Back in the USSR (Day 5)

Monday, June 30, 2008.
There is something terribly unnerving about watching a grown man sob.

The past couple days have been pretty racking. The atmosphere in the group has started to crackle with the weight of what we’re actually involved in.

Miki warned us before we came that there would be days when things got heavy. I imagine we haven’t seen the worst of it yet, and if I’m right, the I’ve really got to start preparing myself for the next two weeks.

This morning’s workshop was an exercise designed to get us to propose ways to get Bosniak, Serb, and Croat youth to interact in positive ways. The ideas were brilliant: incentives to integrate schools; river clean up days and ice cream social nights; community murals and an international peace center; and integrated trips abroad. Fantastic ideas that will never be implemented because they will never receive funding. Vahidin is unbelievably lucky to have been awarded a €50,000 five-year grant for the Center for Peacebuilding.

We visited the organizations we’ll be working with for the rest of the week this afternoon. The youth center is sad and sagging, but by local standards is one of the most promising buildings in town. There are murals on the walls, a basketball net, and swings that have been broken for three years. The computers are so worn out they barely turn on. The organization only has two staff members and relies almost entirely on volunteers from Western Europe, almost none of whom speak Bosnian, to staff the center. Even with volunteers, staffing is intermittent, and the center does not open with there are no volunteers. The center doesn’t have the funds to transport kids in from an orphanage 20 kilometers away, so one of two of the volunteers go visit them every so often.

The youth center, called Dom Mladih, serves children usually aged four to 14. They are happy there, by relative standards. But kids grow up and when the youth center no longer serves its purpose, those kids usually resort to bitterness, smoking and drinking to avoid thinking about the lack of opportunity afforded to them in Sanski Most. (According to Miki, Sanski Most is, relatively speaking, one of the most prosperous cities in Bosnia.)

One of our new friends, Aiden, is 18 and a recent high school graduate. He is incredibly intelligent, speaks five languages, and has no prospects for higher education or gainful employment in Bosnia. Because it is incredibly difficult for Bosnians to attain visas, instead of emigrating to the US, Britain, or Canada to attend a university, Aiden is settling for a job in a car factory in Slovenia.

Krajina Tear, the organization I’ll be helping at and the lone women’s facility in Sanski Mostm has a bold mission and incredibly brave staff. Hiding underground during the war, these women brought in gynecologists to examine rape victims, took psycho-social therapy workshops, and secretly assisted widowed, abandoned, displaced, and refugee women. Some of the women have been so traumatized, that they still, 15 years later, will not shake a man’s hand or look him in the eye.

After dinner, we went to a commemoration at the library. On today’s date in 1945, the Third Anti-Fascist League Conference was held in Sanski Most to redeclare opposition to fascism and to make the first open announcement of support for universal human rights for peoples of all ethnicities and religions. Omer, Leila, and Anne were part of a cast of a dramatic poetry performance. We couldn’t understand the words (the performance was done in an archaic Bosnian dialect) but the acting was powerful enough to convey the passion of the words.

After the play, we threw cushions on the floor of our hotel’s dining room and watched the documentary Back to Bosnia. The story followed a family who fled Banja Luka, and under incredibly bleak terms, signed their home over to a Serb family. Eventually this, and the thousands of agreements like it, were declared invalid. When the original family returned to Banja Luka in 2003 to legally reclaim their home, the current occupants obstinately refused. The original family won a court order of eviction, but when they went to the apartment to move back in, they found that the Serb family had gutted the entire place and stolen everything else.

According to Miki, this was almost always the rule and rarely the exception. Ajla’s house was signed over and when she went to Prijedor last week to visit family, she hopped the fence just to look at the place that was once her childhood home. Miki’s father’s summer house in Dubrovnik, built with his own two hands, was burned to the ground. Miki’s father had a heart attack the first time he came back to see it.

I’ve been trying very hard to keep my emotions bound. This is going to be a long and emotional trip and I didn’t want to get too far into it this early. However, tonight I couldn’t restrain myself. Seeing Miki quietly sob while explaining his family’s story hit me a little too hard.

It’s something I want to talk about with the people here and I know they would listen and understand – most of them are feeling it all already, too. But I don’t know how to word or explain the sheer magnitude of my feelings. I miss my friends right now, if only because they give the best hugs and that’s exactly what I need.

I’m only five days in and already I am 100 percent positive that this is not the field I want to be in. I do not have the emotional resolve to deal with unbelievable trauma, a staggering lack of funding and support, and an overwhelmingly unsuccessful field. If not pure outright depression and anxiety, I would constantly be breaking down in frustration. This is just one city in one country and I’ve only been here five days, but already I feel like nothing I (or we) can do will ever be enough. Imagine how I’d feel working the whole world over.

I’m excited for the rest of my time here, if a little anxious. The floodgates are staying shut, for now, and only by a thread. But Wednesday we’re visiting an exhumation site run by the Center for Missing Persons. And next weekend, we’ll be in Srebrenica carrying coffins down the street.


4 Responses to “Back in the USSR (Day 5)”

  1. 1 queenofthemtn

    I don’t know how you are doing it. I’d be a total mess.

  2. 2 katrina

    I know you can do this. But remember, it is okay to cry. Tears are universal. Even though we can never comprehend the trauma and pain of the experiences of the people you are meeting on this trip, know that sharing that emotional response to their situation is in a way demonstrating that you are trying to understand. Just trying to understand is a huge step, while it won’t get funding, which you’re right- would be extremely frustrating, know that your presence there is impacting the world. I’m looking forward to reading more. I miss you!

  3. 3 Dad

    Having this experience would make anybody appreciate the hard work and selfless sacrifice that went into our US history. There have been countless brave man and women make the ultimate sacrifice so that you can live the life you live at home…. Don’t forget!!!! Be thankful!!!!! Pray that our comforts and prosperity can be spread around the world, albeit slowly….. I’m hugging you…

  4. 4 Mom


    I’m crying for you right now. I can only imagine how frustrating it must feel to not be able to make the world a COMPLETELY better place in the 3 short weeks that you will be there. Trust me though, you and your colleagues ARE making an impact on young adults there in Bosnia. It will be up to those people to share their experiences with others and most assuredly your good deeds will spread throughout the land and ultimately the world.

    Your emotional status sounds a little fragile right now, so be strong so that you pass your strength onto others. In your own small way, you ARE helping to make their world a better place!

    Be safe and remember that Mom gives good hugs, too!

    Love you and miss you still. I’m signing my letter with X’s & O’s.

    XOXOXO Mom

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