Regeneration

I don’t enjoy it when people ask me, “how was Bosnia?” I’m still figuring it out.

Some certainties exist: I am changed. I have learned. I have grown. I have felt. I remember what I stand for, and what I can and cannot abide as someone whose career may well involve waging war. I can connect the policies and conflicts I entertain in the classroom with the names, faces, and personalities of the people they affect. There’s a renewed sense of purpose, direction. Patience. A slowing of pace in favor of being present, sensing and absorbing my environment. I find comfort in silence I once found terrifying.

It’s all still sights and sounds.

img_2901

    IMG_2322.JPG

 

 

 

    IMG_2869.JPG

 

 

 

 

IMG_2194.JPGIMG_2853.jpg

My mind is a strange beast; I have convinced myself that concerted attempts at closure will somehow do away with such a striking, meaningful experience.

img_2699

Dovidjenja, Sarajevo. Vidimo se uskoro.

Samo a cure

“Meddling is the only way to stay relevant.”
— Heinrich Böll

“In high school I was always like my dad: I’m very loud. I always knew there was something wrong with being treated as less because I’m a woman.” Marija Vuletić, proud feminist, vegan, CrossFit trainee, and project coordinator at CURE Foundation, works to expand and solidify networks between women and women’s rights organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and throughout the Balkans. At just 26 years old, Marija has studied in the United States and advocated for women’s and LBT rights on three continents. My internship supports me reaching out to interview her, and we chat—rather, she speaks, and I earnestly listen—while a thunderstorm rattles the windows.

CURE, after the Bosnian slang term for “girls,” was formed in Sarajevo in 2005 and focuses its work on feminist advocacy, networking, education, and research. Marija is one of an all-female team of nine. She reports that the political climate regarding gender and sexual equality in BiH is hostile and largely unchanged since the formation of the postwar government in Dayton in 1996. Bosnian women face discrimination in employment, housing, education, participation in government, and access to healthcare.[1] “It’s the same as in primitive communities,” Marija exclaims. “The men are killing animals and the women are washing dishes—what the hell? It’s 2016. We’re at the same level.” Gender-based violence is prevalent, and dedicated government resources are minimal. LBT women face dual prejudice on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation, as do Roma women regarding their ethnicity.

In 2016, women continue to be grossly underrepresented in elected office at the state, entity, and cantonal levels, and the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Parliament FBiH) has failed to adequately fund its handful of remaining safe houses for survivors of domestic violence.[2] Marija and others point to a corrupt and incompetent executive, widespread patriarchy, and an absence of safe public discourse on these issues as current obstacles to progress.

Her wrists are stacked with rubber bracelets of every color, and her long, acrylic nails with glittery green polish brandish wildly as she speaks. She is unapologetically passionate, positive, and blunt, but also humble, periodically apologizing for her enthusiasm with comments like “sorry, I swear I’ll shut up soon.”

“I’m a very happy feminist. What’s different about me is that I have a positive story regarding my identity, my mom, and everything I’ve been through with my sexuality.”

Marija went to school in Sarajevo, and played piano. She came out as a lesbian when she was 15, which she says was an uncharacteristically bearable experience. “I outed myself to people who mattered to me.” Her mom was and remains supportive. She thinks her dad knows, but he doesn’t ask questions. “I see him twice a week, and he never asks me if I have a boyfriend. He had two bad marriages, so he just tells me ‘don’t get married.’ Please don’t get married, everything else is fine.”

“There were a couple of very bad things people said behind my back, but no one ever said it to my face. There was this one boy that told me once that I couldn’t find a boyfriend, and that’s why I was a lesbian, but he liked me.” We pause to crack up at this petty jealousy, but are quite aware that Bosnia’s pervasive anti-LGBTI sentiment isn’t the slightest bit funny. A 2013 public opinion survey of LGBTI individuals, 46 percent of whom identified as female, found that one in three faces discrimination based on their sexual orientation, and that in 98.3 percent of such cases, the discrimination goes unreported.[3] Public perception of homosexuality is alarmingly regressive; 42.2 percent of Bosnians deemed it unacceptable to have a homosexual individual as their neighbor, boss, colleague, or close friend, and 56.6 percent of Bosnians feel that homosexuality can and should be cured.[4]

Marija says she discovered feminism by accident. When she was a teenager, she and a friend embarked on a mission to see all of the museums in Sarajevo. At one stop, she was approached by a woman, who asked her if she was there for PitchWise.[5] The woman, a lesbian activist from Belgrade, told her about the festival, which since 2006 has brought women’s rights activists, female artists, and feminists together to celebrate feminists’ political engagement in the arts. Marija’s instinctual understanding of injustices experienced by women impressed her. “From that day, when I came there, I never left. This feeling that I had when I met her and when she talked to me, I still have that feeling today.”

She got a scholarship to study in the United States, and spent a year at University of Georgia taking courses in LGBT and women’s studies. In 2013, she earned her bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature at the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo, and went on to finish a master’s degree there as well.

Since she’d been engaged in their work for several years, CURE was a natural place for Marija, and she loves her job. She travels, speaking and hosting workshops on LBT and women’s issues throughout the Balkans (and once, South Africa). Facing patriarchy head on in the social arena, she explains, is hard, but the positive reception she’s received speaking in front of feminists has empowered her to speak in front of larger, unreceptive audiences. “People recognize my activism so they call me to speak. I never had the courage to talk because—still I don’t know enough. People look at you with such importance, and that empowers you to speak in front of bigger groups…groups that are hostile…with the same attitude.”

“People call me a power lesbian. I’m trying to explain to them, ‘I don’t think I’m powerful.’ I don’t think I have power because I’m a woman here [in Bosnia], I can’t get married to my girlfriend, I don’t have any rights. I don’t have anything.”

“In the community, people think you are powerful because you speak your mind.” But what makes her feel powerful being able to bring her girlfriend home without issue. “And then when I have that positive experience,” she says, “people are more likely to think positively about outing themselves.” At CURE’s open workshops, some attendees admit that they’re lesbian out loud for the first time in their lives. She takes joy in helping them embrace their identity in a safe environment. “Some of them never want to come back. We never judge, and anytime a woman wants to come back, she’s always welcome.”

“Bosnia has amazing laws,” Marija says emphatically. “Implementation of those laws? zero.” Some positive change has been effected on paper, but has fallen through in practice. In 2010, the Law on Gender Equality was amended to require governmental bodies at the state, entity, cantonal and municipal levels to meet a 40 percent quota for female representation in elected office (Article 20, 2).[6] However, following the most recent election cycle, only 19.9 percent of elected positions at all levels of government were held by women, falling short of 2002’s 20.2 percent record.[7] That’s more than halfway to go to hit the current legal standard. In 2013, the Electoral Law (of BiH was also reformed. It now mandates 40 percent of the less-represented gender on electoral lists (i.e., female candidates necessary for elections to take place).[8]

The problem with both of these reforms is, not just 40 percent of Bosnians are women: 51 percent are.[9] Why do electoral reforms fail to raise the quota to ensure that the majority gender of Bosnia’s constituency is equally represented?

Marija wants quality over quantity, but feels the quota is indispensable—women need something to work towards. This year’s proposed changes to the reformed Electoral Law of BiH include the abolishment of the mandatory sorting on electoral lists for the underrepresented gender, reducing the already inadequate legal requirements for gender equity in elections.[10]

What should women who do hold positions of authority in politics be saying? “I just want them to freaking say something.” Marija implores female politicians to prioritize gender equality on their agendas, and to be wise about the facts and how they are going to use their position as a woman to further the cause. Gender is an inflammatory subject in Bosnian politics, and needs to be approached strategically. “Sometimes you need to find the right moment. You need to be smart. Feminism is a bad, bad, word here. They would get more use of a lighter term.”

Marija believes that the way forward for civil society is to teach women to come together and stop dividing themselves into categories. “Women were raised to think badly about themselves, and to think badly about other women, and to consider other women as their competition. So how can you expect a woman who was living through that for 20-25 years, to all of a sudden realize that maybe she should be in solidarity with a woman instead of being against her?” But, this judgement of other women undercuts the social and organizational cohesion required to effectively work toward gender equality, feeding the intractability of the problem. “Don’t judge women. If we don’t get together, we’re going to be divided. And if we’re divided, we’re conquered.”

She says Bosnian women often aren’t willing to come forward and engage in feminist activism. Due to a hostile environment and subsequent, understandable lack of will, they wait for other women to do it first. CURE has seen promising turnout for their workshops, but this discussion is confined to a safe space rather than contributing to public education on gender equality. So how do we get the first woman to talk out in the open?

Marija’s answer: Local ownership of the solution. “We educate them and give them tools in order for them to use them. They can always contact us, call us, whatever they need…but we can’t do it for them.” There have been several success stories of workshops bearing activists, like one rural woman who traveled far to attend, and when she returned, spoke with all the women in her village to research and produce an article for a CURE publication.[11] Bosnian women simply need to recognize their strength, and lend it to one another.


[1] Saša Gavrić, Inela Hadžić, Emina Bošnjak, Maida Zagorac, Adrijana Hanušić, and Meliha Lekić, The Orange Report 2016: Annual Report on the State of Women’s Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo: Sarajevo Open Centre, February 2016.

[2] Gavrić, Hadžić, Bošnjak, Zagorac, Hanušić, and Lekić, 9-11.

[3] Masha Durkalić, My Voice Echoes…, Sarajevo: Fondacija CURE, 2015, 64.

[4] Jasmina Čaušević, Numbers of Life: An Analysis of the results of survey of the Needs of LGBT Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo: Sarajevo Open Center, 2013, 14.

[5] For more information on PitchWise Festival, see http://www.fondacijacure.org/?do=article&article_id=236.

[6] Law on Gender Equality in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Consolidated Version, Article 20(2) (2010), retrieved from: http://arsbih.gov.ba/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/GEL_32_10_E.pdf.

[7] Gavrić, Hadžić, Bošnjak, Zagorac, Hanušić, and Lekić, 30.

[8] Electoral Law of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Article 4(19).

[9] Agency for Statistics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Census of Population, Households and Dwellings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2013: Final Results, June 2016, 23-25.

[10] Women Citizens for Constitutional Reform, “Women Citizens for Constitutional Reform” against the proposed amendments to the Election Law of BiH,” April 27, 2016. Available at https://womencitizensforconstitutionalreform.wordpress.com/2016/04/27/women-citizens-for-constitutional-reform-against-the-proposed-amendments-to-the-election-law-of-bih/

[11] Durkalić, 25-29.

 

Getting Mostari

img_2347

Hop on the road southwest from Sarajevo and the rolling, green landscape dries up, becoming something rockier and more reminiscent of Colorado. The Neretva snakes under and alongside the highway. Vineyards emerge. You’d think the sun grew a thousand times larger, the heat is so magnified.

Mostar seems older than the home base behind us. Its narrow, cobblestone streets require some careful maneuvering; even dry, their soapy limestone is a formidable challenge. The river bisects town, and the landmark bridge, connecting two original towers at each of its sides, stands proudly intact after its 2004 UNESCO reboot. Just as its been for centuries, young men hover over its rails and take the 78-foot drop into the mere 15 feet of water below. It’s theatrical, and terrifying. We grab lunch at the riverside, attempting to catch some video. When the sun goes down, old town becomes irresistibly romantic.

img_2466

Initially, there was a typical sense of indifference to us as foreigners. But when we made our way to the river bank and started to take things in, we noticed Mostar had wrapped its arms around us.

The city takes its name from the word most, meaning bridge. The mostari, or bridge keepers, are its people. And apparently, they live to swim, hang out on the river bank, and jump off of things. (Is it too late to change my life plan?) The annual bridge diving competition was in swing, and thousands of people from all over Bosnia and the world were gathered to swim, dive off the rocks, ingest healthy amounts of beer, dance, and watch as the most skilled of the locals—and some brave visitors—jumped the bridge. A graceful, eagle-approaching-its kill form seemed to earn the highest marks. Mostaris on the bank were unbelievably friendly, upbeat, and generous; food and drink were shared freely. I am cheered on by a chorus of strangers each time I dive off the bank, and despite my significant fear of heights, find myself jumping—or, rather, falling—off the 45-foot practice platform. Of all moments in my experience in this country, I have never felt more welcome, more infected by positivity, than I do now.

Sure, there’s no shortage of ethnic tension here. The city’s Bosniak and Croat majorities defiantly blare the adhan and church bells at each other throughout the day. Telephone poles are plastered with obituary flyers, always in Muslim and Catholic pairs, to illustrate an equality of loss. Elections haven’t been held here in eight years, though they were supposed to in 2008 and 2014, due to strong nationalist agendas in both parties and Croatian meddling in local politics. But there’s this sense of enduring local pride here that I don’t feel in Sarajevo, Srebrenica, or Tuzla. It’s joyous. It’s hopeful. It’s the stuff that civil society is built of.

Srebrenica (AKA “Don’t Lose Your Watermelon”)

The following is an excerpt of my brain on genocide.

Anger. Grief. Shock. They crossed paths in my chest. Then, shots fired on screen, a dozen civilians drop dead in a ditch, wrists crudely bound with wire. In that instant, the tears I’d been stifling froze. I snapped back to numb.

The group fanned out in the grass, taking a solitary moment to absorb what we’d seen. I found a concrete block and planted myself upon it. I stared forward. Wildflowers speckled the lawn outside the battery factory, where thousands of men, women and children waited, frightened, seeking a shelter they wouldn’t be given. I could see them. I wondered if any of the men I’d just seen murdered were among the crowd.

My lenses started separating from my eyes, and I realized I hadn’t blinked in minutes. Hasan beckoned us towards the vans; we were on too tight of a schedule for reaction time. We moved forward in silence. I hate this sensation…to have such paradoxical and massive emotions stuck in your chest. You feel like you’re going to explode, but your survival instinct won’t allow it. You’re just frozen. I carried the weight towards the van.

Then, Arista bent down and picked one of the wildflowers in the grass. Suddenly finding myself capable of movements other than those instructed, I followed suit. It was bright yellow, like sunshine. Its petals were soft. We packed into the van to head towards Ramiz—the bone man—‘s house outside Bratunac. I gripped the flower’s stem with both hands, and fixed my gaze on it. As long as I’m staring at this beautiful thing, I thought—I think, because I wasn’t really thinking at all—I could block out what I’d just seen.

Then, three loud thuds woke me from my stupor: The trunk door of the van had open due to beast of a pothole in the poorly paved road, and the two enormous watermelons our driver had kindly bought for us that morning hit the pavement and began rolling wildly down the hill. We all looked up and stopped for a second, obligated to do something about it but fairly certain they were gone.

The driver, however, was quite unwilling to give up as easily as we had. He shoved the van in park and chased the melons through a dense thicket of blackberry bushes; Arista and Eric hopped out to help. 15 feet or so down the hill, our men down were recovered—miraculously, there were no casualties. The driver came back to the van with this enormous grin on his face, holding the melon up in triumph like an Olympian.

And the entire van burst into raucous, unadulterated, sincere laughter. The kind where if there was enough room, I’d be banging the floor with my fist. Like my body was encased in some kind of poisonous wax, the pessimism and sadness melted off my body as it shook. We arrived at Ramiz’s with tears in our eyes but smiles on our faces. Seeing that we needed a break before he began, our two adoring drivers gleefully chopped up the watermelon and forced it, piece after piece, into our hands. Hello entire emotional spectrum, in succession.

Bosnia Lesson #37: DON’T lose your watermelon.

Clean

rain sarajevo
Photo Credit: Annalisa Triola

I’m not certain I can explain this photo, but I’ll try.

Srebrenica was difficult. “Difficult?” Difficult, adj. “needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand.” Hardly captures the overwhelming emotion, crippling sense of gravity, or powerful message of resilience the survivors we met impressed upon us. I struggled greatly with depression in the wake of that weekend. I think we were all sick, in one way or another.

During a particularly arduous day at my internship, I was informed that we had another after-work program obligation: a barbecue at Wings of Hope, a nonprofit that provides trauma, legal, and educational programs to both survivors of the war and people of all ages and walks of life in Bosnia. In retrospect, I’m ashamed to say I was pissed. I wanted nothing more than to sleep away my mental and physical exhaustion. But I grabbed a bottle of wine and a taxi and got myself to the west side of Sarajevo. Though our hosts were incredibly welcoming and gracious, the tension amongst our group was palpable. The most awkward group of undergrads I’ve ever encountered showed up, too, and we were asked to try to engage them—they were struggling with being truly involved with their experience in Serbia and Bosnia.

We stood awkwardly in our cliques, all clearly on edge and upset on some level. We ate, we drank wine, and conversations got easier, but something was still tight in the air. Then, thunder.

It started with a sprinkle, and quickly became a torrential downpour—complete with hail—of biblical proportions. The undergrads and many of the Wings of Hope employees ran for cover. But a few of us just let it ride. Laura smiled and threw her arms up. Jenny and I threw our shoes off and ran together through puddles collecting on the lawn. Julia and Lindsay ran out to join us. Then Rose. Then, all of us were out there, even Ann. We laughed hysterically, hugged, danced, sang various rain-themed songs (“Fool in the Rain” was stuck on repeat in my head). I shed some tears of happiness, but they were washed away as quickly as they came. When the sky thundered at us, we laughed and yelled back at it. All the anger, all the sadness, all the tension was summarily cleansed.

What followed was a ridiculous evening of screaming and dancing, soaking wet, in the kitchen of Wings of Hope, along to a compilation of Shania Twain, Spice Girls, Smash Mouth, and other godawful/fantastic 90s hits playing from someone’s iPhone. The undergrads, understandably frightened, cowered in a room nearby, with eyes begging “Please get me out of here!” We couldn’t have cared less. Our minds were clean.

Peace, love, Hrvatska. 

Mar Adriatico, how long I have dreamed of reaching you. When I began studying Italian my first year in college, I picked up a map of Italy and fell deep in love with Lecce, nel tacco dello stivale (“at the heel of the boot”). Cobalt blue water, Baroque architecture, squid ink pasta. Endless trips were planned, but the money never came. Little did I know that eight years later, I’d find indescribable beauty just across the sea.

We visit the U.S. embassy and receive a briefing from a USAID representative, and though I’m literally squirming with excitement at discussing my second academic love—development—with a true professional, I can’t wait to jump in the car and set out for the coast. We pack into a tiny Euro car whose brand I didn’t know existed and set course for Orebić, Croatia. Meg killing the crazy Bosnian traffic, check. Chipsys (Bosnian Ruffles), check. Jambox, check. Amazing road trip compatriots, check. Tyson caught on candid camera singing along to Justin Bieber, check.

I now understand why Bosnia has two names: The ecological differences between Bosnia and Herzegovina are stark. The lush greenery turns quite suddenly to Colorado-esque, rocky mountains. The Neretva, a river dyed quite literally turquoise by its limestone bed, winds beside us along our drive, and is stunning. We pull off the road to stare at it. The adhan rings through the mountains as we stop, and we’re frozen by the natural and auditory beauty.

IMG_0362

We wind through the hills on narrow, unkempt roads where you’d easily expect to end up in an entirely circumstantially-driven head-on collision, but Meg’s lifelong experience with New York drivers effectively trumps the danger. We dance—space permitting—laugh, and talk at length. A bathroom stop in a small Herzegovinian village brings awkwardness, but we pull the car door out to shield us and shamelessly relieve ourselves on the asphalt, sensitive bits being eaten alive by gargantuan mosquitos. The boys laugh. I don’t care—I’m with remarkable people, and inbound to heaven.

Four and a half hours later, we approach Orebić, and the Adriatic makes its entrance. The sun dips below the water. Pictures do not do the sight a cent of justice.

IMG_0386

We arrive in Orebić after dark, and find our apartment, a spectacular Mediterranean villa. This must be normal for Croats…but I’m in awe. I awake the next morning to this. I’m not religious, but: God bless Dalmatia.

IMG_0398

We hop on a boat from Orebić to Korčula, Marco Polo’s childhood home. It’s an island full of fortresses within a fortress. Incapable of understanding how something this epic can exist, I’m speechless.

IMG_0406

We grab souvenirs, snacks, and kruška rakija, and grab another boat taxi to a small island nearby to set up a spectacular picnic lunch, swim, read, sunbathe, swim, and relax. I channel my inner mermaid, let my hair down, and swim out as far as my long-unworked muscles can carry me. The water is so salinized, I find I can float on my back in the water just as I would lie on the beach, my hands bent behind my head. I dip, I swim, I meditate. There’s a single small restaurant on the beach. I steal bites of Tyson’s schnitzel and pom frites, fresh and juicy. Paradise. Later, I munch on the freshest mussels since I’ve left Oregon.

IMG_0416 copy

I know posting a series of song lyrics is a cop-out, but when this one came up on my playlist in the car, it seemed not only the perfect fit for our carefree beach trip, but also for our time in Bosnia as a whole. Courtesy of The Cat Empire:

“This is a song that came upon me one night

When the news it had been telling me

About one more war and one more fight

And ‘ay,’ I sighed, but then I thought about my friends

Then I wrote this declaration

Just in case the world ends

 

Our guns…

We shot them in the things we said

Ah we didn’t need no bullets

‘Cause we rely on some words instead

Kill someone in argument

Outwit them with our brains

And we’d kill ourselves laughing

At the funny things we’d say

 

And bombs…

We had them saved for special times

When the crew would call a shakedown

We’d break down our party landmines

Women are so sexy

They exploit us with their looks

Ah, we blowing up some speakers

Jumping round till the ground shook

 

And missiles…

They were the road trips that we launched

T-t-tripping across this island

Starting missions at the break of dawn

Yawn and smile say

‘What direction shall we take?’

‘Somewhere where it’s warm and wet’

This be the route we’d always take.

 

Our weapons were our instruments

Made from timber and steel

We never yielded to conformity

But stood like kings

In a chariot that’s riding on a record wheel…”

 

Peace, love, Hrvatska.

From darkness, light will always shine.

Passed out with my mouth hanging open—true Zareen style—my plane approaches Sarajevo. I wake, irritated, groggy, already homesick, emotional and physical energy wasted from my first ever international flight. And then I look out the window. As we dip below the clouds, I think, “Holy $%&, they airdropped Oregon in the Balkans!” Rolling, vivid green hills that stretch as far as the eye can see. It looks just like home. Winning.

My program mates—each with their own distinctly huge, beautiful, and multifaceted brain—roll in over the next few days, and we explore the city. Our hostel is located near the so-called meeting of cultures: The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman quarters. On one side, narrow streets with towering buildings on either side, cafes serving Bosanka kafa (THE best coffee I have ever had—yes, Brazil, I mean it…deal with it), ice cream, fresh-squeezed juices, and ludicrously large and extravagant fruit desserts, clothing boutiques, and epic Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals. It looks like a postcard of Budapest. On the other, Baščaršija, my new home. The streets turn to cobblestone, the buildings shrink, and you feel as though you’ve suddenly teleported to Istanbul. A mind-numbing array of colorful, cheap Turkish-posing-as-Bosnian souvenirs line the walkways. Check your right! It’s a 14th century mosque, stones disintegrating slightly with picturesque, gentle age. An old man with delicate hands crafts silver filigree from the finest, thinnest wire. Gjezve, the Bosnian version of the copper Turkish coffee pot, are stacked to the ceilings of storefronts. Burek, a tasty, greasy, meat/spinach/cheese/potato pie, can be found every ten steps. The adhan rings out from various minarets, imposing a strange calm over the immensely crowded streets. We shop, we eat, we drink, we bond. Amid the gaiety, it’s easy to forget what happened here.

But then, every few blocks, a splash of red resin beneath your feet: A “Sarajevo rose” marks the spot where a Bosnian Serb mortar fell. People died here. Civilians, women, children. You try to absorb, to feel the presence of the victims, their personalities, their experiences, their relationships, how they must have loved, laughed, cried. It’s all at your feet. The resin is all that remains.

IMG_0030 (1)

We travel to the surrounding mountains and walk the ruins of the 1984 Olympic bobsled run, covered in a smattering of graffiti, near-swallowed by the forest. I leave my mark, but wonder…do I have a right? I write a message of love, in hopes that our outside influence—often doing more harm than good—might be interpreted as empathy rather than sympathy. But I know better. I study war. My school’s dean helped negotiate in Dayton. I know how we’ve failed them. What are we doing here, exactly?

IMG_0112

Down the mountain we drive, and stop off at what I assume is a scenic viewpoint. I climb the rocks to look over the cliff down upon the city below. Stunning, yes; beautiful, hardly. It’s a former Bosnian Serb snipers’ nest. The streets, buildings, and people, so clear from up this high, were cannon fodder. I feel the recoil of rifles as they pick off innocent lives below. Words escape me. I take panoramas with my iPhone like a stereotypical, ignorant tourist, but not just to capture the view. I want to envision—and remember—this feeling. I want to remember the wicked cowardice that still hangs in this air. To be so high, safe, hidden, and murder people just trying to shop, get to and from what work is left during the siege, visit what remains of their families. The evil is tangible. Hold tight, Zareen. Don’t forget.

IMG_0154

Next stop, a Jewish cemetery a little further down the mountainside. Dating back to the 15th century, its headstones crumble. There’s a striking, effortless silence here. At its center, a marble slab lists the names of Bosnian Jews massacred when Sarajevo was under Nazi occupation.

I’m so far removed that I’ve never really connected with the heritage, but my father’s Slavic family fled Europe before the Holocaust. So, I walk up to examine the memorial. To try to evoke some kind of profound feeling.

This sacred place was also used as a snipers’ nest.

IMG_0169

The monolith near the names is engraved in Bosnian, but the names of concentration camps are recognizable: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Stara Gradiška, Jadovno, Đakovo, Loborgrad. At its backside, an unmistakable mortar scar.

IMG_0173

I wonder to myself how—despite the power of any overwhelming, brainwashed sense of nationalism or ideology, the pull of which, as a student of terrorism, I fully understand can poison even the purest of minds—people could possibly justify shooting innocent souls from this hallowed ground, already stained and haunted by genocide. My heart slows to a stop, and the first of many tears I will shed in this country wells up in my eye.

I look closer, into the center of the scar. A tiny plant has sprung forth, two delicate leaves twisting outward in defiance of the physical and emotional pain that hangs in the air. I exhale. My heart begins to beat again.

IMG_0175

I remember that life—hope, good, kindness, love—will always spring from the darkest of places.

From Orlando to Sarajevo, hate is not welcome here.

13522695_973222096131396_670048979208156603_o13580421_973221929464746_5496260429125782918_o

Today I had the pleasure of representing Heinrich Böll Foundation at a conference at the EU Delegation to Bosnia & Herzegovina entitled “Enhancing LGBTI Rights in BiH in Line with EU Standards,” hosted by Sarajevo Open Center (Sarajevski Otvoreni Centar, SOC). We heard from some epic human rights warriors, Massimo Mina from the EU Delegation, and Goran Selanac, a lecturer from Zagreb Law School and pioneer of LGBTI policy reform in Croatia. The discussion centered on international law and the pragmatic challenges facing ECHR in implementing reforms in existing EU member states when the only legal power ECHR has is the power of strong suggestion.

Yes, it’s the EU Delegation building and security was naturally tight, but the metal detector and multiple armed guards at the entrance held a special significance considering the issue at hand. The following is from SOC’s Pink Report 2016:

“On Saturday, 1st February 2014, at 3:15 in the afternoon, at the beginning of a discussion on the topic “Transsexuality in Transition,” a group of 14 masked men forced their way into Art Kriterion Cinema in Sarajevo, with the aim of attacking those present. Most of the visitors managed to hide in the emergency exit passage, where they remained for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, the organizer of the festival from Belgrade, the moderator of the discussion and other person were attacked. The attack lasted less than a minute, [luckily] resulting in minor physical injuries, but it [caused] significant psychological consequences. The attackers escaped without a scratch.

Sarajevo Open [Center] had announced the event to the police 20 days prior, emphasizing the need for protection, and the police were informed of dates and times for each festival event. The police were present on Friday evening, during the opening of the festival. However, on Saturday, the police were not present and for that reason failed to prevent and stop the attack. The police arrived only after the fact and after the perpetrators had escaped…two years after the attack, no one has been indicted and the police investigation had focused only on one suspect out of the 14 people who [attacked] the Art Kriterion Cinema. The crime itself has been characterized as violent behavior, which is only a misdemeanor according to the Criminal Code of the Federation of BiH. The homophobic intent behind the attack and the fact that the crime was predetermined have been ignored (http://soc.ba/site/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Pink-izvjestaj_2015_za-web.pdf).”

During the Q&A session, a woman suggested that LGBTI couples should be required by law to take a class prior to having or adopting children so that they can “properly prepare” [translated] them to navigate life. (Don’t worry, the entire room, which included select Bosnian MPs and police officers, turned and stared in shock.)

The moderator, Saša Gavrić of SOC, responded that 68 percent of Bosnians feel that LGBTI individuals require medical treatment to “cure” themselves. She began defending herself, and he cut her off mid-sentence: “This is the 21st century, and that kind of attitude has no place here [translated].” The entire rest of the room, especially the police officers, erupted into applause.

I’m proud to report that even though he’ll have even fewer rights there, Saša and his partner are moving to Albania to keep fighting hate with another NGO.

HEAR ME, bigots, misogynists, homophobes, racists, terrorists. Your time is over, and though you may have a frightening amount of popular support in a number of countries regardless of their level of wealth, reach, and socioeconomic development, people like Saša, his team at SOC, law enforcement, and elected officials will never stop advocating, loudly, for humanist values. You can attack us, you can pull our funding, you can spread hate in the streets and over social media, but you will NEVER convince us that a human being doesn’t deserve the right to love whomever they choose and experience the joy of rising children with the person they love. From Orlando to Sarajevo, we will beat you, because love provides more endurance than hatred.