What Can I Even Say?

MirI’m honestly not sure where to even begin describing my reactions about our group trip to Tuzla and Srebrenica.  The Tuzla trip was, for me, heartwarming on many levels.  Having spent almost a year at Eagle Base during my deployment with NATO’s SFOR (Stabilization Force), it was an opportunity to revisit one of the locations that spawned my love for this country.  Simply having the opportunity to stroll around town brought a torrent of fond of fond memories cascading to life; the smells of fresh baked bread triggering an almost Pavlovian response to thinking about the Nutella filled croissants I’d pick up at a small bakery in the heart of city, the people strolling around causing me to recollect the friendly welcome from the city’s residents, or the charming ‘old-world’ feel exuded from the buildings themselves reminding me of time spent throughout Europe.  The opportunity to listen to Amir Kulaglic (an electrical engineer from Srebrenica who was one of the lucky twenty-five percent to survive the grueling trek to Tuzla) discuss current approaches to transitional justice was phenomenal.  The way he wrapped up what I’d spent the last few days looking at for a project with the PCRC (Post-Conflict Research Center) was certainly timely and appropriate.  His description of transitional justice being built on four pillars (judicial action, truth telling, reparations, and institutional change) succinctly rolled the information into a manageable concept.  Our visit to Nura Begovic (Vice President of the Women of Srebrenica Assn who had lost her husband and son in the Srebrenica massacre) reinforced several similarities among many of the widows; her frustration and quest for justice were driving factors in her aggressive stance to ensure the Srebrenica massacre is not simply swept under the rug of international disinterest or ignored in hopes that the underlying societal tensions will somehow simply resolve themselves.  The opportunity to visit the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) gave me an appreciation for the extent of the forensics involved in helping families find some modicum of resolution to the vacuum which remains with the disappearance of their loved ones during the genocide.

After driving from Tuzla to Srebrenica first thing the following morning, we had an opportunity to walk from Srebrenica to Potocari.  The idea of following the very footsteps of tens of thousands of people as they fled toward what they thought would be the safety of UN protection during the fall of the city to the Bosnian-Serb army was disconcerting, but not as disturbing as walking into the abandoned battery factory (and former Dutch compound) now serving as part of the memorial.  The silence of the place somehow added emphasis to the photos placed on its walls; each of the caskets which had once been here during their journey to the cemetery still haunting the cavernous room.  The powerful sense of place was reinforced by listening to Nura Mustafic recount the tragedy of losing her husband and sons in the genocide; her pain not diminished by the passing of time.

The last day was emotionally rough and I am grateful to have started the day with a walk along the cobblestone path to the old spa.  While it’s one thing to study genocide from a purely academic perspective (or watch propaganda videos of the perpetrators enacting their deeds from the comfort of an air-conditioned building), having first-hand experience of rocket attacks and the tangible, visceral, and catastrophic results of armed conflict changes the dynamic on a very personal level; the sounds, the smells, the dazed and confused sensation wrought by the initial concussion from indirect fire yielding to an awareness of dirt, debris, and shrapnel suddenly consuming the very essence of space and time.  It was the testimony of Hasan Hasanovic which thrust the emotions associated with my own past to the surface of consciousness; the heart-wrenching account of his time in Srebrenica (and the experiences living through the Bosnian-Serb siege of the city before he fled to Tuzla) somehow enabling me to feel a connection, even if very insignificant, with his experience.  The contrast expressed between life during the siege (along with his subsequent terror of being hunted through the forests of the Bosnia’s Balkan Mountains) and his description of childhood experiences which would be similar to those of any other child growing up in rural community presented an almost incoherent dichotomy; one side being perhaps utopic and the other a nightmare.  That evening, our trip to visit Saliha Osmanovic was somewhat of a respite.  I was struck by the presence of history on the drive to her house while passing the excavation of a Roman fort along the Drina River in the village near her home.  Knowing the story of her husband and son ahead of time (Ramo caught on film calling to their son Nermin to come out of the hills and surrender to the Bosnian-Serbs who had promised they wouldn’t be harmed) helped a bit, but it was her fearlessness that was most inspiring; everything she loved had been stolen from her and being an active participant in the process of war criminal prosecutions was reflective of her life’s mission.  However, she was not filled with anger.  Rather, she still sees good in the very people who had participated in the conflagration; some of whom were her own neighbors.

A demonstration of this culture’s quest to find its missing, over 500 of who were gunned down in one Bosnian-Serb army ambush alone while attempting to escape to the safety of Tuzla, is exemplified by the work of the “bone man”, Ramiz Nukic.  Visiting him on our drive home on Saturday certainly added credence to the ongoing work (and the work that remains) in the quest for justice as he has personally found the remains of over 250 victims of that particular ambush; remains which eventually make their way to the ICMP in the hope of bringing closure to those families who yet wrestle with doubt and uncertainty.

Consciousness and Coffee.

One of my favorite aspects of my internship is the time we spend talking over coffee.
During this daily ritual, no topic is off limits. Conversation ebbs and flows from fresh and funny to painfully profound. For example, while suffering is fundamental to the human condition, we (in the USA) rarely discuss this casually over coffee. Here it is common place. The daily drumbeat beat of these discussions provide the rhythm for further reflection.
Does experiencing our own suffering allow us to understand, more fully, the suffering of another or do we get so distracted by our own pain that we fail to see it anywhere else? Is there a hierarchy of suffering? And what are the implications of this in individual experience?
These are but a few questions I stir into my cup each morning, in hopes of awakening a deeper understanding about our shared humanity; nowhere else is this a more welcomed practice than over coffee in Sarajevo.

Voda… Bosnian for Water

“When the well is dry, we will know the worth of water.”                                                               -Benjamin Franklin

          I feel like one of the first things I ask when traveling to another country is whether or not I can drink the water.  I feel very fortunate in the United States that my tap water is potable, but that is not the case in much of the world.  I think that we sometimes take our water sources for granted, and I wish that we had a better understanding of how much of a gift clean water is, not to be squandered.  The countries I have chosen to travel to in Asia and South America have no options but bottled water.  It is such a scary realization that this life sustaining resource will make people sick in many countries.  I do not know how Americans became a culture of bottled Dasani and Fiji water drinkers, but it frustrates me to know how lucky and how unappreciative we can be for our water systems and sources.

Bosnia, on the other hand, has water that is not only clean, but delicious.  I have never been much of a water drinker, always forcing myself to drink it because I need to, not because I particularly enjoy it. That has not been the case here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Not only is the water here clean, but it tastes fresh and pure (and is rumored to have “fountain of youth-like” qualities).  Never have I been somewhere that has clean fresh water pouring from the walls at all times.  Natural springs are tapped, and the water flows freely for all to drink.  We even drank water straight from the rivers and streams that we hiked and rafted along.  While I have accidentally swallowed river water and been concerned about afterwards for days at home, I feel refreshed to drink it on purpose here.

One of my favorite sources of water is right here in Sarajevo.  Just inside Old Town, where the streets are cobbled and the shops sell tea sets and rugs is a beautiful mosque.  When you come up to the mosque you always notice a crowd of people.  In coming closer you realize that they are all taking advantage of the water freely flowing from the stone wall.  People are washing their hands and feet, filling up bottles or drinking from cups made of their hands, and children are laughing and splashing, all enjoying this life sustaining, clean source.

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What a lovely aspect of such an interesting country.  Water is life and Bosnia and Herzegovina has some of the best in the world.

Perspective

Bosnia is without a doubt one of the most captivating and unique places in the world. The people, food, and physical landscape are second to none. What is also astounding, and I think seldom acknowledged, is how lucky we are as American graduate students to experience Bosnia from a perspective of privilege. I know not everyone from the States who reads this would categorize themselves as “privileged”. All of us here come from a diverse set of backgrounds, socioeconomic rungs, and tribulations. Most us of, myself included, look at our current government with dismay and are deeply worried about the future. Yet, here we are in a country that is still healing from a brutal civil war, that has around a 40% unemployment rate, and an average monthly salary that would barely cover even a modest rent rate in Denver.

We have the privilege of eating out most nights, enjoying copious amounts of good wine and beer, and traveling around not only Bosnia but the surrounding region enjoying a plethora of activities and tours. For the average Bosnian, the life style we are able to live here is well out of reach. Relative to Bosnians we have job security that they could only dream of. Even though it may be taxing, most of us, it not all of us will be employed within a year of graduation. We also do not have the constant presence of foreign peacekeepers in our country nor do many of us have a personal experience with war. Thus, I think it is important from time to time, while we experience everything this amazing country has to offer, to take a step back and reflect on how fortunate we are to be here in the capacity we are.

Our country is by no means perfect and I will be one of the first to offer a host of criticisms. There are so many things about Bosnian culture and the way of life here that I would love to export back to the States. However, we are also privileged to come from where we do and experience Bosnia in the way we are, and that is something I am exceedingly grateful for.

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Bosnian Hospitality

I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with a handful of incredibly moving and hospitable people here in Bosnia. People who have been complete strangers just moments before and were now going out of their way to help us or explain things. During Marš Mira, there were times when I would walk past a sign or a memorial of some sort and just stare at it in wonder, only able to guess exactly what it meant. A few times, men would approach me and in English ask me if I needed a translation. They would explain to me the tragedies that took place on the beautiful land I stood before and thank me and my group for taking part in an event that means so much.

After the 3rd day of walking – tired and painfully numb from the heat and distance, we arrived back to some bad news. We had to go find the army trucks that held our night bags with all of our belongings. The camp was stretched long and we were unsure where to go or who to talk to. We walked the stretch of the camp 5 times back and forth being given false hope about the exact location of our stuff. We had a young Bosnian woman with us who showed a great deal of empathy and made it her mission to help the vulnerable Americans. The army had lost her bags the year before and she was determined to fight the disorganization. We also had with us an off duty soldier whose face grew doubtful as we searched through every truck. Our bags were nowhere to be found and it was getting dark. Cold, hungry and exhausted, the 5 of us who stayed to collect the belongings for the group were growing very concerned. We took turns with the flashlights walking every inch of the fields, checking through tents and asking anyone who spoke English if they might have seen the missing bags. Over the course of 3 hours we had collected roughly 10 different Bosnians who were determined to help us find our things. I sat down on the pavement feeling defeated while standing above me were the strangers we had accumulated yelling and strategizing with one another in their language about where the bags might be. Every 5 minutes or so one of them would sit next to me and explain to me the newfound inferences and details. The Bosnian woman kept offering us food and clean clothes to change into while we waited, she even brought over a sweatshirt when the temperatures dropped. We received the bags roughly 18 hours later thanks to the kindness of our new friends. These people owed us nothing and without them who knows if we would have ever found our things.

While not everyone shows this trait of goodness, I have been moved and inspired by those that do. A handful of other examples of Bosnian hospitality come to mind as well, but that one was the most impactful. 20046552_10212557993043361_8022037068818271454_n

A Week in the Life

Now that everyone is finally settling into their roles at their respective internships and has gotten into a rhythm of how they go about their day, I wanted to share some more about my internship.

For my internship, I am a research assistant for Enis Omerovic. Enis is a professor of international law at the University of Zenica here in Bosnia, and a human rights lawyer. In his time away from the University, he works on two projects which I am helping him bring to fruition. Over the course of last week, I got to knuckle down on my first real assignment that I had to submit. As a student in the international human rights program at the University of Denver, I already loved the fact that I was working with a human rights lawyer. As someone who has a heavy focus on research based projects, I loved my first assignment. I was tasked with creating an outline for a critical assessment of the United Nations mechanisms in relation to the international protection of ethnic and national minorities. My research loving heart was fluttering. Lastly, as someone who eventually wants to work for the United Nations I had such an interesting time getting to know their mechanisms better, and learn more about some of their documents, resolutions, declarations, and conventions.

That first official assignment was due on Monday, and here we are on Wednesday morning and the work is piling up again! I love that for the most part I get to work remotely, because in addition to doing my work, I get to explore the city a bit and find cool coffee shops and cafes where I can do my work. It also allows me to take a weekend trip with my laptop so I can have fun but work at the same time (I had the best time in Split, Croatia this weekend, and still got my very detailed assignment submitted on time). Having that freedom in a way is very liberating because I get to do these things, but I also don’t get to meet as many people as some of my peers who work at actual organizations, but you win some and you lose some. I’m looking forward to seeing what this internship holds for me for the rest of the summer, and the answers that I can come across while doing my research. This internship is right up my alley, and I’m so glad that I get to spend a summer in Bosnia exploring the country and the culture, all the while doing work that I love. I got really lucky with my internship this summer, and I’m glad it all worked out for me, because for a while I was in a bit of a panic over it (Sorry Ann, I know, trust the process). But here we are, halfway through the summer already and I’m having the best time with my internship.

Cultural Faux Pas

I’ve spent the entire school year talking about different ways to navigate cultural competency – in life and also in the field of psychology. So, naturally, I got on the plane to come to Sarajevo this summer thinking I’m a mini cultural guru. Not so much . . .

It was the second night of the peace march. I had finally gotten it together after the events that occurred earlier that evening. It’s time for Muslim prayer, and our tent is just steps away from the group of men who are lined up to pray. At one point one of the men turned to someone in our group and asked for a blanket. I grabbed a few sleeping bags and began to walk through the group to place the blankets in front of the men who are about to kneel in the itchy field of grass, weeds. . . also those pokey plants.

For the next few minutes I was convinced I had put some good juju back into the universe for myself. Wrong. When prayer is over, a very nice man comes over and begins to explain his beliefs about prayer to me. When they pray, everyone faces the Kaaba in Mecca. From what I understand, the idea is that the everyone faces East so that the connection from God can come down through Mecca and out towards the people. At this point in his explanation I assume he’s just sharing all of this to teach us about his religion. Wrong, again. He goes on to explain to me that when I walked in front of them to put down the blankets I interrupted the connection between the people and God, but to them, it wasn’t a sin because I did the deed with good intentions. Any other time and it would have been a funny “oops, sorry” kind of moment. Not that day . . . I proceeded to unleash a wave of tears in front of this poor man because it was just one more thing after a rough day. But, looking back now, I catch myself trying to contain the laughter of unknowingly ruining Muslim prayer. Oops. Ya live and ya learn.

Alas, the more you learn, the more you’re certain that you know absolutely nothing.

Home

Growing up my family spent a lot of time driving back and forth across the country to visit far away relatives. During one of these trips I remember having a realization of insignificance. We passed through random towns where I saw schools that looked like mine and I found myself wondering what it would be like to go there? what kind of kids went there? what did they do for fun in this little town I knew nothing about? These thoughts then got me thinking about all of the towns and schools and kids I would never know but even so they live their lives every day and they are unaware of my existence and the daily goings on of my school and town. I remember feeling overwhelmed and small in the middle of a vast sea of lives, I pondered this feeling and to be honest I am still pondering. Explaining this realization as a feeling of insignificance may seem pessimistic but I find it to be fascinating. Now a days, as an adult, I find myself traveling to places like Bosnia and looking at people’s homes and shops and wondering the same thing. What would it be like to live here? what are the people here like? what do they do for fun and how do they spend their days? What would it be like to live in Dubrovnik’s old town where you string your laundry over a 400 year old cobble stone street and make your way through narrow, stone paths to the grocery store through thousands of tourists constantly weaving in front of your doorway? what would it be like to live in Lukomir which is a population of 25 and some cows and sheep, where the roofs are made of a hodgepodge of metal and the fields where the animals graze scale up the mountains surrounding the village and the only way in or out of the village is a hike or a very long, bumpy dirt road? What would it be like to live in Sarajevo after living through the siege here, where the shell holes on the side of your apartment building are a constant reminder of those days? I can only speculate and try and imagine all of these different homes and lives, all I know is where I have been, everyone only knows where they have been.

Clash of Culture?

Culture makes our world so very unique but lately culture has been causing me some discomfort. I studied Global Cultures for my undergraduate degree so researching before I travel is second-nature for me, but no amount of research can prepare you for the real experience.

In the United States, us women are unfortunately used to being cat-called while walking down the street or sitting at stoplights in our cars and we all have our own ways in dealing with it. We either ignore the disgusting comments being thrown our way and walk by with our head held high or we turn and give those boys a taste of their own medicine. ‘Cat-calling’ takes a whole different form in BiH, it’s a quiet form of cat-calling. Young men tend to stare, and not discreetly either; they tend to look at you up and down as if they are evaluating every inch of your body, but they say nothing to you. How do you react in a situation like this? Do you just walk by and ignore the stare? Or do you say something? If I was in the US I would definitely be giving these men a piece of my mind, but here in Sarajevo that does not seem to be the case. I have taken to observing local women and how they react to the leers of men and many of them do not react at all, they just go about their day. Then I ask myself, what would I even say to these men?

I have also noticed a difference in how older men (fathers/grandfathers) look, or don’t look, at me compared to younger men. Is it out of respect because I could be the same age as their daughters and granddaughters? Or is it the culture of their age?

But of course, this is not only contained to Sarajevo. Looking back on my life experiences in the US all this happens at home also. Everything just seems exacerbated since I am living in a new city and country.

Language and Life in an NGO

English language skills are a huge professional advantage in Bosnia. Especially in the world of NGOs, as they compete for limited funding, much of which comes from abroad. A well-written grant proposal has a much better chance of winning the award than a poorly written proposal for an overall better project. As a native English speaker (and former TEFL teacher), it’s easy for me to spot grammatical errors that seem innocuous to those less practiced with the language.

For example, Bosnian doesn’t use articles the way English does; “I have a cat” becomes “imam mačku,” literally translating to “I have cat.” It’s not a big deal in casual conversation, but to a foundation committee member an application that reads “we plan to hold a workshop” is stronger than “we plan to hold workshop.” It’s a small error that doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence at all, but repeated mistakes such as this can lose vital funding for an organization.

Considering that English is not the official language of Bosnia, it seems a little unfair that English language skills have become such an important factor contributing to an NGO’s ability to exist. Beyond grant writing, a multilingual staff can greatly expand an organization’s networking capacity, and a good English language version of a website can attract outside support in a way that a Bosnian language webpage will not. Unfortunately, the dearth of domestic funding necessitates the acquisition of proficiency in a “global” language, and “global” languages just so happen to be those of the most financially prosperous nations, which more often than not have acquired their wealth at the expense of others.

The United States is a glaringly obvious example of this. As I’ve been researching grants, I’ve found that even foundations based in wealthy, non-anglophone European countries accept applications in their own languages and in English. Because I am fluent in English my value as an intern increases, even though I have no real experience with grant writing or website maintenance. While it is undeniably helpful to my NGO that I can assist with these tasks, my language assistance also perpetuates the system that favors speakers of my native tongue. Simply having had the good fortune to be born and raised in the USA gives me the privilege of working in my first language in many parts of the world, whereas all the Bosnian employees in my Sarajevo office are at least proficient in a second.

As long as the majority of funding comes from abroad, outside actors will also continue to exercise a disproportionate amount of influence over the types of projects that will be implemented in foreign countries. If there is one grant and multiple NGOs apply for it, it is the foundation that chooses which project will receive the funding it needs, based on what they think sounds best. The proposal has to sell the idea to an outsider, who accepts or declines to fund it based on what the author writes; the populations that stand to benefit from competing projects don’t have a voice in the process that determines which project will be chosen. And this circles back to language again in that a local, grassroots NGO with strong ties to the community may have the strongest proposal for their population of beneficiaries, but a bigger, more removed NGO with greater resources may have a stronger presentation for their audience and thus win the funding for an inferior project.

While I would love to change this system with a wave of my magic wand, I’m still waiting on my Hogwarts acceptance letter. As long as the balance of power and wealth in the world remains stacked in my favor, perhaps the best thing I can do is listen to my host organization when they tell me what I can do for them. They know best what their own organization needs, and if that’s proofreading from me then so be it.