Final Reflections on Bosnia

Oh Sarajevo, how I miss you. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I applied for Bosnia a few months ago. I was extremely ignorant of its past and present and now I have a much better understanding of the entire situation after in-class learning AND then working there for two months with a local internship. I am hardly an expert, but this experience has given me a glance into the culture and its population.
Culture shock would be an understatement. I miss speaking the language (though my skills were rudimentary at best), the prices where I could reasonably afford eating out at restaurants and enjoy the culture, the in-depth philosophical conversations that I was able to participate in or even just listen to, the pure fresh water emanating from the springs that were present throughout the city and the countryside, and the overall sense of community that I was immersed in.
How do I move past this experience? I am dumb-founded at the moment but I cherish the memories that I possess and were able to partake in. Thank you for inviting me into this culture and history. I enjoyed the narratives that covered a wide expanse of personal experiences and subjects. This was an unforgettable summer and I hope that the Bosnian people and its society are restored to greatness once again. They deserve it…

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Potočari

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Walking into Potočari after spending roughly three days in the Peace March was an emotional event. A multitude of people lined both sides of the street as they observed those who hiked the path and exited the forest into a city filled with emotion. Silence. No one clapped, hardly anyone smiling. Just a tacit knowledge of reverence that filled the air. Nodding of heads in a sign of respect; winks symbolizing the same gesture.

The commotion commenced when the previously identified bodies from mass graves were brought into the cemetery in green caskets hoisted above the shoulders of the four people carrying them. The 175 bodies and their accompanied caskets were neatly situated in rows and columns that lined the outskirts of the cemetery. After a prayer and other ceremonial gestures, the bodies were taken to their graves where relatives, friends, and even bystanders helped shovel dirt on the burial grounds.

A week later, the students including myself returned to this cemetery for a formal visit that had been planned in advance. Only a handful of us experienced the ceremonial events that commemorated the genocide only a week before. Now the place was empty, desolate. There was definitely a different vibe than I had experienced only seven days prior.

The event was hardly covered in the international media and I felt a sense that it had already been forgotten and abandoned even more so after my second visit. I and other colleagues visited Srebrenica before our travels and I noticed a change between reality that occurred before the crowds arrived and then the subsequent feel of the city when the hype of the event the day of July 11th happened. I hope to never forget not only the emotion that encompassed the ceremony but also the sense of longing of remembrance that cries out from the grave and the people survived by the war.

Bosnian people, I am deeply sorry for your loss. I also want to thank you for welcoming me into your community during my time within the march and by demonstrating to me the events that conspired directly after. You are very strong and I hope the world never forgets the events that took place only recently.

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Memorable Photo

 

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At the bobsled arena, we were given a chance to either display our artistic ability, present symbols that expose our inner selves, or write a phrase about something we believe in. Our creative expressions were displayed and immortalized by the permanence of the spray paint that we brought. At this location, we were able to be liberalized from the city and from the hindrances of observers. We were alone as a group and could be ourselves, the rambunctious and boisterous group that we were all along, yet here we displayed no self-restrictions on the volume of our voices or the energy that we possessed.

Although this trip was a culmination of our time in Bosnia, I feel that this photo embodies the dynamic and chemistry that we had built together as a team over the course of two months. During the confinement of our living space, we saw the positive and negative aspects of each other’s personalities. We managed to survive with some bumps along the way but we coped and dealt with it.

We had some contentious moments and frustrations but we also had a great deal of laughs that accompanied our journey. In this picture, we were able to be ourselves and present ourselves. There are no fictitious or fake facial expressions; people are being truly authentic in their silliness. As people were painting, we were not concerned about whether or not our “masterpieces” would be accepted by another. We had that deep connection where we were able to expose our inner-selves without the fear of judgment. We were close enough that we painted a symbolized portrait of ourselves, knowing that these expressions would not be questioned. (Even Jon became sporadically artistic in his painting.) We were comfortable enough with each other to show another aspect of our lives. This is what this photo and location means to me. I am glad we ended our journey at this location and was able to experience the warmth, acceptance, and brotherhood that we had developed over the past few months.

Event in Sarajevo, “Bridges of Sarajevo”

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One of my favorite events within Sarajevo would definitely include the “Bridges of Sarajevo” event. This was a compilation of 13 films directed by European directors and what the city means to each of them. These films were filled with drama, comedy, conspiracies, heart-felt emotion, and strong messages in their short discourses. The interval between the videos were connected by images of a ‘hand-bridge’ that served as a brief pause and presented an additional artistic element to these phenomenal stories. Each portrayal was inundated with impassioned characters, recurrent emotional tugging of the heart and at times poignant in their deliverances.

I was neither entirely prepared to enter into watching successive clips nor the emotional outpouring that was present. The quick progression from one video to another confounded my absorption of the material exhibited. I was not expecting such in-depth thought-provoking imagery or dialogue that was existent in the videos. Personally, I needed an additional few seconds to process and absorb the impact of the concise yet overwhelming amount of the information communicated on the screen.

Ann was able to obtain a seat while Ahmad, Jillian, and I were able to watch the screening with the prior knowledge that we would be sitting on the floor for the duration since the theatre had reached its capacity. I became very uncomfortable sitting on the concrete floor and soon extremely restless; thankfully, a woman saw my agony, tapped me on the shoulder, and offered her vacant seat to me after the man sitting next to her had just left.

Since the film was based on Sarajevo, some of the films were in Bosnian yet others were presented in other languages. Thankfully, the base of the screen was accompanied by subtitle scripts: the top was in Bosnian language and the lower one was in English. This way, it was inviting to all audiences who may have attended (positive or negative, the English language has become the lingua franca of international events.)

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I thoroughly enjoyed this event and was thoroughly excited to participate in the world premiere of “Bridges of Sarajevo”, months before it would be presented again along with other respectable films at the end of August once again in Sarajevo at the Film Festival. Thank you Ann for being stubborn in finding this event, despite our “slovenly” appearances in comparison to other participants at this premiere.    a3

Post-Conflict

When I originally applied to come to Bosnia, I wanted to learn about the post-conflict setting and how the populations among the warring parties managed to reconcile their differences and interact cohesively. Nearly twenty years after the war, there are still differing narratives about the events that took place. Hostilities are still existent and even within Srebrenica, association as either a “Serb, Bosnian Muslim, or Croat” can divide the sparsely populated city. Genocide is claimed by both parties, dating back twenty years ago or centuries ago under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Several Serbs deny that genocide even took place within recent history and this has caused rifts within the greater populations of the state of Bosnia.

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One aspect that I have foolishly overlooked is how a country or group of people unilaterally engages themselves within the healing process. Despite their relations with their nemesis, Bosnian Muslims have pursued actions and activities that have helped them overcome the atrocities of war. Every year, the Peace March commemorates the refugees that fled Srebrenica in a desperate attempt to seek freedom from war in Tuzla and beyond. During this strenuous hike after the hikers have reached the ‘base camp’ in the evenings, not only do the survivors recall their experiences but videos are also shown presenting the events that took place. The hike is designated to march backwards and ends up in Potocari where a corresponding memorial takes place.

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I want to preface this memorial with analogous activities that have taken place prior to this event. Throughout the year, the International Commission for Missing Persons uses DNA samples to identify bodies found in mass graves that families submit in order to find loved ones who disappeared during the war. When matches are found, families are notified of the validity of the bodies which are subsequently buried in Potocari after the Peace March. These identified bodies are then buried within the cemetery across from the infamous factory and adjacent Dutch “refugee camp.” This evidence and confirmation helps the families and widows through the grieving process by supplying critical knowledge to help them better process and move on after knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones.

In some of the divided cities like Srebrenica, some of the survivors share their experiences with each other a local restaurant. These shared narratives help some of the victims of war process these events by giving a voice to these grievances.  Just by sharing these stories may help them achieve some type of closure by merely discussing what they lived through.

Activities carried out under the auspices of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (who have to seek the approval of various levels of government through a complicated process), trained professionals go around to different high schools around the region and teach about the composition of the classroom before and after the war to the students and to challenge divergent narratives among the younger populations. They attempt to broaden the perspective of the ideas floating around and inject another narrative into these young fresh minds.

How will the next generations in each of the respective regions perceive this conflict? Internally, the nation is attempting to heal itself. Always remembering but trying to move on.

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Although life doesn’t always go as planned, we can still learn from that season in our life that wasn’t as expected. A different perspective, perhaps. More learning, more advancement, better preparation.   

Internship

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   The first couple of weeks in my internship were relatively non-active in terms of activities, planning, or accomplishments. Days were starting to pass and I felt like my time was being wasted and that my talents were not being utilized. The only planning that took place was with another volunteer within the organization. I was starting to become disheartened by the lack of initiative and the fact that I would not be contributing to the organization’s efforts. The work days were short and I found myself at home around 3 or 4 in the afternoon without having accomplished anything.
Ironically, everything changed within a couple of days. I talked to the co-founder of the organization and I was able to obtain a concrete sense of what was being planned for the next few months and the long term. For me, I can work with abstract ideas but there are times that they need to be accompanied by a plan of action. I was then better able to understand the mission and how I would fit into the organization during my short time here.
The next few days I was laboring to plant trees, dig holes, scattering mulch, trimming plants, and the weeks following pull weeds, mowing with an old push mower, sanding and painting benches, and spent time working with my hands. I came home with a sense of purpose and saw the results of my labor on a continual basis. We have since planned several activities to engage the children who live around the park, which will come to fruition on a day where rain is not in the forecast. We are currently developing plans on how to organize the office and the adjacent garage, which may include building the shelving units.

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The existence of the latent conflict between the founders revolves around the accompanying side business that is needed for funds yet is causing intermittent tensions between the two. At first, I did not intervene since I was unaccustomed to their relationship and observed whether this was truly a problem or merely a fleeting moment of frustration. I have since seen the detriment and temporary setback that this conflict has caused and have become concerned. Although I am no expert, I have offered my nascent conflict resolution skills to help with this issue. I was subsequently informed that this is not a problem but that he will “get through it.” I may explain what ‘mediation’ looks like if he again hints at the frustration caused by this problem and determine whether or not he is interested in attempting to at least address the issue again in a different form of what he is used to.
In conclusion, this internship has been a tremendous learning experience. At first, I did not completely understand the organization’s goals and what they were striving to achieve yet I have since connected myself with the mission and strongly desire to help this organization thrive. Part of their objective is to build social responsibility while improving the lives that revolve around this particular park. On a consistent basis, I see the founder’s passion and commitment to the community as he interacts with the children and strives to rebuild the community through relationships and projects.

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Almost on a daily basis, there are a couple of older individuals who incessantly question the work we do and mention that there is no sense in the tasks that we complete. Even emptying the trash bins around the park are met with skepticism yet this is a task that improves the aesthetics of the park by removing the overflowing trash that litters . While the founder is occasionally exasperated by the lack of concern by the surrounding community, I try and encourage him by expressing that his efforts are worthwhile. The children need a mentor and he is one who is speaking into their lives and may change the opinion and mentality of the future generation. He is needed in their lives as a friend, a father, a mentor, and someone who cares and he embodies all of this. If only he can get past the temporary setbacks that he continually experiences and keeps his eyes on the overall goal, then he will truly make a difference, far beyond what he is already accomplishing.

Contrasts within Bosnia and Herzegovina

Just today, I talked with a Bosnian native and he explained the economic structure from his point of view. When factories were privatized, several people bought up these companies but then merely sold their assets for a profit, depriving the local population of industrial occupations. Although factories are limited in number, they still exist in small pockets in the United States. I feel that this occupation is essential to developing work ethics and is also (and should be) complementary to the service industry that is expanding within our nation. Due to European Union regulations, the nation has a hard time exporting their goods. He mentioned that imports were around $5 billion while exports ranged from $1-2 billion. (I wish that the United States had such a low ratio of trade imbalance.) Skilled professions are a hot commodity yet their wage earnings are continually decreasing. He added that there needs to be a cap on the number of students that graduate in some of the ‘easier’ studies so that these students don’t flood the market and cause wage depreciation. I then mentioned how there are more lawyers in the United State who are saturating the market than there is a current need (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/business/law-school-economics-job-market-weakens-tuition-rises.html?pagewanted=all

The economy seems to be based on relations that one has maintained within upper circles while some occupations are intermittently “inherited” based on one’s connections. The golden key is to develop relations with people that hold power or can access it. Unfortunately, meritocracy does not hold true value here regardless of one’s experiences. Even if the students hold a Master’s degree, they have to possess those connections in order to move up the social and economic ladder. In order to bypass these conditions, they may have to possess a specialized degree that allows them to break through society’s glass ceiling and give them an improved sense of economic mobility. Although there is a high percentage of jobs obtained in the United States economy due to connections, jobs are still acquired based on work experience and corresponding activities that contribute to their progress. 

Within my internship, the speed at which we are operating is much slower than I would like. This seemingly sluggish pace and the leaders’ acceptance of this speed is initially driving me crazy. I would like to see some things accomplished this summer but feel that there may be only a limited amount of activities that are carried through to fruition. While they have overarching goals they would like to achieve, their concern within the past week seems to be based on day-to-day operations. I know that some planning needs to take place in order to hold some critical events so I may have to draft these ideas and present them intermittently, contingent on what is planned for the upcoming week.

Lastly, I was presently surprised by the optical industry within Sarajevo. One evening out with friends when the rain was horrendous, my futile attempt of attaching my prescription glasses to my necklace caused me to lose my glasses. I then was forced to visit an optician to buy a new pair of glasses. This fortuitous event allowed me to observe this sensational industry and realized the inefficiencies within my own nation. When I go to get my eyes checked in the United States, the exam takes at least twenty to thirty minutes followed by two weeks in anticipation of these optical lenses. The picture of the machine listed below is what I rested my chin on and within a sixty-second interval, the machine measured my near-sightedness. To my continual surprise, the workers crafted my lens in the back room in a matter of ten minutes. In the span of roughly thirty minutes, my eyes were examined, the lens were prepared, and I walked out with a new set of glasses. Impressive!

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Arriving in Sarajevo, I was awestruck by the beauty of the city and the surrounding landscape. Many major cities are overwhelmed by concrete structures while city authorities attempt to create more greenery by adding a park or planting trees sporadically throughout the city. Here not only is the city enclosed by the greenery but the trees are a major component of the “urban” environment. Another inherent aspect of the city are the fountains that continuously flow and refresh the parched traveler. Whether a person cups water in their hand or uses a water bottle, no one seems bothered by the instrument that each person uses to consume this valuable resource.

Regardless of my location within the city, the local population has an awe-inspiring command of the English language. Even places where I wouldn’t expect the language to be used by the locals, their expressions are littered with the utilization of my native tongue. Although my Bosnian language skills are rudimentary at best, I attempt to interact with and respect their culture by using the few expressions that I currently possess. My incipient Bosnian has already proved extremely helpful in traveling the surrounding region and I hope that my continual usage will help me interact with various populations within the city that I may not have otherwise had an opportunity to converse with.

What I love is the food (as well as the corresponding prices!!) Burek is so delicious, especially the restaurant where this is cooked over a traditional oven with coals and metal plates — the staff is wonderful and very welcoming. Another inviting delight are the ubiquitious “sladoled” stands. This delectable snack is deceptive: it looks like ice cream but this is much smoother and tastes SO much better than just about everything my palate has been exposed to.  I can’t wait to try the other delicacies around town and experience the gastronomy of the Bosnian cuisine.