the optimist died inside me
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.
Filed under: Bosnia, Uncategorized | 7 Comments
Tags: Bosnia, conclusions, Europe, Lisa-Marie, Scotland, travel