Concluding Celebrations

Towards the end of the program, there were a few parties thrown and other gatherings. The first of these was at the Center for Healthy Aging (perhaps not surprising due to its name, this is the only non-smoking place in Sarajevo). It was supposedly an American party, and some of the girls had made a lot of food for the party. However, when we arrived, the food prepared for us was much more than what we brought. Additionally, the food varied from tacos to burek. There was a massive amount of food, both Bosnian and American. We stayed there talking and drinking coffee until everybody else had left.

The next party was just a few days later. It was a birthday party for two of the people at Wings of Hope, Nikki and Paulo. Everybody from the program was invited to Wings of Hope, and we had a barbecue, again with massive amounts of food. This time, people left at staggered times; I was the last of the program people to leave.

The next week, days before our program was over, the people working at Wings of Hope were invited to Maja’s garden home for a small gathering of people. Unfortunately, Annalisa and Arista couldn’t join, so it was smaller than intended. However, once again, there was large amounts of food (seems to be a trend in Bosnia). I ate a ton and actually ended up falling asleep in a lawn chair for a bit. Overall, these gatherings were terrific, with a lot of food and a great way to conclude the summer.

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Srebrenica: A personal examination

Visiting Srebrenica was a very eye-opening experience. Srebrenica as an event had been discussed within our group extensively, and is a major focus for many concerning the war. This is mainly because of its identification as a genocide, the first on European soil since World War II. At Srebrenica, thousands of people, supposedly under the protection of Dutch forces for the UN, were massacred, and many more were forced to march for days from Srebrenica to safety even as Serbian forces continued to hunt them down.

Having learned about this historical event in class and through reading, I thought I had some knowledge of what happened. However, meeting people like Saliha and Hassan who had both lost loved ones in the massacre, made me aware of it on a more personal level. I was able to talk to these people who had lived this event, and I learned how it truly impacted their lives and how it continues to impact their lives today. This was extraordinarily valuable to me, as I was truly able to connect with people and see on a personal level the effects of such a historical event.

Final Impresssions

Shortly after arriving back from Bosnia, I am left to synthesize the experience. With some time to think through my experience and to try to explain exactly why this opportunity to visit and intern was one of the best experiences in my life (needless to say, this simple communication was difficult and I am not entirely sure I have it down yet). Memories keep flooding back: watching others cook for the Bosnian-American party while I grated cheese, cooking in the kitchen of the hostel, watching two others create a delicious cake once again in the hostel kitchen, eating tomatoes like apples and so on. I keep thinking about how to come back. Simply put, Bosnia and Herzegovina sticks with you.

I am careful not romanticize about the country. Certainly there are deep structural/political/ethnic divisions that are difficult, to say the least, to overcome. I definitely spent time questioning what I was doing there; what impact was I truly having (two months is surely not enough to impact any situation let alone one as complicated as Bosnia.) – the standard questions of any international post-conflict NGO internships (and possibly similar work).

These are questions that take years to undertake answering, and will, most likely, make me undergo yet another bout of naval-gazing, as my father always called it (he has adapted the term from its original meaning half the times). This naval-gazing is self-centered (focused on who I am and how I want to continue my democratization/state-building/post-conflict studies) and hopefully useful, not just some self-aggrandizing or egotistical musings. Whatever the personal and professional impact, it is clear that I was given the opportunity to watch a non-governmental organization to try and change the political realities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The time and effort the small office I was at was inspiring. I am honored to have been given a chance to help, even if the only impact I had was my access through DU of academic journals and literally being another hand in the office to relieve a small portion of the pressure. It will, alongside the individuals we have met, their stories, and remain with me and will impact my future in ways, obviously, I can only being to hint at.

As cliché as this sounds, it has been an experience I will never forget. Even if my plans I am hatching to return to the area are successful, it is definitely something that will never be repeated. Much of that is thanks to our coordinator Ann and everything she did for us, our co-coordinators who tried their best to give us the experience they had the previous year and share their love of the country and the region, those who took us under wing at their organizations with open arms immediately, those we have met, and, of course, the other students we have traveled with. Without any of these, I could easily see my experience being different, much different.

While I realize any trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, let alone Sarajevo, will be different, I view my future work in the region as built upon this base. I am looking forward to this next step in life and to, at the very least, share this wonderfully complex country with others in my life.

Thanks everyone for the wonderful memories.

Looking Back at our Summer in Sarajevo

It’s been about a week since the program ended, but just a day since I returned to Denver. I arrived at the airport last night and was greeted by my best friend and a view of the Rocky Mountains. I missed this place.

Leaving Sarajevo on Tuesday was not easy. I cried in the cab. I cried on the plane. Correction: I sobbed on the plane. The sort of muffled/huffy sobs where I bit my bottom lip to try to not bring attention to myself. Before going to Europe this summer, I had not traveled abroad since high school, and I had never studied or worked abroad for an extended period of time. The experience has so much value. Not only did I develop a deep fondness and knowledge of Bosnia, but it also changed and helped me in ways I know I am just beginning to understand.

I feel thankful. Thankful to everyone I met and befriended throughout the summer. I am thankful for Ann and everyone in the program who I lived with the past two months. I learned to rely on these people and was forced to be honest with so many of my feelings that I usually don’t like talking about. We talked about tough stuff. We walked for miles and miles together, became intimately connected to the war and history of Bosnia, discussed war and politics and social issues until I thought perhaps we were beating a dead horse. But it was all for something.

The staff at GV: Thierry, Azra, Leijla, me, and Samer
The staff at GV: Thierry, Azra, Leijla, me, and Samer

I feel more like myself than I ever have before. Maybe that’s just the jet lag talking. But I hope not. Two years ago, I returned to my undergrad as an employee, and ran into our school’s president several times that fall. I was going through a lot of changes at the time. I had recently dropped out of grad school and spent two months on the Appalachia Trail. I cut all my hair off. I was reevaluating my values and who I wanted to be. Anyways, President Casey told me that we are constantly reinventing ourselves and becoming new people. We go through cycles in life—learning processes—which we think we may never go through again, but we inevitably do. We are (hopefully) constantly becoming the person we want to be.

I feel insignificant. Not in a bad way, but in a there’s-more-to-this-world-than-me-and-myself sort of way. Like my Croatia/Bosnian/American journalist friend Alex says, “look out the window. Not in the mirror”. This summer helped me become more present and aware of the people around me. In my attempt at travel journalism, I had to notice and describe the places around me to people who had potentially never visited before. I became aware of how plaster cracked on the side of a building, or the crooked smile of an old man in Lukomir who laughed with his soul and could tell a story just by the deep crevasses of worn wrinkles that decorated his face.

The same insignificance was also frustrating. On the plane ride back home, I wondered what I had really done—if anything—for Bosnia or for Green Visions. My actions partially felt futile because of the deeper ethnic and political tensions that divide the country. But I would be egotistical to think I could make such an impact in two-months time. Instead, I like to think I supported those who are making the good sustainable changes, and I got to witness this development in such a pivotal and energetic time.

The view from the Yellow Fortress my last night in Sarajevo.
The view from the Yellow Fortress my last night in Sarajevo.

I cannot say enough about how valuable this experience was from me. With greater depth and clarity, I understand some of the struggles of post-conflict reconstruction, and economic development, of refugee services and ethnic divides. Sarajevo is so rich in culture and history, and I’m so happy I had the opportunity to spend two months getting to know the place. Put simply: it’s the coolest. It seems silly to say participating in this program was the best decision of my life. I think our lives, our identities, are made up great decisions. But going to Bosnia affected me so deeply and provided me with experiences that will never be seen on my resume.

Thank you to everyone who made this summer special. The locals of Sarajevo believe that if you drink from the Sebij Fountain in Bascarjia during your visit, that the magical powers of the water will eventually bring you back to Bosnia. I don’t know if it will be because of the water, but I have a feeling I will return to the Balkans again soon.

Favorite Photo

This photo is one of my favorite photos taken on the trip. It was taken from the top of the yellow fortress. A quick (and steep) walk uphill from the city center, the yellow fortress offers an interesting look at the city, not found from other viewing points. While a trip to the BBI or some of the hotels will provide a place for coffee and a view (all beautiful), the yellow fortress sits on the hillside. Coffee is still available, but the difference is that upon the mountainside, you truly begin to feel hemmed in. While initially it feels like a comforting embrace, upon seeing the vestiges of war, one can also begin to see this embrace feeling more ominous.

Over the course of this trip, this view has become my favorite place to be. The place also becomes calming, the only thing possibly disrupting being the wind (what a luxury!) and the ever-present selfie-takers whether local or tourist. After visiting with a few people from the group, I kept going back as an attempt to center myself when things became hectic, stressful, etc. Just sitting there, looking out across the city, I felt my body relax and my mind empty. From above the trek uphill looks like nothing more than a zigzagging flat line, and houses intersect with places of worship, graveyards, and businesses. Ottoman architecture meets Austro-Hungarian and more modern structures. History meets modernity. People and cars look miniscule. More than just a beautiful panorama, the picture has become a reminder of those moments of serenity and a place where I attempted to collect my thoughts (not saying of course that it always was successful).

The Trip to Srebrenica

I have opened a word document about 5 or 6 times trying to write something that did not sound trite and which expressed exactly my feelings after the weekend in Srebrenica. Returning to Srebrenica two weeks after the Peace March (and adding a quick trip to the ICMP in Tuzla) was an experience, one that is difficult to process and I am not entirely sure that I will ever be able to put it together into words satisfactorily. I keep trying to make sense of things, but answers are sometimes given and yet do not seem to be logical. I guess, therein lies the problem. These things are never logical (how many times in the past few weeks have I tried to figure out minute details hoping they held the key to some sort of understanding). However, I must find a way to put it altogether not only because of the my commitment to the program, etc. but also to avoid experiencing the past few weeks like BiH is some sort of zoo (feeling the pain then moving onto the next without gleaning from the experiences and others stories any kind of message).

It has been clear that this the goal, in a way, of those we were able to meet in the few days we were there. First, we were given the opportunity to speak to Fatima Klempić Dautbašić. It was a honor to get to hear her story, especially as she took time out of her daily life and work at the hospital to come and speak to us.

A young doctor at the time, she was one six doctors for 60,000 people in the town leading up to July 11, 1995. Her story of is one of strength, ingenuity, and humanity. During that time she lived in her flat with 42 others until they were forces to flee. Instead of heading to the Dutchbat, she joined the men heading into the woods to find their way into free territory, expressing her belief that the Dutchbat would not be able to protect her including from gender-based violence.

Hers, like the others (not discussed here simply due to space) becomes a story of the future, not forgetting, but moving forward. This goes beyond a simply story of survival and ingenuity. There is a desire for remembrance to keep similar tragedies from happening in the future. There is a desire to have this acknowledged in order to fix the failures of the international system. This is a fight for peace and a fight for happiness.

Theirs are stories that will stay with me forever. They will guide my future work. This consumption of stories fraught with pain will not be viewed only as such. Their message has been heard and will be used to work towards the peace and happiness that Fatima speaks

Week 5 -Srebrenica

My reaction to our trip to Srebrenica this weekend was very mixed. The weekend was long and exhausting, and we absorbed a tremendous amount of information over that period of time. It was an honor to speak to Fatima and Saliha and have the opportunity to listen to their incredible survival stories. After meeting with them I was left with a deep feeling of admiration for those two women and for Hassan who was able to escape the death march. But frankly, I was also left with a lot of anger by the end of the weekend.

After listening to Fatima and Saliha’s stories and visiting the sites of former mass graves, visiting the Dutch Battalion base and watching the videos on the ICTY, I was left with a lot of anger and resentment towards the Bosnian Serbs. A very small number of officers seemed to have been convicted during the ICTY, the length of the sentences of some ranged from 5-10 years, and many other injustices. I find it appalling that survivors like Saliha who moved back to their homes after the war have to live under a government (the RS) that were largely responsible for the atrocities that were committed against her and her family. It’s repulsive that the towns that we stopped at during our trip (outside Zvornik) consist of many of the same peopled that abetted or at the very least acquiesced to the genocide committed by Serb forces.

Like Hassan pointed out, in many of these towns the present population of the town is virtually the same as what it was 20 years ago, once you deduct the number of Muslim residents that were rounded up and killed or displaced. For example, if the town had 2,500 people before July, 1995, and 300 Muslim people were rounded up and executed, the present day town might only have between 2,200 and 2,300 people or so in present day. It’s absolutely gut wrenching to think about that. To know that the overwhelming majority of people there stood by and either did nothing to help those poor people or often times aided Serb forces by notifying them that there were people escaping through the hills.

Like I said earlier, overall it was a mixed bag of emotions: anger, fatigue, joy (in getting to meet Fatima and having dinner with Saliha), sadness, and disbelief.

Week 4 -What I Miss the Most

What I’ve missed the most since I got to Sarajevo has been my dogs and my girlfriend. I have two Saint Bernards (Harley & Nana) and they are among the sweetest dogs anyone will ever meet. One of them, Harley, has his first birthday coming up on Aug. 1st, and I’m pretty bummed I won’t be there for it. They’re both great and I’m accustomed to having them around me most of the day, so it has been pretty noticeable not having them around. Other than them, the other person that I’ve missed has been my girlfriend. We live together so being apart for such a considerable amount of time has been tough, although thankfully technology such as iMessage and Facetime have helped make things a little better.

Week 3 -My Favorite Image

So far this trip, my favorite image has to be when I went up to Bijeljina with my internship, in northern Bosnia for USAID’s Sustainable Housing groundbreaking event. I watched as U.S. Ambassador Cormack handed the keys of a lovely, brand new, flood resistant home to an elderly 79 years old grandmother. She had been internally displaced multiple times since the war and this was her fourth shelter since then, but this was her first real home since then. The woman was weeping with joy and just kept saying thank you over and over again. USAID partnered up with UNDP to provide 150 families that were victims of the devastating floods last year, with new flood resistant homes. They were lovely houses whose foundations had been constructed 4 feet about ground. They were each small in diameter but were two stories tall and had solar panels to cut down the electricity bills. The families had to agree not to rent or sell their new homes for the next 10 years, but other than that the American Embassy was providing these homes for free, courtesy of the American people. That’s an image I’ll never forget and one that made me very proud of our country and of all  the work that goes unnoticed and under the radar.

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Week Two -First Impression of Sarajevo

My outlook on Sarajevo has changed substantially from last year to this year. When I visited Sarajevo last summer, my impression was just that it was a nice, peaceful, small city and that was about it. It was just another stop on my tour of the Balkans. This year, it has been different because of everything I have learned since then about the siege that took place from 1992-95. One thing I’ve noticed is I have caught myself staring up at the hills surrounding the city quite often. Last year, I hardly paid attention to them past the first day, but because I now have a more nuanced understanding of how those hills were used to lay siege on the innocent people in Sarajevo. Serb military forces embedded themselves in those hills and launched shells and sniper fire directly into the city. I think because of that I’ve been catching myself scanning those same hills frequently.