Hasan. Saliha. Nura. Nedzad. Ramiz.

I have been sitting here trying to find the right words to eloquently describe what I have experienced these past few days but everything I write doesn’t seem to be good enough. All that was asked of us from the survivors was to spread the stories of those that survived and to share what happened in Bosnia. Many still don’t acknowledge what happened here, but believe me, it definitely happened. Out of the war, the genocide, the grotesque inhumane treatment of people, and the lack of international support rose the survivors.We travelled to Tuzla and Srebrenica with Hasan Hasanovic. Hasan is many things, but is most known for being a survivor of the Death March. Hasan lost his father and twin brother when they tried to escape the Serb forces by joining the column which came to be known as the Death March. The UN base was full and slowly the Dutch began to abandon the base and those seeking refuge. Hasan, along with an estimated 15,000 other men and a few women began to make their way to Tuzla in July of 1995. The death march was approximately 70 miles and around 3,500 survived. This was due to several attacks on the column by the Serb army. The Serb army forced a father to call his son to surrender, only for them to be later killed. This is a well-known story in Bosnia as it was caught on video by the Serbs. Ramo was forced to call out for his son Nermin to come down and surrender. This is also the last footage Saliha was able to see of her husband and son. It is still unclear how and where they were killed by the Serb forces. Saliha, the wife to Ramo and the mother to Nermin was able to share her story with us when we traveled to meet her in her home outside of Srebrenica. She proudly showed us her garden and offered us food and drinks as she welcomed us to her home. Despite the language barrier, I could feel the outpour of love and kindness as she warmly greeted us all. That evening, after sharing a meal and talking with each other, Hasan translated as she told us of her experience during the war . She lost her family, and it has taken years for her to be able to find the bones of her loved ones.After the war, she returned to her family home and was able to rebuild. Saliha lives alone, but still has rooms dedicated to her children she lost during the war. Listening to Saliha broke my heart, but also made me realize how incredibly strong and inspirational she is. In an area that denies the genocide, she lives her life. After taking her family, her home, and forever altering her life path, Saliha proves to those around her that she will persist. Everyday Saliha looks at the hill that her family escaped to, and everyday Saliha tends to her garden and lives to tell her story.
The next day, Hasan brought us to the memorial in Srebrenica and the museum of genocide in Srebrenica. We were able to listen to Hasan as he told us his story of surviving the war and the death march. Before the war, he lived a happy life. He lived with his family on their farm, and attended school nearby with is twin brother. He described the close relationship he had with his twin, and the everyday experiences he had before the war. He told us about the subtle ways in which he knew something was was about to change. The police accusing them of having weapons, and his neighbors stocking up on weapons. He told us of the struggles his family went through as they ran from their family home to escape the Serbs. He told us that his grandfather hung himself after seeing their home up in flames and being destroyed. He shared the emotions and feelings he had when he marched through the woods and hid from Serbs as he searched for his brother and father.He described the condition of the refugee camps, and the kindness that strangers had shown him. Hasan has since poured his time and energy into connecting with those that have survived, and sharing his experience. He has written a book, and is currently working on another one with Ann. They have connected with survivors and interviewed them the past few years. Due to this relationship with several survivors, we have had the privilege and honor of meeting several amazing people in Bosnia. Hasan has also curated several exhibits in the museum that depict what happened to the Bosniaks during the war. Hasan is truly an amazing and incredible human that has worked so hard to share the stories of the survivors, and to help wherever and whenever he can.
At the memorial, we were able to listen to Nura Mustafic share her story. Nura is one of the few women who joined the men on the death march. Nura, her three sons, and her husband fled to the woods to join the column. She was separated from her husband two sons during the death march. After being captured by Serb forces, she was separated from her other son. Nura’s husband and two sons have been found and buried 8,000 bodies have been found but still approximately 1,000 people are still missing. Nura’s son is one of those still missing. Nura is still searching for her other son. My heart broke with Nura as she told us all she wants is to find at least one bone from her other son and to find out what happened to her family. Nura wished us good health as she wiped away the tears that fell as she spoke. She hopes nothing like this will ever happen again.
After Nura spoke, Nedzad Avdic told us the brutal story of his survival. Nedzad was one of the very few who survived an execution site. He spoke as if it happened yesterday, even though it has taken him 20 years to want to speak about his experience. As he spoke, he made the movements of his hands being tied behind his back as he and others were forced to shout, “This is Serb land, and will forever be Serb land.” He told us how the Serb soldiers would ask the pile of bodies if anyone was still alive. The few that were, often pleaded the officers to kill them. Nedzad said he kept asking, “why am I not dead yet?” He had been shot several times but still managed to remain alive among the dead. After the soldiers left, he realized there was another survivor. He told us that after several hours, they were able to pull themselves out of the mass grave and make their way to the nearby woods. In the morning, he said he was able to see the destruction as he looked down at the hundreds of dead bodies. Nedzad managed to survive and today he has a wife and three daughters. It is unbelievable the amount of strength and resilience he has living in Srebrenica. His daughters are not taught about the war and genocide in school. Local authorities were perpetrators during the war. Yet Nedzad is still speaking about his experience and sharing his story to those who will listen.
From the memorial, we traveled to see Ramiz Nukic. Ramiz walks the hillls near his home everyday in search of bones. He was also a survivor of the death march, and after the war, he decided to search for his missing family. He was able to find the bones of his family, but has since vowed to help others find the bones of their family. Ramiz has helped find over 200 bodies. When he approaches a mine, or a bomb, he swiftly and safely disarms it so he can continue his search. He told us that “nothing will get on his way of finding bones.” Although Ramiz doesn’t have much, he gives to other survivors in his own way. Ramiz has never been compensated for his work, and has aided the ICMP greatly. When we saw him, he had recently found another set of bones and was waiting on the ICMP to come pick them up. Ramiz is one of the many unsung heroes of the war.
These survivors are such incredible humans. Everyone should know their names and stories.

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Mostar & Neum

We took a break from the bustling city of Sarajevo and travelled to the beautiful city of Neum. On the way there, we stopped in Mostar to admire the Stari Most (Old Bridge). The bridge was destroyed during the war but has since been restored to support the many tourists and locals. The clear, blue water running under the bridge was further enhanced by the lush vegetation growing. The marble on the bridge made it so you had to pay attention to where you were placing your foot, and ultimately to the detail of the hard work put into re-building it. On the UNESCO world heritage site, the bridge is listed as a “symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities.” However they somehow left out that it is still one of the most divided cities in Bosnia in termites of ethnicity. Although it is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, nothing can hide that it is still affected from the recent war. From there we made a long and nauseating trip over the mountains and dropped back down into yet another beautiful city; Neum. Even though it wasn’t as sunny as earlier in the day, the sun was glistening off the water and it honestly looked like a fancy resort on the coast of Italy. Our driver, Nino, made sure we all retrieved our bags safely as we made our way to our rooms for the night. After settling in, we went down just a few stairs to a restaurant that was right on the water. I chose not to swim that night but was able to talk a bit with Nino. A few of us sat down and got to know Nino, who we would come to find out has connections and experiences all over the world. He told us he had been driving for over 35 years. He kept saying that his English was not good, and his German was better. His English was great, and if there was a word neither party knew, we found a way to explain it in a different way. I’m pretty sure I was doing some strange movements that night to try and explain what I was trying to say. Even with the language barrier, it was easily one of the best conversations I have had. When there’s a will, there’s a way! The next day we were able to just relax and enjoy the city for the day. We went swimming in the Adriatic Sea and soaked up the sun. Even though it was such a beautiful day, it was hard for me to stay present and I kept wondering how and why anyone would want to create such destruction in such a beautiful country. It was such a stark contrast between the present situation and experience I was in, and what had happened in this country not too long ago. The day flew by and next thing I knew, we were headed back to Sarajevo and had a long bus ride ahead of us. Nino expertly guided our giant bus on the roads back through the mountains and the tiny roads. Not too long into our trip back, Nicole started to feel sick. Nino spring to action and suggested several options. Ultimately, the decision was made to go to the hospital in Mostar where Nino’s relatives worked. I went in with Sladjana, Ann, Nicole to the hospital. Nino led us into the hospital and after speaking with the staff, we were vaguely directed to one side of the building. Nino took lead and marched us through the empty halls. Eventually, a doctor appeared and brought Nicole into an examination room. It was determined that she was dehydrated but they wanted to run some blood tests just in case. Again, Nino rose to the occasion and was asked to complete the very important task of transporting Nicole’s blood to the lab. I’m not sure the staff even knew Nino’s name but they seemed to trust him enough to find his way to this lab and deliver the blood. I’m curious to know if this is a common occurrence, or maybe they sensed that Nino was a pretty important guy and decided it was better to ask him than the other two Americans sitting on the bench. Ann and I were currently debating to split a pill that was casually laying on the hospital floor so I’m glad they chose Nino to deliver the blood. It was a long night of laughs, yoga, lack of language and delirium but Nicole was given a clean bill of health and we were free to go. Literally. They didn’t charge for the service. The doctor and nurse were so kind and I was incredibly impressed by their welcoming nature and attentiveness. Sladjana, Nicole, and I left the hospital and went out to find the bus was gone. At first I was a little concerned but realized if Nino got us this far he wouldn’t leave us. A few minutes passed and out of this mist appeared Nino with the rest of our group in tow. It was quite the experience but just goes to show the kindness, and love that the people have shown us since arriving in Bosnia. Every day there is someone new that further proves and strengthens this. When I think about the future of this country, I am a bit less anxious as I know I have encountered some of the best people here, and know that good can overcome anything. 

the first few days.

Day 1. I arrived in the afternoon along with two other students. Sladjana and our wonderful driver helped us get our bags into the van and we took off for the hotel. The windy roads and the large van didn’t seem like the best match but our driver successfully and smoothly managed to get us to our hotel. After saying hello to the rest of the group, we set off to get dinner. After only a few short minutes of walking through the rain and the plethora of pigeons, we made it to the restaurant. We ordered a traditional food that resembled something of a mix between pastry dough, meat, vegetables and cheese. It was really filling and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Arriving seems like such a whirlwind and the last thing I remember is finally getting into bed to get some much needed rest.
Day 2. We all loaded into a bus the next morning andI was even further surprised about the size of the vehicle and the size of the roads. Again, our driver somehow managed to get us to our destination in one piece. First we drove around the town and our guide pointed out some of buildings and sights to see on our way to look at the Olympic soccer field. Once we arrived, our guide further explained the field and the damages that occurred during the war. It was so interesting to see an area that was once hosted the Olympic Games now have massive graves surrounding it. The greenery and sights were so incredibly beautiful from where we stood. The red of the houses, and the lush landscape was in such contrast with the horror of the history of what happened here less than 5 years ago. Next, we went to the Tunnel of Hope. It was inspiring to see one of the ways that people were fighting back to gain freedom. The tunnel provided several benefits for those living in Sarajevo to much needed supplies and resources. From here, we took off on the bus to a beautiful hotel up on the hill. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch as we took in the scenery and the beauty of the hotel. From here, we traveled back down to one of the oldest an largest Jewish cemetery’s. We explored the cemetery and saw the damage that had happened during the war. Our guide told us about the shootings and killings that occurred in the cemetery during a funeral. It was chilling to hear of such destruction that occurred even during a funeral. After this, we walked to the cable car that brought us back up the hill to the old bobsled track. It was a bit eerie walking on the racetrack knowing that it was once used by snipers when it originally brought so much joy to the community. Now, it has been repaired a bit and used for different activities such as skating and rollerblading. There was a lot of graffiti along the way and a few choice words directed at the U.S. president. This made me chuckle and of course a few of us took some pictures. After we made our way back down, we had a quick little walking tour on the way back to our hotel. We went to dinner at the brewery and listened to the band play songs for a table next to us.
Day 3. I accidentally first typed Day 33 but I almost left it because today seemed like a lifetime had passed due to everything we covered. We went to the university where we heard from a variety of speakers about the history of Bosnia and the current government organization, and social work agencies here in Bosnia. I already struggle with understanding the U.S government so trying to fully understand the government in Bosnia is a tough thing to tackle so I am not even going to try and explain it here. I was able to watch a documentary before I came about Bosnia and a band that had visited during the war. It made me realize how important the arts and music are for helping people make sense of what is happening around them. It reminded me of when I was in the Czech Republic and went to Terezin. Terezin was a concentration camp and inside were several exhibits of plays and art that was created by the Jewish community being imprisoned there. I remember my professor explaining to us that there was not much to do while being imprisoned, and that creating plays, art, and poetry was one small thing they were able to create and control. Even during times of horrific acts and war, people have found ways to connect with others through art and music and it was no different here in Bosnia.