Second Impressions

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.

marathon start

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Spacial Studies

Recently a co-worker’s daughter told me she was graduating from college with a couple majors and a minor in spacial studies. I had never heard of spacial studies and asked her what it meant. It was the idea that the physical geography of where we live is intricately tied to the way we experience life. For example, Denver is popular because of the Rocky Mountains, would the city of Denver be as popular without them? Would the economy experience such growth? I would argue that Denver’s fate is somehow linked with the physical geography. And, by extension, this realization amplifies the value of what the U.S. stole from both Indigenous Groups and Mexico. Another example are the fates of Jamaica and Guyana. Jamaica’s physical location and beauty have been habitually exploited; whereas, Guyana’s dense forest and dangerous wildlife protect it from the same forms of exploitation. Of course, the idea that our fate is tied to the geography of where we live and sometimes literally to the dirt we walk on, is not my idea. In addition to the emerging field of spacial studies, this concept has been widely accepted by native people all over the world since humans were around.

That said, it made me wonder about how the physical landscape of Bosnia impacts the fate of the people living here. Bosnia’s physical location has deeply and sometimes gravely impacted the identity of the people living here. Empires from the East and the West have occupied this land bringing with them their religions. As early as the 9th century–before “Bosnia” is mentioned in any historical text,  Bosnians were introduced to Christianity. Catholicism took root under the Franciscan Order in the late 1200s, and the Ottomans brought Islam to Bosnia in the mid-1400s. Bosnia is truly a point where East and West fought for identity. These labels from hundreds of years ago tied so dramatically to the value of the land, are the same labels that divided the country during the war in the 1990s. We see this again, at the end of the Ottoman Empire when the Young Turk government lost the Balken Wars, it changed the course of history for the Ottomans–most dramatically for the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. Again, in WWII and the following years of the USSR, Bosnia (then part of Tito’s Yugoslavia) was outside the iron curtain, but wholeheartedly communist. Again, a point where East meets West, and Bosnia, due to its physical placement and vast resources, stood in the gap between. I’m skipping through over a thousand years of history so forgive me for the brevity and simplicity of this argument, but it holds that historically Bosnia is a point between East and West, and the identity of the people here are tied to this quasi-transient location.

Then there are the specific geographic features of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia is forested with plenty of rich arable land with a small but important coastline. To talk about Bosnia and fail to mention water, would be to wholly miss an identity of this place. So many of the roadways and cities fall along the rivers of Bosnia. Clean, crisp natural water flows through the country and is stored in the vast old-growth forests of Sutjeska National Park–known by some as the “lungs of Europe.” And this water, made ever-more significant by the hills and mountains, dictated where people built cities. The cities and most notably, Sarajevo are built along the rivers. There’s an obvious practical reason for this–people need water to survive. So all of this brings me to a point about Sarajevo: if the water wasn’t in the valley, if the land was flat, if the land was dry, if so many other things happened, Sarajevo may not have been built in a valley and the siege may have played out so differently.Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor, water and nature

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There’s an inescapable truth that our surroundings have a hand in our fates, but walking along the river in Sarajevo, it is so beautiful and tragic that water, this necessity of life, would be both the strength of the city and a tragic flaw that made Sarajevo so vulnerable during the siege.

Blog #1: First Impressions

First impressions.

 

My first impression of Bosnia-Herzegovina was, “Where will I find a jacket for this never ending rain?”. After several attempts moonlighting as a old Hollywood actress with my pashmina draped over my head, I finally broke down and bought a cardigan that I could use as a jacket. The moral of that tale is that I did not expect the rain, much as I did not expect the different architecture styles here. It was interesting walking around with our guide and seeing the Ottoman style buildings and Austro-Hungarian buildings co-exist in the old city. It’s interesting to see the city slowly rebuilding after the war, with scars and all. It was exciting to ride in the cable cars, that just recently reopened after being destroyed by the war. The city is slowly putting itself back together after a devastating war and countless suffering. It’s interesting to see the graffiti on the buildings and remnants from the Olympic games, from the eternal flame that I pass everyday on my walk to my internship, to the bobsled run… that was used as a “sniper’s nest” during the war. Also, we visited the Sarajevo History Museum, and toured the collection of artifacts donated and collected from members of the community who lived through the siege during the war.

 

More impressions.

 

When I went to my internship at the CURE Foundation and was greeted by Vedrana, I was immediately put at ease with her easy going nature. We had a tea called Grandmother’s Soul, that I really enjoyed, and finally tracked down at the grocery store. The smell is really calming and relaxing. Ann was saying how the tea always reminds her of Bosnia. The work I will be completing at my internship is similar to my past work with the Talitha Project in Tonga, so I’m excited to see how all of that comes together. I am excited to learn more about what feminism looks like in a post-conflict society such as Bosnia-Herzegovina. The CURE foundation serves as an outlet for the promotion of human rights and feminism throughout the country. The foundation organizes multiple festivals and outreach events throughout the year, and I am thankful that I’m able to work on their largest event- PitchWise. PitchWise is an annual festival which celebrates women’s art and activism here in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During my time at the organization, I have spent my time editing grant proposals and educational materials. The most important thing I have been trying to do is form relationships with my coworkers and supervisors. I like how we start the day with tea and coffee time, and take a break for lunch to share food and talk about our day so far. I’m enjoying my internships focus on community, and how the organization steps in and helps people who are marginalized in society.

 

It’s interesting to see the old contrasting with the new here in Sarajevo, from the new hotels and malls, to the old city with the coppersmiths who have been in business for over 400 years. From the “Sarajevo roses”, some that are original and others that were newly reconstructed after the war to the cable cars, things are slowly rebuilding here and taking shape once more. It was interesting seeing how the Ottoman bath was turned into a marketplace that is used today.

 

A final takeaway for this rambling blog, is that I really appreciate the cafe culture here in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I love that you can spend the day in a coffee shop or cafe engrossed in a book or hanging out with your friends, without any pressure to leave. We visited a tea shop run by a kind old man who looks like a magician and he was so friendly and knowledgeable about his tea products and I can’t wait to go back to see what magic his tea shop holds.

 

Well, you made it this far through the rambles.

 

Dovidenja!

First Impressions

I’ve had such a good experience at my internship at the Center for Healthy Aging so far. On the first day, the center celebrated its seventh year of operation with a party and an art exhibit by its oldest member, a 92 year-old man. His paintings were displayed around the center and they’re going to be exhibited in a museum in Sarajevo pretty soon. Members of the center sang and one of the highlights for me was when a man played the accordion. The director of the center handed out awards to members and staff and Ann was recognized for the work that she has done. After the party, we had cake and as I left, I noticed that some of the members formed a circle were dancing to the accordion music. I really wanted to join in so I’m hoping there will be an accordion at the next party.

My second day at the center was really nice and relaxing as we spent time getting to know the staff and some members. We helped transport artwork from the exhibit to the painter’s home and I was so excited to be welcomed into his apartment. The walls were covered with really amazing paintings and he gave us copies of a large piece that took him four months to paint. I had such a lovely time at his apartment where we chatted with his wife and looked at family photos.

Another highlight of the day was watching one of the center’s staff members make sirnica, which is one of my favorite foods so far. It’s referred to as cheese pie but it’s more like cheese rolled in phyllo dough. I’ve been really curious as to how it’s made so I was fascinated to watch the process. The dough was made from scratch without measuring the ingredients because the lady just knew exactly what to do since she started learning the process when she was eight years old. She stretched the dough out on a tablecloth until it was paper-thin. Then she spread a cheese and egg mixture along the edge and then picked up the tablecloth and shook it so that the dough rolled down. Next, she cut the roll into smaller pieces and formed them into spirals. She also made a meat and potato version. The food was made to celebrate the July birthdays of the staff members. Staff from the other centers came for the party and it was lovely to see the sense of community.

There are four Centers for Healthy Aging in Sarajevo and we spent the first two days at the original one. We’re going to be interning at a different center each day of the week, which I feel like will give me a good opportunity to explore different parts of the city. Today, we went to the second center and we partook in a group exercise activity right off the bat. We did stretches with rubber exercise bands and we definitely worked up a sweat during the 20-minute workout. Afterwards, we hung out with the staff and some of the members of the center and played cards. I had a really nice time just chatting about random things and everyday life. They gave me some tips on good places to get sirnica and other types of local food that is vegetarian friendly. They also mentioned some really cool places around Bosnia that I want to check out while I’m here. Overall, I’m really excited about interning at the Center for Healthy Aging and just getting to know people and hear their stories. I feel like this is going to be a really great cultural experience that I definitely would not have been privileged to have if I had just traveled here on my own.

First Impressions: An account of a first timer’s first week in Sarajevo

I am not going to lie, it was difficult to get to Sarajevo – lots of flights over the course of several hours. However, as soon as we landed I felt instantly comfortable. Having had just under a week to get acclimated and know the city a bit more, I can confidently say I am overwhelmingly ecstatic to be here. A theory that comes to mind is that of cognitive dissonance, the theory that a person can hold two opposing or inconsistent beliefs, thoughts, or attitudes at one time. I don’t think there is a better way to describe my first reactions to Sarajevo. It is overwhelmingly beautiful! Even with a day full of fog and rain, we were able to take in the landscapes and views of the mountains. Immediately following this, we went to the Sarajevo History Museum, where the poetically curated exhibit on the siege devastated me. I was particularly struck that the series showed individuals, including children, trying to flee sniper fire and the heartbreaking result when they couldn’t. I am both a tourist and a student here. I am an outside observer who can only begin the fathom the oppression that people experienced during and after the war. I have only touched the surface of what I am about to learn and experience.

My first impressions of this city are so much more than I thought I would get. I came in holding high expectations of how this trip would set the trajectory for my future career and dramatically increase my knowledge surrounding the region that my family comes from. I knew I would also be affected, but that was marked under uncontrollable uncertainty. Admittedly I have lofty goals set forth, filled with random activities and sites I plan to visit. However, even after a week spent only briefly walking around my home for the next seven weeks, I feel that I have just barely started to chip away on these goals and yet I am so far from experiencing everything I could be.

On another note, the opportunities that we have already been offered at my internship, Wings of Hope, are incredible. It is amazing to see how willing people are to take me in and trust my opinions and abilities without knowing much more about me than my resume. It’s wonderful to see such an effort towards cooperation and collaboration; I wish it were more widespread. I look forward to diving into the many projects I have been assigned and am determined to meet their high expectations.

Additionally, there are the first impressions of all the wonderful people I am traveling with and the experience of being put in a house with people that I have only met for about 18 hours over the course of 10 weeks. I had little expectation of how the relations and living arrangements would go down. However, I have been surprised by the flexibility and ease that we have worked together. It is true what they say about congregating in the kitchen. After living alone since starting graduate school, I typically eat dinner standing or on the couch, but here, even having separate meals, we still eat together. It has been a game changer to have instant support with seven other individuals who are also experiencing Bosnia for the first time. As we all come from different focuses, it is interesting to see our similar and differing reactions to this city and how we are interpreting our surroundings. It is these individuals that are helping me see things I would never have seen before.

Needless to say, Sarajevo has already provided me with wonderful opportunities and resources. I am finding myself feeling pulled to explore more and more each day. Although I made sure to drink from the infamous fountain in old town to make sure that I will be back, I plan to extend my explorations week by week and absorb as much of the city, culture, and people as I can in the short time I have been allotted.

First impressions

After arriving with slightly less luggage than I had brought to the airport it became quickly apparent that language incompatibility may be an issue – while the luggage was soon found and returned quicker than I have had happen in the States, the inquiry about its location and the resulting response were not particularly confidence-inspiring. The first night was quiet, with most of us exhausted from travel and so on. The next day was the first of many with gray skies and rain, but this was not a deterrent that kept us from exploring the city as planned. The old city was immediately quite beautiful and it wasn’t until I glanced up from the awnings and windows that I noticed the scars from shelling and machine gun fire that still plague nearly every wall. It is apparent that life goes on and the conflict is not likely at the forefront of the minds of locals, however to foreigners such as myself, it is all but impossible to ignore what has happened when the architecture remains a constant reminder. I think that the gloomy weather experienced the first several days in the city inspired a greater degree of recognition of these scars, as the sunny skies and warm air that followed seems to have dissolved the constant sadness that initially seemed inescapable.

Living with a group as a whole has provided insight into the situation greater than I would have been able to experience individually, as each member of the program has their own experiences, insights, and knowledge to share about the past and present state of Bosnia. I’m sure these varied perspectives are only likely to broaden as we spend more time together; something that I am looking forward to.

Thursday we began our internships, some more brief than others. Personally, my experience as Atlantic Initiative (for the thirty minutes I was there) was exciting and slightly overwhelming, though I also experienced the laid-back nature of the people of the Balkans, even in the context of an important security analysis firm. The first task assigned will certainly test my research skills, and after a couple days of research I find myself becoming increasingly knowledgeable on the region, Russia, Serbia, various members of the government, and the issues that locals are likely quite familiar with but as an American I had little-to-no knowledge of. I think that it’s a really cool scenario to be placed in as my assignment is two-pronged; firstly, I am able to assist in security research which may have significant influence in meaningful work (a first for me), and secondly, I am able to broaden my knowledge base. In short, I am both providing, as well as gaining a lot of information for and from Atlantic Initiative. My first impressions of the think tank are extremely positive, and I hope that I am able to provide for them something equivalent in value to what they are providing for me.

Outside of the requirements and the program as a whole I have had the opportunity to explore the mountains and neighborhoods surrounding Sarajevo by bike. Nearly every direction I go, the blue and yellow national flags of Bosnia become quickly replaced by the red, white, and blue flags representative of the Serbian population. While the people look the same and speak (essentially) the same language, it is clear that their sense of identity falls with their Serbian heritage rather than BiH as a whole. To be able to experience the geography by bicycle is unlike by car and I think that it is the best way to experience an unfamiliar area. The steepness of the roads here is unlike anything I’ve experienced in America, and that says a lot, coming from Colorado. It made it immediately obvious that the roads were note designed for bicycles, or anyone who wishes to get anywhere quickly, but also is a reminder of the difficulty of the mountains that Bosnians had to pass by one means or another during the war. To quote Ernest Hemingway, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them…. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motorcar only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”

Final Reflections

I debated writing my final blog from Bosnia, that night, after I packed my suitcase in preparation for the long trip back to Colorado. But sleep won out. And I am glad, since it turns out that I needed several days to even begin processing what we experienced in Bosnia.

When asked about the “highlights” of the trip, I find myself internally wincing. Throughout the trip it was emphasized over and over by everyone we spoke to that the hatred, polarization, and othering that tore Bosnia apart can happen anywhere. No country is above it or beyond it. Discussions with other students about the similarities between what happened in Bosnia and what is happening here in the United States were very sobering. And honestly, now that I’m back I can’t stop thinking about it. When discouragement about the state of our country and the future of Bosnia threatens to overwhelm me, I want to remember that there is more than hatred and inhumanity in this story. There is immense kindness and resilience too.

The kindness of Saliha, Hasan, Nino, and so many others we met will always stay with me. They demonstrate such courage and generosity of spirit despite the heartbreak and sorrow they have experienced. After telling us horrible stories of barely surviving the war and losing many loved ones, each survivor thanked US (us!) for being there and wished us well. Many said they hoped this would never happen to us and that we would live happy, healthy lives with the people we love. The survivors of Bosnia asked us for only one thing: that we would tell the story of what happened there, share what we learned, and never let this happen again. It seems like a staggering request, but one I’m already trying to fulfill here at home.

Resilience was the overarching theme I took from the War Childhood Museum. It was a fascinating display, an idea originated by a man who grew up in the war and wanted to tell what being a child during wartime was like. As the story goes, he asked the question to the internet, “what was being a child during war to you?” and got thousands of responses. He began to compile these short answers into a book, and then decided to visit a few of the people who had responded. As he visited and spoke with them, he began to notice that people, even as successful adults decades afterwards, still had relics and remnants of growing up in the war. He realized there was something really unique about a childhood during wartime, and wanted to share this with the world. He collected these relics for a museum display, right alongside the stories of their owners.

One group of children banded together with others in their apartment building to publish a full-on magazine complete with articles and hand-drawn illustrations that was printed in 50-100 copies each month and delivered around the neighborhood. Other exhibits pictured stuffed animals alongside stories of how siblings learned to be friends playing with each other when they had no electricity and were bored. Chalkboards with shrapnel holes and bikes that were used to race through the streets collecting life-saving water were also included.

I appreciated leaving the War Childhood Museum with a feeling unlike that of all the other museums I had encountered. Rather than just walking away with a heavy heart, I found myself in awe of how children are able to process and experience war so differently from adults. And to see the reassurances that the children of these stories were going to college, leading successful careers, and living happy lives was very powerful for me. The entire experience was an encouraging testimony to the ability of children to “bounce back” and make the best of miserable circumstances.

I continue to process all these often-competing concepts of good and evil in the world. And as I tell the story of my trip to friends and family, I discover new bits of the journey that astound me and remember stories that bring me to tears. Bosnia has become a part of me, and I will never forget.

Final Thoughts About My Experience in Bosnia

I have now been home for a week and have been trying to get back into a routine. At times this is hard because of how impactful meeting the survivors throughout Bosnia was to me. When friends and family members ask how my trip was I respond with, “Amazing and sad at the same time.” Bosnia is such a beautiful country yet it has such a dark past that is still very recent compared to how long Bosnia has been mentioned in historical texts. When discussing the genocide with friends and family I emphasize to make sure that they realize that it was the Orthodox Christians and at times Catholics who were waging war and death on Muslims. I feel like this is important especially in current times with the Islamophobia that is occurring in the United States at present time. This was further emphasized by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upholding the administration’s travel ban 3.0. Many of my friends and family have little to no contact with Muslims on a daily basis so all they know is what Fox News, CNN, or other media platforms tell them about the religion. Each person who hosted or spoke to us in Bosnia was a follower of the Islamic faith and their hospitality and generosity was like nothing that I have experienced in my three plus decades of life in the U.S. It is my hope that people in the U.S. would take time to get to know someone who is not like them and maybe we can move forward from where we are now.

As the division continues in the U.S., it becomes more and more parallel to how it was in Bosnia in the early 1990s. The “othering” of a different population than your own is exactly what happened in post-Tito Yugoslavia with the breakup of the different countries based primarily along ethnic lines. In the U.S. members of the left are telling their followers to protest individuals just because they work for the administration and we have members of the right supporting a policy that separates children from their parents at the southern border. Similar to present day Bosnia, the political ideologies need to understand as people we aren’t that much different than the next person. We may have different thoughts about what right looks like and we can still be civil. Bosnia has not been able to make effective strides forward in reconciliation due to the fact that the perpetrators of the atrocities refuse to acknowledge that they happened. It is going to take some strong leadership on all sides to do what needs to be done to take positive steps forward and be civil with each other. Unfortunately, in both countries, there is little encouraging politicians to act in a manner that would advance their country towards compromise and effective governance. Until this status quo changes there will be little confidence in either country’s elected representatives.

I will forever remember the beauty and tragedy that is Bosnia. There is still hope that reconciliation can occur. My biggest takeaway is the amount of resilience that the human spirit can show is amazing. It further reinforces to me that we can be bothered by the little inconveniences of life because there are others that wish that that was the worst thing that they would be dealing with at the time. My experiences have caused me to be introspective to realize what is important in life. Listening to the mothers who lost their sons and husbands I realize that my time with my family is what is most important and the little things like projects, papers, and other school/work related tasks are secondary.

 

First Impressions… Well, Second Impressions

I have been to Bosnia before–more specifically I have been to Mostar in Herzegovina before and so I have a matching passport stamp, but have never really been here.

In many ways a stop in Mostar on a backpacking trip and beginning a summer internship in Sarajevo could not be more different. For one, in Mostar it was so hot that I spent my day running from shade tree to shade tree and eating all the čevapi my belly could handle–we even brought some on the bus. This trip, my umbrella is slowly 36318887_10216674092748433_8217154808214192128_nbecoming an extension of my left arm in addition to the extra layers of clothes. But, these are superficial changes. In the summer of 2016, my world was very different than it is now. I was returning to the U.S. after my Peace Corps adventures excited to return to working in refugee resettlement. Now I am on the other side of several immigration policy shifts that are fundamentally changing how the U.S. views immigration, and I moved across the U.S. to begin a new life in Denver. It has not been an easy few years, and I am intrinsically different than I was in 2016. These changes have impacted the way I travel and the way I see Bosnia in that each interaction seems to carry a significance. There’s the heaviness of knowledge that makes this trip deeper, more meaningful and complicated. This same knowledge also makes me feel more connected to the physical spaces of Sarajevo. Stories live in the stones of the bridges and the paint on the walls. This city is alive and infinitely complicated. I am meeting the city the way you meet a new friend.

In Mostar, I knew very little about the wars in Bosnia. My love for Aleksandar Hemon’s books cast some insight into Bosnian-American identity, but he is not a historian.  I knew the basics of the war, but not many complexities. Now, I have studied Bosnia in small pieces–though I am definitely no expert on it, I am learning as much as I can as quickly as I can. One of the biggest differences is an awareness of the ground I walk on. I recognize the locations that were instrumental in war. I can see the parliament building that burned, the bright yellow former Holiday Inn built for the ’84 olympics that was damaged, the market that was shelled, the bridges that people had to cross to get water from the still-operating brewery, etc. The siege is omnipresent here. Perhaps, these are thoughts based on my role as student, and I’m a bit hyperaware, but it feels unescapable.

As far as Sarajevo, to me, it seems a city of impact. I went to a tea shop ran by a 36343724_10216689534334463_9045525983817367552_nwonderful man named Hussein. He speaks a few words of English, and I speak very few words of Bosnian, but even without language he welcomed us with compassion. He floated from table to table attending to guests, making jokes, meeting people, walking them in and out of his shop. There was a warmth to his place that is very rare in the states. Time here is fluid, and people make time to greet each other. Coffee and tea are served as a center piece for conversation, not on the run. There is a sense of community that makes the states feel lonely. But, there is also a rigid divisiveness that prevails at moments. For example, Sarajevo has lots of street art and some graffiti. The messages range from pronouncements of love to pronouncements of hate. There seem to exist multiple realities in one space.

This contradiction of love in a space of tragedy can be seen in the Jewish Cemetery overlooking the city. A cemetery is a place for resting in peace, for honoring those who came before us, to say that someone was loved and someone mattered. This Jewish cemetery in particular has a memorial to those lost in WWII with special sympathy toward people who were in concentration camps. And this beautiful memorial is the sight of a particularly deadly sniper nest during the world. A site of peace became a site of war. There are bullet holes in gravestones and chunks of missing marble blow away in the war. The point of highlighting these seeming inconsistencies is to say that Bosnia is tragic and beautiful and loving and rigid and complicated beyond my understanding.

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So in closing, I will say that I am grateful to everyone who allows me to be here and I am excited to learn as much as I can while I am here. And, as a disclaimer, these are my first impressions and I do not speak with authority on matters of Bosnia.

Back in Sarajevo- Reflections and Concerns

After 6 days of relative relaxation while visiting friends in Dubrovnik, I’m back at Hotel Kovaci in Sarajevo. Its as if nothing has changed, and simultaneously everything has changed. None of our cohort is here, so I am reflecting alone. As I type I can hear the last call to prayer coming from the nearest Mosque. It’s a comfort to me, and somehow makes me feel less alone. I had a fairly enjoyable van ride back to Sarajevo from our friend and driver Muhamed, and when we crossed the last checkpoint into Bosnia, I realized I was oddly comforted by the sight of Mosques again, which had been noticeably absent in Croatia.

I’m struck by my reaction to this, because I disclosed to our cohort halfway through the trip that I had never before seen a Mosque in real life, and it was an entirely new and foreign experience for me. I’ve been an atheist since my early teens, but my time in Bosnia has often made me feel impressed and humbled by the quiet, respectful faith of the Bosniak Muslims we have met. A lot of my family is Catholic, so it seems reasonable I would feel more at home in largely Catholic Croatia, yet all I could think about when I saw Catholic cathedrals there was the absence of any Mosque. I think it really drove home the point of how divided the Balkans are on ethnic and religious lines. While Yugoslavia was, perhaps in someways, an idealistic utopia that could not last, I think Tito was headed in the right direction. Yugoslavs lived in a mainly secular society, but where they were still welcome to privately practice their own religious ceremonies and beliefs. They did not burn down churches, temples or Mosques. They did not attack others on ethnic or religious grounds. Apart from, perhaps, Sarajevo, all that I have witnessed of the Balkan region seems highly divided. The disparities can be subtle, yet I cannot help to notice them, and feel the tensions hanging in the humid air; these tensions seem to be quietly tucked away, but ever present.

I think it would be impossible for me to fully express how grateful I am to ever person I have encountered on this trip. It is even more impossible to express how grateful I am to the people I was not able to meet, will never be able to meet- those who have passed on, who lost their lives to various tragedies and atrocities during the war. I don’t feel grateful in the way that some might feel towards the soldiers of their country, who they feel lost their lives valiantly in an effort for the ‘greater good.’ I don’t think that there were many ‘martyrs,’ because the majority of the dead wanted no part of a senseless and cruel war. They were innocent victims, who lost their chance at living a full life. So what I am grateful for is their continued presence through their loved ones, through their stories, through their experiences that were captured by photojournalists. Their memories are valuable and important. They existed- even if some Serbian officials and civilians would like to pretend otherwise. Their lives mattered and their deaths mattered.

Tomorrow I will make the long journey back to the U.S., and while I’m excited for the comfort of home (and seeing my dog) I cannot help but feel apprehensive, and even a little sick at the thought of returning to a homeland that is following a trend of nationalism and racial hatred, not unlike such sentiments that led to brutality and genocide in Bosnia and other former countries of Yugoslavia. Muslims are similarly targeted and ‘othered’ in current American society, and the welfare of any person who is presently undocumented in the U.S. is at serious risk. People from neighboring countries to the U.S. (especially Mexico and Central America) are being treated as if they are less human, less worthy of dignity and respect than those that reside slightly north of them. I fear we have already begun to repeat many of the steps that were taken by certain Serbians in the early 90’s, which led to death, destruction, and moral and cultural decay. Why does the greater community state “Never Again” after a genocide, and then state the exact same phrase a few years later? After the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Rwanda, after Bosnia, after Kosovo…is there an end in sight, that can be found intellectually or otherwise? Or are humans merely doomed to repeat the past, and form new tragic histories? I don’t have the answer to these answerless questions, so I can only be more steady in my resolve to challenge myself and others to have courage in the face of fascism, and to not give into nationalist rhetoric that preys on the the civilian fears needed to uphold them. I will not forget what the people of Bosnia have taught me, and I will not forget the warning echoes from the graves.