Reflecting

What a whirlwind the past two weeks have been. I will never forget my visit! Bosnia is beautiful. I have never seen so many stunning gardens or rivers run so clear. In fact, on that note, an unexpected highlight of my visit was the amount of clear, clean water that seems to be everywhere for people to drink from fountains that are constantly flowing. Coming from California, where the state frequently experiences drought conditions, water is in short supply and tinged with chlorine, and Colorado which is extremely arid, the lush green scenery of Bosnia and its balmy climate and ever-flowing water fountains were unexpected and extremely pleasant!

 

Although I can’t deny I loved it, experiencing Bosnia’s beauty wasn’t the purpose for my having traveled there. I went to study war and genocide and learn I did. I will never forget the stories that the survivors shared with us. Each person we met was generous with us in retelling their personal history with war and genocide and its impact upon their lives. It couldn’t have been easy to share such traumatic experiences with complete strangers. That, we, the strangers, came from a country currently led by a President who has instituted policies that bans Muslims, separates children from their parents and cages them, and seeks to wall off certain races from entering must have required a leap of faith and made sharing those stories even more difficult.  I am so grateful for Nura Begović, Saliha Osmanović, Hasan Hasanović, Nura Mustafic and Nedžad Avdić’s willingness to meet with us, particularly given this knowledge!

As I have mentioned before, these are resilient people! Every single person I met and learned from has stunning resiliency. They are telling their stories, writing books, meeting with foreign leaders, planning large, monthly remembrance marches and continue to search for bones and identify the remains of loved ones despite challenging funding situations for both DNA tests and searches. (In fact, “the bone man,” as Ramiz Nukić is referred to in a film about him, searches for human remains without being paid to do so, after putting in a full day’s work on his farm! Dragana Vučetić, the forensic anthropologist that identifies people through the DNA of those very bones has worked tirelessly for decades now despite a variety of budgetary considerations and constraints. She somehow makes it work.)

Since returning, I have been peppered with questions about my experiences from friends and family. What was it like? What did you do? Would you go back? What was your favorite part of the trip? Who did you meet? Did you hear about….in the news over there? These are just a few of the questions I’ve been asked. I’ve found it’s quite challenging to explain it all in a way that both answers the questions and conveys the depth of what I experienced. Some of the questions, like my favorite part or place visited during the trip, simply can’t be answered because I have too many favorites to pick just one. Other questions are easy. Would I go back? Definitely.

Answering what I did and learned, and who I met and what I saw are more challenging to describe. This is particularly true when explaining the stories from survivors in Srebrenica. It’s also true of my attempts to convey what it’s like to visit a city like Sarajevo which is so beautiful, vibrant and alive but also remains physically scarred from the siege of 1992-1995 in many places. In fact, the existence of these scars, like the Sarajevo Roses in the streets, are quite purposeful and important as they physically demarcate what happened there, giving pause. It seems to me the people of Sarajevo don’t want to simply forget and want visitors to remember as well.

Conveying that can be challenging. When I tell the stories I heard in Bosnia I must also confront what we are doing in the U.S. today. I simply can’t speak of Bosnia and ignore our own practices. How to reach people to get them to understand what I have learned (when I’m still, by no means, an ‘expert’) and to help people to understand how genocide can happen anywhere is a struggle. “We were normal” is a phrase I heard repeatedly from people throughout Bosnia by way of explaining what life was like before the unimaginable occurred. I would counter that, similarly, in America, right now, we too are “normal.” I really hope I  can convey the messages and stories of survival, hope, remembrance, resilience, and warning in a way that can be both heard and does the owners of these histories justice.

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Fashion Police

A few years back there was a reality tv program called Fashion Police helmed by the late comedian Joan Rivers which chronicled celebrity fashion. A regular feature of that program was a segment called “bitch stole my look” which compared celebrities who wore the same outfit and sought to determine who wore it better.

When I travel, despite my best intentions, I often find myself comparing the new to the familiar, the here to there, and the this to that. I am reminded of that old television program because the comparisons I make can often become a case of “who wore it better” in my mind. For instance, since arriving I have been eating some delicious traditional Bosnian meals, and also some food that is very familiar to me. Pizza, for example, is often on the menu in Bosnia, and so far, I haven’t been disappointed once. But pizza back at home is also quite good. And so, I find myself considering which is best, or who wore it better.

I have just returned from a two-day visit to Tuzla and Srebrenica where I was able to hear survivors tell their stories of the genocide that took place in July of 1995. Each person we heard from had a heartbreaking story of extraordinary loss and survival. Although each person’s story ultimately resulted in their being able to tell it due to their survivorship, all lost many of those most near and dear to them in horrific and heartbreaking circumstances. The one thing each of the survivors we met with requested was that we tell the story of the genocide that took place here, which so many continue to deny occurred at all. As one survivor, Nedžad Avdić put it, “We don’t have our own Anne Frank book.” It was quite poignant when he said it, particularly because he pointed out that before the Srebrenica genocide he had read The Diary of Anne Frank in school and knew the story of the holocaust, as had most in what had been Yugoslavia at the time.

A lot of people may not know what happened in Srebrenica. There are those who actively deny the genocide occurred at all, preventing the story from being told. Indeed, the perpetrators went to great lengths to hide it from the world by digging up the mass graves of their victims and reburying them elsewhere in an attempt to hide their shameful actions. While many mass grave sites have been uncovered, many are yet to be found. As a result, it has been very difficult for surviving family members to lay their loved ones to rest. Thousands of husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, and friends remain among the missing.

In July of 1995 the United Nations failed in its mission in Bosnia when soldiers from UNPROFOR allowed men and boys to be separated from women and young children, despite pleas to troops not to allow it, which ultimately resulted in a genocide of approximately 8000 men and boys. As many as 8,000 men and boys are still missing. Thus, the numbers of those murdered is much higher than 8,000.

When women and children were separated from men and boys, despite protestation and pleas against it, a line was crossed. Many of the men and boys tried to escape what appeared to be certain death by fleeing to the mountains and attempting to hike, at night, in a column of thousands of people while being shot at, toward safety in a nearby city. Ultimately, many of the men and boys were tortured, humiliated, systematically murdered and placed in mass graves, along with trash and rubbish in a further act of disrespect and humiliation. Because the mass graves were later moved to hide the genocide, the victims’ bodies were disturbed to the point where they no longer remained intact, in yet another act of disregard for human life and humiliation. Of course, all of this has made identification of victims very difficult, with the bones from one victim scattered throughout several sites of mass graves and throughout dense, wooded terrain, hidden in lakes and rivers.

When I think about the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica, particularly when families were being separated from each other, I cannot help but compare it with what is happening right now in my own country. The irony of the situation is not lost on me. Here I am in Bosnia learning about the steps that led to the perpetration of genocide, which included the separation of families, and back at home my own government is engaging in what appears to me to be a very similar practice by actively separating children from the parents of asylum seekers attempting to enter the United States. The children are being placed in what appears to be cages, separated from their parents while they await trial. I’m sure there are some Americans that might disagree with my comparison of separating families and placing children in cages to the genocide in Bosnia.  But I find them very similar. And so, once again I find myself asking who wears it better? Are we stealing a look? Is Bosnia’s past to become our future?

Lukomir

The visit to Lukomir:

We took an ecotour to the town of Lukomir today. It was called the “Three Generations Tour” because we met with three generations of a family who live in and/or are from there. I would say the visit to Lukomir was what I was most looking forward to about visiting Bosnia. To some this either sounds weird or not weird at all. I guess it just depends upon your perspective of things and how and what you like to do….basically, what you’re into.

Lukomir has a grand total of 20 homes within it, sits at the top of a mountain range that seems way above Sarajevo, (possibly far enough away that it inhabits Middle Earth – aka the land where Hobbits are from) and can be gotten to by either a steep hike of several miles or by car along a winding dirt road. The point is, although it isn’t too far away from Sarajevo, it seems like it is and it’s definitely worth the trip. Especially if you’re into visiting a sparsely populated town of mainly older adults who herd sheep, hand carve polenta spoons, prepare you a meal of freshly (and traditionally) prepared cheese and potato pitas, with Bosnian coffee as well as yogurt and knit cozy socks with merino wool yarn spun and dyed from their own flocks.

So, I was excited to visit for all those reasons and am so glad I was able to visit! I did not hike. The “easy to moderate” hike was described as either two hours or four and a half hours, depending on who you asked. I’m sure the hike was amazing, but I am pretty happy with my decision to take the car ride. It’s about 30 minutes up a winding dirt road, surrounded by beautiful green scenery, wild flowers and sheep. Once we arrived at Lukomir we were greeted warmly and treated by our wonderful hosts, led by Saliha and her friends, to delicious cookies and Bosnian coffee! It is a little like espresso but a bit thicker and some of the grounds rest in the bottom of the cup. It’s also strong and comes with a lot of sugar. (At least mine did.  I had several cups!)

Saliha prepared the pita for our group and because I didn’t hike, I was able to peak in on her as she and her friend cooked. What a process! The dough is freshly made, kneaded by hand and then expertly rolled using an iclaudio, which is like a very narrow rolling pin, about the width of a drum stick. The pitas are stuffed with either potatoes or cheese and baked in a wood fired oven. They were incredible! We could smell them baking while our classmates hiked up the mountain.

While we waited for our group to arrive, we got to explore the town. Again, only 20 houses, but so picturesque. It felt like we were on top of the world. We were able to visit with sheep, chickens and roosters and drink fresh spring water. There is probably no water or food that can be had fresher than when in Lukomir. The sheep live in the town. The water spring is in the town. The food is all locally grown….not within 20 miles – within 20 feet! It’s just an amazing place and I feel very lucky to have been able to go.

I would also like to say that everyone we met, including the three generations of women, were all so kind, so hospitable and so willing to engage with all of us. I hope Lukomir lives on forever. I don’t know this is possible as younger generations choose to live and work in the City or elsewhere, but I hope it does.

First Impressions

First Impressions of Bosnia
It’s hard to describe Bosnia because there is so much to take in. To start, it’s a feast for the eyes. The City of Sarajevo is bright and alive, an orange gemstone of terracotta tiled rooftops nestled within a setting of deep green forested mountains. The beauty of the landscape is stunning.

The City is also a feast for the stomach. Everywhere I go I am greeted by the scent of something delicious cooking. It seems as if someone is baking fresh bread on nearly every corner. Freshly baked breads and rolls come in all shapes and sizes and are filled with impossibly delicious combinations of savory meats and cheeses and decadent nuts and chocolates.

On our first day we visited a 24 hour bakery – and I have been back several times. Bhutloh is a large roll of sweet and chewy white bread that hides within it a mess of gooey, chocolate hazelnut spread. It is delicious and… dangerous. Did I mention there is a 24 hour bakery within walking distance from our hotel? I have had several of these and anticipate eating many, many more during the course of my stay here.

I am also in love with the architecture and sense of history in Sarajevo. This is a very, very old city with a rich history. However, it’s so authentic it almost seems unreal to me, like a movie set. Shady nooks and cobblestone lined paths lead to buildings that are hundreds of years old. Down one cobble stone street is a han some 500 years old, its ground floor currently occupied by cafes and shops. It looks like the setting of a scene from an India Jones movie. But it’s not. It’s the real deal. It existed hundreds of years before Hollywood dreamed up the iconic archaeologist. Head the other direction, and low and behold I’m in Vienna! Pastries everywhere. Did I mention the bakeries already?

The gondola has only just reopened and I was fortunate to be able to take it all the way to the top and visit the bobsled run from the 1984 Olympic Games held in Sarajevo. The view was incredible! And yet, it was impossible to take in the view without contemplating the siege. The view, beautiful as it is, also afforded snipers, hidden in the very hills below the gondola, and on top of the bobsled run, an unobstructed sight line into the city – and to its inhabitants. It is difficult to understand how the scene of an event designed to bring people together through sport could also provide the infrastructure for systematic killing of the civilian citizens of Sarajevo.

Contemplating the Olympics in Sarajevo is particularly poignant for me because it is entirely possible I watched the bobsled races that occurred here in 1984. Walking the run was therefore, surreal. Exciting to be on a structure I saw on television as a child, yet horrifying to know the way the structure’s purpose had been changed.

On our first day as we drove into the City from the airport I was quite mesmerized by the beauty of this place. And yet, I’m also struck by the fact that this landscape, lovely as it is for me to look at now, lent itself to something quite different and extraordinarily horrible during the siege from 1992-1995. The wooded area is amazingly close to the City, much closer than I had realized when reading about it. Standing on a hillside looking down into the City, I cannot help but wonder at how the people of Sarajevo survived for 3 years – and also to marvel at their resiliency.

And so it is, my initial impression is quite simply that Sarajevo is breathtaking in every sense of the word. Breathtaking beauty. Breathtaking scenery. Breathtaking desserts! But also, breathtaking sadness.