everyday life and a matter of survival.  But instead of letting the division from the war continue to divide them, the community joins together.  Everyone belongs.  Even Americans who don’t speak the language.

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A contrast that has been interesting to witness has been the ways in which the government agencies operate, or in some cases, don’t operate as well.  Although the weekend brought with it a number of different activities surrounding the 100th anniversary of the assassination, none of the events were well publicized to the general Bosnian population.  Where, what and when the events were actually taking place were all up for debate and it seemed like no one you talked to gave you the same answer.  The film screening was moved from one location to another and the change was not really publicized.  The performance at city hall was at a different time depending on who you asked.  No one really seemed to know what was going to be happening at the bridge.  Just that whatever it was would happen at midnight.  In the US there would have been schedules and brochures explaining every event with the time and place listed.  Should one of the events have been relocated or rescheduled, it would have been on the news, printed in papers, on the radio; there would have been an effort to make sure that people knew what was going on.  Here, it definitely seemed as though the events being held really had nothing to do with the citizens.  Instead, they were being held for “the important people” and therefore it didn’t feel like it really mattered to the government whether or not the citizens wanted or knew what was going on.

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Another contrast related to the events over the weekend was the lack of commercialism and carnival like atmosphere surrounding any of the events.  Ann, Jillian, Jon and I talked about how if this anniversary had been taking place in the US there would have been souvenirs with Franz Ferdinand’s moustaches all over the place.  T-shirts with pictures of him.  Cardboard cutouts that you can put your face through for pictures.  Moustache on a stick. A way to profit from the event.  Instead, the events, once the community could find them to participate, seemed to be taken in with a lot of pride and reverence.  The meaning of the events was not quite as lost as it sometimes is amongst the festival-like atmosphere in the US.

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Sarajevo and Its People Say Welcome!

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I have always thought that if you are really listening to yourself you can tell almost immediately whether or not you like something.  A person.  A place.  An atmosphere.  There is something that just clicks within you when you come upon something that is about to be amazing, even if you aren’t yet exactly sure how; you just know that it will be.  A gut feeling, intuition, whatever you may call it, this is the feeling I got the moment that the plane flew over Sarajevo and the beautifully green hills surrounding the city.  This place is beautiful.  This place is breathtaking.  This place is going to be amazing.  I am going to love this country.  Before even setting one foot into Bosnia, its beauty inspires you and makes you want to learn, see and feel as much as you possibly can about the place; about all of its beauty and all of the tragedies that lie in plain sight among those green hills.  To say the least, my first impression of Sarajevo and of Bosnia & Herzegovina was one of excitement and awe.  I had no idea what this place had in store for me, and am willing to bet that I still don’t, but my intuition told me right away that it was going to be amazing time and the beauty of the place doesn’t need me to speak for it. Hills of Sarajevo

This initial impression has only grown stronger since actually being in the country. The people in this country are so incredibly warm and friendly.  They want to know you.  They are genuinely interested when they ask you a question.  They have an honesty and kindness about them that is incredibly refreshing.  Ahmad and I were lucky enough to have Karim meet us at the airport and drive us to the hostel.  Immediately upon meeting two complete strangers Karim was joking with us, asking us questions and sharing his thoughts and views on everything from the new shopping center that recently opened in Sarajevo to what he feels are some of the problems with foreign investment in the country.  He talked with an openness and ease that is often hard to find. Later that same day, these same qualities of openness and curiosity were shown to me again when Jillian, Ahmad and I were having tea near at one of Sarajevo’s best tea houses.  Two teenaged boys, Elmin and Hamza, who were hanging out in front of the tea house started asking us questions about where we were from and who we were.  They asked questions and seemed genuinely eager to learn as much as they could about the three of us and where we came from.  Their English was better than most American teenagers and their humor and wit was amazing.  They were just as happy to answer our questions and even showed us some of the favorite places to go around the city.  Before meeting them, I would have been hard pressed to say that I would ever enjoy spending an evening with two teenaged boys, anywhere in the world.  But, in Sarajevo, I did just that and feel so lucky that I had the chance.

The kindness and openness of Karim, Elmin and Hamza was shown to me again this morning when I went to have coffee and people watch and the three elderly men sitting at the table next to me smoking invited me to join them.  They didn’t just invite me.  They insisted that I join them; even after discovering that all I could contribute to the conversation was blank stares, slowly pronounced words (which I am almost certain were never said correctly) and hand gestures when nothing else worked.  The Bosnian culture is so warm and inviting that even when these men knew that I spoke no Bosnian they still wanted to ask questions.  They still wanted to find a way to relate and have a conversation.  They didn’t want me sitting alone.  There is a sense of community here that is tangible.  Despite the hardships and the tragedies, of which there are many, they are still invested in each other and invested in this beautiful country.  While I have only been here a very short time, this sense of openness, warmth and community has already made an impression upon me.

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