Final Thoughts

In my experience on any type of service trip or short term trip where you are dropped into a country for a short (but extended) period of time, I often catch myself saying things like “I’ll remember this forever” or feeling like I want to make a life change after something impactful in the moment. For me these feelings tend to last for a few weeks and eventually die off. As I’ve taken some time to think back on my experience these past two months there are a few pieces that I feel particularly significant and also some things that I miss already.

Soooo here are some of the things I miss . . .

  1. Rose juice – seriously, there is nothing quite like it
  2. Call to prayer – for some reason this in particular this is what I miss most after I left. Each night as I traveled I kept waiting for it, and was thrown off by the silence.
  3. I don’t miss sharing a room, but I do miss the hooligans that very quickly became good friends.

As I look back on what I hope to remember, I think what stands out most is the stories of the survivors. To me, what is important is remembering the people and their stories, and continuing to have conversations with people here so more can learn about Bosnia. As much as I feel the need to do something, in all honesty there is not much I can do for the country itself. The only thing really is to help these voices be heard. I think for a country that has given me so much both professionally and personally, it’s the least I can do. Hvala, Sarajevo. Vidimo Se.

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The End’s Not Near, It’s Here… Final Thoughts on Bosnia

This time last year, I did not believe that I would be spending my summer interning in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  When I decided to apply for this program, this choice was met with head tilts, questions as to ‘why would you want to do that? Is it even safe?’, and constant requests for me to pull out a map to point it out.  I had never studied war or genocide in depth, and I had never done work in another country for very long.  I wanted to see what I could do and handle, and my experience has not only shown me that I can do this work, but that I must do it.

We went from week to week learning about how this war has impacted Sarajevo and how the genocide in Srebrenica has impacted the country.  Walking for 70 km in someone’s footsteps who may or may not have survived the original Death March during the genocide was a humbling experience never to be forgotten.  Actually going to the International Commission on Missing Persons, seeing their tireless work to find the thousands of people still missing so that their families can have a proper funeral was surreal.  Hearing survivor stories of loss and resilience was emotional, heartbreaking, and oddly up lifting.  This was because of one common theme across the country: HOPE.  These kind, nurturing, always offering you food even if you’ve already had two lunches, people hope for a brighter future for themselves and their families.  They hope that what happened to them can be a warning to the international community about the dire consequences of ‘othering.’  They hope that they can continue to heal the wounds that still feel so fresh twenty-two years later.

I am in awe of a place filled with people such as this.  I am also frustrated and upset that they had to go through conflict that was systematically designed to tear families, friends, and lives apart when ethnic groups were intertwined and content before the war.  This all also happened when I was just a child.  When I was four, I was going to the River Walk in San Antonio with my parents, and my Bosnian counterparts were fleeing the country (without even understanding that they were fleeing) or hunkering down to have their early years under siege, surrounded by shelling and death.  They now live differently because of this.  They think of life and love and happiness differently because they had such an uncertain future for so long.  ‘Live like there is no tomorrow’ is a common theme, along with ‘this whole country needs therapy,’ as well as a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff because at least we aren’t being shot at’ attitude.

I could write about particular days, or moments, or stories, but I feel like at this point in my journey, now that I am home settling into school and life, that I just want to express my gratitude for such an experience.  This has shown me more about life and the importance of community than I ever could have hoped for.  I am honored to have gone, and I know that this was just my first of many journeys to Sarajevo and BiH.  I want to continue to help them move forward in any way that they will have me.  Even if it is just being there, forming a relationship, lending a listening ear to thoughts on life and stories about war over coffee.

Hvala, thank you, and my heart overflows with love and warmth for this wonderful place that is Bosnia and Herzegovina. Until next time, Sarajevo. Dovidjenja.

All roads lead me to you

I have responded to all of my (important) emails, doctors appointments have been scheduled, syllabi printed, meetings set up, and my new apartment has been moved into. Giving myself time to think about Bosnia hasn’t been a priority, though I know it should be. When I think about it though, I wonder what I am supposed to get out of my reflection of this summer. Closure? I’m closing the door on my summer in Bosnia, but I’ll never be ready to stop learning about and exploring everything Bosnia has to offer. I don’t want to find closure because that is giving myself permission to stop thinking about Bosnia and to move on from my experiences when I need to continue learn from them. My summer in Bosnia was life-altering, and I have grown to respect and love Bosnia more than I could imagine loving a country, other than the one I was born and raised in. Thinking about my experiences this summer fills me with so much joy, nostalgia, and love. Love of Bosnia,  especially Sarajevo, but also of the people I spent the summer with. Without our amazing group, all of our experiences would have been so much different. There will always be a part of my soul in Bosnia and I cannot wait to go back, in two years of course.

The Transition

My phone blew up (figuratively) the moment I landed in Chicago on the afternoon of Friday, August 18th.  “Are you coming to work tomorrow?”  I responded as calmly as I could; explaining that I wasn’t coming in until Monday.  However, there was the part of me that felt like texting something back such as, “Are you ****ing serious?  I haven’t seen my kids in two months,  I’m coming back to a house that I’ve never slept in (so it doesn’t even feel like coming ‘home’), and I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a clean pair of skivvies in the morning since all my crap was thrown into boxes by someone else.  No!  I’m not coming to work tomorrow, so take me off the damn flight schedule…I’m resetting my currency on Tuesday!”

It seemed to go downhill from there; finding out Monday about members of my team who had moved on (not to mention the one who had coordinated his departure prior to my absence), 953 emails, and a couple of dozen voice messages….so much for the out-of-office voice prompt.   And of course, everyone seemed to think their crisis was somehow my problem.

Tuesday was a welcome reprieve from the pandemonium.  It felt good to climb back into the cockpit for a few hours and have a sense of normalcy even if it was fleeting.  And fleeting it was; Harvey pummeling Texas with the associated necessity of sourcing crews for response, finalizing end-of-year fiscal execution, coordinating several trips, etc.

So, in a nutshell, my transition home has been less than harmonious although our Pub Theology group provided a supportive forum for sharing my Bosnia experiences.  The processing is still a work in progress and probably will be for some time yet to come.  However, I can look back at the experience and see the faces of friends that I have made; connections which will last a lifetime.  It will not be my last visit to this beautiful land.  After all, I drank of the water from fountain at the old mosque; a portent of ensuring my return.

Being back stateside

I have been back stateside for almost three weeks now and I still don’t know how to explain Bosnia and my experience to people who ask. For my friends who are interested and study genocide, peacebuilding, and development it is easy but for other friends and family, not so much. I’ve been asked ‘How was your trip?’ too many times to count in the past three weeks.

Here’s the short list of questions I’ve been asked:

  1. How was your trip?
  2. What did you do all summer?
  3. What language do they speak?
  4. How was it?
  5. What was it like? Were they different?
  6. Why would you go to Bosnia?

Here’s my answers:

  1. It was wonderful but it wasn’t a trip, not even close to a trip. It was an educational opportunity to learn about the past and present. It was a learning experience. It was a cultural experience. It was a cross-cultural experience. It was Bosnia.
  2. Well, I interned at an adventure tourism company that is contributing to community development in Sarajevo and other towns and cities they work in. Plus, we learned about the Bosnian War and its aftermath.
  3. That’s another interesting question. Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, to outsiders like us all three are the same spoken language but politically in the Balkan region, the three are extremely different.
  4. It was amazingly wonderful and I learned a great deal (see previous answers for the extended answer).
  5. Sarajevo is just like any other European city. Yes, you can still see the scars from the war but everything is as modern as here. No, Bosnians aren’t any different from us.
  6. Why? Why not? Green Visions (my internship) had an advertising campaign a few years ago: Have you ever heard a boring person say, “Let’s go to Bosnia?” Exactly. Brave Enough?

This summer has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life and I am extremely honored to have been able to have learned from the people of Bosnia. Sitting here in my apartment in Denver isn’t so completely different from our hostel in Sarajevo. The mountains are only a quick drive from the city. I live with two other people and two dogs instead of 12 others but learning to share space is no different. I can’t thank Bosnia and its’ people enough for sharing their life with me. One day I will return to Bosnia, one day soon.

Closing thoughts

“How was Bosnia” “Where did you go again?” “How was your trip?”

“Aren’t you glad to be home?”

Through use of this blog and the meaningful photos I shared with friends and family on social media, I did the best I could to encompass the impact this experience and this place had on my soul. To me, this summer in Bosnia was not a vacation. No amount of words would suffice in my answering good intended questions such as these. Rather, I ask that you ask what you wish to know. I want so much to share with you my dear friends the beauty of the rolling hills and varying species of pines and evergreens foreign to our soil. I want to tell you about the purity of the water and its natural turquoise hue. I want to tell you about the generosity of the people and all the lessons to be learned from their humility and resilience. I want to open your eyes to the beauty of Islam and the teachings that carried with me. I want to tell you about the mental health programs I was fortunate enough to help develop for marginalized groups in the community. I want to talk about the friends I made and the truly inspiring individuals I met along the way. On the other end, I could go on and on about how sickened I was witnessing the denial of genocide up close. I could tell you about the confusions of trying to navigate nationalist ideals across the regions when one minute you’re in an accepting place and the next minute you see obscene gestures exemplifying hate and hostility towards different races and religious groups. I want to tell you about witnessing the 71 coffins pass over the crowd after Marš Mira, holding the recently discovered remains of victims from 22 years ago – dug up from the lands we had just walked 60 miles across. I want to share with you the raw emotions we experienced listening to personal accounts of tragedy and loss.

You see, well-intended questions cannot reach the meaning and importance that this summer brought. These questions cannot provide answers that will give this experience the validity that it holds to me. I came back a littler wiser, a lot more curious and ready to leave again.

“…the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters”

I came across the above bit of wisdom while re-reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on a train from Budapest to Bratislava during my post-Bosnia trip. While Sirius Black uses this argument to assuage Harry’s fears that Dolores Umbridge could be working for Lord Voldemort, I think its applicability extends to Muggle society as well.

When learning about genocide, whether in the field or from a book, a lot of people tend to focus on the incomprehensible force of evil that drives the perpetrators, or the innocence of the helpless victims. I’m not trying to argue that Ratko Mladić was simply misunderstood, or that any of Srebrenica’s Bosniak victims and survivors deserved to experience a genocide, but that the default narrative of black and white does a disservice to an understanding of what genocide (or ethnic cleansing, or any other crime against humanity) is.

While the people who order acts of genocide certainly make some appalling decisions, their plans could not be carried out without some level of popular support, or at least apathy. Maybe it’s easier to think that every person who participates in an act of genocide is an evil maniac, but throughout history we’ve seen countless ordinary individuals commit heinous acts in the right confluence of circumstances. And while it’s easy to remember the individual victims of a mass atrocity as “innocent,” their unfortunate and undeserved persecution for their identity does not negate any past misdeeds. Conversely, a lack of agency is not a prerequisite to victimhood; a group that actively resists or with forces fighting back on their behalf can still become the targets of a genocide or other human rights violation.

So why are these Harry Potter-inspired musings relevant to my wrap-up Bosnia blog? In both Bosnia and Rwanda, I’ve had the privilege of meeting genocide survivors, many of whom have stated that their hope when sharing their experiences with outsiders is to prevent future genocides from occurring. If you want to prevent a genocide from happening in the first place, or intervene in a mass atrocity already underway, you have to understand what you’re dealing with. If you’re looking for a “perfect” conflict, in which the roles of villain and victim are clearly dichotomized, you’ll quite possibly analyze the situation incorrectly or mistake it for a “normal” war.

For as much as I’ve heard people with good intentions speak of genocide as an aberration, I’ve yet to hear of a genocide which occurred in a vacuum. Past decisions and relations, and particularly issues which remain unresolved, will continue to affect present and future events. I could play the what-if game until this blog post reaches book length: if the victims of WWII-era Ustaše violence had received adequate recognition or compensation, would there have been enough support for the war in the 1990s? If different leaders had risen to power after Tito’s death, would Yugoslavia have had such a violent demise? If other countries had intervened sooner, would the violence have escalated as it did? These hypotheticals can’t change the past, but they represent considerations that can be taken to prevent future atrocities.

Reconciliation is an extremely important part of sustainable peacebuilding, as it promotes social cohesion. That previous statement is nothing groundbreaking, however I think it is important to emphasize the importance of inclusive reconciliation, meaning that the grievances from parties on all sides of the conflict are aired and addressed appropriately. That’s not to say that one side of a conflict won’t have endured a disproportionate amount of losses and hardship at the hands of another, but that what each side has experienced must be acknowledged.

Bosnia, with its three presidents, two entities, segregated schools, self-segregating population, and prevalent ethno-nationalism, has yet to achieve such a reconciliation. I’m not trying to predict Bosnia’s future from what I learned in two short months, but from what I can tell, the type of social cohesion that can inhibit violence like the Bosnian War has yet to be built. And it seems to me that purposeful separation and a lack of inter-ethnic interaction and relationships are a big part of this. It’s easy to believe that all of the Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs are Death Eaters when you’re repeatedly told of their evil deeds against your kind of people, and you don’t know any of them personally to contradict that idea. Perhaps this mentality is a piece of what does lead otherwise nonviolent people to participate in largescale killings. But we can’t say that definitively without listening to them, no matter how much we might not want to. And it is through listening to all sides that conflict can be effectively understood, resolved and prevented in the future.

Fight hate, fight genocide

There are eight stages to a genocide, according to Gregory H. Stanton, and for each of those stages, there is a range of ways to battle the hate that feeds genocidal mass murder. Today I want to touch on these antidotes to hate but please review Stanton’s Genocide Watch paper (hyperlink above) if you’re interested in learning more.

A List of Ways to Fight Genocide:

  1. Promote mixed categories and actively campaign against ethnic classifications.
  2. Forbid or make insignificant the use of hate symbols and ethnic classification words.
  3. Expose and shut down hate groups and instances of hate speech by necessary means.
  4. Organizations that commit genocide should illegal; members should be arrested and tried and they should be banned from the international community.
  5. Fight polarization by providing financial and technical aid to the moderate center.
  6. If symbolic markers are imposed to make the killing process efficient, a Genocide Watch needs to be declared. Safe areas need to be formed with real military protection.
  7. Once underway, extermination can only be stopped by force.
  8. To overcome denial (the final stage of genocide) requires public trials, truth commissions, and years of education. Impunity must be a thing of the past.

 

Lasting impressions

I am dirty, tired, and broke right now as I sit in my final hostel in Belgrade. But I am also happy. From the gut-reaching first-hand testimonies of genocide in Bosnia to driving over massive mountains passes in Southern Albania my summer in the Balkans has been an extraordinary experience. I am so grateful for the friends I have made, the sights I have seen, the knowledge I have gained, and the stories I have heard.

Living and working in Bosnia though was a double-edged sword. On one hand, I now have a real connection to the country and the culture. I have a vested interest in seeing Bosnia succeed as a nation and Bosnians (regardless of ethnicity) as a people. On the other hand, I am now worried about what the future holds for Bosnia. It is a country that, for better or worse, clings to the recent past of war and mass atrocities and cannot seem to move on. This obsession with the past, in my opinion, is holding Bosnia back and the window for a bright future seems to be getting smaller with the passage of time.

Between ethnically segregated schools, the spread of radical Salafi Islam, an abysmal economy, and ethnonationalism that holds the government and people hostage, Bosnia is a troubled place. It’s a sad state of affairs for a place that holds such promise. The people are wonderful (to foreigners, if not themselves), the food is great, the culture fascinating, and its landscape stunning. It’s paradox that a place with such beauty and promise feels like it’s on the edge. I will be back to Bosnia, and my hope is that the problems I saw have dissipated by the time I’m back. I do not know where my level of confidence is in that hope though. It seems the country is stuck as the rest of the world is slowly leaving it behind and forgotten.

It’s sad to feel this way for a place I have come to know and appreciate deeply. There is hope, however, no matter how bleak the outlook is. There is one thing I am confident in and gives me peace of mind that Bosnia, while on a rocky road will make it out ok, the resilience of Bosnians. They are a damn tough people and if any group can figure out how to fix a broken country it’s probably them. Regardless of what the future holds for Bosnia, I know for sure that I cannot wait to go back.

I can’t believe I’m back in America…

Upon my return to the United States, I was in a sense jet lagged for a week (sorry mom, I know you thought I was just being lazy the whole time). I knew readjusting to having to be places at certain times and not being in such a lax environment would be extremely hard for me, and it was. I’ve been back in the United States two weeks today, and it still feels surreal that I spent an entire summer in Bosnia. I feel like just yesterday I was walking through Bascarsija with my friends, looking for a place to pop into for something small to eat and maybe a beer afterward. I feel like just yesterday I was laughing with Sladjana and Francis, my two roommates, about our squeaky beds and playing “bus karaoke”. How has it already been two weeks?

I’m currently spending a semester in Washington DC taking classes and interning, and whenever there’s an icebreaker, I use living in Bosnia for the summer as my fun fact. The reactions I get are such an interesting mixture of “Where’s Bosnia?” (I’m disgusted by this one considering all of the other students are studying international relations in some context…), “Why would anyone go to Bosnia…let alone for a whole summer?”, and a response of indifference. Looking back on my summer, I wouldn’t trade the experience I had for the world. Yes a war happened there, but it is not an active war zone; the war ended 22 years ago. People have a preconceived notion about places that have suffered from genocide and war, but look at Germany – they have millions of tourists every year. So why is the thought of me spending a whole summer in such a beautiful and accepting country so outlandish?

I made new friends this summer from the University of Denver, and got to know some of the people I already knew, better. I made a lifelong professional connection with my supervisor and look forward to maybe working with him again one day in the future. I learned so much about myself too, especially that I don’t always have to have such a harsh facade up…it is okay to let people in and trust them, which is something I have struggled with for such a long time. Sitting here writing this from my new bed in Washington DC, I miss everything about this summer. I miss running downstairs to Maison Coco for a chicken salad sandwich on some of the best bread I have ever tasted in my life. I miss being able to find a drinkable bottle of wine for 5KM (roughly $2.75). But most of all, I miss all of the people I got to surround myself with this summer. They all made me a better person. Whenever anything strange, unexpected, and just downright absurd happened, it became known as “Bosnian”. Like, a three hour drive down a winding dirt road back from Srebrenica to Sarajevo with Asa sitting on the floor of the van and the van stalling multiple times on the highway…so Bosnian.

It’s strange, being in a new city and not knowing anyone. There’s nobody to ask to go to the pekara with me, or just across the street for a drink. Reintegrating into the society which I was raised in and is all I have ever known has been so much harder than I expected it to be. Like I said before, I knew it would be hard having a structured, organized routine again, even though that is something I’m a fan of, but once you learn to live as part of another society as I did this summer, it’s a strange process coming home. Post-travel depression is something I always thought was a joke, but it’s definitely a real thing.

Thank you Ann for offering me the opportunity to participate in Global Practice Bosnia. Thank you mom for helping me overcome the financial burden that came with this adventure. Thank you to all of my peers for being amazing friends, housemates, and just great people all summer long. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend eight weeks crammed into a small living space with anyone else. But most of all, hvala Sarajevo. I’ll be back.