Archive | April, 2012

Reflections on Bosnia after the war

10 Apr

It was 2006, 11 years after the end of the Bosnian War.  We had to step over the corpse of a dog which had likely been killed by a landmine.  Even years later, you still had to be careful about landmines.  As we stood in the same position as snipers in the hills above Sarajevo, our tour guide told us a personal story.  Our guide, “Y”, said that after the war he ran into a man who was a Serbian sniper during the conflict.  During their conversation, the former sniper said he used to blow up cars.  Why?  He had to use up a certain amount of ammunition every day.  I can’t verify the accuracy of the exchange, though I have every reason to believe it is true.  I want to believe it is true.  I want to believe that in the midst of such a cruel conflict, the choice for life could be made by anyone.

View of Sarajevo from the mountains surrounding the city

Writing about Bosnia makes me nervous…but I’m doing it anyway

This is a blog post I’ve wanted to write since I started my blog.  I pretty much destroyed my apartment looking for the two pieces of binder paper that were my journal while I was there for a few days in the spring of 2006.  But who am I to be writing about an extremely complex war when I only visited the country for a few days more than a decade after it happened?  I know I cannot claim any kind of expertise or significant knowledge.  My heart still breaks for those who did live through it.

I’m sharing my very limited experience with all of you because being in Sarajevo affected me deeply.  So I’ve kept these sheets of binder paper on my desk in front of me for weeks as if the pages were asking me when I was going to share them.  Like the conflict itself, the pages had gotten buried for years as my own life moved on and other stories made the headlines.  They are now at the top of my stack.  The words in this post are worth writing, snippets of my journal entry are worth sharing, even if only a few of you read this.  I hope by the end you will understand why.

Why I was in Sarajevo

I wasn’t in Sarajevo on vacation.  I was there as part of an MBA project for Women for Women International (WFWI).  Women for Women’s mission is to “provide women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies.”  In fact, WFWI founder Zainab Salbi’s experience in Bosnia was part of her inspiration.  Our MBA team was doing a strategy project for WFWI.  That meant we needed to see for ourselves and experience for ourselves the pain, the obstacles, and the hope…and to approach it with fresh eyes.

Snapshot in time…Sarajevo circa 2006

Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sarajevo, Bosnia

After arriving in Sarajevo, we took a tour of the city to better understand the history and the war.  Our guide Y claimed to be the only official tour guide in the country. The city did not seem particularly distinctive, except that there was lots of construction.  You had to mentally remind yourself that this was not construction, but reconstruction.  The plaster falling off buildings happened to be in perfect circles, the shape of machine gun fire.  Every building seemed to have these distinctive freckles, surface wounds no one bothered to repair or hide.

Over the next few days, we met with people from the World Bank and the U.S. embassy, and some participants in WFWI’s programs.  With the participants themselves, we didn’t talk much about the war.  Yet the price of peace was all around us.  We heard about how difficult it was to get things done or start a business, and the data proves the point.  Bosnia ranked 95 out of 175 according to a World Bank “Ease of doing business survey” from that year.  Unfortunately, the situation only appears to be getting worse with the same ranking now at 125 out of 183.  A recent Reuters article discusses the current situation well.  Yet in spite of all that, I sensed hope mixed with weariness and weariness tinged with apathy.

The pain of perspective

The former retirement home. Sarajevo, Bosnia

The name Sarajevo means “fields in front of the castle,” and the scenery was breathtaking.  For lunch on the day of our tour, we ate at a lovely spot along one of the rivers outside the city.  Blue skies on an early spring day lent a sense of peace.  And yet, just a five minute drive away was the machine-gunned skeleton of a bombed out building.  When we asked what it had been, our guide Y told us it had been a retirement home.  We all gasped.  Although I had read about the horrors of the war, seeing the shell of that building brought the brutality home.  No one had been spared.

But the most haunting 360 panorama was still to come.

Y took us to a hilltop.  One wedge of skyline contained a new maternity hospital.  Another wedge contained the Olympic stadium.  The last wedge was lush green rolling hills, covered in white tombstones.  I distinctly remember getting queasy as my body felt faster than my mind could comprehend.  The proverbial circle of life was all there.

My closing thoughts…

2012 marks the 20th Anniversary of the Bosnian War.  There is additional press coverage, and I would encourage you to read it.  For travelers considering a visit, I would encourage you to go.  Not just because there are sights to see in Bosnia and Sarajevo or because a trip to Mostar is well worth it.  Not just because it is an easy add-on to Vienna (only a 1.5hr flight).  I would encourage you to go because we can.  By visiting, I believe we provide forward motion; we acknowledge that the past is indeed in the past.
                                                                                                                                                                     Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

“This place reminds you that life and love are fragile and temporal, courage is rare but real, and sometimes only out of necessity, and doing even a little bit is doing something.  Each person has a role to play.  These are all truisms I’ve known, but I didn’t really get it.  These are issues with which the mind would rather not grapple.  It is certainly easier not to.  But one glance at hillsides covered in graves reminds you that this just isn’t about easy-easy doesn’t honor a memory, easy doesn’t respect millions of broken hearts…”                                  

Personal Journal, March 28, 2006

So to honor the memory of those lost, the courage of the survivors and what I hope is an amazing future…I make the (un)easy choice to write and share.

I hope that each of you will do the same.  Please share thoughts below…

All photos: © W2S Hilary

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