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Sarajevo Experience

by: Christina Hartman

A few days ago I was watching a rerun of Seinfeld. Part of the episode revolved around a joke in which Jerry tells Elaine that Tolstoy originally intended to name his infamous novel War and Peace, War- What's it good for? Luckily for Tolstoy, the joke went, that his mistress advised him to name it War and Peace.

I tell you this because this weekend I was in the land of war and peace—Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. You may, for example, remember Sarajevo as the city where Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was assassinated, thus beginning World War I. Technically speaking 2000 years of history (or 3000, depending with whom you consult) reveal that the Balkans as a whole have been a series of wars and peaces. However, I think few cities symbolize it as well as Sarajevo.

For starters, Sarajevo is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to—and that’s saying something. Tucked away in the mountains, it is at once a village, an urban center, and a melting pot of cultures. Not many cities can make that claim. People living in Sarajevo have a reputation regionally for being very open and welcoming—this despite all the destruction they and their city have suffered over the years--amazing.

Striking for an outsider are the large bullet holes in buildings, the completely burned out library (the largest number of books burned in one day in the history of the world, I am told), and other remnants of the war (1992-95). The photos reflect these events, as well as more beautiful things like the architecture and surrounding mountains.

The 3-day weekend was really quite busy, with many stories to tell, however I will try to keep it somewhat brief with a few clips.

On my 7-hour bus ride to Sarajevo, we had to cross the border between Serbia & Montenegro (SCG) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). At the SCG border the border guard actually escorted me off the bus so that they could quiz me (and only me of a bus of 65 people) on where I had been in SCG. That was fun. 2 minutes later, we cross the border and the BiH guard takes my passport inside (so that he could stamp it). Five minutes later, he still has not returned my passport and the bus begins to move. I leap out of my seat, run downstairs (this is a double-decker bus) and nearly run into one of the bus crew and shriek, "Sir! Stop! My passport!" (in English, as I still do not know how to shriek hysterically in the local language). Luckily this man had my passport. Want to begin (in a very, very minute way) to know what it feels like to be citizenship-less, as are many refugees and members of political opposition in various countries? Have someone take your passport away, while you’re subsequently being driven in the opposite direction. This is a lesson in how important your citizenship is and how critical paper documents are to your existence.

I visited Sarajevo not just to see the city, but to visit my friend Michelle, who I met at Fordham and who currently works for Catholic Relief Services. Of course, she and I (and her very fun roommate, Ben, who joined us occasionally) had a wonderful time! We collaborated on work endeavors, saw the sites, walked a lot, discussed pressing issues, and ate a ton! And, I’ve promised to return in December to go skiing and to eat the local dishes that I missed out on this round.

Perhaps our most unique activity of the weekend, though, was our trip to a small town about an hour outside of Sarajevo. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was working jointly with the U.S. Embassy to help return refugees to their homes. However, in order to do this they needed to clean up some of the areas to which people would return. A family that is currently in a collective center (places, like hospitals or schools, where many refugees gather(ed)/established as their new "homes") would return to this village this week. As a teambuilding activity and to help this family, the U.S. Ambassador to BiH, Clifford Bond and about 30 of his staff set to work tearing down a house (so that it can be rebuilt, I believe) and building a new road. In addition, about 10 local boy scouts and girl scouts helped out, as well as other people living nearby. As representatives from CRS, Michelle, her boss Greg, and I helped to remove ceramic tiles from the roof of the house and to pave the new road.

If you want a lesson in humility, go build a road with Bosnians from a rural area. I think the local men were impressed that the women were helping at all, however, on more than one occasion I was told that I was not building the road correctly. As it turns out, when you build a road, big rocks from the gravel go in the middle (you may want to make some mental notes on this in case you ever have to build a road). Your goal is to try to even out the road by adding gravel—you are NOT trying to make it esthetically pleasing by distributing gravel everywhere so that the road is all the same color (I’m sorry, but that was the Martha Stewart coming out-- and Michelle thought the same thing, so I wasn't alone in my silly-ness). And the final lesson in humility came when the two local women, who are 30-40 years older than I, picked up the pick-axe and accomplished in 5 minutes what had taken me 30 minutes with a shovel. The physical strength of these women is phenomenal.

I think the photos and some of their descriptions will give you an even better idea of what BiH and Sarajevo are like. I’ve also tried to start taking photos of local people. I prefer to take photos of buildings because they stand still, but as a matter of improving my photography skills, I’m going to try to take more photos of people. Let me know what you think.


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