Lasting Impressions

I will never forget the constant reminders throughout the city of Sarajevo and the Bosnian countryside that a brutal war occurred in the country less than 25 years ago. One could not escape the reminder if they tried. From the “Sarajevo Rose” mortar shell scars on city sidewalks and roads to the bullet holes and mortar strikes leaving their marks on buildings, the reminders were seemingly everywhere, including when observing some of the people navigating daily life. I felt the shock of war’s unfortunate reality when on several occasions I noticed people who had lost an arm or a leg. As a result, each time I was reminded of the war my mind raced back to the readings and videos I consumed before embarking to Bosnia, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the circumstances and actions that caused the visible scars to some of the people and infrastructure that encompass Bosnia.

I cannot overstate the importance of continuing to talk about the atrocities that occurred in the Balkans in the 1990s. History will have a harder time repeating itself if there is open dialogue concerning the factors that led to atrocities in the first place, and the factors that need to be avoided so that they don’t happen again. Victims’ stories of tragedy and survival are vitally important to not be ignored because they bring an extremely powerful personal narrative that allows the audience to relive the experience with the victim and attempt to put themselves in the victim’s shoes. That said, victims have the choice to not speak about their tragic experiences, and no one should judge a person based on their choice. The choice is a very personal one and whatever the person chooses is the right one for them.

I spoke briefly in a previous blog about our class having the opportunity to hear a firsthand account of survival from a Srebrenica genocide survivor. A member of the audience from a separate group than us spoke out after the survivor, Nejad, finished telling his harrowing story in great detail. The person thanked Nejad for sharing his story, but then said in more or less words that there is a time to be silent after sharing experiences. I am in disbelief that this man had the audacity to say such an insensitive thing to a person who just told a gut-wrenching story of survival in the midst of hatred, and attempted to control this person by threatening his right to speak freely. I believe my other classmates would agree  with me when I say that I was happy and proud to hear our professor immediately respond by telling Nejad, “please never be silent.”

Stories like the one we heard from Nejad need to be heard. Nejad started to share his story not long ago after years of choosing not to. That choice made sense for him at the time and his choice to speak today makes sense for him now. I am in awe of not only Nejad’s courage, as well as the other survivors of genocide we had the privilege to hear, but also of their ability to not hate even after falling victim to the utter hate of others. We as a society have a lot to learn about tolerance for others and forgiveness. I believe that a greater ability to love is the key. All of the survivors that we met showed us their unwavering capacity to love even after having their hearts broken and shattered by heinous crimes committed against them and their loved ones. I sure felt loved by them. I have a deep and everlasting admiration for each person we met who were affected by the Bosnian War, whether they are victims or dedicate their time to raise awareness and fight for the peace and remembrance of the victims and their families. I will never forget my time in the amazing country of Bosnia, and my time spent with the people who continue to enrich the beautiful country. I can’t wait to go back.

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Heavy Days

What a difficult couple of days. I first want to say that I am struck by the collaborative effort of the wonderful people we met who were either directly affected by the Bosnian War or who are passionate in their quest to help those affected by the war. From Hasan to Dragana to Nura to Ramiz, all of them dedicate a huge portion of their time and efforts to educate about the war and assist in the enormously difficult task of ensuring the horrific events and people affected by them are never forgotten.

I believe our class was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and learn from all of the above-mentioned people, as well as hear from Nedzad, Nura, and Saliha, who were survivors of the Srebrenica genocide. Their personal stories of unbelievable survival and grief due to the loss of loved ones in the genocide was terribly sad and heartbreaking. I mentally prepared myself for the certain sadness and hurt I would feel for the victims, but I found myself in a state of shocked disbelief while they recounted their experiences. The disbelief stemmed from the fact that I was sitting across from three amazingly brave individuals who found the courage and will to survive despite being subjected to atrociously inhumane acts that were perpetrated against them and their families. I was also flabbergasted by the honestly and willingness of Nedzad, Nura, and Saliha to tell their harrowing stories to complete strangers. They allowed us to enter into a catastrophically dark chapter of their lives, and I cannot imagine the personal pain associated with recalling the hideous crimes committed against them and their loved ones. I am in absolute awe of their resiliency, as well as their sincere appreciation of students like us who are just so honored to have the opportunity to personally hear the stories of survival of such inspirational people.

Our visit to the Srebrenica Memorial Museum is something I will never forget. We heard Hasan speak about his happy upbringing near Srebrenica and his and his family’s tremendously difficult experiences during the war. In addition, he spoke at a different time about the history of Yugoslavia and the actions and events that led to the 1992-1995 war. When we were able to explore the museum, I read a lot of information that explained parts of the genocide I was familiar with in greater detail. One of the displays was particularly powerful to me. The display, as well as another on the floor above, gave a mother’s firsthand account of the separation from her teenage son in the days leading up to the genocide. Her son was born the same year I was, and was executed at age 16. I remember feeling lightheaded and dizzy while listening to this mother’s description of the separation. In a taped interview she described that when soldiers separated her from her son, she begged them to let her go with her son, but the soldiers refused. Then she brought her son’s cheek to hers and just held him there for a short time. Her son said to her, “go mother, go”. I could not help but try to put myself in that teenager’s shoes, and think about the devastation my own mother would feel if she was forced to separate from me, not knowing if it would be the last time she would ever see me and the last time I would see her. I get chills thinking about it now.

I woke up this morning feeling foggy from all of the heavy  stories and information we absorbed over the last couple of days. Hasan encouraged us to put our lives and the problems that we face in our lives in perspective. The truth is that the majority of the problems that most of us face in our lives are really not that bad. When the going gets tough I will think back on the experiences of the survivors we met, and if I can muster just a fraction of the strength that they have persevered with, I know that I will be ok.

 

 

Kindness and Surprises

Shortly after learning about the history of Bosnia and in particular about the Bosnian War, I would have assumed that the majority of people affected by the war would be bitter and angry, and that this attitude would carry into their everyday lives. I could not have been more wrong. This would have initially surprised me, but I did learn in class that the Bosnian people are very kind, generous, and welcoming. I was still hesitant to believe that it related to most. Today we took a class trip to the village of Lukomir high in the mountains southwest of Sarajevo. We were welcomed into the home of a wonderful three generation family that served us amazing pitas made of potato and cheese, as well as traditional Bosnian coffee, tea, and various sweets. They went out of their way to ensure that each and every one of us was comfortable in their home. That extended to a home of other family members next door that I thought some of my other classmates made their way to shortly after. I walked all the way through this home, and when I looked around confused and not sure about what I got myself into, a man I all of the sudden noticed standing next to me gestured for me to sit down on his couch to have some coffee. I thanked him and politely declined before leaving with a smile on my face that partly stemmed from my embarrassment and partly from my amazement that a complete stranger I met at that instant would welcome me into his family’s home and serve me a drink.

A couple of days ago, we went on a trip through Mostar and down to the coastal town of Neum to stay for a night. Our bus driver, Nino, stayed a night as well. The night we got down there Nino was sitting at a restaurant drinking a coffee next to our hotel. When I passed him and said hello he asked me to sit down with him. We talked about food, weather, and family, and even though we struggled to communicate at times due to the language barrier, Nino’s genuine kindness, curiosity, and caring manner enabled our conversation to flow with ease. Nino was hard on himself because he believed he did not speak very good English. He apologized to me on numerous occasions for not being able to say certain words he wanted to say. I could tell how much it meant to him to be able to communicate with me how he wanted, but I assured him he was much better at English than he thought, and that is the truth. I let him know that it goes two ways, and that I could learn the Bosnian language. I am part of the vast majority of Americans who do not speak more than one language, while the vast majority of Europeans do speak more than one language. I believe that the trend should change in America. A great way to do that could start with more children attending language immersion schools when they are very young. Now I’m getting off subject a bit. Nino grew up in Mostar, and after the war hit the city in 1993, he eventually moved his family to Germany, where his son and daughter are today. Nino speaks excellent German, and when we first met he asked me if I spoke the language.

Speaking of Germany, our class learned in a talk given at the University of Sarajevo’s Department of Social Work that the majority of young people in Sarajevo who move away from Bosnia are moving there. I was surprised to hear that 40% of young adults in the city would never return if they did move to a different country, with the reasons being quality of life and jobs offer little pay. Before the Bosnian War over half a million people lived in Sarajevo, and today less than 300,000 do. Of course a substantial part of that decrease is due to the war, but with half the population unemployed and 61% of the young adults unemployed, the labor market needs to improve or I’m afraid the percentage of young people moving away and also never returning will only further increase.

Finally, one of the biggest surprises to me in Sarajevo is the amount of graffiti on what seems like nearly all of the buildings in certain areas of the city. Sarajevo is such a beautiful city, and it is a shame that the majority of the buildings, some historically significant, are defaced in such a way.

First impressions in Sarajevo

I mentally prepared myself for the class trip to Bosnia by reading as much as I could about the history and culture there, and anticipating that witnessing the remnants of the Bosnian War would be tough to digest, as well as listening to first hand accounts of the experiences of those affected by the war. I also anticipated that I might be overwhelmed by all the new information that I would learn in Bosnia. After spending just two days in Sarajevo so far, I have realized that my anticipation is true and then some. I feel as though I am in an emotional and physical daze to an extent. I am a visual person, so I tried to visualize standing in front of buildings damaged by artillery rounds. Actually doing so seems surreal. All the information and thoughts from class and readings come flooding in, and I am left standing there in disbelief that something like this can happen to a European capital, and less than 25 years ago.

The first day of the class exploration of Sarajevo took us to several sights involved in the Bosnian War in one way or another. I was most struck by our visit to the Old Jewish Cemetary, which is almost 500 years old. The cemetery sits on the side of a hill and has beautiful views looking north towards the city. Almost immediately one can’t help but notice the damage done to numerous gravestones during the Bosnian conflict. The sight of this again left me flooded with thoughts about the circumstances surrounding how the damage was done. Did the Serb forces fire down on civilians or Bosniak forces in the cemetery? During what stage of the war did this happen? Then I noticed that a couple mortar shells had damaged a large monument erected in honor of Jewish persons who lost their lives during World War II. My thoughts went to the first client I had for my internship with the Senior Solutions Department at Jewish Family Services. My client was a survivor of the Holocaust. She lost several members of her family due to the Holocaust, watching at age 14 her younger brother, mother, and father being separated from her at the Łódź ghetto in Poland and never seeing them again. Three weeks before my client passed away, she let me read her handwritten account of what happened to her during her time in the ghetto and several other concentration camps. What stood out the most while reading her harrowing ordeal was a description of a forced march where Nazi officers led over 100 prisoners to an old graveyard in Łódź, and as the prisoners marched the officers shot those who were falling behind and couldn’t keep up. They forced the rest to step over the dead and continue the journey. Once at the graveyard, the officers forced the remaining prisoners to dig a mass grave. Many more prisoners perished. My client felt immense relief to survive that ordeal, but she described the absolute horror and fear she felt while on the march that she thought would lead to certain death.

My client’s experiences had a profound affect on me, and my brief work with her was a big motivator for me to learn as much as I can about conflicts past and present that involve crimes against humanity. I realize that learning about them in the classroom and in books is one thing, but learning about them in the places that they occurred in is entirely different. This learning experience so far has been very rewarding and challenging at the same time. The pace is fast and the content is obviously heavy, but I am very much looking forward to the next challenges ahead.