Reflections on reentry

I have admittedly been putting off this blog since I got back to the States. While my time in Bosnia was a truly transformative experience, it was also very difficult. My schedule got pretty busy once I returned to Denver, and I haven’t done a great job of processing my experiences because I’ve had so many other things to focus on.

I didn’t really think about my experiences much in the first couple of weeks after getting back home. My partner and I didn’t talk about it at all; I didn’t really want to burden her any more than I already had. People would ask me about my summer and I would find ways to dodge the question. Not because I thought they “wouldn’t get it” or because I didn’t want to talk about it. I just didn’t know what to say. It’s not the kind of experience you can easily explain. And i would think about responding more positively and how that wouldn’t really capture my experience, but also not wanting to focus too much on the negative. Even thinking about how to talk about it was kind of a source of stress. The one time I went into detail about my experience was with my internship supervisor. He asked about “the work” so I was able to focus on my experiences at Wings of Hope.

I think about Bosnia more and more as time has gone on. I often think about the dark things, and I have had some dreams that suggest that these experiences are still firmly engrained in my subconscious. But I have thought about the good times as well, and have encouraged people to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I continue to be fascinated by the engrained problems that exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina; I am doing an independent study exploring these issues with Ann this quarter and next. But I do often struggle with how to incorporate my experiences in Bosnia into my work around social justice issues in Denver. I work on issues that sometimes feel as intractable as those that exist in Bosnia, but ultimately the pathway toward justice and progress seems more attainable here. That is good in many ways, the least of which is that is is not nearly as hopeless and it is not as easy to get discouraged. At the same time, given the circumstances of my return to school, I have struggled with the idea that I may have invested all this money (and spent weeks away from my partner) for something that may not have helped my “professional development.” I know that I grew very much as an individual, and I would like to do work with an international or global perspective at some point, so I know that I will draw upon this experience in the future. But sometimes I still wonder what it all meant, and what exactly I will use from my experiences moving forward.

Ultimately I am very happy I spent the summer in Bosnia. It was a very difficult in many ways, but I had experiences I never could have had otherwise and I feel that it changed me as a person. I am just not sure exactly how, or how it will continue to impact me in the future, but I am glad it happened.

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Sarajevo Rose

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I chose this picture of a Sarajevo rose because it is indicative of the things I am trying to focus on from this trip going forward. I think they represent the ways in which the effects of the war stay with the Bosnian people. From the dysfunctional political system to lost loved ones to mental health impacts, it seems clear that it will impact this society for years to come.

At the same time, however, the attempt to find beauty in such an ugly context reminds me of so many of the people I have met during my time here. It makes me think of Hassan and my supervisor Maja, and the way that they find meaning in helping those who have suffered so much. I think of Ramiz risking his life to collect the bones of those who were massacred to help their families. Even Saliha, who clearly deals with the pain of her loss each and every day, welcomed us with open arms and an amazing meal. I am also reminded of the welcoming Bosnians we met in Mostar, who to give us food and drink and make sure we had a good time in their country. One of them, Jasmin, talked about how Bosnians try to cope with their past. He talked about living in the moment and trying to enjoy their lives with those that they care about, knowing all too well how easily it could all be taken away. That’s what I will remember more than anything from this trip. Not just the personal resilience of Bosnians who faced such terrible circumstances, but their willingness to help others in big and small ways, always with a smile on their face.

Remembering Srebrenica

What can be said about our trip to Tuzla and Srebrenica? I was prepared in some ways for the experience, having been through the Peace March and being confronted with the realities of genocide in previous work experiences. But this was a very visceral experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

All of the people we met and whose stories we heard had a significant impact on me. But the lasting image, that literally haunts my dreams, was from the video we watched at the multimedia room in the memorial. I had heard about the execution video before, but I was not at all prepared for the impact it has had on me. I am quite cynical by nature (somewhat paradoxically for someone studying social work), and it really makes me question the limited faith I have in humanity in general. I have two brothers, and I’ve had nightmares about them being targeted in a similar fashion. The sheer disregard for the humanity of an entire category of people is hard for me to fathom as someone who, as Ann puts it, “feels things very deeply.” I’m tearing up just thinking about what those thousands of people endured, to say nothing of the impact it had on their families and communities. After that video, and many times over the course of the weekend, I did not know whether to cry or scream. Ultimately, I just started feeling numb.

The numbness was invariably followed by an overwhelming sense of guilt. This guilt was partly rooted in shame over feeling numb about such atrocities, but it is really more about the fact that I have never, nor is it foreseeable that I ever will, face anything near the level of oppression inherent to a genocide. This guilt is something I have been confronted with a lot over my professional life, whether working with genocide survivors or refugees or simply folks in the United States who face varying forms of oppression that I do not. I think this guilt is rooted in empathy, so it isn’t an inherently bad thing. But it’s important to move on from it for a couple reasons (though that has been admittedly difficult this week). First of all, it can be paralyzing. Wallowing in this guilt can lead, in my opinion, to more and more inaction. It can lead to the mindset that there’s nothing to be done. More importantly, though, it is not what people who have been through such horrific events want. As a social worker, it is my role to always put oppressed people first in my work. No one that we met this weekend wants anything more than for us to understand their experience, educate those around us about their experience, and do what we can to try to prevent these atrocities in the future. It can be hard to keep this in mind, particularly after having so many difficult experiences over such a short period of time, but it is always important to remember that none of this was about me.

This trip was in many ways about holding the survivors in our hearts, and I was struck by the love and dedication I saw in so many of the people we met. The sacrifice and commitment to helping others the Fatima showed providing medical care during the siege of Srebrenica, then actually voluntary partaking in the death march in the hopes that she could help, left me awestruck. If we could all be a fraction as dedicated to helping others as she is, the world would be a far greater place. That Ramiz risks his life on a daily basis to try to locate remains and help the families of the deceased in a small way inspires me as well. I think it is important to remember that for many families, his work won’t lead to “peace” or “closure” because that simply isn’t possible. But knowing the fate of their loved ones and being able to bury their remains is incredibly important nonetheless. Even Dragina at the ICMP, despite her somewhat withdrawn approach, has still been working there for 12 years and clearly cares about what she is doing and understands the importance of trying to identify as many victims of the genocide as possible.

The horrors that were described to us this weekend will always be in my mind. The lasting effects on these innocent people’s lives will always stay with me. But I will also remember their resilience. I will always remember that Fatima now brings so many lives into the world. I will always remember Saliha’s passion and strength. I will always remember Fazila’s joy and excitement to be with young people. I will always remember Ramiz’s sense of humor. I will always remember that Hassan wants justice and not revenge. I will always remember Srebrenica.

Internship thoughts

I have had an interesting experience with my internship(s), to say the least. My original placement with KULT left quite a bit to be desired. I had the impression that they would have more for me to do, but that was not the case. On top of that, the business manager of the organization did not want me to come into the office for logistical reasons, so I ended up working in my supervisor’s apartment while he was out of town. It was nice to have a place to myself, but ultimately I didn’t enjoy what I was doing and it was incredibly frustrating.

I could not be happier to have changed my placement to Wings of Hope. Everyone who works there does amazing work and the director, Maja, is an inspirational figure. One thing that I especially appreciate is that Wings is fluid in their programming and the way that they serve survivors of the war and Bosnian society in general. They started with a focus on providing mental health care for trauma survivors, which is still an emphasis, but they have broadened their mission to include everything from English lessons for adults who were minor soldiers to free legal aid to an anti-corruption project. It is heartening to work with people who are not only able to see the big picture, but are willing to take it on.

From a personal perspective, i think Wings of Hope is a perfect fit for me. I get to work on a proposal for their legal aid program, utilizing my research skills and legal background as well as honing my grant-writing abilities. At the same time, I am working on English lessons with a former minor soldier, which is completely out of my wheelhouse. I also hope to contribute in some way to their anti-corruption project, which is a vital effort addressing a huge problem in Bosnian society that I am both quite interested in and able to contribute to in a meaningful manner. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to contribute in these small ways to Wings of Hope’s far-reaching mission.

Marš mira

The Peace March and the July 11 memorial were very meaningful experiences for me. It was very powerful to march with so many people from around the world to honor the victims and their familes, as well as the survivors, of the Srebrenica genocide.

Some of the interactions we had were very interesting. Most of the marchers were Bosnian, of course, and many of those who weren’t had some connection to Bosnia, if not Srebrenica specifically. The Swedish friend we made, Muhammed, had Bosnian parents but was born in Sweden. I met a number of Bosnians who had moved to the United States, either during or after the war. Interestingly, the most engaging conversation I had was with Rusamir, a Bosnian man in his twenties. He spent the war in a central Bosnian town the name of which I cannot recall. His father was a Major in the army who commanded troops in the northern part of the country. We talked a lot about our experiences so far in Bosnia and our perceptions of the country. He talked about the lingering effects of the war, in particular the lack of economic opportunities for young people, as well as the nepotism and corruption that exists in so many sectors of this country. He finished his undergraduate degree and then spent the next two years volunteering. He went back to obtain a Master’s degree, but was unable to find work outside of a job at McDonald’s. Someone I was with (either Laura or Rose, I can’t remember which) made the point that most of the people we are in graduate school with would rather be unemployed than work at McDonald’s. I think this exemplifies the difficult decisions that young Bosnians face in order to scrape together a living. As Rose said later, he was “this generation in a nutshell.” Rusamir is lucky enough to have an opportunity to work in Germany soon. I could tell that he was very conflicted. He wanted to stay near his family, and I could tell he had a great affection for his country. But, ultimately, he had to do what he had to do.

The march itself was an emotional rollercoaster for me. While there were harrowing moments in the first few days, particularly passing the markers for mass graves where people were praying, i must say that it was not quite hitting home for me. I was never naive enough to believe that this experience would actually make me understand what the men who fled through the woods had been through, but it wasn’t quite hitting home for me for a long time. I think it was very easy to focus on personal things like exhaustion, disgust at parts of the camp experience, interpersonal frustrations and never having a good sense of when our day would end. For me, the first “moment of clarity” so to speak, occurred in the wee hours of Sunday morning. I had had serious issues getting sleep, and was never actually able to get to sleep on Saturday night. I was incredibly frustrated and angry. But then I had the realization that the people I was there to honor likely did not have the luxury of sleeping because they were literally being hunted. I knew that I could make it through the next day and then have a nice meal and sleep in a bed.

I felt much more somber as I marched on Sunday. I could not shake thoughts about how I would feel if suddenly I was faced with similar circumstances. How would I feel if someone opened fire on us at that moment? What would I do? Where would I go? It is of course impossible to truly understand, but I was able to focus on those types of thoughts rather than merely focusing on my physical exhaustion, etc. I first started to get really emotional as we passed a mother who was wailing on the side of the road, about an hour and a half before we reached the memorial. As we walked down the hill to the memorial, I started to get overwhelmed by my emotions. It all came to a head as we entered the memorial to see the mothers lined up to watch the marchers come in. I finally lost it when I saw a woman would looked like my mother will in about 10 years. (Or I think she did, I was honestly so delirious that my mind may have fabricated this a bit.) It did not take that for me to empathize with the victims and survivors of this genocide, because I don’t think you need to feel any personal connection to care about victims of oppression. But it is what sent me over the proverbial edge. I am still processing all of my feelings about the march, and will likely do so for a long time to come. But I am very glad that I did it and I will remember those three days for the rest of my life.

Yellow Fort

I had one of the more meaningful experiences of my trip so far on Saturday night, when I went to the Yellow Fort to see the cannon fired off at the end of the day. I must admit, I felt a little awkward. Part of me felt like I was intruding a bit, since (seemingly) everyone else there was waiting to break their fast. I actually left the top of the fort because it was so busy, and most of the tables were reserved for people waiting to have iftar. But I found a spot at the below the fort to take it all in, and it was a really interesting experience. It was incredibly busy, and people were gathering on the grass below the fort. Lots of people brought their own food, with pizza appearing to be the dish of choice. What struck me the most is that the streets were incredibly packed, with very little room for parking. Yet there wasn’t a lot of horn honking or yelling. People seemed to realize that they were all there to have a meaningful experience and that there was no need to get angry, and that was cool to see. It was interesting to watch all these hungry people starting to get a little antsy as the sun was going down. Children who were being cranky seemed to be (at least in my interpretation) getting the “Be quiet, you haven’t been fasting all day!” treatment. And seeing how happy people were when they could finally eat and drink was a sight to behold. Even though I am decidedly not religious, I have a lot of respect for the sacrifices that people can make for their faith, in an attempt to better themselves. I also really value the sense of community and tradition that fasting seems to create among practicing Muslims here in Bosnia, and we got to experience a very small amount of that when we had iftar last week.

What has surprised me so far

I mentioned this before, but I have been surprised about the level of recovery from the war. I expected to see far more ruins and shelled buildings. I don’t know if this was reasonable on my part, but it is definitely the picture I had in my head. I know many of the effects are still lingering, but I expected to have visceral experiences reminding me of the siege on a much more frequent basis. I think that in my head, it was hard to conceive of the level of recovery due to the dysfunctional governmental system and struggling economy.

The new buildings and other developments around the city have struck me as well. I expected to see many more communist-era buildings. I think this is probably reflective of ideas in my head of communist countries from that era. I looked back at some pictures and I don’t think this was ever the overwhelmingly dominant style of architecture, etc. I think I was underestimating the diversity of influences on this city, partly because I assumed that those influences would have been actively discouraged under Tito.

Reflections

The trip has been an amazing experience for me so far. Sarajevo is fascinating and I have been particularly struck by how it is different than what I expected. The recovery from the war has been impressive to me, as I was expecting that fewer buildings, etc. would be rebuilt. And even though Ann and others had spoken about the Austro-Hungarian influences, etc. I am struck by how much it feels like Western Europe in so many parts of the city. I think this is probably informed by the fact that I do remember seeing the conflict on TV when I was growing up, and so there was probably of process of ‘otherization’ involved. It would have been hard for me to fathom such a conflict taking place in, say, Brussels, so I am sure I constructed ideas about this area of the world that were framed in stark contrast to the rest of Europe. I think it’s similar with the natural beauty. The images I was confronted with on the news made it hard to imagine that such a place could be so beautiful.

The most significant sentiment I have had this week is how lucky and privileged I am. I am so lucky to have been born and raised in a country 151 years removed from the last armed conflict on its soil. I was seven when the war began, and knowing what I do about myself, I know that if I had been forced to live through the war I would still be dealing with its effects on a daily basis, to say nothing of the broader impact it has had on the country. And while I am not a huge fan of the U.S. political system, I appreciate the fact that it does not inherently limit the opportunities for individuals and the country in the way that it does here. Having had a couple discussions about the lack of opportunities for Bosnian citizens, the words I heard the most were along the lines of “stuck” and “hopeless.” I cannot imagine the impact that has on the individual, the community and the country as a whole. There are also smaller things that cause me to reflect on my privilege within the context of this country, such as the ability to communicate with most people in English. (Imagine the potential reactions in many parts of the United States if a group of monolingual Bosnians tried to order an entire meal in Bosnian.) In addition, many of the things we find desirable about traveling here are tied to a dysfunctional system that causes significant harm to the lives and livelihoods of so many Bosnian citizens. The low cost of living here for Americans is the result of the same social and political conditions that render 60% of Bosnians unemployed. This is not to say that we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves, and obviously we are here to have some sort of positive impact on the country. But I think it is valuable to remain cognizant of how lucky we are (particularly myself; I experience most forms of privilege that exist) and bear in mind the broader dynamics in play during our every day experiences in this country.