This week, having been given complete freedom on what to write about, I think it is appropriate to simply talk about the primary component of my week; cycling from Bihac to Srebrenica in remembrance of the genocide, and to remind people of the perils of nationalism and hatred. While many of my companions here in Bosnia took on the (arguable, more) challenging-60 mile hike to the memorial, I was invited to cover 300 miles from the northwest edge of Bosnia on the Croatian border town of Bihac, through Jajce, back to Sarajevo, and on to Srebrenica. Being an avid cyclist, I was excited to do so. Three days were spent on the bike, with roughly eight hours of moving time per day as well as four or five hours spent relaxing, recovering, eating, and learning between portions of the ride. While initially the slow pace of the ride was difficult, I had to remind myself that times had been much, much, worse for the people who we were memorializing, and that it is nothing short of trivial to complain about the ride being too slow.
Beyond the beauty of the country and to experience the winding and “bumpy” roads of Bosnia, I was able to interact and identify with many Bosnians (and a few from other countries, including a handful from Texas) both by verbal communication and when no language was mutual, smiles and handshakes. The most prominent figure for me on the ride was the orchestrator of our three-person group (and two who drove the van and took care of us at each stop, whose importance cannot be overstated), Thierry. Thierry moved to Bosnia in 1992 to assist the many Bosnians who were in need of assistance, and that he did. Thierry became so attached to the people, and from my understanding felt as though he needed to stay here longer than he initially intended to. 26 years later he is still here and now runs Green Visions, and eco-tourism company that focuses on promoting travel to Bosnia and exploration of the many hiking and biking opportunities that it offers. His friend, and now mine, Tamas joined us from Hungary and apart from being a wonderful person to ride with, was also able to experience confusion with me as neither of us spoke or understood more than a hint of Bosnian. Each time someone approached us and said something, we would typically make some sort of noise, smile, and hope that that was sufficient for them to move on – if it wasn’t, one of us would say “English” and we’d all have a good laugh. Sead and Haris, our support team, truly highlighted everything that is good in the world, and the generosity of the Bosnian people. The effort they went to to ensure that everything was perfect, all the time, was noted, and wholly appreciated – especially on Monday when we spent 106 miles in the pouring rain.
While I recognized the intention of the ride across the country from the beginning, I did not anticipate the warm welcome that we received virtually everywhere we went. Whether it was people standing from their balconies clapping, families cheering from the sidewalks, or women crying – knowing that we were there for them in recognition of the war where they likely lost their husbands or sons, we were always welcome. Midway through each day all three hundred of us plus support persons would be welcomed into a town to enjoy lunch prepared for and paid for by the townspeople. This ride was almost entirely unfunded, yet it felt like a ride one would pay hundreds of dollars for in the United States. The people who would line up near the edge of town to applaud us in was incredibly special, and knowing all that many of them went through resonated quite loudly. One woman who I recall standing just after children handed out water and threw flowers on us as we rode past was standing on her porch, gesturing with her hands as if she was giving us her heart, and bawling. This moment made me tear up completely, as it was so emotional and frankly heart-wrenching to imagine the pain she went and continues to go through, and seeing how much it meant to her that we did this ride for people like her. This woman, some 250 miles into the ride, was the most dramatic example of when it hit me that this ride means so much to so many people, and that I was honored to be able to participate. Solidarity in healing I found is extremely important, and I am so, so glad that I was able to show some degree of solidarity to all of these people from Bihac to Srebrenica.