the optimist died inside me

It seems wildly appropriate that I should be writing this post to the tune of Death Cab’s Narrow Stairs, and I’ll thank Lis for the generous use of her laptop over the past few days.

If I thought seeing Joan Baez perform in the Bascarsija in Sarajevo was a beautiful and fitting way to end what has been the most exciting month of my life, then that can only be topped by last night’s news that Radovan Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade after 13 years on the run.

On June 25, I packed up the little bit of my belongings that hadn’t made the return trip to Ohio with my dad, and left Washington, DC on a flight bound for Vienna, Austria. After sitting in the only Starbucks in the city of Vienna (in the C-gate waiting area of Vienna International Airport) for several hours, I boarded a plane for Sarajevo, and what was to become the kind of trip that people talk about, but rarely experience for themselves.

In the three weeks I spent in Bosnia and Hercegovina, I made friends more quickly than I have ever been able to: all of whom have made a permanent mark on my life; a few of whom have changed entirely the way I think about friendships.

It’s trite, I realize, and probably doesn’t need to be said at all, but my life has changed. What I thought made up the person I am, the person I was, isn’t as important anymore. I am not going to say that I’ve shirked all material desires or even that my time in Bosnia has made me reconsider dropping out of grad school, because both of those statements would be lies. I am still very much the same person I was a month ago, with similar desires and similar mindsets. But some organic, chemical, inherent part of my makeup has remolded itself. I feel a certain amount of distance towards people who weren’t there with me, and I have a feeling that that is not something that’s going to go away easily, or if at all.

I had a nice solid sob-fest on the flight from Vienna to London a week ago, facing the window and trying not to let the German couple next to me see that I was actually shaking uncontrollably. I didn’t cry because I was sad to leave, even though I was. And I didn’t cry because I think Bosnia is in a terrible state and will never have the same air of tolerance it did 20 years ago, even though I do. I didn’t cry because I will miss the people I met and the friends I made, even though I will, quite tremendously. I cried more because it was like a door was being shut behind me, and padlocked so tightly that nothing I can ever do will allow me to open it again.

I won’t ever totally forget the way the sun looked when it set over the Sana River in Sanski Most. And I definitely won’t forget the way the cobblestones felt as I walked over them in the Bascarsija in Sarajevo. Or how hideously ugly the yellow paint of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn was. And nothing can take away the memory of the sun setting over the burial ground at Potacari, where I saw 305 men buried in one afternoon. But those memories have already dulled, and it’s been less than a week since I left.

I have almost a thousand photographs from my time in Bosnia. Many of them are snapshots of my friends, evidence on our faces of a shared experience entirely indescribable to anyone who wasn’t there. Most of the photos are of Bosnia, itself. The mountains, the rivers, the cemeteries, the buildings, the provincial way the entire country looks that is so beautiful and somehow, at the same time, so sad. A photograph can reveal quite a bit, and for the people I share my pictures with, who have never been to Bosnia, and who will most likely never go, my photos will probably say much more than I can with words. But they will still never know what cevapi tastes like when it’s homemade and hot, or what potato pite tastes like after it’s gone a little cold. They will never know how cold the Sana River feels, or how lonely the evening call to prayer can make a person feel. They will never choke on a clump of Turkish coffee grounds when they get to the last sip of coffee or spend an afternoon writing in the courtyard of a 500 year-old mosque.

If I’m honest with myself, and typically, I am, then I’ll say that we didn’t accomplish much in Bosnia. We spent five days interning with wonderfully altruistic people. We worked our asses off trying to find funding for Vahidin. We played soccer with children at an orphanage who had never seen digital cameras before. But we didn’t change anything, and the people we did interact with will go back to their lives. What we may have done, in our short stay, was leave an impression. Whether it was Edin developing a crush on Tina in Sanski Most, or Omer trying not to choke on the details of his father’s imprisonment, or Miki giving York a ring from his brother with the request that York never forget him. I’m more proud of the listening we did than of any of the action we did.

Ultimately, the Bosnians we interacted with are not going to remember what we accomplished at the Sanski Most municipality or whether or not we successfully translated any of Krajina Tear’s pamphlets. Hopefully, they remember playing Never Have I Ever on the river bank after midnight, or the trip out to the waterfall before our last dinner. Hopefully, the kids at the orphanage, who might forget what color our hair was or what our names were, will remember that we taught them Quack Diddly Oh So and that we played it with them for two hours straight. And if they remember that much, then I am happy.

With Karadzic arrested just days after I left Bosnia, there is nothing I wish more than that I could be in Sarajevo this afternoon. He was responsible for the the siege of Sarajevo, the 1,001-day long siege, the longest siege in modern military history, and finally, he has been arrested in Belgrade and is being extradited to The Hague. I would love nothing more than to sit at the sebilj and watch Sarajevans come down from their hillside homes and celebrate, because I can’t imagine there being any other response. Relief, perhaps, but hopefully celebration.

I hope in Potacari, our hostess is sitting in her front yard with her daughter and her garden and is smiling at the knowledge that the man who orchestrated the murder of her husband and three sons is now going to be tried for his crimes.

I came to Scotland because it was impossible to think that life had been continuing outside of Bosnia. I came to Scotland to see Lis, to finally meet an internet icon, but also to catch my breath before opening the door back into reality. For me, the world has not been moving for the past month. I haven’t read the news coming out of the US since I left on June 25. I haven’t been concerned with anything outside of Bosnia and Hercegovina; and how could I be concerned with the US presidential election or what congress has been up to or how much the cost of gas has risen? I was looking at death and destruction and corruption and poverty.

I’m leaving Europe tonight at 10:15 (though technically, I’ll be in Dublin until 10:00 am tomorrow). I’m landing at JFK tomorrow at 1:30 pm. I’ll have cell phone service for the first time in a month. I’ll be able to call my mom without worrying about how much it’s costing Sam’s international phone. I’ll be able to use the American dollar bills that have been patiently sitting in my wallet. I’ll be able to speak to people without being self conscious of the fact that my accent points me out as a foreigner.

But I’ll also be returning to a world that I have been cut off from, that I have cut off, for the past month. I’ll be returning to people who might ask me about my trip and who might expect a concise answer or at least a coherent story. I can’t guarantee that anything I can say about Bosnia will be concise or coherent. I can’t guarantee that anyone will want to hear anything I have to say. And I can’t guarantee that I will want to say anything about Bosnia at all.

I’m bursting with stories, so much so that it’s been a chore for me to not talk about it while I’ve been in Glasgow. When Lis introduced me to Fafa in Edinburgh and she asked what I’d been doing in Bosnia, the closest thing I could think of to an answer was that I’d been doing human rights work there. And that it was corrupt, but thankfully stable. It was a pathetically lame response, but the only thing I could think of to say. I have yet to get my mind around what I’ve been doing for the past month.

And I have yet to prepare myself for what returning to the outside world will do to me.


7 Responses to “the optimist died inside me”

  1. 1 queenofthemtn

    Holy garbage, Whitney. It just took me like 45 minutes to read this because I had to stop to cry after every paragraph. You are an amazing writer and I really hope you come visit me because I want to hear all about it and see every single one of your pictures. I can tell just from your writing that you are a changed person. I know things from here on out will not be the same for you. You have accomplished so much over the past month, I’m not really sure how you did it and how you are emotionally stable. You are such a strong person and I love you for everything that you are and will become. Okay, gotta go. Crying again.

  2. 2 Julia

    Hey You,

    I stumbled upon this when I was keyword searching “Vahidin+Center for Peacebuilding”. All I have to say is that you just expressed everything I’ve been thinking and feeling since the day I left. You expressed more coherently and beautifully than I could ever hope. I know that we’re not close in geography, but I feel close to you from our 3 1/2 weeks together, and I hope that we can stay in touch, because you are absolutely amazing. Stay well, have a good flight, and I WILL talk to you when you’re back, because I think we’ll both (and all the other GYCers too) will need it. Love you much!


  3. 3 Mom


    I have no idea who queenofthemtn is who commented on this blog, but I feel the very same way….I couldn’t stop crying as I read each and every word. I first read it when I got home today from work and then again tonight….both times it brought me to tears.

    I think much of it is because I can only imagine what you have been through in the last month and the impact it has had on you. I think I am sad for you in that I feel that you want to come home, but you feel that perhaps your mission in Bosnia is incomplete. I am sure that you touched several people there and they will not soon forget what you and the others have done for them. It is the small things that count.

    Another reason that I am sad is that I miss you so much and can’t wait to sit down with you and have you tell me everything that you have experienced in the last month. I just want to listen because I know that you will not want to stop talking about your journey for a long time.

    Your writing AMAZES me! As I read your blog, I really felt like I was there in Bosnia and Scotland with you. Your ability to capture the moment with such wonderful description really made for fabulous reading. I know that someday I will have the opportunity to read something that you have published….you will go far!

    One more day of missing you.

    I love you,


  4. I just miss you ridiculously already.

  5. 5 mimi

    I was recently in the BiH too; and echo your sentiments and experiences. Kudos to you for sharing your experiences and perspectives, with all of us. We in the US are very insulated, very self-absorbed, and very lucky – but today, tomorrow, and everyday, I am so tremendously grateful to live in a place where, although incredibly flawed, does not have landmines in the midst of beautiful hiking trails, doesn’t have so many headstones from just a decade ago in the middle of its capital city, doesn’t have children and families still missing, still unaccounted for, with no idea how many really died in a very recent horribly painful “civil” war.

    I don’t believe that the reveal and discovery of the war criminal is reason for celebration — perhaps it helps with closure and an idea that there may be some justice, but I don’t know if it matters all that much — all of those murders were perpetrated with the help of so many; there were those who gave the orders, those who carried them out, those who stood by and watched (like the UN, for instance) and those who ran, and just tried desperately to survive. And noone can lead without followers. There are many people who would still support him.

    It’s always ironic, to me, when evil men become “healers”, or become “born-again” — such a common story, as if their sudden enlightenment and recognition of the power of compassion means they no longer bear responsibility for their crimes. And history has a way of immortalizing these kinds of criminals; in my personal opinion, better that there be little noise or attention, and that he just fade away in an unmarked grave rather than being vilified further — I’d rather celebrate the true heros of Sarajevo, those who took risks to care for each other, those who risked their lives to protect and save their neighbors, those who persevered — rather than the butchers.

    But perhaps his capture will provide a little comfort to those who are still working it through, to be able to give some of that evil, where men and women become diseased with sadism and cruelty, a name, and put it into a trial at the Hague. Death can sometimes be too kind; but it is important for the world to recognize and remember that something very bad happened in the BiH; that it shouldn’t be allowed to happen again; and this arrest may help do that. The surviving victims of the atrocities he planned and executed, will not be healed and will always be scarred, perhaps only helped through time, the triumph of acceptance and compassion over vengeance, and hope.

    And that, that hope business, is the thing that for me, was the best part of the Bosnian experience — the pride in an ancient past and understanding that history has a much longer memory than a single generation’s pain; the notion that the present is better than what was, even if it’s just hiatus; and the joyful idea that a peaceful future might be possible — that’s all there. The peoples of the BiH have a long, rich history — they’re no 230-yr-old whippersnappers, like we are, in the US. Working with those kids in the orphanage, I’d think, perhaps gave you some insight into how hope and recovery and perseverence could be possible – seems to me to be a fundamental part of who Bosnians are.

    So many that I spoke with in Bosnia feel that war will come again — too many remaining schisms; the Dayton Accords and the political system that has developed, with three parties, et. al. is fundamentally flawed; the economy is a disaster; there are still too many open wounds. There are many cynics; especially about religion – but there are also many who harbor and protect sparks of hope and pride in their hearts for the future of Sarajevo, and the BiH. And having been there, I’m one of those, now, too, who dreams of the beauty of the BiH, is honored to have been so graciously welcomed there, and who hopes, with all her heart, for a peaceful future for Sarajevo, the BiH,the Balkans, and all of us.

  6. 6 Elizabeth


    You are an amazing writer and it was a real pleasure reading the intricate details of Bosnia i Herzegovina. It brought back beautiful memories of our time together and at the same time brought a tear to my eye as it stirred up many of the same emotions.

    I also began crying as I read your mom’s comment and made me think about how much she must miss you and it brought back those feelings of when I arrived in Tampa Airport and my mom wrapped her arms around me and said she had missed me!!! How she is proud of what I have been doing and wanted to hear every detail. I can only imagine how proud she is of you after reading your posts and seeing how amazing of a writer you are!

    I miss you Whitney and I look forward to reading much more of your work in the future!!!!!!

    Warmest Regards,

    Elizabeth Dunn

  7. 7 william

    If you have ever seen the photographs of the mutilated, beheaded burned bodies in Bosnia during the preamble to the terrible atrocity in Srebrenica in the summer of 1995, then you will understand that killing isn’t the domain of any ethnic group. You see, the victims I refer to were Serbian victims. They were butchered by Bosnian muslims led by a man called Naser Oric. Who was convicted of war crimes by the court in the Hague. That he got a sentence which was shorter than some house breakers receive in the UK is indicative of the sentiments aroused in favour of Bosnian muslims and against Serbian Christians. Incidentally, the Serbs were the majority in Bosnia and have lived in the region for longer than America has stood as a nation…much longer. Of course the beheaded beheaded, mutilated, burned, gang-raped Serbian victims were not and will never be the focus of media attention in the western press. And that, is were the truth is manufactured. If anyone doesn’t see or here of the victims in one side of any conflict, they don’t get ‘brain-time’. They quite literally cease to exist for anyone except those who knew them personally.
    Goebbels knew that propaganda works. Mix some truth with very many lies and the job is done. Once the sympathies of a news consumer are won, very little short of a clatachism will change it.
    No one knows nor cares that Ruder Finn (a US based PR company) was at work for the Bosnians, Croatians and Albanians all throughout the war.
    They are quoted as being particularly pleased at having garnered the support of the Jewish population in America for the bombing of Serbia. The reason they were so cockahoop about this achievement is that only the Serbian population during WWII had fought against Nazism in the Balkans. All others: Croats, Bosniaks and Albanians had been enthusiastic Nazis.
    That Serbs and Jews had share common graves in the Balkans had been forgotten by a few photographs of the victims of war. A simple turnabout could have been manufactured in the western psyche had the same victims been shown with captions stating they were Serbs and the perpetrators Bosniak extremists.
    It is interesting to note that there have been two well known terrorist incidents in America since the end of the Yugoslav ‘intervention’. One was by a Kosovo Albanian gang who planned the attack on Fort Dix and the other was by a Bosniak muslim who ‘lost his head’ and blew a few bystanders away in a shopping mall.
    Keep up the writing, you are good at it…and so was Goebbels good at his job.

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