Final Reflections

I’ve put off writing this post for a while because I’m not sure how to sum up eight weeks of my life in one blog post. Someone recently asked me to list the top three highlights of my time in Bosnia and I had trouble answering that as well. One of the biggest highlights was definitely the Peace March. It’s a little hard to express what that experience meant to me to people at home. I think it’s difficult for people to understand what it was like unless that have experienced it for themselves. One thing that I’ll never forget is the kindness that people expressed towards me during the march. People that I didn’t know prior to the march gave me food, clothes, a place to sleep, carried my bag at times, and walked with me so that I wasn’t alone. In the States, I feel like a lot of people are just looking out for themselves so this experience kind of restored my faith in humanity a bit. If that makes any sense.

One thing that I really miss about Bosnia is the food. Before the trip, I was worried that I would have a hard time finding food that I could eat since I’m a vegetarian. However, I quickly fell in love with sirnica and krompirusha. I ate some almost every day and it always made me so happy.

Another highlight for me was definitely hanging out with the people at my internship, especially the men that took the time to teach me to play chess and the women that I worked out with. The exercise classes at the Centers for Healthy Aging were always a bright spot in my day. They’ve inspired me to go to the gym more now that I’m back in Denver. At one of the centers, the women liked to sing and dance so that was always a joy to watch. The work that Sejdefa is doing with the centers is so important and I think it’s fantastic that more centers are opening up in Bosnia and Macedonia as well.

One thing that I never got over was how crazy beautiful Bosnia is. I was obsessed with the mountains, especially those between Konjic and Mostar. I could drive through the mountains for hours and hours and never get tired of looking at them. It’s sad that such a beautiful country is still littered with so many mines.

Before I travel somewhere new, I try to have as few expectations as possible because you never know what a place is going to be like until you get there. There have been times where I’ve built up a place so much in my head that when I arrived and saw that it was so different than what I expected, I was kind of disappointed. So I had no idea what to expect before I arrived in Bosnia and the country just constantly amazed me. Some of the people that I met blew me away with their courage and stories of survival. When I look back on my summer, the people are always the first thing to come to mind.

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Final Thoughts: Transitions

I’m writing this final blog post from the comforts of my apartment in Denver. It’s been a week since I arrived back in the states and I will say that it has been a whirlwind adjusting to the American lifestyle. My journey back to the United States wasn’t exactly the smoothest sailing. My flight from Istanbul to Chicago was delayed by 4 hours, which meant that I would be missing my connecting flight in Chicago to Denver. As I was surrounded by dozens of my fellow passengers who were angry about the predicament that we were in, I was strangely very calm and relaxed. Albeit, after a whole summer of being abroad, I wanted to be home in my own bed as soon as possible, but the easy-going Bosnian lifestyle definitely rubbed off on me. I knew that it doesn’t help my situation if I were to respond angrily towards the people working at the airline transfer desk. So instead, I did what I imagined most Bosnians would’ve done – found the nearest café, ordered a cappuccino, and waited.  

I never would’ve imagined how much of an impact Sarajevo (as well as the rest of Bosnia) would have on me in such a short period of time. I remember telling a friend on my last day that I couldn’t clearly remember what life was like before living in Sarajevo. I grew used to the simplicity of being able to walk or take public transportation to my internship and to most other places. Since being back in Denver, I’ve had to drive to complete all my errands as no stores are in walking distance and taking public transportation isn’t feasible. I grew to love the frequent cups of Bosnian coffee and I was dismayed when I came to realize that the American coffee was not as delicious as I remembered it to be. I miss seeing the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables at various stands and the mesmerizing smells of the numerous pekaras (bakeries) that I would pass on my way to my internship. I miss my daily walks past the nearby cathedral and through Bašcaršija. 

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, my time in Sarajevo and Bosnia in general has been both life-changing and eye-opening. Before this year, I barely even knew anything about Bosnia aside that it was a part of the former Yugoslavia and that Sarajevo was the site of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. As I learned more about the war and the genocide that took place, I also learned how strong and resilient the people of Bosnia are. What amazes me the most is the non-aggressive manner in which the survivors spoke of their ordeals. I feel that if I was in their shoes, I wouldn’t know if I would be able to reach a point where I can recall my trauma in the same calm and collected state. What has stuck with me the most is when one of the survivors I met mentioned that there has not been a reported incident of revenge. Instead, countless survivors disclosed that their children and grandchildren have been their ultimate revenge because it is a visual demonstration of their continued existence and the furtherance of future generations.  

As a side project for this summer, I interviewed individuals at my internship about something they are proud of. My idea behind this was to highlight the positives because in my own opinion, most of my peers and the people I have met along my travels are only aware of the war and genocide in Bosnia. They don’t know much else about Bosnia. But after spending two months living in Sarajevo, I know that there is so much more to Bosnia than just the pain, tragedy, and violence. As a result, I believe that the least I could do to pay back the generosity that I have received is to show the rest of the world the Bosnia that I had the privilege of seeing.  

Internship

I’ve spent the summer interning at the Centers for Healthy Aging, which have four locations throughout Sarajevo. I’m not really sure how to sum up my experience here in a blog post so I figured I’d just write about what I did at each center last week since it was the best week that I’ve had here.

Monday: I went to the main center, which just celebrated its 7thanniversary. There is a pretty good Buregzenica nearby so I stopped there to pick up some sirnica after I got off the tram. Once I got to the center, I ate and then went to painting class. The women in the class were so friendly and welcoming. I was in awe of their painting abilities, as their paintings looked just like the pictures that they were inspired by. One lady was painting a Monet and it blew my mind.

Tuesday: I walked to the Titova center after stopping at my favorite Buregzenica along the way to pick up some krompirusha, aka potato pie. After eating, I partook in exercise class, which is one of my favorite things to do at the centers. I oftentimes can’t understand the instructions so I just copy what everyone else does. Afterwards, I played games with some of the members as well as the staff. They have a game that is like shuffleboard but isn’t shuffleboard and it’s fun to see how into it people get.

Wednesday: I went to the center up on the hill in Veleshichi. This center is small but it’s really cozy. There are always fresh flowers and a lot of the members bring food and/or drinks to share. The people at this center are super friendly. I played chess for a long time with one of the members who tried teaching me but who also really wanted to beat me. I gave him a run for his money but he ultimately won every game. We took a break from playing chess for English class and then everyone gathered around to listen to a man play the accordion and sing songs. Some of the women at this center really like to sing and they even danced a bit this time, which was fun to watch. I normally take the exercise class with some of the women but the physical therapist was on vacation this week.

Thursday: I went to the closest center, which is less than a five-minute walk from the hostel. There is a guy at this center that has been helping me improve my chess game but unfortunately, he wasn’t there today. I played chess with some of the other men and actually won my first game without my opponent letting me. I’m so bad that my opponents are usually just playing against themselves. I was so slow during a game that my opponent got distracted by the game taking place next to us and I was able to swoop in with a checkmate. This center is relatively small so I usually exercise with the women, play chess with the men and then call it a day.

Overall, I really enjoyed this week because of all the small human interactions that took place despite the language barrier.

White Water Rafting

Before I came to Bosnia, I didn’t really have much of a bucket list of things that I wanted to do this summer but there was one thing on it: white water rafting. When I realized that we’d be driving through Konjic on our way back from Mostar on Friday, I figured it would be the perfect time to go rafting on the Neretva River. I managed to convince a friend to join, booked a last-minute room in a guesthouse and off we went. We lucked out with the guesthouse location as it ended up being really close to the meeting point for our rafting adventure.

We met up with our rafting companions at a restaurant on Saturday morning. Breakfast was included in the trip so we had steaming hot donuts with kajmak and the day was off to a great start. We then piled into a van for the 45-minute drive to the entry point on the river. The mountains between Konjic and Mostar are unreal. I could stare at them for hours and never get tired of them. Once we got to the entry point, we unloaded the gear and put on our wetsuits. We “helped” carry the raft down to the river but I really wasn’t of much help. I held onto the rope as a sign of solidarity but I don’t think I carried much of the weight. To be fair though, the group was moving down the hill so fast that I was just holding on and trying not to wipe out. The river was so cold but it was absolutely beautiful. The water was so clear that you could see the bottom of the river the entire way.

I’ve rafted a couple of times before but this was my first international rafting experience. I figured that the guide would have some type of safety spiel but he just showed us how to hold the paddle and where to sit and that was about it. We just hopped on the raft and away we went. The guide would sometimes tell us the commands in English, such as “left paddle, right paddle, all together,” but he usually said the commands in Bosnian so we didn’t always know what was going on. We would just be going down the rapids and the commands would get louder and louder but we didn’t know if we were supposed to be paddling forward, backwards, on the left, on the right, or ducking into the middle. Needless to say, we had a blast. I figured that if five out of the seven people on the raft knew what was going on, that was probably good enough. At one point, we apparently didn’t follow directions very well and the raft got stuck on some rocks in the middle of a rapid. The guide got out and tried to push us around but when I looked back at one point, he had disappeared. Apparently there was a drop-off that he fell into but he got our raft off the rocks in no time.

The scenery from the raft was amazing. We rode through several canyons, some of which were massive. We also saw some underground springs that led to the river, which was really cool. We stopped a couple of times along the way to swim and have a snack. After the trip, we got dropped back off at the restaurant. Lunch was also included in the trip but we didn’t have time to sit around because we had to catch a bus back to Sarajevo. We got our food to-go and then got dropped off at the bus stop. We didn’t have any utensils to eat with so we just ate with our hands and the food was delicious. The bus pulled up right as we finished and the timing couldn’t have been better. Overall, it was a really good day and I’m entertaining the idea of rafting the Tara before I leave Bosnia.

Back home

The following weeks after Bosnia were filled with many amazing moments as I was able to continue my travels. Despite the breathtaking sites I was seeing, I kept thinking about what I had just experienced in Bosnia. Being in Bosnia and the whole experience is something I will continue to reflect upon and learn from.

 

When I returned home, a friend and I went on a bike ride in the middle of the afternoon, which wasn’t the best idea we had since it was blazing hot and the sun was beating down on us. As we were biking along the path, it suddenly began to pour rain. We quickly turned around and were racing against mother nature to get back to our apartment and out of the rain. On the way back we began laughing uncontrollably. There was something about biking in the rain that instantly made me feel like a kid again. I didn’t care about the rain, or getting wet because it was honestly the most fun I had in a long time. As quickly as the rain and laughter came, the unsettling thoughts of Bosnia’s past flashed in my mind. I felt guilty for being able to experience this when so many were racing bullets instead of the rain. So many children couldn’t ride bikes or play outside during the war for fear of being gunned down. When these thoughts enter my mind, I try to remember the incredible resiliency that was shown throughout the war and genocide. This resiliency is still continued on today, and what I try to explain to anyone that askes about my time in Bosnia. I have had many conversations about Bosnia and the survivors of the war and genocide with people I have just met, and those that have been in my life for years. It takes more than a few minutes to try to explain all of the complicated history, war and genocide, let alone my experience while also trying to tell the stories of those we met with while in Bosnia. I am still processing and trying to decipher what happened so explaining it all to someone else has been a struggle for me. But it is something I must do. We all owe it to the survivors and to ourselves to share the facts of what happened in Bosnia.

 

Although I am no longer in Bosnia, I still feel such a strong connection to the people and the country. I don’t think this will ever change. Even though we were only there for a few weeks, it feels like a lifetime was spent there.

 

I am so thankful for the many people that welcomed us with open arms. The vulnerability of those that shared their stories and their homes with us is something I will cherish and continue to talk about. Sladjana, our program assistant, made this experience more meaningful and powerful by sharing her own personal experience. I cannot put into words the gratitude I have for Ann, our professor, who brought this experience to us and continues to build relationships with the people in Bosnia. One day I hope to return, but for now I will keep talking, sharing, discussing and reflecting.

Final thoughts on a life-changing experience

As the summer has flown by and is starting to come to an end, I sit here to gather my final reflections about my time in Bosnia and realize that not many days have gone by that I haven’t thought about what I experienced in that special country. The people we spent time with, the friendly faces that met us with open arms, the willingness they had to openly share their stories of tragedy, trauma and suffering –and most importantly: resilience. It was truly an experience unlike an other I have ever had.

As is standard when returning from a trip abroad, many friends and family members asked me about my time in Eastern Europe. What was it like? What did you do? Who did you meet? What did you see? And although each time I found myself somewhat giving a varied response, the overwhelming reality of facing these questions time and time again was that I found it very difficult to put words to what we experienced. In that way, I stopped talking about it for a while. I think it was easy for people who are closest to me to pick up on my hesitation to discuss it, too. It’s not an easy conversation, nor one that can be had in a corner of a room at a loud party or easily done around a dinner table with multiple conversations simultaneously taking place. That said, just in the last few weeks, I found myself more willing to put in the time, effort and somewhat draining energy (honestly) that it can take to really give another a good idea of what the experience was like. How it changed the way I look at things. And why.

Although I often find the experiential learning experience hard to revisit, it is one that I wouldn’t change or give up for just about anything — and know will have an impact on my career as a social worker, and more importantly, a human being trying to navigate the somewhat terrifying (politically and otherwise) world we live in. I also recognize the importance of sitting with just why it is so difficult to revisit, and continue to put things in perspective: the two weeks we spent there were fast, often emotionally draining and physically exhausting but my experience was only that way because of the traumatic, life-changing (or ending) events that these Bosnian folks experienced first-hand. There is no comparison and I count myself extremely lucky that I was able to get a better look into the lives of these amazing people because of Ann’s partner/friendships with them over the years, and their willingness to share with us. It’s got to be difficult, I mean think about it. I say I find it difficult to revisit hearing about their stories –imagine how it must feel for them to revisit the horrors, as they recount the experiences and losses for us. It truly takes a selfless and special type of person to be willing to do this. I recognize this and don’t take it for granted. Because reading about the war, the genocide, and all of the atrocities that took place is one thing, right? But being given the opportunity to hear about these topics from those who experienced it is entirely different. And I know that, and find it especially challenging to try to do those voices justice by recounting their stories to others, per their requests. But as promised, I am going to try. It’s truly the least I — and we all–can do. Not just throughout the rest of the summer, but hopefully for the rest of my years, as this experience and those stories are some that I know I will not soon forget.

Mountains

Bosnia-07.jpgI’m constantly amazed by how beautiful Bosnia is. I chose this picture to write about because I’m kind of obsessed with the mountains. I never get bored during long car rides here since the scenery is so amazing to look at. We hiked to Lukomir last weekend, which is Bosnia’s highest and most isolated mountain village. The mountains were unreal. Even though it poured down rain for a while and lightning struck eerily close to our group, I still really enjoyed the experience. I haven’t been taking many photos on this trip so I stole this picture from the internet. I’m not sure where it was taken but I think the mountains look similar to those near Lukomir. Photos don’t do the experience justice though.

Sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend the atrocities that took place in this country since every place that I’ve visited is stunningly beautiful. While on the Peace March, it seemed like every time I came across an amazing view of the mountains, there was a mass grave nearby. And those were only the mass graves that have been found. I probably passed other mass graves that have yet to be discovered. I felt guilty for enjoying the Peace March at times because it really wasn’t supposed to be a happy occasion. I really want to explore all that Bosnia has to offer so I’m really hoping to get in a few more hiking trips this summer.

Journal 6: Photograph of the day

 

 

Journal 6: Photograph of the day

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For this week we had select a photograph and write about it. I decided to pick a picture from my trip this past weekend to Montenegro. I went with a few of my friends from the program here and we had a fun time exploring the cities of Kotor and Budva. In Kotor we walked around the city, which was surrounded by cats, and even went to a cat museum! The cats are apparently descendants of cats who were on the trading ships back in the day that were left behind. In Budva I wasn’t feeling very well, but I did manage to take this photo. I also had some amazing Pad Thai there too… who knew. Throughout Montenegro we were greeted by winding narrow streets and green doors. I’m not sure why I became so obsessed with the doors, but alas. 

 

Anyways, so I chose this photo because I feel that it represents my summer here in Bosnia-Herzegovina… with the door representing all of the opportunities I’ve had and experienced on this trip. I’ve met new DU people from a range of disciplines, worked at an amazing feminist organization, and met some truly amazing people along the way. I’ve had the chance to visit Tito’s bunker, the war crimes court, and go on a crazy hike in the rain in Lukomir. I had the chance to attend the Srebrenica burial that occurs every July, and visit Srebrenica genocide- the failure of the international community and memorial. I’ve visited the ICMP center in Tuzla and met Ramis, the bone man, whose takes time out of his day to collect remains from people who were killed during the genocide.

 

All of this to say is that this trip has opened many doors for me. From shifting my focus away *momentarily* from the South Pacific, I’ve gained a broader perspective on development and what that looks like here in BiH. I’m grateful that I randomly stumbled upon the Global Practice Bosnia handout with Kovaci’s shining face on it and decided to apply, even though the deadline was way long gone. So here’s to new opportunities and life experiences here in BiH. 

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Journal #3: Srebrenica

Journal #3: Srebrenica

 

Last weekend we visited Srebrenica to commemorate the lives lost in the genocide, where over 8,000 people, mostly Bosniak men and boys were killed. I’m not the best at feelings, and don’t really know what to say, so I wrote this.

 

Seeing the white headstones, all in a line

Rain falling throughout the town

Examining what was left of the town, burned out buildings and graffiti

Burning up in the sun/Blemish on the U.N

Racking my brain with how such evil exists in the world

Embarking on a walk to the cemetery and memorial center

Never again

I don’t know what else to say…

Coffins, draped in a green cloth

Anxiously waiting the return of the Peace Marchers

 

Nestled in the town, over run spas remain

Exchanging stories and enjoying dinner with the Peace Marchers and people from all walks of life

Viewing the coffins, being brought into the cemetery from the battery factory

Enforcing the barricades to the cemetery

Renouncing hate in all its forms

 

Feeling a haunting presence in the battery factory, where many lives were lost

Organizing thoughts and feelings

Reflecting on the lives lost in the genocide

Getting a ride back out of the cemetery

Enjoying the company at Annessa’s

Together we remember the lives lost

New Ideas and Affirmations

This past week was a mix of all sorts of new experiences ranging from visiting a war crimes court to my first time crossing an international border by car; of course, the latter was decidedly more upbeat. To start with the war crimes court, we initially visited the UN ICTY Outreach Program, where the international criminal court is able to extend its breadth from Holland to Sarajevo. Here we received a presentation on the functioning of the ICTY and the outreach program, and it truly opened my eyes to the atrocities that were committed during the war. While it is hard to imagine that mass murder in the context of genocide is not as bad as it got, it was explained to us that many of the crimes were – in my opinion – worse than murder. The offenders sometimes capitalized on the physical and mental weakness of the prisoners for the purpose of shaming them in various ways, which is decidedly a more severe method of torture than death. It was truly shocking when we were given concrete examples of some of the crimes committed, and I found myself struggling to comprehend how people can commit such crimes.

The following presentation at the war crimes court was also quite interesting as it focused not on the criminals but on the victims. Specifically we were shown how psychologists at the court are responsible for ensuring that the victims who testify are cared for, as needless to say much of what they speak about is extremely emotional. Considering that one typically only hears about the defendants in a case and their punishments, it was interesting to hear the other side of the story.

On a brighter note, several of us went to Dubrovnik, Croatia to watch and celebrate the World Cup in one of the participating countries. While I am a soccer (football) fan only once every four years, I am consistently a fan of international sports as a whole, and hope to pursue a career where I can combine this interest with my learned knowledge in the security realm. I feel that sports are something that bring people together like nothing else in the world, and I was incredibly excited to get to experience this huge event in Croatia. While Croatia did not beat France, I was both surprised and impressed that the attitude of the thousands of fans in the streets of the Old City of Dubrovnik was nothing but positive. While of course people were sad, at the end of the game there was widespread clapping for France, and a much louder round of applause as the Croatian players were shown on screen. The people of Croatia were so enthused that they had made it that far, and it was truly inspiring to see this much positivity in a scenario where I imaged people would respond with negative energy. This experience built upon my philosophy that sports bring society together and do not divide it, and I’m so glad that I got to experience that for myself.

Beyond this experience I was able to explore yet another country by bike, spending two hot summer afternoons cycling up and down the coast of Croatia while more rational people were relaxing on the beach. I did make sure to get in some beach time as well, but it was not my priority. It would be incomplete to wrap up this blog post without mentioning the eleven hours we spent in the car; not only was it a great opportunity to get to know a couple of the others here, but also a great way to work on my patience while sitting in the border patrol line for 2.5 hours. We got to experience many of the winding mountain roads that Bosnia has to offer that we may not have seen otherwise, as well as several stunning lakes and Dolomite-looking grey rocky mountains protruding well beyond the tree-line. Each of the small towns we passed through each gave us something, whether that was ice cream or human interaction. In short, this week was one for the books, whether that was the beauty of Bosnia, the coast of Croatia, or the confirmation of the rationale behind my fascination of international sports.