Trip to Tuzla and Srebinica

This week took on another mood compared to last week. We started our morning off early by being picked up at Hotel Kovaci by three drivers and Hasan Hasanović. Prior to coming to Bosnia we had been assigned Hasan’s book, “Surviving Srebinica” for our class. It is both a tragic and amazing story that Hasan has been through. It is a tragedy what humans can do to each other and did on Hasan and the other Muslim men, boys, and a few women on the Death March from Srebinica to Tuzla. It is equally amazing at what the human spirit can do in order to survive such tragedy.

Our first stop outside of Sarajevo was at Franck Espresso to get coffee and traditional Bosnian pancakes. They are nothing like American pancakes. It would be a better description of something similar to a wheat pita pocket filled with a homemade cream cheese concoction. It was very good and everything was made from scratch. You could watch the proprietors put the dough into the wood-fired, stone oven to bake. Once everybody got their fill of food and coffee we were on our way to Tuzla and the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) office.

Once we arrived at the ICMP in Tuzla we were greeted by their senior forensic anthropologist, Dragana Vučetić. Dragana talked to us about the mission of the ICMP and how they identify skeletal remains now compared to when they first started in the mid-90s. Originally they placed the recovered remains outside in the open air for family members to come and attempt to identify based upon clothing and personal effects. They then changed their policy and started to take photos of personal effects that were associated with specific human remains and printed them out in a book for families to go through and identify. This process was long and tedious with little success. Once DNA technology became available to the ICMP their identification process became streamlined and many remains were identified each year. They have identified over 6500 of the approximately 8000 victims of the genocide at Srebenica and the surrounding villages. Dragana told us that she feels that there are still at least 1 or 2 mass graves that have yet to be found and she wished that there were more people like the Bone Man, Ramiz Nukic, who walks the hills looking for human bones. She showed us the morgue where all of the remains are kept until identification and burial. As soon as I walked through the door I felt a strong sense of sadness in the room as though I was entering hallowed ground. I was amazed and thankful for people like Dragana to continue their mission to identify every last person so families could have closure and be able to bury their relatives.

Next we went to Saliha Osmanović’s house to hear her story and eat dinner with her. The last footage of her husband was recorded by Serb forces calling his son and other Bosniaks out of the hills after he was captured during the Death March. Saliha lost her husband and two sons during the war. She told us that she has no one left to keep her company and looks forward to each summer when Ann brings her students to visit her. I do not know if I could keep living after having been through what she has. The amount of resilience that she has shown throughout her life is inspriing. She has an amazing house and garden. Her front yard is full of flowers and several different types of fruit bearing trees. In the back her garden is about as long as a basketball court and at least one and half times as wide as one.

On Tuesday we went to the Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide. Hasan met us outside and brought us in to the museum. We started off in the media room where he told us his personal story from his childhood through the aftermath of the war. I strongly recommend his book to understand what it was like to survive the Death March and continue living your life with hope for a better tomorrow. One of the things that Hasan said that was truly amazing was that even after everything that happened with the genocide there has been no retribution by the Bosniaks towards the Serbs. I am doubtful that that would be the case in the U.S. these days. Hasan has done a great job with the curation of the museum. I was very impressed by the story and recreation of the UN base. The cemetary was breathtaking and painful. Nura Mustafić spoke to us there. She is one of the few women who started the Death March with the men. She lost her husband and three sons on the Death March before and after she was captured. Nedžad Avdić then spoke to us. He is one of ten execution site survivors. He talked about his process of working through his silence and eventually deciding to speak out about his experiences during the atrocities. The walls of names reminded me of the U.S. Vietnam War Memorial as it is name after name etched into white stone. It is clear that entire male sides of families were killed during the genocide. I walked up on the hill which is the tallest part of the cemetary to look back and saw thousands of burial markers for each person that was buried there from the genocide. The rows went on and on and until it was hard to see them anymore. It was a sobering sight.

Our last visit was to talk to Ramiz Nukić at his farm outside of Potočari. He also lost family members during the Death March. His farm sits below the site of an ambush sight that occurred while the Bosniak men were on their Death March. After he completes his chores on his farm he goes out into the woods to search for human bones to provide closure to other family members who are still waiting on their loved ones to be identified. He has found over 200 individual remains that have provided closure to numerous people. Ramiz is not compensated in any way by the Bosnian government, ICMP, or family members. He does this out of the goodness of his heart and because he knows what it feels like when you don’t have any closure or body to bury.

These two days have been an exercise in understanding the resilience of the human spirit. I have had my own trauma, though not nearly as much as the people that I have met over the past several days. It can make it frustrating to hear people complain about little things when I have heard what these Bosnians have gone through.


The People Make the Place

Traveling to new places is always full of rich experiences, but for me, the most meaningful experiences are usually the conversations I have and the connections I make with people along the way. Language, however, can either facilitate connection or make it more challenging. Throughout the last few days, I have found myself wishing that I could speak Bosnian more than once; while I am so very grateful that we have the luxury of a constant interpreter, there is something about hearing everything through a third party that creates a slight feeling of detachment. Interaction is limited when it happens through a buffer, particularly because language is nuanced and complicated and so much can get lost in translation.

And yet, at the same time, we still manage to find ways to share and connect with one other. Much as we experienced with Nino–our bus driver on Thursday and Friday—generosity and kindness transcends words. Nino went out of his way to share knowledge with us about Bosnia—even stopping at interesting historical landmarks that were not planned or on our itinerary– to make sure we had plenty of bathroom breaks and group photos, that we got to our destination as quickly and safely as possible, and that we were all feeling comfortable and well. He was warm and kind and so unbelievably patient. It was really nice that he joined us for dinner in Neum Thursday night—I hope he felt as appreciated as he deserved.

Yesterday, our guides on the hike to Lukomir were absolutely wonderful as well. Adis was not only helpful and knowledgeable, but really charming and funny. It felt like such a treat to be able to ask him questions directly… to learn about his parents (his mother is a social worker!) and his family, his various jobs since high school and his passion for the outdoors. Adis also had a very sarcastic sense of humor– which I appreciate—and while we chatted and teased each other on the hike, I realized that even something as simple as laughing with a stranger can deepen an experience and help you feel more connected to a particular place. Later, when we were taking shelter from the rain and resting inside, I was struck by how thoughtful and generous Saliha’s family was, and how much time they spent making sure we— a group of 16– were warm, dry, comfortable and fed. The food and coffee were amazing, to be sure, but the hosts were definitely the best part of the meal.

After lunch, I chatted with Saliha’s daughter, Edina, and we bonded over our love for animals—particularly cows, and their remarkably gentle nature. She told us stories about being a six-year old girl, in the heat of summer, wandering the hills in Lukomir with her grandparent’s cattle. She talked about how her father fought in the war, and how her mother spent the better part of two years without any word from him, being left to draw her own conclusions about his fate. She told me about her mother getting pregnant after her father’s long anticipated return and how this was fairly common for Bosnian women whose husbands worked on the frontlines. When her father left again, her mother would walk almost 27km (one way) to the Tunnel of Hope, while pregnant, with her older sister in tow. She would carry up to 40 kgs, through a city that was raining bullets and artillery shells, simply to buy and sell goods to feed her family. One time, her mother fell in the tunnel and broke all the eggs she had traveled so far to sell—and with one egg costing the equivalent of nearly 10 marks at the time, this was an unimaginable loss. She seemed acutely aware of the sacrifices her parents made to ensure that she and her sister were safe, and expressed a love and gratitude for her parents that was both earnest and salient. And although she also talked about her frustrations with Bosnia’s current system of governance and the manufactured ethnic divide (and tenuous peace) that has come to typify much of the country, she also had so much love for her homeland. Things aren’t perfect here, she said, but she is committed to staying, and doing whatever she can to make a better future for country—a country that her parents, and thousands of others, fought so hard to save. Hundreds of thousands of educated Bosnian youth are leaving the country every year to seek employment in places like Germany and Sweden, but Edina won’t be one of them.

After the drive back, we walked to Bascarsija together and she showed me videos of her cat and pictures of a pet rabbit, and as we laughed about the bunny’s ridiculously fluffy ears, I was reminded of the importance and beauty of simple human connection. Bosnia is an unexpectedly magical place; from the rolling green hills carpeted with wildflowers to the dramatic mountains and the clearest rivers, from the country’s vibrant and complicated history and trauma from war to its undeniable energy, vibrancy and soul– it really is hard not to fall in love. And yet still, the most memorable experiences of this last week truly have been the people we’ve met and the moments we’ve shared with them. Tonight, when we paid a quick visit to Hussein’s whimsical tea- shop, it once again became clear that no matter how beautiful or interesting a city or country might be, it’s really the people that make the place.

Mostar & Neum

We took a break from the bustling city of Sarajevo and travelled to the beautiful city of Neum. On the way there, we stopped in Mostar to admire the Stari Most (Old Bridge). The bridge was destroyed during the war but has since been restored to support the many tourists and locals. The clear, blue water running under the bridge was further enhanced by the lush vegetation growing. The marble on the bridge made it so you had to pay attention to where you were placing your foot, and ultimately to the detail of the hard work put into re-building it. On the UNESCO world heritage site, the bridge is listed as a “symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities.” However they somehow left out that it is still one of the most divided cities in Bosnia in termites of ethnicity. Although it is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, nothing can hide that it is still affected from the recent war. From there we made a long and nauseating trip over the mountains and dropped back down into yet another beautiful city; Neum. Even though it wasn’t as sunny as earlier in the day, the sun was glistening off the water and it honestly looked like a fancy resort on the coast of Italy. Our driver, Nino, made sure we all retrieved our bags safely as we made our way to our rooms for the night. After settling in, we went down just a few stairs to a restaurant that was right on the water. I chose not to swim that night but was able to talk a bit with Nino. A few of us sat down and got to know Nino, who we would come to find out has connections and experiences all over the world. He told us he had been driving for over 35 years. He kept saying that his English was not good, and his German was better. His English was great, and if there was a word neither party knew, we found a way to explain it in a different way. I’m pretty sure I was doing some strange movements that night to try and explain what I was trying to say. Even with the language barrier, it was easily one of the best conversations I have had. When there’s a will, there’s a way! The next day we were able to just relax and enjoy the city for the day. We went swimming in the Adriatic Sea and soaked up the sun. Even though it was such a beautiful day, it was hard for me to stay present and I kept wondering how and why anyone would want to create such destruction in such a beautiful country. It was such a stark contrast between the present situation and experience I was in, and what had happened in this country not too long ago. The day flew by and next thing I knew, we were headed back to Sarajevo and had a long bus ride ahead of us. Nino expertly guided our giant bus on the roads back through the mountains and the tiny roads. Not too long into our trip back, Nicole started to feel sick. Nino spring to action and suggested several options. Ultimately, the decision was made to go to the hospital in Mostar where Nino’s relatives worked. I went in with Sladjana, Ann, Nicole to the hospital. Nino led us into the hospital and after speaking with the staff, we were vaguely directed to one side of the building. Nino took lead and marched us through the empty halls. Eventually, a doctor appeared and brought Nicole into an examination room. It was determined that she was dehydrated but they wanted to run some blood tests just in case. Again, Nino rose to the occasion and was asked to complete the very important task of transporting Nicole’s blood to the lab. I’m not sure the staff even knew Nino’s name but they seemed to trust him enough to find his way to this lab and deliver the blood. I’m curious to know if this is a common occurrence, or maybe they sensed that Nino was a pretty important guy and decided it was better to ask him than the other two Americans sitting on the bench. Ann and I were currently debating to split a pill that was casually laying on the hospital floor so I’m glad they chose Nino to deliver the blood. It was a long night of laughs, yoga, lack of language and delirium but Nicole was given a clean bill of health and we were free to go. Literally. They didn’t charge for the service. The doctor and nurse were so kind and I was incredibly impressed by their welcoming nature and attentiveness. Sladjana, Nicole, and I left the hospital and went out to find the bus was gone. At first I was a little concerned but realized if Nino got us this far he wouldn’t leave us. A few minutes passed and out of this mist appeared Nino with the rest of our group in tow. It was quite the experience but just goes to show the kindness, and love that the people have shown us since arriving in Bosnia. Every day there is someone new that further proves and strengthens this. When I think about the future of this country, I am a bit less anxious as I know I have encountered some of the best people here, and know that good can overcome anything. 

Thoughts from Bosnia

On 13 June we went to the University of Sarajevo to hear from professors from the Faculty of Political Sciences that was organized by Sanela Sadic of the Sarajevo School of Social Work. It was a great opportunity to visit a foreign campus and talk to other professors about family violence, politics, active social work, and the history of social work in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

In our first lecture we learned about the history of family violence (what those from the United States would consider domestic violence) and its prevalence throughout the country. The Bosnian interpretation of violence as taking control and power by physical or psychological means. I was surprised to hear that only in 2003 did family violence become a crime. Prior to the enactment of this legislation that was spearheaded by non-governmental organizations the problem of family violence was considered a private problem. The unfortunate thing is that because of the political system being so complicated in the country that equal application of the law is nearly impossible. It is up to each canton (what we might consider states) how they uphold the law. Becuase of the political system or the history and culture of the country the punishment for family violence is very weak. Unfortunately, similar to my experiences in the U.S., the victims typically stay with their perpetrators their entire life. There is an unfortunate cycle of family violence in the country as most victims grew up around it and see it as a normalized behavior, similar to the perpetrators.

Next we received a lecture on the complex history and political system of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Throughout its history the country has been home to several empires including the Ottoman Empire, from 1463-1878, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from 1878-1918. The country held their first multi-party elections in 1990, 10 years after Tito’s death. There was a rise of nationalism that is reminiscent about the current state of affairs in the United States. Everyone began identifying according to their heritage as Bosnian (Muslim), Croat (Catholic), or Serb (Orthodox Christian). This is the powder keg that set the conditions forthe start of the war. The United Nations recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina as an independent nation in May 1992. The Bosnian war started in 1992 and carried on until 1995. Sarajevo was under siege for 1,365 days, which is the longest siege in modern history. The war was formally ended by the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. Because of this peace accord the country was split into two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. The only thing that I can think of that could be used as an analogy to this is that if at the end of the U.S.’s Civil War there was still a United States as the nation-state and it was split into two: the Union and Confederate states and left like that. Seems like not much of a good idea to me. The Federation is further split into ten different cantons and the lowest form of government are municipalities of which there are 74. Republika Srpska does not have any cantons and is made up of 63 different municipalities. This is where it gets confusing (if it hasn’t already). The country has three presidents! One for each major ethnic group: Bosniak, Serb, and Croat. These state level presidents share time representing the country on the international level and in order to get anything done they have to all be in agreement, which never happens. Each entity level also has a president, so technically the country has five officeholders who have the title of President. Each level of government has its own ministers and councils that makes for a very bloated government. The conservative party and libertarians in the U.S. would lose their minds because of how large the government is overe here. I had heard that roughly 60% of the country’s expenditures is salaries for government employees. They have, throughout the country,  136 ministers, 760 legislators, 1,200 judges and prosecutors all at four different levels of decisionmaking. This amount of bureaucracy and the level of consensus that needs to be made to get anything done effectively ensures that nothing gets done. They have no reason to try and tackle the three biggest problems of Bosnia and Herzegovina: unemployment (over 50% in 2017); poverty (17.9% of the population lives below it); and the labor market (there are very few jobs for young people in the country). There are no changes during elections because everyone votes for their party because of their ethnic identity.

Other topics discussed during the day were a daycare center for street children as it is a real problem in Sarajevo and Mostar, and social work in Bosnia. I have had multiple kids come up to me begging me for money and food. Most often their handlers are lurking around the corner to show or mime them what to do or who to go after. It is disgusting that these kids are exploited that way but because of a lack of funding there aren’t many options for them to be taken off the street. The daycare center only has 30 beds for kids to stay overnight with additional facilities for kids to come and take showers and get a hot meal. The last topic was social work in Bosnia. The University first started teaching social work in 1958, it became a four-year degree in 1985. Back then the country was a communist state of Yugoslavia. Social work was state run until just after Tito died in 1980. The war, I found interestingly, caused social workers to split along ethnic lines as well. Post-war social work in the country is made up of NGOs, alot of them, to the tune of over 20,000. Yet the country and their social problems are no better than during the war, most likely due to the lack of resolve by the politicians.

As you can tell, there are no easy fixes to this complex and beautiful country.

From the Coast to the Mountains

These last couple days have proved to be as interesting, challenging and unique as the beginning. I have learned to expect the unexpected in Bosnia, and that adaptation to changes is something that really must be embraced.

We had the opportunity to spend a day and night on the coast in Neum, which was beautiful, and a welcome change, especially coming from landlocked Colorado! We swam in the Adriatic sea and it was an amazing color of turquoise-green. I have been looking forward to doing some swimming all year, and it really felt like a privilege to be able to partake in that, while I have been dreaming of immersing myself in water after every hot day we trek through. Our driver was SPECTACULAR and I loved talking to him at dinner; he had many interesting stories to share, and though the language difference was a barrier, it did not stop us from connecting and learning.

Today we hiked up Mt Lukomire, in spite of the cool, rainy weather. I am not one to usually hike on a rainy day, so again, it was an expected occurrence I decided to go with, and embrace the experience rather than feel negatively about. At first I was rather annoyed, because we were walking through long wet grass, and my shoes were not waterproof, not did I have any kind of raincoat. If I was in CO, I could easily see myself complaining heavily or turning around. And what a wasted opportunity it would have been, had I decided to ride in the bus rather than brave the cold and rain. It was a beautiful hike, unlike I have ever done before, with more wildflowers than I think I have ever seen in my life. The cool mist made the surrounding mountains look like something out of a fairy tale, or Lord of the Rings, as I kept finding myself thinking about.

It also felt so rewarding to finish the trek, and reach the top of the mountain where the village of Lukomire was. What a comforting feeling to get out of the rain and spend time inside of the warm, humble home of our hosts, who were incredibly gracious and generous. It was quite powerful to see how these Bosnian families live in such a remote area, without access to many comforts of the modern world. I think I was most surprised by the outhouse/toilet, which was simply a hole in the ground inside of a small structure. Before this trip I had never attempted to use such a bathroom, and though it was rather shocking and uncomfortable, it was certainly not an impossibility. It increased my admiration and respect for the people of Bosnia, especially the families in this tiny village. They are strong, resourceful and seem to have an empowerment and sense of self that is entirely their own. Salima and her family made us traditional food that was delicious, and you could tell they were proud of their traditions, no matter how simple their surrounding.

It was really nice to meet Nahima briefly; even though she had not been feeling well after fasting for Ramadan in her old age, she came out to see us all the same. She greeted us with warm smiles, and for me- warm socks! I purchased some colorful socks from her that she had knitted, and it was such a great feeling to wear those home on the bus rather than my soaking wet shoes and socks. I hadn’t expected to be able to get socks from her (likely made from the wool of their mountain sheep!), and it was another reminder to me that things will eventually work out somehow, even in situations that might initially be uncomfortable or out of the norm. I hope that these experiences carry over with me to Denver, so that I can continue to embrace the unexpected and uncomfortable with open arms. Without leaving your comfort zone, some great experiences can be easily missed…

A Bridge, The Sea and Everything In Between

Adventures in Mostar! Phenomenal bridge. A bridge connects the main two sides of Mostar the Croatian and the Serbian side. And I made of purely marble which has been worn smooth as hundreds of visitors has crossed it over hundreds of years. It also hurts when you slip coming down, especially on marble. In case that was a lingering question, there is your answer.

A mosque on the other side of the river has a video of footage of the bridge coming down in 1993 during the war and of the bridge being rebuilt after the war, in the same design. Just the fact that a bridge that has stood since the time of the Ottoman Empire, can fall and erase that portion of history, is something to consider. I wonder what those who built it would have felt to watch it fall, this landmark that connects the two sides of Mostar. To be able to cross it myself and enjoy seafood overlooking a river was a wonderful experience. The river was a breathtaking shade of turquoise, and so clear you could see straight down, even in the deepest parts. Mostar also hosts a diving group that would dive off the bridge. The highlight of Mostar was being able to put my feet in the water under the bridge and look up and try to marvel how all that marble made its way there hundreds of years ago. 

Passing through Mostar and arriving at the coast of the Adriatic Sea was a bumpy ride but a beautiful ride. And according to some, only took abut 20 minutes, though the clock said 4 hours. My perception has been that when traveling through Bosnia, to be fully in the present, you must understand that you will get to your destination, even if you didn’t plan on arriving late. It is the journey that is the true gem of travel in this country.

The view across the Adriatic Sea is nothing like anything I’ve seen before. A salty sea ringed with green mountains, and Croatia in the distance, was a backdrop to remember. The water was chilly, not Colorado cold but it shocked the breath out me each time I jumped in. Being able to spend a day soaking in salt water, trying octopus and eating gelato was wonderful. This must be what traveling as an adult feels like.

The staff and Bosnians that the group has met have been so gracious. At the coast, they joked with us, laughed and even wanted to join in on a video that was going around the table. It was nothing like dining in an American resturant. The camaraderie during something as small as a meal is something I will miss. Though hopefully recreate ine day in my own. The spirit of the Bosnian people can be seen through their generosity and willingness to help all others, not something I’ve experienced in other parts of the world. 

After returning from what felt like a luxurious spa retreat by the sea, a wonderful hike happened. Though before that, there was quick stop at the local hospital to help out a group member and some wonderful ice cream was had at a local gas station. Catching up on FIFA was a treat! So back to the hike. Our group was given a tour through Lukomir on foot. The town is incredible! It is located in the hills outside of Sarajevo and it felt like I was walking through a commercial to travel the hills of Scotland. It was foggy and cold so the mist hanging around the mountain tops was magical. It felt like a strenuous hike at times but the guide was wonderful and brought bananas and dates. It seems that a banana can really come in handy in Bosnia. After reaching Lukomir, our group got to interact with three generations of residents and explore the mountain town. Conclusion: The food will be more that you’ll want and every bit will be worth it; this town makes the most wonderful wooden spoons, and is host to the most scenic view from an outhouse I’ve experienced yet. 

Though it feels like the past few days have been slow, so much has happened. What stands out most of me is the length of history that exists and is recorded in this country. There are still tombstones from medieval times when it was populated by the Celts. They can be seen in Lukomir and are still standing. The most impressive experience for me so far has been that I am constantly blown away by the amount of history Bosnians know and are willing to share, about their country and to readily question the history of others.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page” – There is so much more to Bosnia than war, and for that I am grateful.

And so it begins

“Oh, Bosnia? That’s cool.

So, you got all your shots? Cuz I heard that’s pretty important when you’re traveling in Africa!”

I swear I had this conversation with more than one –-and a slightly different version with more than 2…Americans… before coming to Bosnia for this incredible opportunity. Looking back, it does not seem my geographically well-versed loved ones, nor I, really knew what to expect. Originally, I was drawn to the idea of traveling somewhere I’d never been, and for the opportunity of experiential learning in order to broaden my global perspective in the field. Now having been here for a little more than 48 hours, I am pretty confident I will be taking away more from this experience than I had even anticipated.

My very first impression when landing at the Sarajevo airport was that those from the films I’d seen were right on with their descriptions of the beautiful hills that flank the city. They’re stunning. And, that Ann was right: everyone smokes and there are neither people nor places that are the exception to that rule. But even through the sticky/smoky air, it was clear to see just how beautiful the land and city ‘scapes are here. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit in Western Europe but was immediately thrilled with how different the architecture, culture, and general feel of this city are as I took my first steps through Pigeon Square.

The day that we spent touring the city with Jadranka then piqued my interest further, as we started to delve into the extremely complicated, and deep seated history that makes this special country as it is today. I very much enjoyed having her wealth of knowledge at our disposal; and having the commentary of someone who has such a connection to the city, lived through the war, and is still here to tell the stories made easier to connect and understand (further, but not fully) the complexities. I was really moved by the Jewish cemetery, as well. Honestly, I was a little surprised to hear that Sarajevo is the home of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. 1630 is almost un-relatable to all of us –or myself, at least— given that we hail from the New World. And walking through those arches felt like going back in time.

From the rose bushes hanging over the old stonewalls that border the grounds, to the clear damage on the graves from the frontlines in the 90s. It was all somewhat surreal to think that today it sits with aesthetically alluring scenery, but is rich with tragic history and represents lives lost, in more ways than one. Sure, we get some ‘cool’ history back in the states in places like Philadelphia (woooopwooop, hometown priiiiide – Fly Eagles Fly!) and some others, but especially given that we all live in such a newly settled place like Colorado currently, it was such wonderful exposure to something more. Something older. Something deeper. And deeply complex in its historical values.

And speaking of complex, something I have been trying to wrap my mind around and get a deeper understanding of is the political, religious, and ethnic factors that (arguably) shape the country today. I’ve had a hard time understanding the reasons that sparked the war in the 90s and further, my lack of historical prowess about WWI , the Ottoman, Austro-Hunganian empires, and even the division of Yugoslavia all contribute to my confusion. Clearly my middle and high school history expertise elude me, at this point. I think I need to do some more google searching instead of watching Curb Your Enthusiasm before bed – but…yeah. I digress. Happy to say, however, that I finally feel like I am getting a better grasp. And given that we’re here now, and I’m trying to place some of this intel with what I’m experiencing in the culture each day, it feels prettttttty prettttty prettttty good. Ayyyyy, Larry. (I just asked Sierra if she knew who Larry David is…she said no. So maybe she should do some Curb research. Best show on TV, yall) But anyways……………. The opportunity to hear Professor Osmić speak on the topic…and being able to ask 176 questions…was immensely beneficial. One of the most important take-home points I gathered was how the term ‘ethnicity’ is defined here differently than my understanding of the word. My impression is that here, ethnicity is synonymous with religion, which is synonymous with political affiliation, which encompasses and indicates tradition, and so on.  This not-so-insignificant detail was huge for me in order to properly grasp what is means when people are describing the “ethnic cleansing” that went on, and how certain areas are now “ethnically clean”. I had a really hard time understanding how a war that seemed to overwhelming persecute Muslims was not a religious war, nor was it internal. Or, as I’ve been told: “well yes, both those things. But also neither of those things.” Point being: the centuries of history that are so evident with every turn here are actually rather essential to understand in order to make sense of something that truly seems…pretty senseless, indeed. But I’m gettin’ there! And excited to see what’s next.

the first few days.

Day 1. I arrived in the afternoon along with two other students. Sladjana and our wonderful driver helped us get our bags into the van and we took off for the hotel. The windy roads and the large van didn’t seem like the best match but our driver successfully and smoothly managed to get us to our hotel. After saying hello to the rest of the group, we set off to get dinner. After only a few short minutes of walking through the rain and the plethora of pigeons, we made it to the restaurant. We ordered a traditional food that resembled something of a mix between pastry dough, meat, vegetables and cheese. It was really filling and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Arriving seems like such a whirlwind and the last thing I remember is finally getting into bed to get some much needed rest.
Day 2. We all loaded into a bus the next morning andI was even further surprised about the size of the vehicle and the size of the roads. Again, our driver somehow managed to get us to our destination in one piece. First we drove around the town and our guide pointed out some of buildings and sights to see on our way to look at the Olympic soccer field. Once we arrived, our guide further explained the field and the damages that occurred during the war. It was so interesting to see an area that was once hosted the Olympic Games now have massive graves surrounding it. The greenery and sights were so incredibly beautiful from where we stood. The red of the houses, and the lush landscape was in such contrast with the horror of the history of what happened here less than 5 years ago. Next, we went to the Tunnel of Hope. It was inspiring to see one of the ways that people were fighting back to gain freedom. The tunnel provided several benefits for those living in Sarajevo to much needed supplies and resources. From here, we took off on the bus to a beautiful hotel up on the hill. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch as we took in the scenery and the beauty of the hotel. From here, we traveled back down to one of the oldest an largest Jewish cemetery’s. We explored the cemetery and saw the damage that had happened during the war. Our guide told us about the shootings and killings that occurred in the cemetery during a funeral. It was chilling to hear of such destruction that occurred even during a funeral. After this, we walked to the cable car that brought us back up the hill to the old bobsled track. It was a bit eerie walking on the racetrack knowing that it was once used by snipers when it originally brought so much joy to the community. Now, it has been repaired a bit and used for different activities such as skating and rollerblading. There was a lot of graffiti along the way and a few choice words directed at the U.S. president. This made me chuckle and of course a few of us took some pictures. After we made our way back down, we had a quick little walking tour on the way back to our hotel. We went to dinner at the brewery and listened to the band play songs for a table next to us.
Day 3. I accidentally first typed Day 33 but I almost left it because today seemed like a lifetime had passed due to everything we covered. We went to the university where we heard from a variety of speakers about the history of Bosnia and the current government organization, and social work agencies here in Bosnia. I already struggle with understanding the U.S government so trying to fully understand the government in Bosnia is a tough thing to tackle so I am not even going to try and explain it here. I was able to watch a documentary before I came about Bosnia and a band that had visited during the war. It made me realize how important the arts and music are for helping people make sense of what is happening around them. It reminded me of when I was in the Czech Republic and went to Terezin. Terezin was a concentration camp and inside were several exhibits of plays and art that was created by the Jewish community being imprisoned there. I remember my professor explaining to us that there was not much to do while being imprisoned, and that creating plays, art, and poetry was one small thing they were able to create and control. Even during times of horrific acts and war, people have found ways to connect with others through art and music and it was no different here in Bosnia.

First impressions in Sarajevo

I mentally prepared myself for the class trip to Bosnia by reading as much as I could about the history and culture there, and anticipating that witnessing the remnants of the Bosnian War would be tough to digest, as well as listening to first hand accounts of the experiences of those affected by the war. I also anticipated that I might be overwhelmed by all the new information that I would learn in Bosnia. After spending just two days in Sarajevo so far, I have realized that my anticipation is true and then some. I feel as though I am in an emotional and physical daze to an extent. I am a visual person, so I tried to visualize standing in front of buildings damaged by artillery rounds. Actually doing so seems surreal. All the information and thoughts from class and readings come flooding in, and I am left standing there in disbelief that something like this can happen to a European capital, and less than 25 years ago.

The first day of the class exploration of Sarajevo took us to several sights involved in the Bosnian War in one way or another. I was most struck by our visit to the Old Jewish Cemetary, which is almost 500 years old. The cemetery sits on the side of a hill and has beautiful views looking north towards the city. Almost immediately one can’t help but notice the damage done to numerous gravestones during the Bosnian conflict. The sight of this again left me flooded with thoughts about the circumstances surrounding how the damage was done. Did the Serb forces fire down on civilians or Bosniak forces in the cemetery? During what stage of the war did this happen? Then I noticed that a couple mortar shells had damaged a large monument erected in honor of Jewish persons who lost their lives during World War II. My thoughts went to the first client I had for my internship with the Senior Solutions Department at Jewish Family Services. My client was a survivor of the Holocaust. She lost several members of her family due to the Holocaust, watching at age 14 her younger brother, mother, and father being separated from her at the Łódź ghetto in Poland and never seeing them again. Three weeks before my client passed away, she let me read her handwritten account of what happened to her during her time in the ghetto and several other concentration camps. What stood out the most while reading her harrowing ordeal was a description of a forced march where Nazi officers led over 100 prisoners to an old graveyard in Łódź, and as the prisoners marched the officers shot those who were falling behind and couldn’t keep up. They forced the rest to step over the dead and continue the journey. Once at the graveyard, the officers forced the remaining prisoners to dig a mass grave. Many more prisoners perished. My client felt immense relief to survive that ordeal, but she described the absolute horror and fear she felt while on the march that she thought would lead to certain death.

My client’s experiences had a profound affect on me, and my brief work with her was a big motivator for me to learn as much as I can about conflicts past and present that involve crimes against humanity. I realize that learning about them in the classroom and in books is one thing, but learning about them in the places that they occurred in is entirely different. This learning experience so far has been very rewarding and challenging at the same time. The pace is fast and the content is obviously heavy, but I am very much looking forward to the next challenges ahead.

First Impressions

First Impressions of Bosnia
It’s hard to describe Bosnia because there is so much to take in. To start, it’s a feast for the eyes. The City of Sarajevo is bright and alive, an orange gemstone of terracotta tiled rooftops nestled within a setting of deep green forested mountains. The beauty of the landscape is stunning.

The City is also a feast for the stomach. Everywhere I go I am greeted by the scent of something delicious cooking. It seems as if someone is baking fresh bread on nearly every corner. Freshly baked breads and rolls come in all shapes and sizes and are filled with impossibly delicious combinations of savory meats and cheeses and decadent nuts and chocolates.

On our first day we visited a 24 hour bakery – and I have been back several times. Bhutloh is a large roll of sweet and chewy white bread that hides within it a mess of gooey, chocolate hazelnut spread. It is delicious and… dangerous. Did I mention there is a 24 hour bakery within walking distance from our hotel? I have had several of these and anticipate eating many, many more during the course of my stay here.

I am also in love with the architecture and sense of history in Sarajevo. This is a very, very old city with a rich history. However, it’s so authentic it almost seems unreal to me, like a movie set. Shady nooks and cobblestone lined paths lead to buildings that are hundreds of years old. Down one cobble stone street is a han some 500 years old, its ground floor currently occupied by cafes and shops. It looks like the setting of a scene from an India Jones movie. But it’s not. It’s the real deal. It existed hundreds of years before Hollywood dreamed up the iconic archaeologist. Head the other direction, and low and behold I’m in Vienna! Pastries everywhere. Did I mention the bakeries already?

The gondola has only just reopened and I was fortunate to be able to take it all the way to the top and visit the bobsled run from the 1984 Olympic Games held in Sarajevo. The view was incredible! And yet, it was impossible to take in the view without contemplating the siege. The view, beautiful as it is, also afforded snipers, hidden in the very hills below the gondola, and on top of the bobsled run, an unobstructed sight line into the city – and to its inhabitants. It is difficult to understand how the scene of an event designed to bring people together through sport could also provide the infrastructure for systematic killing of the civilian citizens of Sarajevo.

Contemplating the Olympics in Sarajevo is particularly poignant for me because it is entirely possible I watched the bobsled races that occurred here in 1984. Walking the run was therefore, surreal. Exciting to be on a structure I saw on television as a child, yet horrifying to know the way the structure’s purpose had been changed.

On our first day as we drove into the City from the airport I was quite mesmerized by the beauty of this place. And yet, I’m also struck by the fact that this landscape, lovely as it is for me to look at now, lent itself to something quite different and extraordinarily horrible during the siege from 1992-1995. The wooded area is amazingly close to the City, much closer than I had realized when reading about it. Standing on a hillside looking down into the City, I cannot help but wonder at how the people of Sarajevo survived for 3 years – and also to marvel at their resiliency.

And so it is, my initial impression is quite simply that Sarajevo is breathtaking in every sense of the word. Breathtaking beauty. Breathtaking scenery. Breathtaking desserts! But also, breathtaking sadness.