Bosnia and Herzegovina – lilac university

We spent last week in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in Sarajevo, the capital. A bit of background on BiH:

Bosnia and Herzegovina was a state in the former Yugoslavia, and in the early 1990s when Slovenia and Croatia voted to succeed them, BiH soon followed. BiH existed as an ethnically diverse state, with three main ethnic identities: Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Bosniaks were the largest ethnic group. When the split from Yugoslavia began, eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was predominantly Serb, was targeted by Serbian forces from Serbia to create “Greater Serbia”, and many Bosnian Serbs allied with the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA – to simplify, it was basically the Serbian Army). From 1992, Sarajevo was besieged, as the JNA bombarded the city and shot civilians in “Sniper’s Alley” for four years.

Along with shelling and violent attacks, Serb forces aimed to gain control of eastern Bosnia by forcibly expelling Bosnian Muslims from the territory – this culminated in ethnic cleansing and genocide. Perhaps most infamous is Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosnian civilian boys and men were murdered.

As you can imagine, the topics of the lectures we had were grim, but the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are so warm and kind. I loved all the fall foliage we got to see, the winding streets and the river running through the center of town. It is undeniably a very special place.

tuesday october 18

Tuesday, we got up early and met at 8am to start our drive to Sarajevo! I really like long car trips – they give me time to listen to music and mentally unpack. We drove southwest, before crossing the river which is the physical border between BiH and Serbia. After crossing we started the slow climb into the mountains. The countryside was so green and the leaves were starting to change color to some of the most vivid shades of orange, yellow and red I have ever seen.

We stopped for a short break and met a puppy which was also a highlight before continuing to Sarajevo. Once we arrived, we met our local guide, Lejla, and had a traditional Bosnian lunch (ie lots of meat, potatoes and stew).

I did my weekly FaceTime with June that night before going to bed, as I was quite exhausted.

Wednesday, October 19

Happy Birthday Grandpa Roy! 🥳

On Wednesday Emily, Isabel and I went for an early morning walk along the river, which was beautiful. Sarajevo is the perfect mix of city and nature, and walking along the river in the morning sun was enjoyable. The weather reminded me of home – a bright sunny day, but cool in the air with autumn and the promise of a cold winter.

On Wednesday we had a morning lecture on BiH after Dayton, i.e. the peace agreement signed in the 1990s, before taking a quiet break where we ate čevapi (of course) before to meet the students of the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology.

The session was a great way to meet students, and we decided to see some of them again on Friday! That evening we went up to the “Yellow Fortress”, which is known to be an amazing place to watch the sunset. I can now say that I completely agree.

Sunset from the “Yellow Fortress”

We also met another traveler named Jake, who we met on the bus returning from Zagreb to Belgrade about a month ago. Traveling is a very small world apparently. We decided to hang out with him and some of the friends he met at a hostel, and it definitely got me excited for my own upcoming solo travels! I’m really looking forward to pushing my limits and exploring on my own.

Thursday, October 20

On Thursday, we got up early to visit the War Childhood Museum, which focuses on commemorating children’s wartime experiences. Although it started in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has become more international and tackles other crises such as the war in Syria and Afghanistan. I’ve included one of the stories that touched me below:

War Souvenir from the War Childhood Museum

After the War Childhood Museum, we took a break before returning to the hotel for a conference on Islam in present-day BiH and visiting a mosque. This conference was of particular interest to me because I have never taken a religious studies course or had the opportunity to discuss Islam in the context of the Balkans. The mosque was beautiful – it suffered heavy bombardment in the 1990s, but has been repaired.

The ceiling of the mosque

So we decided to have a movie night in a hotel room, and we used the program projector to watch a movie on the big screen, which was super fun!

friday 21 october

Friday morning we got up before our conference and took the cable car to the top of Mount Trebević to see and explore the old Olympic bobsleigh track. The view of Sarajevo was absolutely stunning from the car and the colorful leaves were just stunning. We walked the old bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics which was great fun and nice to get out of town for a bit. Belgrade doesn’t have the most access to nature, so it was wonderful to take the quick tour of the mountain.

On Friday we had a lecture on the politics of memory before a lunch break. We then went to meet Selma Avdić, a volunteer of the mobile memorial “Što te nema” (“Why aren’t you here?”) in honor of the more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys who were murdered here in 1995. Selma fled Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war and made her way to Chicago, but returned to Sarajevo for a year and a half to further explore her roots. She gave us a great lecture on the memorial at this beautiful Viennese style cafe a few minutes walk from our hotel.

The memorial is a collection of over 8,000 traditional coffee cups that are laced and filled with coffee in different cities. The goal of the monument is for it to be interactive, with people able to participate and have a conversation about the Srebrenica genocide.

After the conversation, we took taxis to visit the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We had a conversation with an aid worker who took photos of buildings during the war and compared them with 15 years later. It was amazing to hear his stories of running through the sniper alley to work and seeing the photos of the destruction. Even after visiting their exact locations and speaking with survivors, I still don’t think I can grasp the true horrors of war. As the photographer said, “It’s cliché but it’s true. There are no winners in war. I have never felt this so strongly before coming here. There are no words to express the absolute horrors. A lot of people here draw comparisons with Ukraine, because they’re concerned about the situation there — it’s quite similar to the situation here about 30 years ago.

On Friday evening, the group left with Jake, other hostel travelers at a club in Sarajevo. The music was fun and we all had a great time before heading back to the hotel.

Saturday October 22

On Saturday we woke up to say goodbye to Lejla before getting into the van and driving about three hours to Potocari, the village where the UN was stationed during the wars in BiH. It’s near the border with Serbia, and the UN base here was supposed to function as a defense against Serbian troops and to protect civilians from harm. Unfortunately, when the Serbian troops entered Bosnia and Herzegovina and arrived in Potocari, the Dutch UN soldiers let them in without a fight.

The Srebrenica Memorial Center commemorates the victims of the Genocide against Bosnian Muslims that occurred in 1995, when over 8,000 men and boys were massacred and their bodies brutally disposed of. It happened in the “never again” period after World War II, and it was happening in Europe.

I want to be respectful when writing about my experience in Srebrenica, so I encourage you to look at their website to learn more about the terrible events that took place there. It is so vital that we discover the very real dangers of nationalist rhetoric and racism. It becomes very real when you see the images and the cemetery with thousands of graves. We spent four hours there, and it was an incredibly exhausting experience, but so necessary.

After that we got in the car and drove over 4 hours back to Belgrade. I spent it listening to Taylor Swift’s new album, Midnights, and rest. Fortunately, we had Monday and Tuesday off to recover.

It’s hard to believe we’re already in the second half of the semester! I’m feeling pretty tired, but there are some super amazing things coming up that I’m really excited for too!

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