Srebrenica

Srebrenica. There are no words to describe the things we have seen and heard in the past two days. And yet, I am trying. We first went to the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP), where the forensic anthropologistDraganaexplained the process of identifying bodies exhumed from mass graves. The sheer number of primary andsecondary graves means this process is extraordinarily difficult and so far, they have uncovered thousands of bodies. At first, identification was based on clothing and other physical articles found on the bodies, or by bone fractures and diseases that could be validated by the families. Only 50 bodies were identified in this manner. When DNA matching was developed in 2002, they were able to positively identify over 7,000 bodies and are still working. To date, there are about 1,000 more bodies that need to be found and/or identified from this area alone.

After the emotional shock of visiting the ICMP, it was somewhat comforting to visit Anne’s friend Saliha that evening for dinner. Going to Saliha’s house was like visiting the home of a long-lost grandmother. Her flower gardens and yard were immaculately pruned and blooming profusely. Her vegetable garden was huge and flourishing. She immediately escorted Ann out to pick fresh garlic and onions, gesturing to the rest of us to go try the pears in the front yard. They were crisp, ripe and juicy. One of the driver’s wives had made a giant feast for us, which he set out along with fresh rose water and minty lemonade. The rose water was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tried – with the faint, but not overpowering, taste of rose, honey, and mint mingling in a sweet sip.

After dinner, Saliha sat down and told us her story of being separated from her two sons and husband in the genocide. She buried one son one week, then got separated from her other son and husband in the flight of the country and mass chaos. She became a refugee fleeing from camp to camp searching for her loved ones. She saw a picture of her husband in the newspaper, then later on the news a video of her husband calling her son down from the mountains. This video became widely distributed as an example of the atrocities happening during the war. The Serbs had captured her husband as he was fleeing and were forcing him to call his son down from the mountains where they were all escaping, yelling that he would be “safe” if he surrendered. Saliha saw the film and with it sprang hope that her husband and son were alive. But she could never find them. Years later his bones and those of his son were exhumed and their bodies identified. Finally, Saliha was able to bury them. As she spoke, her voice grew weary and sad. “I’m alone,” she said, “I have no one.”

The next day, we went to the Srebrenica Potocari Genocide Memorial & Cemetery. Here a good friend of Ann’s, Hasan Hasanović, told us his personal story of growing up, life before the war, and of surviving the death march. As hewandered through the woods, split from his twin brother and father, he barely escaped death on many occasions. Narrowly dodging shelling, gunshots, and captures, he climbed through the mountains with a group that had been cut off from the rest of the column. He was one of the few to survive, starving as he arrived half dead at the refugee camp. His father and twin brother unfortunately did not survive. Now Hasan is the curator of the Memorial and speaks at international events to spread awareness about the Srebrenica genocide so that it will never happen again.

When we went to the cemetary, Hasan had arranged for two more genocide survivors to speak with us. One, Nedžad Avdić, was at one of the mass execution sites and was one of only two people to survive the massacre of hundreds. Another, Nura, was one of the few women who attempted the death march with all the men. Her husband went to get water and never returned (they later found and identified his body), while two of her sons were injured on the march. They were captured by the Serbs and she was separated from them. She never saw them again, and later their bodies were also found.

At the end of the day we met Ramiz, the “bone man,” who walks the mountains searching for bones in order to turn them into the ICMP so they can identify more bodies. Ramiz has aided in the discovery and identity of over 200 bodies. All in all, it was an emotional few days in Tuzla and Srebrenica. And the disjointed nature of this post accurately reflects the disorganization currently felt in my thoughts and feelings after having seen these sites, heard these stories, and felt my heart breaking with this pain.

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Raindrops and Roses

I woke up early this morning and sat on the porch of the hotel, watching the city of Sarajevo bustle with life. I sat contemplating and reflecting on the last few days, the experiences in Tuzla and Srebrenica. I was gifted some flowers, beautiful and red, bringing my thoughts to the rain and Srebrenica and to the rose and Sarajevo.

The weather the last few days has been overcast and rainy, creating a somber ambiance that’s fitting for the emotions of our experiences. I think of the rose metaphor I’ve been using to describe my time in Sarajevo and find the rain fitting for my time in Srebrenica. I’ve always had a fondness for rain, finding peace and solace in the falling rain drops and the gray skies—and yet, here, it also held a melancholy tone.

In Tuzla, we first visited the International Commision on Missing Persons (ICMP). The organization works to identify the bones that are found in the execution sites’ primary and secondary mass graves. They have identified roughly 80% of those who were unaccounted for, but still have roughly 1000 still to find and identify. Dragana Vučetić, the forensic anthropologist at Tuzla’s ICMP, highlighted something that stuck out for me: the importance of continuing to search for those still missing because of the families who are impacted. I was struck by the determination of those at the ICMP and their commitment to these families.

We next visited the Association of Women in Srebrenica-Tuzla and met the Vice President, Nura Begović. Walking into the home the association operates out of was an intense experience. Covering the walls are photos of men and boys who were killed in the Srebrenica genocide. I’ve found it is easy to get wrapped up in the facts and dates of the war, yet seeing these photos and hearing Nura speak her story connected a very real and human aspect.

We also visited the Srebrenica genocide memorial in Potocari, located now in the former headquarters for the Dutch battalion of UN soldiers from 1994-1995. Inside are rooms describing the different aspects of the Srebrenica genocide: the tensions leading up to the Bosnian referendum for independence, the genocide and failure of the international community, the Dayton peace agreement, and subsequent actions to identify those missing. A film and multimedia room accompanied these rooms, which, for me, added names and faces and personal stories.

This human aspect is so important for remembering the Srebrenica genocide and those who were affected—highlighted again and again in speaking to survivors of the genocide. Hearing from and spending time with Saliha Osmanović and Nura Mustafić was awe-inspiring and heartbreaking. As mothers who had lost their husbands and children in the genocide, their resilience and strength is indescribable in its magnitude. They want their story to be heard and spread by those who hear it in the hope that nothing like this happens again. Hearing also from Hasan Hasanović, Nedžad Avdić, and Ramiz Nukić, each of whom had survived the death march, was horrifying and awe-inspiring. I was left speechless by each of their resilience and strength.

It rained for the majority of the day in Srebrenica, as though even the clouds were weeping for those affected by the genocide and the war. I found it difficult to forget the war had happened while in Srebrenica, despite the reconstruction of homes and a lack of acknowledgement (or outright denial of the genocide) by many members of the community. I wonder now how it is possible for anyone to deny what took place here, especially in the face of the stories of those who survived.

Tuzla and Srebrenica Reflection

I know these past two days spent in Tuzla and Srebrenica will be times I continue to process and hold space for the memory. I want to express how grateful and privileged I feel to have met with survivors of Srebrenica, and for how welcoming and open they were with us. That I can travel to this country with a professor like Ann, and meet Hasan Hasanović, Nura Begović, Saliha Osmanović, Nura Mustafić, Nedžad Avdić and Ramiz Nukić, feels surreal. Unfortunately, the genocide has not been a part of my previous education, and while I can hear the timelines, data, and read the accounts, I believe listening to survivors is essential to justice and this belief has been reaffirmed ten-fold. I intend to honor their wishes and repeat their stories to the people in my life so that the impact they have had on me can ripple out.

Prior to coming to Bosnia, I became interested in an author who advocates for transforming American death practices. A theme from this has been the meaning of a good death in different cultures. Visiting the International Commission on Missing Persons caused me to reflect on this idea. Trauma, mass killings, genocide, and those left behind cannot be transformed into the peace and dignity that the closing of life deserves but finding the remains and some details of a loved one’s death is what can be given to those left behind. I have taken for granted knowing the circumstances and being able to bury those who I have known that have died. I am struggling with what it must feel like to have the process drawn out, wondering if it is possible for someone to have survived and accepting that you will never see these people again. What is the day that you know you are a widow, and then once you know this, how do you grieve without the ceremony of laying your loved one to rest?

As we continued our days in Tuzla and Srebrenica, something I was struck by was the willingness of the women to access their emotions in sharing the accounts of their trauma and what followed. Not understanding Bosnian, this was apparent in their voices and faces, and I am grateful that they were willing to undergo this emotional work for us. Nura, of the Association of Women in Srebrenica, recounted the loss of her brother and her days as a refugee in Tuzla. We frequently use the word strength when talking about surviving horror and dealing with the aftermath, but I think Nora and other survivors, really showed that going on living demands of you to organize and share your story. Working for justice is strength, but also a cry of grief.

Coming to Saliha’s home, it felt warm and lovingly created with her garden and fruit trees. To know that it was supposed to hold her husband, sons, and by now probably grandchildren, is difficult to feel. The video of her husband being forced to call to his son in the hills being shown in the aftermath prompts the ethical considerations of videos made by the Serbs being shown in news media, or shortly after the genocide. Knowing that there are those who deny the genocide pushes the case that evidence should be widely circulated but thinking about what showing videos such as this does to the family members urges hesitation. I don’t have an answer, and I am not sure there is one.

Before attending the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial and viewing the film, I was cognitively aware of what I was about to view. However, seeing the violence and how the soldiers treated the men elicited a strong reaction that I had not expected. Following this we met Nura and Nedžad, and while I felt emotionally heavy, I experienced it as necessary emotional work to stay present and absorb their stories, and as work that I wanted to do.

I will be remembering and processing their stories for some time, but in this moment, I want to reflect on what physical contact means in these meetings when we do not share the same language. Without always having someone next to me to translate, I found that all these women allowed us to express ourselves with a hug. I do not know if this gesture was in service to myself or them, but I feel connected to them through their stories and am grateful for the opportunity to have shared that time with them.

Lukomir

The visit to Lukomir:

We took an ecotour to the town of Lukomir today. It was called the “Three Generations Tour” because we met with three generations of a family who live in and/or are from there. I would say the visit to Lukomir was what I was most looking forward to about visiting Bosnia. To some this either sounds weird or not weird at all. I guess it just depends upon your perspective of things and how and what you like to do….basically, what you’re into.

Lukomir has a grand total of 20 homes within it, sits at the top of a mountain range that seems way above Sarajevo, (possibly far enough away that it inhabits Middle Earth – aka the land where Hobbits are from) and can be gotten to by either a steep hike of several miles or by car along a winding dirt road. The point is, although it isn’t too far away from Sarajevo, it seems like it is and it’s definitely worth the trip. Especially if you’re into visiting a sparsely populated town of mainly older adults who herd sheep, hand carve polenta spoons, prepare you a meal of freshly (and traditionally) prepared cheese and potato pitas, with Bosnian coffee as well as yogurt and knit cozy socks with merino wool yarn spun and dyed from their own flocks.

So, I was excited to visit for all those reasons and am so glad I was able to visit! I did not hike. The “easy to moderate” hike was described as either two hours or four and a half hours, depending on who you asked. I’m sure the hike was amazing, but I am pretty happy with my decision to take the car ride. It’s about 30 minutes up a winding dirt road, surrounded by beautiful green scenery, wild flowers and sheep. Once we arrived at Lukomir we were greeted warmly and treated by our wonderful hosts, led by Saliha and her friends, to delicious cookies and Bosnian coffee! It is a little like espresso but a bit thicker and some of the grounds rest in the bottom of the cup. It’s also strong and comes with a lot of sugar. (At least mine did.  I had several cups!)

Saliha prepared the pita for our group and because I didn’t hike, I was able to peak in on her as she and her friend cooked. What a process! The dough is freshly made, kneaded by hand and then expertly rolled using an iclaudio, which is like a very narrow rolling pin, about the width of a drum stick. The pitas are stuffed with either potatoes or cheese and baked in a wood fired oven. They were incredible! We could smell them baking while our classmates hiked up the mountain.

While we waited for our group to arrive, we got to explore the town. Again, only 20 houses, but so picturesque. It felt like we were on top of the world. We were able to visit with sheep, chickens and roosters and drink fresh spring water. There is probably no water or food that can be had fresher than when in Lukomir. The sheep live in the town. The water spring is in the town. The food is all locally grown….not within 20 miles – within 20 feet! It’s just an amazing place and I feel very lucky to have been able to go.

I would also like to say that everyone we met, including the three generations of women, were all so kind, so hospitable and so willing to engage with all of us. I hope Lukomir lives on forever. I don’t know this is possible as younger generations choose to live and work in the City or elsewhere, but I hope it does.

Heart and Hearth

It does not take long once we leave Sarajevo on our way to the coastal town of Neum via Mostar to become completely lost in the country’s natural beauty. Driving along the winding road that climbs and falls along the contours carved by the Neretva River, we are treated to fleeting but stunning glimpses of slot canyons, steep cliffs, and daily life in small mountain villages. The river itself is a deep turquoise vein that demands attention. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, even outside the city of Sarajevo, history is built, sometimes violently, into the landscape. Our wonderful and generous bus driver, Nino, helped give us a brief introduction to the bridge in Jablanica, a critical connector during WWII that was destroyed in the Battle of Neretva. Today, the bridge is toppled, standing like a giant ladder in the Neretva, but according to Nino, hundreds of wounded Partisan soldiers were able to escape over this bridge thanks to some brilliant maneuvering by Tito; it is one of his most celebrated war-time accomplishments.

Unfortunately, there is no contemporary Tito to unify Bosnia, and as Nino proudly recounts the benevolent dictator’s accomplishments, I wonder how Nino conceptualizes the history of the country’s most recent war. Nino is originally from Mostar, a Mediterranean resort town that is most well known for its 16th-century Ottoman bridge called Stari Most (hence the name, Mostar). While the Bosnian War impacted the entire country, Mostar felt its effects in uniquely brutal ways, and the bridge was a targeted casualty. I think its destruction was very likely as symbolic a decision as it was tactical, a demolition of what had been an historical piece of pride in Yugoslavia (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less), and while all war is horrible, it seems to me that there is no way to rationalize the Bosnian War using pride or heroic figures. Even the reconstruction of Stari Most did little to unify or facilitate reconciliation — the city is one of the most staunchly divided in the country.

You may not feel this tension as you stand on Stari Most watching men making slow, graceful dives into the turquoise river below, a river of tourists breaking and eddying around you on the bridge itself. There is excitement and curiosity in the air, just as there is at many major tourist attractions, and it spills over into the surrounding old market with stalls selling everything from traditional tea sets to tablecloths.

But one cannot reach this space without first passing the war-torn remnants of buildings crumbling along the road, and even the history of the war has become a part of the attraction; crafts made from bullet casings are as common as the tea sets for sale. Churches and mosques are neighbors, often playing host to dozens of tourists at a time.

We take a significant step away from all these tourists when, two days later, we walk into the house of Ann’s dear friend, Salija, following a stunning (if drizzly) hike to Lukomir. Roughly 20 of us crowd into a small living room/kitchen/possibly bedroom, greeted with warmth of hearth and heart, cookies, coffee, and a homemade lunch — all on Salija’s birthday. The generosity of spirit here is palpable, the connection real, and the setting overwhelming. Yet again, Bosnia seems a living contradiction. It is as if its past and present are in an elaborate dance, each taking turns playing lead, blurring into a single spin that is simultaneously tragic and beautiful.

Hospitality 101

I am truly stuck by the beauty of this country. I’m not sure what I was expecting in terms of landscapes and scenery, but it has just been blowing me away. Everywhere is so hilly, green and lush. I feel like every time we go somewhere new, I’m even more speechless than I was at the place before it. For instance, today while we were up at Lukomir and waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, Stephanie, Nicole, and I walked up to the top of the hill behind the village and a gasp I wasn’t expecting quite literally escaped from my mouth because it was so beautiful.

It’s not just the scenery, either. The people here have the most beautiful hearts. It seems like everyone here is truly concerned about others’ wellbeing and comfort. Before coming on this trip, I fell on some rocks while hiking and sustained a pretty gnarly gash from my knee to mid-shin. While in Neum, Stephanie and I were walking along the path near the water. An older couple started to pass us in the opposite direction and as they approached, the man stopped and pointed to my leg and seemed genuinely concerned for me. He tapped his wife on the shoulder and motioned toward my legs as if to say: “we have to do something!” They both seemed so worried even when I tried to assure them that it was an old wound, I’m fine, and they have nothing to be concerned about. I’m still not sure they were convinced.

Then again, my heart was warmed when we arrived at the family home of the three generation’s tour. It was a dreary, cold (and eventually rainy) day. We were greeted at the door of the home and welcomed in immediately. As we entered the sitting room to the side, we all seemed to shake off the cold and say how toasty and warm the room was- something I definitely appreciated. The family came in a motioned for us to sit down and make ourselves comfortable. We were offered hot coffee, cakes and sweets. We were clearly enjoying them and as we ate, more and more of the goodies appeared! The hospitality was like nothing I have ever experienced. Even as the whole group arrived (12 others) the family greeted and welcomed the group with genuine smiles- taking wet coats and hanging them to dry, offering stools with rugs and blankets to sit on, and offered hot coffee and tea. It was something I will always remember.

Image result for three hours later

I’m so glad I waited to finish this post, because, yet again, I’ve witnessed another incredible exchange between a DU student and Sarajevo resident. Backstory: We went out to eat as a group at a Bosnian restaurant (Safed) a couple of days ago. Angie was wearing a shirt that matched the owner’s and they had a laugh about it. Well this evening, a few of us were craving their incredible falafel and decided to go back for more for dinner. Well, the owner remembered us and also remembered that he and Angie were wearing matching shirts the other night. Throughout our meal, they both joked about how the other should change because they couldn’t be wearing matching shirts again. When we were finished eating, he came out with a spare shirt and handed it to Angie to wear. She was a good sport about it and put it on and let us take photos of the two of them together. It was both hilarious and endearing- like two friends just sharing an ongoing joke and having a laugh at dinner.

Kindness and Surprises

Shortly after learning about the history of Bosnia and in particular about the Bosnian War, I would have assumed that the majority of people affected by the war would be bitter and angry, and that this attitude would carry into their everyday lives. I could not have been more wrong. This would have initially surprised me, but I did learn in class that the Bosnian people are very kind, generous, and welcoming. I was still hesitant to believe that it related to most. Today we took a class trip to the village of Lukomir high in the mountains southwest of Sarajevo. We were welcomed into the home of a wonderful three generation family that served us amazing pitas made of potato and cheese, as well as traditional Bosnian coffee, tea, and various sweets. They went out of their way to ensure that each and every one of us was comfortable in their home. That extended to a home of other family members next door that I thought some of my other classmates made their way to shortly after. I walked all the way through this home, and when I looked around confused and not sure about what I got myself into, a man I all of the sudden noticed standing next to me gestured for me to sit down on his couch to have some coffee. I thanked him and politely declined before leaving with a smile on my face that partly stemmed from my embarrassment and partly from my amazement that a complete stranger I met at that instant would welcome me into his family’s home and serve me a drink.

A couple of days ago, we went on a trip through Mostar and down to the coastal town of Neum to stay for a night. Our bus driver, Nino, stayed a night as well. The night we got down there Nino was sitting at a restaurant drinking a coffee next to our hotel. When I passed him and said hello he asked me to sit down with him. We talked about food, weather, and family, and even though we struggled to communicate at times due to the language barrier, Nino’s genuine kindness, curiosity, and caring manner enabled our conversation to flow with ease. Nino was hard on himself because he believed he did not speak very good English. He apologized to me on numerous occasions for not being able to say certain words he wanted to say. I could tell how much it meant to him to be able to communicate with me how he wanted, but I assured him he was much better at English than he thought, and that is the truth. I let him know that it goes two ways, and that I could learn the Bosnian language. I am part of the vast majority of Americans who do not speak more than one language, while the vast majority of Europeans do speak more than one language. I believe that the trend should change in America. A great way to do that could start with more children attending language immersion schools when they are very young. Now I’m getting off subject a bit. Nino grew up in Mostar, and after the war hit the city in 1993, he eventually moved his family to Germany, where his son and daughter are today. Nino speaks excellent German, and when we first met he asked me if I spoke the language.

Speaking of Germany, our class learned in a talk given at the University of Sarajevo’s Department of Social Work that the majority of young people in Sarajevo who move away from Bosnia are moving there. I was surprised to hear that 40% of young adults in the city would never return if they did move to a different country, with the reasons being quality of life and jobs offer little pay. Before the Bosnian War over half a million people lived in Sarajevo, and today less than 300,000 do. Of course a substantial part of that decrease is due to the war, but with half the population unemployed and 61% of the young adults unemployed, the labor market needs to improve or I’m afraid the percentage of young people moving away and also never returning will only further increase.

Finally, one of the biggest surprises to me in Sarajevo is the amount of graffiti on what seems like nearly all of the buildings in certain areas of the city. Sarajevo is such a beautiful city, and it is a shame that the majority of the buildings, some historically significant, are defaced in such a way.

Marble, Salt, Sheep

These past few days have taken us through Mostar, Neum, and Lukomir. My initial view from flying into the Sarajevo airport was orange roofs in pockets between mountains. Traveling between these cities has given me some sense of the diversity of Bosnian settlements, city to city and coast to mountaintop. Each place has been welcoming and allowed us to glimpse some of the history or pattern of life in that place. For Mostar, we walked across the marble bridge, or slipped a little, and viewed a film about its binning during the war. Although Old Town seemed to cater to us tourists, it maintained its history and did not erase the hardship of the past. I would have enjoyed some more time to wander, but a roof top lunch gave us the chance to talk to our waiter. I was surprised that he knew if Denver as I certainly could not tell you a long list of cities in most other countries. He seemed to be coming off a lunch rush and appreciated the American style of being to the point with our ordering. On the way back from lunch we stopped at the bridge again and took pictures of the scenery. I think the view from that bridge is something I will hold with me, as the natural beauty blended with the architecture spectacularly. A funny moment on the way back to the bus was a young girl who came up to me and started stroking my dyed green stripe of hair. She walked alongside me talking excitedly in Bosnian. When she stopped she gestured for money, which I declined based on my understanding of the business and coercion that puts her on that sidewalk. I wonder if her excitement about my green hair was genuine or a tactic to flatter foreigners before asking for money. It made me think of children I have worked with and the bonding we’ve had over playing with each other’s hair, and if she is getting that from the adults in her life when she leaves that sidewalk.

Upon arriving in Neum, I was immediately struck by the blue water of the Adriatic Sea. I swam as many chances as I had during our stay there. I have never been in a Sea with that much salt before and have never been so buoyant. My favorite moment was treading water while the reflection of a cloud passed over me and it looked as though my feet were moving through it. During our time there it did not seem to be dominated by tourists, and instead locals or maybe people from other parts of Bosnia. I can see why those we encountered were in such good spirits being so close to water like that. I also notice that parents seemed to be more relaxed with covering their children’s bodies while swimming than we typically are in America. I appreciate that attitude, as instead of teaching children to be ashamed of their bodies or that it is inappropriate to be uncovered they are able to play without learning stigma. In the work I have done with children, I think we do them a disservice when we are so focused on their presentation and send the message that their bodies are something to be ashamed of.

Today we went to Lukomir and climbed to the small village at its top. The hike was amazing, and along the way I heard about the movement of the town from a slightly lower elevation to higher where it stands now. Considerations of erosion and drifting in not something I have had to consider in my life. As the town is now made up of five families, I wonder how much longer this special place will exist. While I do not fault those who leave, as I too would likely be drawn out to cities, I hope those who remain are able to maintain their lifestyle.

Got Water?

In the last blog post I reflected on being sad about the state of Bosnian politics and history, but since then I have had a change in perspective. The world is not black and white, nor are countries. As I’ve grown and matured as a person and as a social worker, I have come more and more to appreciate the many shades of grey. There are always pros and cons, goods and bads, and some things that are both at once. There is always another side to the story.

In the past few days, I’ve been so impressed by the kindness and generosity of people in Bosnia. Our bus driver Nino is a perfect example. He honks for birds so they’ll fly out of the road before we get to them. He cracks jokes and takes excellent group photos (a feat of patience with sixteen boisterous Americans). He regales us of stories about driving all around the world, and has endless patience when we needed to pull over for bathroom breaks or some fresh air.

After spending the day on the sunny coast, we headed back from Neun along a very bumpy and curvy road. I had just eaten dinner, and in the stuffy back of the bus, felt almost immediately nauseated. I kept it together, but was hit with intense stomach cramps next. I stumbled up the aisle for a Dramamine to see if that would help my carsickness. Instead, I just felt worse. My face went white as a sheet. I felt lightheaded and was shaking with internal chills. Nino pulled over and I broke out of the bus, bent over almost double in pain. Suddenly my arms and fingers went numb, tingling all the way up and down. My fingers felt frozen, I couldn’t move them at all.

It was clear that something more serious was afoot. Nino bundled us back in the bus and headed to the closest hospital, about forty minutes away. He helpfully suggested he had a relative of some sort that worked there and he would make sure I got the best of care. Upon arriving, we noticed some rather apathetic hospital staff just smoking (everyone smokes) and wandering down empty hallways. Nino began to advocate that someone see me, and quickly. He spoke to multiple staff about the symptoms I was having, all of whom seemed distinctly unconcerned. But Nino would not give up. Eventually, we were directed to another corridor of the hospital, having been told this section was the wrong one. There was no one anywhere, and the lights were off. Creepy.

Within minutes, a nurse sauntered by and Nino began to speak up for me again. The nurse called a doctor, who turned on the light and began to inquire about my birthdate in Bosnian. When Sladjana translated my answer, he trotted into the room, gesturing for me to follow, then turned and said clearly, “Hello, how are you?” Upon hearing he spoke English, I almost cried for joy. What a relief.

The doctor asked about my symptoms and got a verbal medical history. No documents, no piles of paperwork. Then he declared what we had suspected – dehydration. The most skilled nurse I’ve ever seen popped two needles in, one for a blood draw and another for my IV. She somehow found my veins with ease and it was as quick and painless as needles can be. I could only wish she spoke English to somehow convey my gratitude that she didn’t stab me one thousand times.

The doctor explained that while the IV would drip for fifty minutes, they would test my blood to be sure all else was fine. Just as promised, fifty minutes later (I know, shocking) he came back in, announced that my blood was just fine, only a bit low in potassium. Then he set down the paper and said, “But that’s just the results. The patient is not the paperwork. So how are you actually feeling?” I could have cried for joy.

I did feel much better, and said so, all while wishing that doctors in the U.S. were more like this. He then told Sladjana in Bosnian that since my bloodwork had all come back just fine, there was no need to pay and we were free to go. For the record, I must note that Nino’s relative who worked at the hospital never showed his/her face and that was not the reason for my pro bono visit. In addition, Ann, who has taken people to hospitals in Bosnia for a dehydration IV before, told me that never have any of those visits been free. So my free visit was not the “usual” thing. He was just a kind doctor who chose not to charge me for his time and effort, although he certainly could have. On the way out, he wished me well and gave me a hug. Then we continued on our way.

Nino, the doctor, and the nurse have all shown me a different side of this country. I left feeling humbled and thankful for this experience – certainly it was the most positive doctor’s visit I have ever had, and it happened here in Bosnia. Suffice it to say, I’m beginning to see the varying shades of grey… there is much more than sadness to discover.

A journey as thrilling as the destination…

Bosnia is full of surprises, from the wide array of flowers in many of Sarajevo’s yards to WWII significance in a torn down bridge. Perhaps the most surprising thing for me has been the abundance of diverse learning opportunities and rich history, in Sarajevo, Mostar, Neum, and more.

Following several days in and around Sarajevo, we headed down to the Bosnian coastal city of Neum, passing through Mostar and by the river of Neretvi. The journey was certainly as exciting as the destination and I was awed by the landscape of mountains and rolling hills—reminiscent of Colorado. One mountain in particular, Mount Pren, stood out to me on the horizon. From my vantage point viewing this imposing mountain, I thought about how mountains and hills survive through the ages and I wondered what this mountain had witnessed overlooking Bosnia, especially given the rich history of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule, the world wars, and the most recent Bosnian war of the 90’s. If mountains could speak, I’m sure Mount Pren would have much to say.

One of the highlights of this cross-country trip for me, being interested in WWII, was learning about the “Bitka za Ranjenike na Neretvi.” There is a particular bridge there that has significance for both WWII and Tito. We learned from Nino, our bus driver, that this bridge had been the last chance to save 5,000 wounded people in 1943. Tito made the order that all wounded people were to cross the river, and once they were across, that the bridge was to be torn down to prevent the Nazis from crossing, who were behind them. Tito’s plan worked and saved many lives. My fascination stemmed from a lack of knowledge regarding how WWII had found its way into Bosnia and Herzegovina. When I return to the U.S., I plan to watch the movie Battle on the Neretvi to get more information about this battle and a better understanding of WWII in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I had seen pictures of the bridge in Mostar, but seeing it in person is a completely different experience. I had listened to a podcast by Rick Steves on the bus and understood the bridge was built by Suliman the Magnificent, an Ottoman sultan, but was stunned by the architectural genius of the bridge. It was bewildering to see on video the destruction of the bridge in 1993, but it was encouraging and seemed a beacon of hope when it was reconstructed using the original plans (found in Turkey and used in the reconstruction). Gazing at the bridge after watching this video, I had a new appreciation for it and wondered how this bridge might be a metaphor for Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole in the aftermath of so much conflict. Despite obvious differences, such that the bridge was rebuilt from its original plans and Bosnia and Herzegovina through a new plan, the Dayton Peace Accord, I think it could be a metaphor for how a city can in many ways look like how it might have before a war, and yet feel much different.

While the journey was exciting in the approach, it is quite hard to put into words seeing the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Neum. The town overlooks the water and provides an exceptional vantage point to admire the clear water and the incredible hills of Croatia in the distance. Being in Neum and swimming in the Adriatic Sea reminded me of my initial metaphor for Sarajevo, that of a rose. Neum was certainly the epitome of a flourishing rose, admired for its beauty and slightly separated from thorns.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is full of many surprises and I look forward to seeing and experiences those to come…