My Favorite European Road Sign…

The exclamation point! I left for Bihać in the northwestern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina on Friday morning, embarking on a 7 hour journey that wound through Bosnia’s mountainous terrain. The road to Bihać was littered with said exclamation points, which at first baffled me. Danger: Steep cliffs below. Caution: Reckless drivers coming around the bend. Wow: Woah, holy mackerel, did you check out those mountains and that turquoise water? Who knew one little exclamation point could mean all of that? Well, it did for me at least.

When I arrived in Bihać, I immediately considered turning around, hitching the next bus back to Sarajevo. I found myself lost within minutes, expecting a lift from the bus station to the hostel from the hostel owner…an hour ticked by and I had no ride, no hostel name, and no Bosnian language skills. I think just then that exclamation point meant: “What the hell are you doing here? Caution, you are lost.” And that’s really how I felt. I was overwhelmed with traveling solo, frustrated with my few Bosnian words and inability to communicate. And though I eventually found myself physically unlost, I still felt, deep down, a longing for the familiar…for my morning bowl of cereal and cup of coffee, the certainty of getting lost in my books, the routines I’ve made for myself and the small pleasures of city living in mountain shadows, the sense of rootedness I have found in Denver.

Though the weekend was a struggle, I understood true Bosnian hospitality. I felt taken care of by the hostel owner, Bagdonka, with whom I could share no words but instead silent drives through the mountains, amazing burek at a waterfall lookout point, and awkward smiles of uncertainty, each of us probably guessing what the other was thinking but could not say aloud.

I saw the sky burn orange, rendering the minaret an awesome silhouette in the night’s grand entrance. I saw a color of water I have neither seen before nor can describe adequately with words. I felt the mist gently touch my face, thrown from the torrents of waterfalls that flowed in every corner of Plitvice National Park. I found myself enthralled by the mountain roads and wildflowers, the deep canyons, the utter beauty of running water and lush mountain forests.

It’s like standing in an art gallery though, finding yourself lost in a beautiful painting. Savoring every stroke of nature, the intricacy of a lizard’s scales and the perfect drop of water on a leaf, you realize that your mind and soul were thrown into something mesmerizing, but that your feet were still grounded on the gallery’s cold concrete floor and the drone of other people getting lost in other paintings was still your reality. Sometimes, it’s a comfort to realize where my feet are grounded; where I’m allowed to get lost and where I know I will return.

I feel that I got something different from the Srebrenica memorial than many of my peers. Not better or worse, just different. As I walked through the cemetery, I noticed something that interested me. There were a few main colors working throughout the area. White, green, yellow, and grey. All of the tombstones were white. The grass and trees were green as well as “for now” tombstones that mark where proper tombstones need to go when they are finished. The fountains, benches, walkways, and memorial structures were all grey. And as for yellow, a flower that captivated me.

Grey can represent depression, and it can be a symbol for loss. I would say that both meanings are appropriate in this situation. Many innocent people were killed in Srebrenica, which lead many people to deal with immense grief. People lost so much in their lives. Their homes, their money, and the people that mattered most to them. Fathers, brothers, sons…

It is known that the color green stands for growth, both literal and figurative. The growth of the grass, trees, and hopefully a country. It is less known, however, that it can represent peace.

White is best known for embodying purity. According to those who work with caves, white is also a definitive sign of continual growth. Stalagmites and stalactites that are covered in white are still active and are continuing to grow. It takes years for them to show much growth, but as long as they are white, they aren’t finished.

Optimism is what yellow is best known for. Yellow can also be a symbol for a positive future. Optimism and a positive future often go hand and hand, and promote happiness.

I was struck by a theory upon noticing a curious type of flower in the center of the memorial. The flowers had a yellow center and yellow petals. Its’ body should have been green by traditional standards, but it was actually white. Close to these flowers stood a large white stone speckled with grey. It quoted a prayer that centered on hope, justice, and the desire for an event like this to never occur again.

Maybe the colors in this memorial were coincidence, traditional color schemes, or precise planning with color symbolism. Depression plagues those directly affected by what happened as well as those who come to see Srebrenica for themselves. Some have lost possessions, pride, and people that they loved. Others lose the image that the world is a perfect place and that all people are innately good. A sea of grey was followed by a wave of white; the secret symbol of growth. Literal green growth then follows. Blossoming of trees, continual growth of grass, and growth in green tombstones. The green tombstones hold a place until white tombstones can take their place, but they also represent closure, which is important for many families affected. It means that they can move on as best as they can knowing what happened to their loved ones, and where they now rest. The white tombstones that replace the green ones will be, like the stalagmites and stalactites, continual growth of a family who will always mourn the loss of a family member that was taken from them. And then there is the seemingly insignificant yellow flower with a white stem and flowers. This small gesture reminds people that there is hope for the future. People can pick themselves up and become strong once more. They can tell people what happened and try to keep history from repeating itself.

Now returning to the quote that stood near the flowers I grew so fond of. Hope, justice, and future prevention. What better justice is there than showing people who wronged you that they cannot keep you down? That you will continue to have hope and that you will continue to grow. You will mourn the loss of family and friends, and you will also be optimistic about your own personal future. Creating and keeping bonds with those who may hold different ideologies than you. Being able to live and function side by side once again.

Maybe I read too much into the colors used, or wanted to feel something other than sadness. Either way, I hope that I am not alone in what I took from this experience. I want to believe that people can recover from something like this. I have to keep looking for bright beams of light even in the darkest of skies. If you only had grey, you could never move on. As long as there is green, there is peace. No matter how slow, white shows that a community is still growing. As for yellow; trying to find light in dim situations and always holding onto optimism that you are capable of growth.

Rediscovering My Love for Sarajevo

Today’s walk home proved to be more meaningful to me than I had anticipated.  I’ve been wanting to take a nice, slow walk home during my time here to take pictures of the walk.  Each workday consists of about two hours of walking, one hour to work and one hour back (except for the week and a half when it was too hot and we decided to take the tram to lessen our misery).  So, today was the day I decided to create my photographic depiction of the walk, starting at my internship location at the Center for Healthy Aging and ending at our hostel.  Little did I know how precious this one walk would be to me . . .

I guess I should start by being completely honest.  While I have loved Sarajevo since the moment I arrived, over the last week or two I have become a little disillusioned with the city.  It is not that anything truly changed; it is mostly that it stopped feeling like a vacation and more like real life and my rose-colored glasses finally came off.  Instead of only recognizing the things I like about the city, I started thinking more and more about the things I do not like here.  All of the sudden, I was no longer brushing those things off and I really started to question my love of the city.

But, after a good day at work (not to mention the two Bosanska kafas my coworker Armina made for me), I was feeling more optimistic about life in general and began my walk home.  Taking pictures and not rushing home, but, instead, really taking in my surroundings, like I did when I first arrived, was surprisingly refreshing.  I could not help but feel relaxed and at ease as I meandered home on the river trail, which was particularly quiet this afternoon since it had just rained.  While the one-hour walk can at times seem long – especially in the morning – I am actually quite grateful to have the opportunity to spend so much time in a completely different side of Sarajevo.  Our hostel is right on the brink of the Turkish portion of town and the Austro-Hungarian one and, as you get further away, it turns into the Communist section.  How lucky am I to get to experience all of those sides of Sarajevo every day that I work?!

Obviously, Sarajevo is not perfect (no city is!), but today it became absolutely clear to me that I am still in love with this city, I just see it in a more realistic light now and its imperfections make it what it is.  With only two and half weeks left in Sarajevo, I hope to get to know the city better.  Even if I do not like everything that I discover, after my walk today I am now confident that my love for Sarajevo will remain.



The Old Battery Factory and UN Base

…The number of lives murdered in July 1995 when Serbian forces overtook Srebrenica and embarked upon a systematic cleansing of the Bosniak, Bosnian Muslim, people. This was the largest systematic mass murder in Europe since World War II. The international community, specifically the UN peacekeepers (UNPROFOR) stationed in the “safe area” of Srebrenica, failed to act for and on behalf of the Bosniak people. They failed to prevent and stop the genocide unfolding before them.

It was difficult to walk through a cemetery dedicated solely to the lives of those killed during the Srebrenica massacre. Men and boys were separated from their wives, mothers, and sisters, ordered by Serb forces to their deaths. They were then concealed in mass graves scattered throughout the region. To date, 6594 victims’ remains have been identified. Some may never be located or identified.

It was difficult to walk through the old battery factory and UN base where thousands of Bosniak people fled, hoping for safety and relief from the Serb army after the fall of Srebrenica. This same factory bears the remains of identified victims who are commemorated and buried at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide every year on July 11. This year, 613 people were buried.

Cemetery at Potočari

It is difficult to conceptualize 8372 people murdered because of their ethnicity, or for any reason for that matter. It is difficult to hear the stories of mothers forcibly separated from their husbands and sons who still don’t know what happened and hope daily that the remains of their loved ones will be discovered, identified, and properly buried, if anything for some peace. For the men who fled through the woods and survived their journey to the free territory of Tuzla–their tears, exhaustion, and grief captured on film–what freedom did they find?

The cemetery felt like a sea of white with imperceptible boundaries. To know that it will only grow larger with time–it’s nauseating.

Weekend Getaway

Well I’ve been in Sarajevo for about a month now and everyday has been
an adventure so far. My internship at Wings of Hope has been a great fit for
me. I love the people that I am working with and I know that when I
reflect back on this time, they will play a large role in my
experience. A large part of my internship has been getting to know
them and forming those connections that I hope to keep up after I
return home. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn more about how an
NGO in Bosnia operates including everything from program development to funding and
budgets. And next month, I am so grateful to have the opportunity to
go up in the mountains and be a part of the summer camp that Wings of
Hope runs for adolescents. During this camp, the students take classes
in various subjects, do arts and crafts and other recreational
activites. I am really looking forward to this opportunity. It will be so great to work with kids again. I miss it so much!

This past weekend, I traveled to Ljubljana, Slovenia with some other
students. It was a great experience and such a beautiful country. We
took an over night bus from Sarajevo to Ljubljana and arrived there on
a Friday morning. We spent the first two days exploring the city,
which was beautiful. Exploring the city was like being in a fairytale.

It felt much more like a Western European city to me.
When the former Yugoslavia broke up, a war broke out in Slovenia, but
it only lasted for 10 days, so there is not any visible destruction
left from that time, which is quite the opposite of what we see in
Bosnia. Slovenia has also been a part of the EU for 7 years and
financially is much more well off than Bosnia. These differences
between the countries struck me as soon as I got off of
the bus and I continued to notice them throughout the trip. On Sunday,
we went on an organized tour that took us to the caves, located about
an hour from Ljubljana. These caves were amazing and so incredibly big. After
the caves, we drove to the coast of Slovenia. Much to our surprise,
this drive included a quick trip through Italy and we didn’t even
have to pass through a border control or anything like that. We spent
the rest of the afternoon hanging out on the coast, which was nice and
relaxing. There is something about being close to water that
immediately puts me at ease. On Monday, we woke up to a stormy day,
which we were worried would put a damper on our plans to visit Lake
Bled. However, we decided to brave the bad weather and caught a bus to
Bled. Even though it was overcast, it was still an incredible
sight. The water was a distinct emerald color and the island with the
castle in the middle of the lake added to the picturesque scenery.
After walking around the lake for a bit and renting a row boat to get
to the island in the middle (unsuccessfully), we caught a bus back to
Ljubljana. That night we caught another night bus back to Sarajevo and
when I arrived on Tuesday morning, I definitely had the feeling that I
was back home, which was a great feeling!

The time is flying by. I can’t believe we only have a few weeks left.
I’m already not looking forward to leaving. I’ve traveled to many places around
the world, but there is definitely something about this place that
continues to draw me to it, so I am going to take that as a sign that
I need to come back!

I can’t post pictures until I get back to the States and my camera cord, but trust me Ljubljana was gorgeous, hopefully my pics can capture some of its beauty.

In the eye of the beholder

Four weeks into this trip, it occurs to me that I am more than halfway through my sojourn in BiH, a realization that has prompted me to reflect on my thoughts prior to arriving here, and how these have either remained constant or changed. Nearly a full month ago, when I was stranded in Budapest for the night, I remember thinking how strangely apprehensive I was about the trip to Sarajevo. My bags were packed, the internship was set up, and the group dynamic seemed promising, so I really had nothing for which to feel apprehensive. It might have been that I was re-reading When History Is a Nightmare, but I nevertheless felt an increasing anxiety about the trip. I can remember thinking, This is the most unexcited I’ve ever felt about a trip abroad.

Flying into the city, though, I experienced an almost instantaneous shift of emotion. I had been able to see the landscape while flying into Budapest and Vienna. Budapest and much of Hungary looked like nature was literally eating it up, a view which I admired but did not necessarily take my breath away. Vienna, in turn, reminded me of Central Florida, with its yellowish-brown landscape and flatlands. But Sarajevo was entirely different—flying in, the mountains were unbelievably gorgeous, and even though the stewardesses announced that electronic devices needed to be shut off, I surreptitiously took photos with my camera. Until I landed and was picked up by Ann and the tour guide, I had completely forgotten that many of the mountains were probably riddled with landmines.

It was a sobering thought, but not as sobering as one thought that predominated as the plane landed. To provide some background, over Winter Quarter, I read a book on the Rwandan genocide entitled We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Shall Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. Although I had to practically force myself to continue reading the book at certain points, months after finishing it, certain ideas, moments, or events in the book continue to drift into my thoughts. During the flight’s landing, one particular scene in the book came vividly to mind. In the book (which is based on the journalist-author’s real-life experience), it is post-genocide and the author is traveling by bus through the Rwandan countryside. The author recalls suddenly remarking to his driver how incredibly beautiful Rwanda is. His driver seems genuinely surprised by the comment, and after a brief silence says (to paraphrase), “Really? For me, everything is empty. I once thought Rwanda was paradise, but no more. Now, all I see is how empty everything is, not beauty. But it is nice you think our land is beautiful.” The quote struck me as I was gazing out of the plane at the beauty below.

After arriving at the hostel, my first journal entry included the following paragraph:

“In both Rwanda and BiH, genocide and ethnic cleansing may not only have left regions empty of people but also of the sense of beauty of these surroundings. With such idyllic landscape, words such as ‘paradise’ come to mind and it is easy to forget that something as horrific as genocide and war have occurred in such locations. However, I imagine it is only easy to forget for the foreigner who has not lived these traumatic experiences. For the native, I cannot imagine what it must be like to gaze upon these surroundings. The thought puzzles me, and I want to ask native Bosnians who lived the war what they think of the beauty of their country. I know, of course, not to ask – it is intrusive, and I do not think my curiosity justifies drudging up painful memories when these have not been offered. Still, I wondered if Bosnians who lived through and remember the war felt the same way as the Rwandan driver – that in spite of its incredible beauty, Bosnia and Herzegovina was never the beautiful paradise it was before. That, in spite of the massive reconstruction and rebuilding, BiH remained empty of its people, and that the scars of these memories have robbed the land forever of its natural beauty.”

Although four weeks have passed since I first wrote that paragraph, I cannot say I feel or think much differently. Whenever I marvel at Sarajevo’s beauty or the magnificence of the Bosnian countryside, the word “empty” manages to push through to the surface of my thoughts. And then I think, “But I didn’t even live the war. What is it like for someone who actually has lived it?” I got the answer unexpectedly last week, as I was traveling through the city with a coworker, for a meeting/interview she was letting me tag along on. We were near the neighborhood of apartment complexes where she lives with her family. I was looking around with avid interest, and naively remarked that the hills surrounding her neighborhood were beautiful, which prompted her to point to one hill in particular. “That’s where the snipers were. The Chetnik snipers were there, shooting everyday. My family lived in the basement, but then my mom said that if she was going to die, it was going to be in her own home. So we moved back into the apartment.” She gestured to an apartment building hardly two thousand feet from the hill. “We were so close, but we didn’t get hit.”

I had my answer, I guess. Although as a foreigner, she might have been saying this for my benefit, I imagine it’s hard for her, to look at that hill without remembering the snipers who were once perched there.

An excerpt from my BonnieLasS blog: Picturing Moral Courage Conference, July 15-16, Sarajevo, BiH

You might expect that a conference focusing on a genocide that occured just 20 years ago would be nothing but depressing. I would encourage you to leave your expectations at the door. This last weekend, I attended a conference called Picturing Moral Courage, which brought together young people from across the country, region, and world to discuss standing up for what’s right.

We, the members of the DU group who attended, were privileged to the stories of war survivors, the people who saved them despite the risk helping presented to their own lives, and the young people who barely remember or who were born during the conflict and the effects they are feeling today.

The conference kicked off with an address from US Ambassador to BiH, Patrick Moon, who said… that it takes brave, courageous people to challenge the status quo, to stand up for what they believe in, and refuse to be intimidated or stand down. It also takes courage to follow these leaders, to support them and help them in a tangible manner when you could very well be risking your own well-being. It also takes time for change to occur. 

On the last night of the conference, after watching a very powerful and dark film that is to be released later this year, called Belvedere, we had a discussion session. One girl from BiH said that she is sad that so many young people here are constantly apologizing for their perspectives. “It’s not our fault. We were too young. It is our responsibility to be friends, to get along, and to be sure it doesn’t happen again, but it’s not our fault.”

I don’t know how to even begin describing some of the more grim aspects of the conference– so here are some snapshots:

  • The man who swam to safety after snipers started firing on what would have been his execution squad when he was 15 years old and only just went back to the river he swam across last year. He took his camera and photographed the area, currently dried out and being excavated for war victims. Today’s quote is from the description of one of his photos, which was displayed during the conference.
  • The man who managed to escape while his hands were tied in barbed wire and ran for hours, knowing he was being followed… and the woman who took him in and protected him for the rest of the war.
  • The boy who, after watching Belevedere, confessed he is originally from that region and that images from the film, such as women standing on a bridge holding signs with names, birth dates and question marks (as in John Smith, 1969-?) to illustrate that they are still missing their loved ones– and missing them in a way that ensures they cannot find peace– really stood out to him, because he not only remembers this action from after the war, but he remembers being very little and seeing the bridge overflowing with bodies and blood.
  • The girl who was born in 1992, doesn’t really remember the war, but remembers her father’s resulting drug abuse and how memories tore her family apart.
  • The boy who lost his mother, brother, and his leg when he was four months old.

These last two people are teens who are being featured in a documentary called “USPOMENE 677” which I believe means 677 Memories (and signifies the 677 concentration camps in BiH during the war). I don’t know when it is being released, or even where it will be released, but the director was at the conference, filming the teens, so it may still be in production. For more information visit:

I was struck by the dichotomy of optimism and pessimism the young people showed. There was a lot of discussion as to what the problems are, what is inhibiting community development, but, it seemed to me, less about what to do. Certainly, the younger generation will be the ones with the best chance to facilitate change. And dialogues like the ones that occurred this past weekend are a start. One girl, who is featured in the video, explained that “we need to stop asking everyone’s name” (last names are used to identify which ethnic group you belong to and often, you will be asked not only your last name, but your mother’s maiden name, your grandparents’ names, etc.), “it doesn’t what my name is or your name is. We are the same. Can’t we be friends based on whether we like each other?”

It made me think what I was doing when I was 19. I certainly wasn’t thinking about anything this serious. I was too intimidated to even think of attending a conference. These young people give me hope. The very fact they are present is a good sign for the future.

For now, I want to end with a word about the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,”  which was our Friday night movie screening at the conference. The film’s developer and producer, Abagail Disney (yes, related), was on hand to describe how the project came to her and what she is doing now. If you haven’t seen it, you should… especially if you are interested in social movements, women’s rights, and/or peacebuilding. She is working on several followup projects now, focusing on women in BiH, Afghanistan, Colombia, and one called Women, War, and Peace. She said that  “Women, War, and Peace” will be premiering this fall on PBS in the US… October 11, 2011.

I am so glad I attended this conference, it was hard but so important to be there, to witness, to support.

A poem. Summer in Sarajevo.

Now I do not claim to be a poet, but here is something that came to me this week under the sweltering Sarajevo summer sun (alliteration!). I dedicate it to the DU ISL Project Bosnia entourage.

sweat dripping at night
heat headache creeping up
still no fan, I’m no fan
windows open, non-existent breezes
too hot to sleep, too hot to stay awake
misery loves company

company denies misery
outside, open air, some relief
beauty at sunset
smells of food float on light, warm winds
sladoled, cold shower, some relief
tomorrow start again
summer in Sarajevo

It is difficult to explain what I am experiencing. As much as people try to take pictures, journal, and keep in contact with loved ones back home, no one but ourselves are going on this journey. And although we all set out on the same path, many changes have been observed and people’s experiences are not identical. We are all living together and are following a semi-similar schedule, but it is hard to say that I actually know what everyone is experiencing and feeling.

As the world always seems to work, people grouped off from the beginning. This is a normal process, but it has slowed the progress of getting to know everyone’s personal story and how they are growing as people through this trip. It goes without saying that you are not going to like everyone and there is a reason that there is the phrase “personality clash.” Not everyone is my best friend here, but I can honestly say that I would like to get to know everyone better. Because of separate rooms and preconceived notions of each other, I am unsure if this will be possible.

If we were in the “real world,” where you could shower when you please in the comfort of your own home, it is quite possible that we would have passed each other by and never made an effort to make connections. Once again, normal. But because we are all living together and sharing a similar experience, I do wish that we could hear what all of our peers are going through.

As I mentioned earlier, I find it hard to explain myself. Not only my experiences from this trip, but in my day-to-day life. I do not easily feel comfortable expressing myself and talking about my feelings. This is why this is my first blog post of the trip. I am not writing this to change the current group dynamics, but I do think that no one back home will understand what we went through no matter how much we document and try. The people I am surrounded by are the closest I am going to get to true understanding, and perhaps we should try to broaden our horizons and converse with people we have overlooked or may not have initially clicked with.