Coffee and Chess

For those who know me very well, I have a fairly Type-A personality and like to have things in a certain way because a sense of order and familiarity is calming for me. Of course, this had led to occasional contentions with my significant other because not having things put away in places where they “belong” flusters me. In a sharp contrast, Bosnia moves on a slower and less precise manner. Many questions about logistics are often met with “it depends” or “we’ll find out later.” Coffee breaks are a frequent and valued fixture of daily life. As expected with my Type-A personality, it was rather difficult to adjust to such a laidback lifestyle at first because I’m the kind of person that likes to have all the answers and details in order to organize every aspect of my life. But adjusting to the laidback culture here has proven to be a much-needed intervention for me.  

During the school year, I often found myself stressed out and exhausted, which led to a compromised immune system and frequently being sick, due to a hectic school schedule, internship, and part-time job while also trying to balance a social life. Here I can feel how much my internship supervisor and colleagues care about me. At the slightest bit of a yawn, they immediately offer to make me some coffee. I’m frequently asked if I’m hungry or told that to just relax a little bit. Even when I was sick with a fever and stomach bug, my supervisor checked-in on me at least once a day and consistently asked if there was anything that she could get for me. What I appreciate most is how much Bosnians are willing to share, whether it is extra food or personal details about their lives. Their approach to interactions is so incredibly warm and authentic. Furthermore, the most amazing change for me is not having to feel that my self-worth is solely based on my productivity. Although there are projects and tasks here and there, our days are mostly unstructured as we are encouraged to build relationships with colleagues and the members that frequent the Centers for Healthy Aging. I feel that open communication and relationship building is often the best way to learn about a community because you can witness a person’s life and how it has been shaped by certain factors and events in their lives. 

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Lately, my new favorite activity has been playing chess with the male members. I’m not very good and I often try to preface that before beginning a new game, but I like how it is something that I can do to bond with the members as there is no specific need to know the same language. Regardless of one’s grasp of English or Bosnian, the game of chess remains the same. I have not won a single game since starting my internship, but I find a sense of peace when watching a game of chess because it is something that I can understand amongst all the confusion of being in a foreign country where I don’t know the language. I also tend to be a bit shy when surrounded by a lot of people I don’t know, especially if I feel embarrassed about not being able to speak their language. Chess has been an effective way for me to bridge the language barrier because I can often use context clues. Usually, I can figure out what they’re saying when they shake their heads or laugh at a certain move I made. Our games typically end up with me receiving help from my opponents as they either take pity on me or want the game to last longer. Although I may not be very good at chess, I’m grateful for there being a universal activity that I can engage in with the members as otherwise, I would only be able to interact with them through a translator, which may feel less authentic. Of course, my goal is to get better at chess, but if I still have zero wins at the end of the summer, but amazing memories with the members and my colleagues, I think I still found a way to win.   

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In someone else’s shoes

On July 15, 1995, Bosnian Serb armies infiltrated the UN declared safe haven of Srebrenica. Approximately 15,000 Bosniak men made the brave and dangerous decision to flee on foot to the free territory of Tuzla. Having to march in a single-file line because of landmines, these men were largely unarmed and ill-equipped for the treacherous journey. Of the 15,000 men who started out, only about 3,500 men survived. This tragedy has become known as the Death March.

 

I had the privilege and honor of participating in this year’s Peace March, a three-day 60-mile annual walking campaign, that raises awareness about the genocide that took place, how the international community failed Bosnia, and to honor the lives that were lost. This was the hardest thing that I have ever done, but at the end of the day, I was safe. I didn’t have to fear for my life or worry that we were going to be ambushed. When things got tough or I needed help, there was always someone willing to provide a hand. As we marched through various towns, we were met with families handing out food and drinks that they had saved up all year for the march. On the second day of the march, I had an extremely difficult time because my Nikes did not have as much traction as I thought they would and I was unable to climb the mountains due to the rain and muddy trails. I was having such a tough time that I even contemplated calling it a day and asking for a ride to camp at the next Red Cross tent. But right when I stumbled for the hundredth time, a man reached out to grab my elbow and steadied me. He didn’t speak any English, but this man was the sole reason why I was able to finish that day’s hike. Without any complaints, he had helped/pulled me up a mountain for at least 5 miles. Afterwards, we met up with one of his friends who did speak English and I was expressing my immense gratitude for all the help that I had received that day. The man simply told me “that’s the Bosnian way, we lend help when we see that it is needed.” I must have said thank you and hvala a million times that day because my new friends ended up telling me to stop saying thank you so much as “thank you isn’t needed when helping someone in trouble.” I am completely in awe of the strength, resiliency, and generosity of Bosnians even in the face of such adversity.

37070646_10212049428652137_928602737195614208_o.jpgAt the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, no singular event has ever changed my life as much as the Peace March has. Before the start of the march, my classmates and I met two older Bosnian women who were marching for the sons that they had lost. One of them had started out on the original Death March with her sons before being forced into surrendering to the Bosnian Serb armies. For two women who have lost so much in their lifetime, they were so kind and welcoming to random American students that they had just met. Having the opportunity to march with them was such an invaluable experience because I learned so much more from survivors and family members of survivors from the Srebrenica genocide and the Death March than I ever could from textbooks and videos. I chose to march because my parents were refugees and survived a war as well. It is because of them that I had the luck and privilege of being born in the United States. I marched for those who were not as lucky as I was. I marched for those who had lost a father, uncle, brother, or son. I marched because there is so much more we need to do to aid in Bosnia’s healing as a country.

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Leaving Sarajevo

Leaving Sarajevo was a bittersweet moment for me – I was filled with the excitement of continuing my travels, while at the same time feeling sad my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina was coming to an end. Now, as I sit writing this final blog, at home in Colorado, I am able to reflect on my time in Sarajevo, Mostar, Neum, Lukamir, Konjić, Tuzla, and Srebrenica.

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I admit that before taking this course and traveling to Bosnia, I knew very little about the rich history of the country. My time in Bosnia was spent observing aspects of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences, discovering WWI and WWII significance of areas and events, and, of course, learning about the conflict and tensions that led to and fueled the war in the 90’s. I was struck by how layered the history is and how it is possible to perhaps make connections between the various conflicts that touched Bosnia and the underlying ethnic tensions.

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Photo retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federation_of_Bosnia_and_Herzegovina

I think, again, of my first impressions walking through the marketplace near our hotel: that of a diverse Bosnia. This stemmed from having seen the Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Mosque, and Synagogue all within a few streets of one-another. Understanding the history and the current tensions pierced this illusion and led me to wonder how healing might occur when the country is divided into two parts and the education systems between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska differ in their content and message. How can a country heal and become one when it is so divided? I think, too, of how the people can heal on an individual level when members of part of the country deny that atrocities were committed against members of the other part of the country. Is it possible to heal and move forward when one’s children are taught that their parents’ lived experiences never happened?

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I remember we stopped, as we drove in our vans from Tuzla to Srebrenica, below a mosque atop a cliff. This Ottoman-era mosque was destroyed in the war and had been rebuilt roughly 5 years ago. You can’t access this mosque by road and instead have to make the trek up to the top of the cliff to reach it. This made me think of healing and moving forward. That perhaps simply moving forward is a means of healing.

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When I returned to Colorado, I was asked by family and friends what the biggest take-away I have from my experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I had no hesitation to reply the resilience of the people – not just to survive and keep going, but to continue loving and connecting. The ability to lose so much and still have kindness and still choose not to hate. I cannot easily, nor do I think it possible at all, to put into words the profound impact that has had on my understanding of the war and of people. As a budding social worker, I know this recognition and insight will carry me forward and remind me the importance of speaking out against polarization and hatred – meeting it with love and compassion. While my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina is at an end, I will continue to tell the stories that have been told to me — following the hopes of those whose stories they are that their stories are told.

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My time in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a rollercoaster of emotions. I feel I am changed by my experiences and know more than I did before this journey. I’ve learned the importance of seeing the thorns with the roses, finding the light in the darkness, and understanding that rain can represent both sadness and new beginnings.

Initial Impressions: First Week in Sarajevo

I have been in Sarajevo now for almost five full days and truthfully, I haven’t been out as much as I should be because of how much it has been pouring rain. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to just slow down a bit. With the abundance of free time, I have been reflecting a lot on what the next 7 weeks will look like. How do I process the events of the genocide and, more importantly, the lived experiences of the people that I will be meeting? Where do I find the best čevapi? What are the most promising ways for me to interact with individuals through my internship placement without exploiting their lived experiences?

My first day meeting with my supervisor, Sejdefa Bašić Ćadić, coincided with the seventh anniversary of the opening of the first Center for Healthy Aging. Right from the beginning of our arrival, we were already met with such genuine and warm hospitality. They even shared their lunch with the four of us! Because of the need to have things ready for the party and the arrival of (very) early guests and media, our time with Sejdefa was short, but still incredibly impactful. We learned how the center grew from a unique idea in wanting to establish a much-needed sense of community to the opening of the first center, where they were unsure if this idea would be successful. Currently, the success of the Center for Healthy Aging is demonstrated through the existence of numerous other centers throughout Sarajevo and Bosnia; this success continues to grow as Sejdefa was recently in Macedonia helping to implement their own Center for Healthy Aging!

My actual first day at the internship was met with even more Bosnian hospitality. Our first task was to help deliver some paintings for a member of the center who had just hosted his fifth art exhibition during the anniversary party. Even though they didn’t know any English, the artist and his wife were so welcoming and apologized profusely for not having any cookies or cakes to share. But they were so proud to give us a tour of their home and so excited to show us their albums of family photos. We were even gifted a copy of a painting of Sarajevo that the artist made for a collector (which is now proudly displayed in my room at the hostel). At the end of our visit, I realized that not many words were exchanged directly (Sejdefa acted as our translator), but the human interaction was so pure and authentic in that even though we were only able to communicate through smiles and gestures, I felt that we were still able to form a connection.

The rest of the day was spent exchanging personal stories and learning Bosnian words. We even had the amazing opportunity to learn how to make traditional Bosnian pies. I shared my story as a child of Vietnam War refugees and while I had the privilege of being born and raised in the United States, my parents’ experience of being refugees in their own country and subsequently being forcibly displaced was a large reason behind my desire to come to Sarajevo. It was incredibly humbling to share stories as I could not fathom the strength and resiliency it takes to live my life under siege. What I love most so far about my interactions with people have been the sheer generosity and kindness, even in our initial meetings. I have never met a community of individuals who are so willing to give and share and welcome strangers with open arms despite all that they have been through. If there is anything I hope to take away at the end of my stay here in Sarajevo, it is that I hope to be as gracious and compassionate.

 

Souvenirs

I started writing this on a dreary, rainy day in Žabljak, Montenegro, a small town that is surrounded by landscapes that feel like they must have inspired Tolkien himself. It’s the kind of physical beauty that reminds me that there is magic in this world. Intermittent peaks jut from the earth, creating towering canyon walls that hold the setting sun like a spirit. Sheep and cattle herders guide their flock, bathed in a peach lantern luminescence, to houses that stand as pointed, abrupt, and lonely as the peaks themselves.

But today, the fog is thick and it’s difficult to see 100 feet out the window. Surely there is magic in this too, but at the moment it carries a substantial weight, a perfect alignment of the physical world and the emotional one following our two weeks in Bosnia. In this setting, time moves in an irregular way, and I can’t help but think that perhaps this warp exists permanently in Bosnia. There is no shortage of cliché to describe time and its impossibly fast — but often just as slow — passing, but there is something about our stay in that enigmatic country that muddies perception. It was a fog, a blur, a blink of an eye, a plunge (can we really be done? Can it really be over?). No matter what I want to call it, it is steeped in meaning and feeling that is visceral. Everywhere I look, every interaction I have, every person I see somehow reminds me of my time spent in Bosnia. It grips my ribcage. It is in my footsteps and it is in my shadow.

Speaking in these abstractions may feel dramatic, but it also feels necessary because finding the proper words to describe such an overwhelming experience really is impossible. Perhaps more important than finding the right words, however, is finding the right action in response to those emotions.

Because I am traveling for a number of days following our class in Bosnia, I was able to stay to listen to Ann give a presentation at the University of Sarajevo’s Economics Faculty. Her talk covered the connections between nationalism here in the Balkans and the rise of nationalism under our current administration in the United States, and it was a sobering one. While anyone who has been paying attention to the social and political climate in the United States can clearly see the rise of the vitriolic “us vs. them” mentality, the “othering,” the America first ideology, what might be more difficult to identify is the consequences of these changes — although, really, that’s pretty hard to miss, too. As Ann highlighted, there are currently 954 hate groups in the United States, and the FBI recently released statistics charting an increase in hate crimes corresponding to Trump’s rise to political prominence. Ann tactfully and concisely charted the rhetoric Trump used and continues espouse, highlighting the danger of labeling, of referring to a group of people as animals — a danger that is all-too-familiar for Bosnians — and how these same techniques have been used in every genocide.

In this context, the recent spate of Supreme Court rulings are as alarming as they are discouraging, with the decision to uphold the third iteration of the Muslim Ban particularly devastating. The legality of the president’s authority aside, the underlying racism and prejudice are terrifying and demand action. We already know what happens when we go down this road, and despite our cries of “Never again!” genocide is happening now, in Myanmar, in Yemen, in south Sudan, in Iraq and Syria.

It can happen anywhere. This was a refrain of the survivors we met in Bosnia and it must be taken to heart, maybe the most important souvenir I can bring home. 

Lasting Impressions

I will never forget the constant reminders throughout the city of Sarajevo and the Bosnian countryside that a brutal war occurred in the country less than 25 years ago. One could not escape the reminder if they tried. From the “Sarajevo Rose” mortar shell scars on city sidewalks and roads to the bullet holes and mortar strikes leaving their marks on buildings, the reminders were seemingly everywhere, including when observing some of the people navigating daily life. I felt the shock of war’s unfortunate reality when on several occasions I noticed people who had lost an arm or a leg. As a result, each time I was reminded of the war my mind raced back to the readings and videos I consumed before embarking to Bosnia, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the circumstances and actions that caused the visible scars to some of the people and infrastructure that encompass Bosnia.

I cannot overstate the importance of continuing to talk about the atrocities that occurred in the Balkans in the 1990s. History will have a harder time repeating itself if there is open dialogue concerning the factors that led to atrocities in the first place, and the factors that need to be avoided so that they don’t happen again. Victims’ stories of tragedy and survival are vitally important to not be ignored because they bring an extremely powerful personal narrative that allows the audience to relive the experience with the victim and attempt to put themselves in the victim’s shoes. That said, victims have the choice to not speak about their tragic experiences, and no one should judge a person based on their choice. The choice is a very personal one and whatever the person chooses is the right one for them.

I spoke briefly in a previous blog about our class having the opportunity to hear a firsthand account of survival from a Srebrenica genocide survivor. A member of the audience from a separate group than us spoke out after the survivor, Nejad, finished telling his harrowing story in great detail. The person thanked Nejad for sharing his story, but then said in more or less words that there is a time to be silent after sharing experiences. I am in disbelief that this man had the audacity to say such an insensitive thing to a person who just told a gut-wrenching story of survival in the midst of hatred, and attempted to control this person by threatening his right to speak freely. I believe my other classmates would agree  with me when I say that I was happy and proud to hear our professor immediately respond by telling Nejad, “please never be silent.”

Stories like the one we heard from Nejad need to be heard. Nejad started to share his story not long ago after years of choosing not to. That choice made sense for him at the time and his choice to speak today makes sense for him now. I am in awe of not only Nejad’s courage, as well as the other survivors of genocide we had the privilege to hear, but also of their ability to not hate even after falling victim to the utter hate of others. We as a society have a lot to learn about tolerance for others and forgiveness. I believe that a greater ability to love is the key. All of the survivors that we met showed us their unwavering capacity to love even after having their hearts broken and shattered by heinous crimes committed against them and their loved ones. I sure felt loved by them. I have a deep and everlasting admiration for each person we met who were affected by the Bosnian War, whether they are victims or dedicate their time to raise awareness and fight for the peace and remembrance of the victims and their families. I will never forget my time in the amazing country of Bosnia, and my time spent with the people who continue to enrich the beautiful country. I can’t wait to go back.

Had Things, Lost Things, Needed Things, Found Some Things

Being back in the states for almost a week, I’m still trying to figure out what I truly think about my experience in Bosnia. The first 24 hours I was back in the states, I noticed that I was explaining what I did in Bosnia. And I felt myself tear up each time, I don’t think it hit me until I left the depth of what I felt after hearing survivors share their story and experience life in Bosnia. Though I may have spent more time trying to explain to Americans that Bosnia is not in Hawai’i and isn’t controlled by Putin. Those were two very common thoughts that have been expressed by those I’ve interacted with. It was also so odd to not see buildings covered in bullet holes. I found myself staring at buildings and trying to figure out why, until I realized that it had become odd to me to not see post-conflict city buildings. The biggest challenge I’ve found that I’m left with is working through finding a way to adequately explain the stories that were shared.

As friends and family have asked about my experience, I’ve struggled with sharing the story of more than one person at once. I stated by telling my parter everything and as more people asked for details, I found that the more stories I’ve shared, the more emotions I experienced when sharing the stories. I want to share each story with every person who asked about my experience, but I’m finding that explaining the lives that were shared with me becomes very different from the words that came directly from each human. Though I’ve found so much passion, and courage and genuineness from each story, I struggle in giving those same words the same passion that I received when I heard them. Though It’s only been a few days since I have returned, I think this will be something that I will struggle with each time I share my experience with another person. As each human shared their experience asked that their stories continued to be shared I will continue to strive to do so, as that is the way each wished to be honored.

Coming back to America, anti-muslim thoughts still seem to stand out. Spending time in a muslim country and experiencing the generosity and selflessness of the Bosnians that I met, was very unexpected in a county that’s part of the former Yugoslavia. Seeing the very negative views regarding those who identify as muslim, I wish there was a way I could better explain my experience. The fact that every person was so welcoming and genuine with all that they had, even if they had little to share, was inspiring.

Thinking of my time in Bosnia, I came in with few expectations. I did not know what to expect each day and I had no idea the impression I would leave with or that it would be so powerful. As our time continued throughout Bosnia, I appreciated the framing of each day. This was something that became so powerful to me when our time brought our group to The Hague. It seemed fitting that after hearing and seeing Srebrenica, we got to see the space where the law came in to conduct a version of justice. Though I do not agree that a 40 year sentence for crimes against humanity is enough, it is a conclusion and consequence of one’s actions as seen by the laws in this courtroom. It gave me a sense of closure, though it will never be enough.

From spending time by the sea, visiting Mostar and exploring Sarajevo, what stands out to me as I finish this was all the references to flowers that seemed to be present in the way the war has been immortalized in the city as Sarajevo roses, to the smell from the roses that grow throughout Bosnia. Its very interesting the ways in which life continues to thrive int he face of extreme atrocities and adversity. I came with little expectations, lost the beautiful vision I had of Bosnia, gained a deeper sense of the scars that are still healing within the city and its people and as time passes I will work on my own need to understand the selflessness and generosity that came from those who experienced deep and lasting trauma. IMG_1615

Reflecting

What a whirlwind the past two weeks have been. I will never forget my visit! Bosnia is beautiful. I have never seen so many stunning gardens or rivers run so clear. In fact, on that note, an unexpected highlight of my visit was the amount of clear, clean water that seems to be everywhere for people to drink from fountains that are constantly flowing. Coming from California, where the state frequently experiences drought conditions, water is in short supply and tinged with chlorine, and Colorado which is extremely arid, the lush green scenery of Bosnia and its balmy climate and ever-flowing water fountains were unexpected and extremely pleasant!

 

Although I can’t deny I loved it, experiencing Bosnia’s beauty wasn’t the purpose for my having traveled there. I went to study war and genocide and learn I did. I will never forget the stories that the survivors shared with us. Each person we met was generous with us in retelling their personal history with war and genocide and its impact upon their lives. It couldn’t have been easy to share such traumatic experiences with complete strangers. That, we, the strangers, came from a country currently led by a President who has instituted policies that bans Muslims, separates children from their parents and cages them, and seeks to wall off certain races from entering must have required a leap of faith and made sharing those stories even more difficult.  I am so grateful for Nura Begović, Saliha Osmanović, Hasan Hasanović, Nura Mustafic and Nedžad Avdić’s willingness to meet with us, particularly given this knowledge!

As I have mentioned before, these are resilient people! Every single person I met and learned from has stunning resiliency. They are telling their stories, writing books, meeting with foreign leaders, planning large, monthly remembrance marches and continue to search for bones and identify the remains of loved ones despite challenging funding situations for both DNA tests and searches. (In fact, “the bone man,” as Ramiz Nukić is referred to in a film about him, searches for human remains without being paid to do so, after putting in a full day’s work on his farm! Dragana Vučetić, the forensic anthropologist that identifies people through the DNA of those very bones has worked tirelessly for decades now despite a variety of budgetary considerations and constraints. She somehow makes it work.)

Since returning, I have been peppered with questions about my experiences from friends and family. What was it like? What did you do? Would you go back? What was your favorite part of the trip? Who did you meet? Did you hear about….in the news over there? These are just a few of the questions I’ve been asked. I’ve found it’s quite challenging to explain it all in a way that both answers the questions and conveys the depth of what I experienced. Some of the questions, like my favorite part or place visited during the trip, simply can’t be answered because I have too many favorites to pick just one. Other questions are easy. Would I go back? Definitely.

Answering what I did and learned, and who I met and what I saw are more challenging to describe. This is particularly true when explaining the stories from survivors in Srebrenica. It’s also true of my attempts to convey what it’s like to visit a city like Sarajevo which is so beautiful, vibrant and alive but also remains physically scarred from the siege of 1992-1995 in many places. In fact, the existence of these scars, like the Sarajevo Roses in the streets, are quite purposeful and important as they physically demarcate what happened there, giving pause. It seems to me the people of Sarajevo don’t want to simply forget and want visitors to remember as well.

Conveying that can be challenging. When I tell the stories I heard in Bosnia I must also confront what we are doing in the U.S. today. I simply can’t speak of Bosnia and ignore our own practices. How to reach people to get them to understand what I have learned (when I’m still, by no means, an ‘expert’) and to help people to understand how genocide can happen anywhere is a struggle. “We were normal” is a phrase I heard repeatedly from people throughout Bosnia by way of explaining what life was like before the unimaginable occurred. I would counter that, similarly, in America, right now, we too are “normal.” I really hope I  can convey the messages and stories of survival, hope, remembrance, resilience, and warning in a way that can be both heard and does the owners of these histories justice.

Heavy Days

What a difficult couple of days. I first want to say that I am struck by the collaborative effort of the wonderful people we met who were either directly affected by the Bosnian War or who are passionate in their quest to help those affected by the war. From Hasan to Dragana to Nura to Ramiz, all of them dedicate a huge portion of their time and efforts to educate about the war and assist in the enormously difficult task of ensuring the horrific events and people affected by them are never forgotten.

I believe our class was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and learn from all of the above-mentioned people, as well as hear from Nedzad, Nura, and Saliha, who were survivors of the Srebrenica genocide. Their personal stories of unbelievable survival and grief due to the loss of loved ones in the genocide was terribly sad and heartbreaking. I mentally prepared myself for the certain sadness and hurt I would feel for the victims, but I found myself in a state of shocked disbelief while they recounted their experiences. The disbelief stemmed from the fact that I was sitting across from three amazingly brave individuals who found the courage and will to survive despite being subjected to atrociously inhumane acts that were perpetrated against them and their families. I was also flabbergasted by the honestly and willingness of Nedzad, Nura, and Saliha to tell their harrowing stories to complete strangers. They allowed us to enter into a catastrophically dark chapter of their lives, and I cannot imagine the personal pain associated with recalling the hideous crimes committed against them and their loved ones. I am in absolute awe of their resiliency, as well as their sincere appreciation of students like us who are just so honored to have the opportunity to personally hear the stories of survival of such inspirational people.

Our visit to the Srebrenica Memorial Museum is something I will never forget. We heard Hasan speak about his happy upbringing near Srebrenica and his and his family’s tremendously difficult experiences during the war. In addition, he spoke at a different time about the history of Yugoslavia and the actions and events that led to the 1992-1995 war. When we were able to explore the museum, I read a lot of information that explained parts of the genocide I was familiar with in greater detail. One of the displays was particularly powerful to me. The display, as well as another on the floor above, gave a mother’s firsthand account of the separation from her teenage son in the days leading up to the genocide. Her son was born the same year I was, and was executed at age 16. I remember feeling lightheaded and dizzy while listening to this mother’s description of the separation. In a taped interview she described that when soldiers separated her from her son, she begged them to let her go with her son, but the soldiers refused. Then she brought her son’s cheek to hers and just held him there for a short time. Her son said to her, “go mother, go”. I could not help but try to put myself in that teenager’s shoes, and think about the devastation my own mother would feel if she was forced to separate from me, not knowing if it would be the last time she would ever see me and the last time I would see her. I get chills thinking about it now.

I woke up this morning feeling foggy from all of the heavy  stories and information we absorbed over the last couple of days. Hasan encouraged us to put our lives and the problems that we face in our lives in perspective. The truth is that the majority of the problems that most of us face in our lives are really not that bad. When the going gets tough I will think back on the experiences of the survivors we met, and if I can muster just a fraction of the strength that they have persevered with, I know that I will be ok.

 

 

The Best Place to Start Is At the Beginning

But even then, where to begin? Over the past few days our groups has traveled through Tuzla, Potocari and Srebrenica. Thee sites are well known in Bosnia as they are part of the genocide that took place in 1995. Throughout the towns, survivors took time out of their life to share their experiences with us. I think this is the part that I will focus on, are the words and my experience hearing them from the survivors, as life has a way of intersecting between the past and the present. It was also an ask that the stories continue to be shared so I will try to put them into the words that feel appropriate:

Family is the root of the culture here in Bosnia. Many of the women talk about losing that part of their life, in the loss of their husbands and sons. Saliha hosted us for dinner at her house outside of Srebrenica. After soaking in her gorgeous home, lush garden and wonderful meal she told us her story. I would like to tell it her, as her request was to continue telling others about the genocide, but I feel that there are not enough words and they will not be hers so I will abstain. The biggest impression she left upon me was talking about how she must endure the rest of her life without her family. Her sons and husband were killed during the war. She has gotten some closure as their bones were identified in the ICMP. Though she speaks about her love of visitors and being surrounded by company, she has suffered many years without her family. This is what makes life so lonely for her, and she shared a very vulnerable part of her current struggle, in her quest to continue to find a reason to continue to wake up each morning. 

Nura, who is the Vice President of the Association of Women, turned her loss into activism. Inside the association’s now permanent residence, the walls are covered with pictures of the men that were lost in the genocide. Her story talked about how she used her identity as a mother to empower herself and those around her to seek answers and action from international forces. Her story was filled with passion, from the love of a mother to her son. Her work led to the memorial that now stands outside of Srebrenica.

At the genocide memorial museum in Srebrenica, Hassan Hasnovic, took time to share his story. His experience gave the image of a prosperous and content Srebrenica before the war. He shared so much about his story,  I feel like my words will never do justice to his story. Which is a great thing as it is his and he has a greater impact when telling it. He has found humor and laughter and love as his life continued and is very passionate about spreading the story of Srebrenica. That was the greatest takeaway, that he continues to live life after so much horror.

At the memorial, hearing from another mother Nura, and Nedzad, a survivor of mass killings, broke my heart. Nura was very emotional and seeing her tears for her husband and sons, is too much for any one human to bear. I’m crying as I writethis, remembering her words. She also called for sharing her story and her words, to bring awareness to the killings in Srebrenica. Nedzad story was also so powerful. He has only just recently, started to share his story. He was one of 2 survivor of a gravesite where over 1,200 people were murdered. He has suffered so much and his wisdom in asking that we learn to live together in peace, as humans, was so humbling. 

The final speaker was that of Ramiz. He and his family have lived in a remote section of the Bosnian hills for generations. Behind his house, was a mass execution site. He takes the time, when the conditions are right and he has completed his duties on his family farm, to go through the hills and collect bones that the ICMP will collect and work to identify. He was also a survivor who lost his family members. His want to give closure to families is through finding the bones. He said that he knows what he felt to not know where a family member lies and what it feels like to know that they were found and now rest in peace, and that is something that he said no mother should have to live with. His spirit to do what he can for families also reminded me of Dragana, a forensic anthropologist from the International Commisson on Missing Persons (ICMP). She works to identify remains of the war in Bosnia because she knows that finding a loved one can relieve the unknown. Seeing the locker for the bodies yet to be identified, that stretches on through a warehouse, and the bagsof clothing, one expects that there is a certain type of resilience to do this work. 

After experiencing a survivors perspective, small problems like a squabble with a loved one, seem so insignificant. The reason these stories are so powerful is that many of these survivors have chosen to live in Srebrenica, a part of the town under the influence of Serbian propoganda. A part of Bosnia that denies the genocide so deeply that it is completely omitted from history taught in schools. To live in a place that denies a huge part of one’s existence and identity so deeply, seems so gross to me. And to live there as a survivor, that act carries so much strength and is the greatest act, to stand up to those that chose to do wrong. The great resilience of all the survivors, the strength it took to retelling their stories, is so unbelievable and gives me courage to continue to share their experiences.

“Start Where You Are. Use What You Have. Do What You Can.” – Arthur Ashe