What Clings to Us

The sun is setting slowly on the Potočari memorial, casting its golden light onto the endless rows of white pillars, markers for the more than 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica genocide. If you listen, you can hear the birds beginning to sing their lullabies, beckoning the evening to bed. The laughter of children visiting the memorial with their families cascades between columns. It is almost beautiful, in its own right.

The names on the marble slabs read endless. Only the person’s birth year is given: 1920, 1923, 1975, 1944, and so on; all were murdered in one week in July of 1995. The youngest killed was 13 years old, the oldest, 77.

We have been graciously brought here by Hasan Hasanović, a survivor of the genocide at Srebrenica who works at the memorial. He tells us his story, the details of living in what was at the time the world’s largest concentration camp, surviving intolerable winters and brutally hot summers without the most basic needs. He watched over 70 children playing soccer torn to pieces by a mortar; he survived simply because was waiting to play the next game. During the genocide of Srebrenica, his father and his twin brother were killed. Hasan walked for six days and six nights to free territory.

Hasan and Ann introduce us to other survivors. We sit first with Nura Mustafić, one of the few women who fled Srebrenica through the woods on what would later be known as the Death March, the same that brought Hasan to safety. She left with her husband, sons, and hundreds of other men and boys. Her sons were wounded on the way, and she tells us of tending their injuries, of surrendering to the Serb forces, of being forcibly separated from her sons for what would be the final time. She apologizes for her tears.

Next, we sit with Nedžad Avdić, one of just ten survivors from the five primary execution sites where the 8,000 men and boys were murdered; his was the Petkovci School site, where today, elementary school children learn addition, subtraction, and history — but not the history of the Srebrenica genocide. 

He recounts in detail the process of being rounded up into trucks, nearly suffocating in the hot July sun, of being refused water, of being transported to the school where hundreds would ultimately die. He describes walking through congealed blood in bare feet, his hands bound behind his back, ordered to stand in front of a truck. He remembers thinking his mother would never know where he died. He apologizes for taking so much of our time.

In such incomprehensible situations, what are the details do we choose to share, what specifics become important? What memories do we cling to, or cling to us? “My sons were beautiful children, they were good students, nice to everyone,” Nura tells us.

“I used to love this river, but now I hate it because there are dead bodies under it,” Hasan says of the Drina River, the natural border between Serbia and Bosnia, as we drive to Srebrenica. It is slow moving, expansive, quietly beautiful. It is poisoned.

What is there to say? When the ugliest of atrocities are committed against humanity — when all that makes us human is lost — words become wholly inadequate. As an outsider, this is especially true. These experiences are beyond my comprehension, and they are not my stories. But they are stories that need to be told. Ann asks Nura and Saliha what they would like us to do, how we can help.

“Go home and tell everyone what happened here,” they tell us, “so that it may never happen again. To anyone.”

And in this answer is perhaps one of the most profound and moving pieces of all this horrible, nasty mess: for Nura and Saliha, for Hassan and Nedžad, it seems there is no hatred or desire for revenge. There is pain — deep, inconsolable, unimaginable — there is anger, a desire for justice, of course, and there is so much more that I cannot begin to understand. But above all, there is a wish for recognition, a burning insistence that this never happen again, anywhere, to anyone. This is worth clinging to.

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Vicarious heartbreak

         The past two days have been hard. Very hard- physically and emotionally. Physically, because we’ve spent a lot of time in the car driving up to Tuzla then Srebrenica and I don’t think my body is used to being so sedentary; emotionally, because… well, everything.

           When we sat down at the cemetery at Srebrenica to hear from Nedžad Avdić, who is an execution survivor, I particularly found myself reflecting on my place in social work and what can I do moving forward with what he is telling all of us. It was striking to me when he explained that he has only started speaking about his experiences within the last 5 years, because the way he spoke to us was with such great detail and intensity. At one point, I felt something hit my hand. When I looked down, I noticed it was wet and there were water droplets all over the sleeves of my coats. They were tears. My tears. I had no idea I was crying, until that moment. As he poured his broken heart out to this group of strangers (us), my body aligned with his words and emotions and water was just pouring from my eyes. So now, I can’t help but think about my future as a social worker as I plan to become a licensed clinical social worker, but I ask myself if I’m fit for this. On the one hand, I know that as a clinician, I can’t weep at every trauma story that comes into my office, but on the other hand, I don’t want to be desensitized to stories and experiences like his.

           At the end of the first night when we were all still sitting around the dinner table, finishing up, drinking coffee and talking, something Hasan said really hit me. He said “After hearing Saliha’s story, some of you may be married or in relationships or whatever. You will experience problems and you may think that they are big problems, but they’re not. I hope you find that in the big picture, they are small.” Again, this moved me to tears, because I have never heard anything truer in my life. There have been days in the not so distant past where I thought “This is too much for me. How am I going to get through this? I don’t know if I can deal with this,” and now I realize that they were all small problems essentially. At the end of the day I am healthy, I have people in my life that I love and who love me back, and I am safe. Really, there is nothing more that I could need.

There is one common thread that every survivor and person who lost family members to the genocide, and even those that are working to help identify the bones of victims of the genocide have wished for us to do: keep talking about what has happened so that others will never forget. The other piece of this tragedy is that this genocide isn’t being taught in schools, or even talked about. To be quite honest, I had no idea this even happened until I started school at DU. And why? Nedžad made a great point in saying how we all learn about WWII, Nazis and their concentration camps, and Anne Frank, but we are not learning about this. It’s all genocide. It’s all discrimination and hate and murder. I see increasing hate towards groups of people in the US who are “different”, but all of this is the same- hate and intolerance. History is bound to repeat itself over and over again if we don’t talk about it or do anything to stop it.

 

 

Fashion Police

A few years back there was a reality tv program called Fashion Police helmed by the late comedian Joan Rivers which chronicled celebrity fashion. A regular feature of that program was a segment called “bitch stole my look” which compared celebrities who wore the same outfit and sought to determine who wore it better.

When I travel, despite my best intentions, I often find myself comparing the new to the familiar, the here to there, and the this to that. I am reminded of that old television program because the comparisons I make can often become a case of “who wore it better” in my mind. For instance, since arriving I have been eating some delicious traditional Bosnian meals, and also some food that is very familiar to me. Pizza, for example, is often on the menu in Bosnia, and so far, I haven’t been disappointed once. But pizza back at home is also quite good. And so, I find myself considering which is best, or who wore it better.

I have just returned from a two-day visit to Tuzla and Srebrenica where I was able to hear survivors tell their stories of the genocide that took place in July of 1995. Each person we heard from had a heartbreaking story of extraordinary loss and survival. Although each person’s story ultimately resulted in their being able to tell it due to their survivorship, all lost many of those most near and dear to them in horrific and heartbreaking circumstances. The one thing each of the survivors we met with requested was that we tell the story of the genocide that took place here, which so many continue to deny occurred at all. As one survivor, Nedžad Avdić put it, “We don’t have our own Anne Frank book.” It was quite poignant when he said it, particularly because he pointed out that before the Srebrenica genocide he had read The Diary of Anne Frank in school and knew the story of the holocaust, as had most in what had been Yugoslavia at the time.

A lot of people may not know what happened in Srebrenica. There are those who actively deny the genocide occurred at all, preventing the story from being told. Indeed, the perpetrators went to great lengths to hide it from the world by digging up the mass graves of their victims and reburying them elsewhere in an attempt to hide their shameful actions. While many mass grave sites have been uncovered, many are yet to be found. As a result, it has been very difficult for surviving family members to lay their loved ones to rest. Thousands of husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, and friends remain among the missing.

In July of 1995 the United Nations failed in its mission in Bosnia when soldiers from UNPROFOR allowed men and boys to be separated from women and young children, despite pleas to troops not to allow it, which ultimately resulted in a genocide of approximately 8000 men and boys. As many as 8,000 men and boys are still missing. Thus, the numbers of those murdered is much higher than 8,000.

When women and children were separated from men and boys, despite protestation and pleas against it, a line was crossed. Many of the men and boys tried to escape what appeared to be certain death by fleeing to the mountains and attempting to hike, at night, in a column of thousands of people while being shot at, toward safety in a nearby city. Ultimately, many of the men and boys were tortured, humiliated, systematically murdered and placed in mass graves, along with trash and rubbish in a further act of disrespect and humiliation. Because the mass graves were later moved to hide the genocide, the victims’ bodies were disturbed to the point where they no longer remained intact, in yet another act of disregard for human life and humiliation. Of course, all of this has made identification of victims very difficult, with the bones from one victim scattered throughout several sites of mass graves and throughout dense, wooded terrain, hidden in lakes and rivers.

When I think about the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica, particularly when families were being separated from each other, I cannot help but compare it with what is happening right now in my own country. The irony of the situation is not lost on me. Here I am in Bosnia learning about the steps that led to the perpetration of genocide, which included the separation of families, and back at home my own government is engaging in what appears to me to be a very similar practice by actively separating children from the parents of asylum seekers attempting to enter the United States. The children are being placed in what appears to be cages, separated from their parents while they await trial. I’m sure there are some Americans that might disagree with my comparison of separating families and placing children in cages to the genocide in Bosnia.  But I find them very similar. And so, once again I find myself asking who wears it better? Are we stealing a look? Is Bosnia’s past to become our future?

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.

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.

Trip to Tuzla and Srebinica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The People Make the Place

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

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

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

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

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

Mostar & Neum

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

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.