Archive | March, 2012

BiH Day Three: The Srebrenica Genocide

30 Mar

Having sufficiently explored Sarajevo by now, our class boarded a charter bus early Tuesday in the AM for a trip to Tuzla and Srebrenica. The trip took us up, over, through and around beautiful mountains, valleys, lakes and streams (see the photo gallery at the bottom for more photos from the trip).

We arrived in the city of Tuzla late because, while trying to leave Sarajevo, we had to drive on a highway going in the wrong direction, turn around on that highway, and then double back in order to use the only entrance ramp onto the highway that we wanted to use to get out of the city and reach Tuzla (another example of the need for improved infrastructure). We began at the ICMP, which is basically a giant CSI operation – it’s a forensic lab and storage center for remains from those killed in the Srebrenica genocide. The primary purpose of the ICMP is to identify the remains in order to provide closure to families. They have a rigorous identification and contacting process they follow, and to date they have identified around 5,500 remains and expect to identify about 6,500 based on recent finds by the end of this year (this is out of the nearly 8,500 mostly unarmed Bosnian men and boys systematically massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in and around the U.N. “Safe Zone” of Srebrenica in July 1995 – more on this below). The reason I say “remains” is that once these men and boys were slaughtered and buried in mass graves, the Bosnian Serb forces used bulldozers and other heavy machinery to dig up and transfer bodies to new cites, in order to cover up their crime. This has led to many body parts of the same victim being scattered in many different sites, so rather than identifying bodies, the ICMP is typically identifying remains – usually a smattering of bones and maybe an article of clothing. We saw the storage room with hundreds of bags, each containing the remains of different victims, as well as a room with forensic scientists with bones laid out on examining tables (like something from CSI, NCIS or Bones):

International funding (both from countries and private donors) ends after this year, so there is much uncertainty for the future of the program, and of course for those nearly 2,000 families who have yet to receive the call that a lost family member’s remains have been found. More on Srebrenica later…

Next stop was the Tuzla Mayor’s Office to meet with the town’s Mayor:

Although he didn’t speak English, the Mayor had a translator interpreting as he laid out a detailed history of the town of Tuzla, ALL of its former Mayors since 1878, the city’s rich history as a center for trade, production and industry (because it is located on top of salt deposits), the many artists, authors and scholars from the town, as well as its history of relative tolerance, co-existence and at times co-operation between different ethno-national/religious groups (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs). The glue holding Tuzla together seems to have always been economic development around the salt deposits, but after they closed down for environmental and safety reasons, the current Mayor is trying to develop the deposits into lakes for vacationing and recreation with some success so far. Along with other economic development initiatives, he is trying hard to unite the town’s different ethnic groups around a common goal of economic development, which was really interesting to hear from someone with such great vision and drive to improve the town while also minimizing divisions between the groups. I don’t know how successful he will be, but it was a great experience to hear from him.

Next was back on the bus to journey into the Republica Srpska. We stopped briefly in a tiny town close to Srebrenica, which has a mostly Serb population after the war. Compared to everywhere else we went, we definitely got the most stares and looks from the people around us. You got the feeling that we were really in uncharted (and probably unwelcomed) territory. The depiction we were given of the RS was: a now majority Serb-populated area that is ruled by ethno-nationalistic Serb politicians, and since it is extremely centralized, they control the education and media, creating an atmosphere that perpetuates war-time attitudes of fear and division between ethnic groups. I wouldn’t say they’ve all been brain-washed, but from what we heard, people in the RS are pretty close to it – the RS largely stands in opposition to EU membership, as well as efforts to integrate schools, and one person told us that if they had the chance to, they would probably declare independence and maybe even try and join Serbia (who they border) if they could feasibly do it. So it was a weird feeling to walk around this small town even briefly. We met with a local Serb who showed us a room that serves as a war memorial for Bosnian Serbs (mostly soldiers but some civilians too) killed during the war:

(The Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet even though it’s nearly the same language as Bosnian and Croatian, which both use the Latin alphabet). He tried to stay away from answering any controversial questions, and in all fairness, he really didn’t seem knowledgeable enough to answer the in-depth questions we had, so in terms of getting a good perspective representing the Bosnian Serb ethno-national group, I don’t think it is fair to say this guy, or our visit to this town for that matter, is fairly reflective of Bosnian Serbs and the RS. With that being said, it was still an odd experience, and it didn’t run counter to anything we had heard about the RS before we stopped there. But it’s important to keep it all in perspective – and although the Bosnian Serbs are often considered the aggressors in the war because of their aggressive brutal and even inhumane military tactics (i.e. ethnic cleansing in terms of a land grab to create a “Greater Serbia,” the siege of Sarajevo, the Srebrenica genocide, holding U.N. soldiers hostage, etc., and they have had the most years handed out by the International Court of Justice for the Former-Yugoslavia, which tries accused war criminals from the war) as well as the large support they had from Serbia through the Yugoslav People’s Army. The Bosnian Serbs and Serbs position is generally that the war was a civil war, and when Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence and broke away (they all had better economies than the under-developed Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro and could therefore benefit from independence because they would keep revenue inside their country rather than having to redistribute it to economically weaker republics), Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs acting to preserve the former Yugoslavia (conversely, they benefitted from the essential revenue-sharing system of the former Yugoslavia among the six republics and were therefore economically threatened by the break-up). Despite this, the Bosnian Serb, Serb, and Yugoslav People’s Army’s seem responsible for most of the aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity during the war – but to paint them as the bad guys only perpetuates the cycle of ethno-national conflict and division, so it’s important to recognize what happened while focusing on moving forward. Anyway, back on the bus we went, and next stop was perhaps the most significant and striking of the trip – Srebrenica.

As I alluded to earlier, what happened in Srebrenica from July 11-17 1995 has been officially recognized as a genocide. Earlier in the war, the U.N. decided to declare certain towns and areas in Eastern Bosnia “Safe Zones” in order to protect mostly Bosniaks who were fleeing their homes in Eastern Bosnia due to the Bosnian Serb advance and the ethnic cleansing that accompanied it (forced removal of people – in this case by Bosniaks – from a particular area by another group – Bosnian Serbs). Of course, the U.N. lived up to its Bosnian nicknames of “Useless Nation” and “United for Nothing” by providing minimal food, shelter or medical supplies in these small areas that were quickly overwhelmed and overcrowded by fleeing refugees. The U.N. also failed to guard the Safe Zones adequately – in Srebrenica, the soldiers standing guard were a small contingent of lightly-armed Dutch Peacekeepers who were severely outmanned and outgunned by the Bosnian Serbs. They were relatively inexperienced soldiers who were under very strict orders not to engage the Bosnian Serbs unless directly attacked. Furthermore, the U.N.’s fallback option throughout the war had been aerial bombing of Bosnian Serb military targets if they did not respect peacekeeping forces – but the Bosnian Serb forces simply started taking U.N. Peacekeepers hostage, which forced the U.N. to stop aerial bombing and further weakened the peacekeepers ability to protect these Safe Zones. Many of the U.N. troops from various countries who served in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war suffer from some of the worst known cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, since they were usually outmanned, outgunned, unprotected and often had to simply stand aside when atrocities occurred because of their limited orders. One such example was in Srebrenica. In July of 1995, with Bosniak forces making gains due to the Washington Agreement which allied to Bosnian Croats (and Croatia) to fight against the Bosnian Serbs (and Serbia and the Yugoslav People’s Army), things were getting more desperate. General Ratko Mladic, leader of the Bosian Serb forces, with much support from other forces and politicians allied with him, decided to move on the Srebrenica Safe Zone. When the Bosniaks living in Srebrenica at the time learned of the approaching Bosnian Serbs, they fled to the local U.N. base located in an abandoned factory and warehouse. 25,000 people tried to crowd into this warehouse and factory complex, without food, water, clothing or shelter, completely overwhelming the Dutch Peacekeepers. Unable to protect or provide for this massive amount of people, they basically turned them over to the Bosnian Serb forces, whom they were too weak to protect. So, before the Bosian Serb foces arrived, all the Bosniak men and boys decided to flee the town. They began marching in a long column, totaling around 11,000 or 12,000, for the free territory of Tuzla (where we were earlier in the day – Tuzla staged a successful defense of the town on its own for most of the war). However, the Bosnian Serbs intercepted the column and captured or killed all but a few 1,000 of the men and boys. After busing the women and children to other Bosniak controlled areas in the country (that was the whole point of taking Srebrenica – to ethnically cleanse the area of Bosniaks) they bused the Bosniak men and boys to various locations (factories, fields, etc.) in the area surrounding town and proceeded to systematically execute and bury 8,372 unarmed civilian men and boys. As I mentioned earlier, the Bosnian Serbs then attempted to cover up this mass-murder by using bulldozers and other heavy-machinery to transfer bodies from one mass grave site to another, making the identification of the remains extremely difficult. The overwhelming evidence that this was a thought-out plan that targeted a specific group for elimination and that required a massive amount of logistics and coordination to pull off led to the designation of the Srebrenica massacre a genocide according to the U.N. definition.

We arrived outside Srebrenica at the memorial cemetery for the victims of the genocide and were given a short tour of the humble cemetery:

All the girls in our group wore the traditional Muslim headscarves out of respect:

There are rows and rows or markers, sort of like the Omaha Cemetery in Normandy, but not nearly as neatly kept:

There is also a short wall which displays the names of each person killed in the genocide:

There is also a kind of outdoor mosque in order to conduct burial ceremonies for each time new identifications are made:

After the tour, our guide took us across the street to the abandoned factory complex which the Dutch peacekeepers used as their base. He led us into the warehouse where all the civilians from the Srebrenica Safe Zone flooded into as the Bosnian Serbs advanced – today the warehouse has a series of framed photos and captions which recount events before and after the genocide, as well as a small display of personal items found in the mass graves and some short bios on the people who they belonged to:

Finally, our guide took us into another part of the factory, into what was set up like a conference room. He first showed us a movie about what happened at Srebrenica, with some striking (and pretty damning) footage of the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, as he entered the Srebrenica Safe Zone (Mladic was recently captured in Serbia and is preparing to stand trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide at the Hague). But what was really remarkable was that after the movie, our guide told us that he was one of the lucky few thousand who was in that column of men and boys trying to reach Tuzla who managed to escape the Bosnian Serb encirclement. After he told us his personal story about fleeing, we heard from two “Mothers of Srebrenica,” an organization of women who lost husbands, sons and other family members in the genocide. They initially organized after the end of the war to draw the international community’s attention to the fact that an unspeakable crime had been committed in Srebrenica which demanded action. One of the mothers we heard from was the current President of the organization, and she recounted how she lost her husband and two sons, how difficult it was during that time to chose where to go and what to do and to split up with her sons and husband as they choose to join the column and flee the Safe Zone, leaving the women and young children behind. She then told us how difficult the identification and burial processes were after the war, and how today she hopes that all the war criminals are brought to justice in order to allow everyone who suffered during the war to move on.

After hearing these personal stories, I was totally drained. By the time we arrived in Srebrenica we were pretty physically drained after a long day of traveling all over the country, and these testimonies we heard added to that by emotionally draining us. Although these stories had a deep, meaningful and lasting impact on me, I think the combination of the long, draining day and my prior experience visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp, meant that they didn’t have quite the unsettling affect which I remember having after I left Dachau. I think having experienced a tour which was filled with personal stories of unthinkable suffering at Dachau prepared me for what we would hear at Srebrenica in a way that prevented what we heard at Srebrenica from shocking me in the same way. More than anything, what we heard at Srebrenica just saddened me, it deeply saddened me…

BiH, Day Two: Exploring Sarajevo

26 Mar

Monday morning we awoke bright and early for our visit to the Bosnian State Parliament. But don’t let the “State” part confuse you – it is the national parliament for the whole country. This is where things get confusing – Bosnia and Herzegovina has multiple levels or layers of government: the state level has the state parliament and a rotating presidency. The Presidency consists of 3 persons, one from each of the major ethnic groups (so one Bosniak (Muslim), one Croat (Catholic) and one Serb (Orthodox). Next, below the state level is the entity level – there are two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mostly comprised of Bosniaks and Croats) and the Republica Srpska (mostly Serbs now after the war and the ethnic cleansing that accompanied it). As you can guess, the RS is mostly located in the northern and eastern parts of the country (bordering Serbia) while the Federation contains Sarajevo and the rest of the country, extending to the south and west (bordering Croatia). The RS has 49% of the country’s land, while the Federation has 51%. The RS is very centralized; the Federation is very decentralized, as it is compromised of 10 cantons, or municipalities, some of which are majority Bosniak, while others are majority Croat, and some are mixed. This entire system can be summed up by one word: dysfunctional. The current political structure was created in 1995 at the signing of the Dayton Agreement, the American-brokered peace deal to end the war. In order to get all three parties on board, the agreement had to include provisions for a new state government in Bosnia, which eventually became the constitution, and as you can see, the many layers of government make getting anything done nearly impossible, since each ethnic group has the ability to veto any initiative. Don’t get me wrong, Dayton was absolutely necessary to stop the fighting, but by now the country should have devised a more functional system – but since Dayton essentially institutionalized the ethnic divisions around which the war centered, politicians maintain their power by stirring up fears among their constituent ethno-national groups and playing up the “us-vs.-them” rhetoric to no end, instilling a politics of fear and resentment that prevents the country from focusing on, say, improving the 43% unemployment rate (you read that right), or rebuilding public infrastructure, or bettering the disintegrated education system or cleaning up the corruption in the media. Furthermore, very small ethnic groups like the Jews and Roma lack the ability to hold office in the state parliament or presidency because they are not one of the three institutionalized ethnic groups recognized in the country’s constitution – an issue that recently came before the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled Bosnia must amend its constitution before they can move forward in the process to join the EU. Speaking of the EU:

Both Bosnia and the EU want Bosnia to join to EU, but as we learned on this afternoon, it’s not that easy. We met with a top adviser to the EU delegation in Bosnia, and she went over the process that Bosnia is required to go through in order to join the EU. There is a huge list of political, economic, social and other reforms that the country must make before they can begin the process to become an EU member, and most all of these must occur through changes in Bosnian law coming from the state (national) level. However, because of the fragmented political system, none of the ethnic groups can agree on how to make the necessary changes. But the thing that really frustrated me was the EU’s approach to the whole situation (as seen through this adviser who made her presentation to us). They said that the biggest obstacle preventing the mutual goal of EU membership for Bosnia was the “lack of political will” attributable to the dysfunctional set-up. But when I asked her what her group was doing to help build the necessary political will, or push for constitutional reform to improve the political system, she said “nothing.” This was simply not a good enough answer. This adviser kept insisting during her presentation that their role was merely to “advise” the Bosnian government on the necessary changes, and to “inform” them of the benefits of EU membership, etc. etc. But this ignores the fact that the current political system was imposed on Bosnia at Dayton, and the politicians in power no benefit from the set-up and can continue to maintain their power unless changes are made. Since the EU’s goal is Bosnian EU Membership, and the most effective way to achieve that is through a new, more functional political system in Bosnia, they should be providing support to make the necessary changes – instead they simply sit back and throw their hands up saying ‘here’s what you need to do, but we can’t help you or provide any support.’ It’s basically a covert imperialism – on the surface the EU insists that they won’t meddle or impose in Bosnian political affairs, yet they require massive changes to the political system in order of Bosnia to join the EU. But it looks much nicer if Bosnia makes the necessary changes than if the EU overtly forces them to. These are the kinds of attitudes from international actors that help preserve the status quo and keep the country stuck in the mud – and Bosnians feel similarly. The consensus from people we talked to was that Europe basically left them out to dry during the war, and as for the U.N., Bosnian refer to them as “Unless Nation” and “United for Nothing.” The only country they feel indebted to is the U.S. for brokering the Dayton Peace Agreement, even if it was largely forced and has left the country in bad shape today – the important thing is that it stopped the fighting, killing, massacres and ethnic cleansing that the rest of the world seemed content to regulate rather than help end. But that’s enough about that, back to the visit to the state parliament…

Turns out, the state parliament canceled on us (are you surprised?). So instead, we received a guiding walking tour of the city. We learned more about the history of the city, specifically how the different parts of the city are built based on the empire that ruled Sarajevo at the time. The old Ottoman Turkish part of the city still has the indoor market bazaar with several shops, as well as several streets and alleyways that have names like “Copper Alley” – each one of the 48 guilds in the city had their own street to produce and sell their crafts. Here are some pictures from the Turkish part of the city:

And look at all the houses on the hills surrounding the city – this reminded me so much of Pittsburgh!!!

And here’s the iconic fountain, located along the main trade route between Istanbul and Europe. Legend has it that if you drink from the fountain, you will return to Sarajevo (this was quite accurate back during Ottoman rule, because the people coming through the city and drinking from the fountain were traders who were constantly passing through). Also, Sarajevo had running water in public bathhouses and underground sewage systems 100s of years before many major cities in Europe – so while places like Copenhagen smelled like shit, Sarajevo was relatively clean and odor-free:

Also, here’s something unique – the below different streetcars are all old used streetcars from cities around the world which were donated to Sarajevo after the siege. The oldest one is the red-streetcar from Vienna, circa 1964. When I went to Vienna the next weekend, I saw some still in use – talk about crazy! The same streetcar in two totally different places!

And here’s a really good story: so this house:

Used to sit on the site of the current National Library (which was shelled during the siege burning all the books inside), but before it was the National Library it was the City Hall. Austria-Hungary built it, but before they could build it on this particular site, they had to convince the owner of this small house to sell so they could demolish it and build the new, grandiose city hall. The owner wouldn’t budge – no amount of money could convince him to sell his priced possession and watch it be torn down by the occupying empire. So Austria-Hungary agreed to move his house – brick by brick – across the river to its current spot, where it serves as a small restaurant where we ate our last meal in Sarajevo (lunch) on Friday.

Next were houses of God – there is actually a Catholic church, Serbian Orthodox church, Mosque and an out-of-use Synagogue all within a few blocks of each other. Sarajevo has long been a point where East meets West, and despite the war, it has had a long history of peaceful co-existence among these different traditions (example, when the Catholics kicked the Jews out of Spain in 1492, many came to Sarajevo because of the relative tolerance the Ottoman rulers showed for other religions. They brought with them an ancient copy of the Torah and during World War II, members of the Muslim community took the book into safekeeping to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Nazis, and it is preserved today as the world’s oldest book I believe). Our guide’s name was Mohammed (the only way you can tell people’s ethno-national identities is by their first name, because it is determined by their religion – “ethnicities” aren’t even accurately distinctions, since EVERYONE in Bosnia is technically descended from the Slavic tribes that invaded in the 6th century) so he filled us in on the Islam in Sarajevo: Bosniak Muslims are Sunni (as were the Ottoman Turks) and they are about the most casual Muslims in the world. None of them eat pork, many will give up drinking beer for Ramadan in respect of the older members of their family, and many women (but certainly not all) wear the head garments, but otherwise, they drink, smoke like chimneys, and don’t often attend services (even though Sarajevo has the most mosques per person in the world, due to the flood of money from the Islamic world during and after the siege). This picture sums it all up well:

You have an outdoor café right outside of a mosque – so the call to prayer is made while people from 3 or maybe even 4 major world religions sip their coffee and smoke their cigarettes below. Catholics and Orthodox are similar in that most don’t actively practice their religions.

Oo, and about coffee – someone told us that coffee is the most commonly practiced religion in Bosnia – and from what I saw, this is true. Everyone drinks coffee, all the time. Every café has small copper or tin coffee trays and cups outside on its tables – it’s so ingrained that if you have guests over to your home, you traditionally serve three rounds of coffee, and the third round is the “Farewell” serving, acting as a social cue for the guests to leave soon. This shows just how ingrained coffee drinking is and that it is something truly universal here that cuts across all three cultures.

And here’s a shot of the big chess game in the square outside the Orthodox church – there’s always a huge crowd to watch and wait to play. It’s teams of two, and at sundown, the team currently on the board is in charge of locking the set up, taking the key with them and then showing up right at sunrise to unlock the set and resume playing (if you haven’t figured out by now, the Balkins are a place heavily influenced by tradition – if engaged in an argument, citing a historical event from 7 centuries ago is perfectly legitimate here).

To end our day, we decided to eat at the Sarajevo Brewery, home of the local favorite brew, Sarajevsko. The Brewery has a heavy history: it is build on a spring, so it provided the only access to drinking water for the entire city during the siege. Countless people died trying to cross the city to simply fill up a bucket of water from this brewery – so there is much more to it than beer. Here are pictures from the Brewery:

And that wraps up our Monday in Sarajevo and this entry. I’ll try and keep the future blog posts shorter – I’ll never get to Vienna at this rate…

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Day One: The Siege of Sarajevo

14 Mar

Wow – where to begin?!? It’s tough to get started when you want to describe one of the greatest weeks of your life, and even tougher when this week was last week. I know that as the distance between me and my week in Bosnia and Herzegovina grows, so will the significance and meaning of it in my life. With that being said, I have still drawn plenty of meaning and significance from the experience only five days after it happened, so this blog post will try and convey all of that (so if you are rushed, I would save reading this for another time).

We’ll start the story just as we began our week – stepping off the plane and into a bus (while being surrounded by four breathtaking mountains, each of which played host to the 1984 Winter Olympic Games):

But we weren’t stepping onto your average tour buses – we had the honor of being guided by two local college students, Adnan and Elsa, who both spoke excellent English and survived the siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in modern history. After introductions and loading up our luggage, we set out on the “Tour of Misfortune” (which was appropriate as we passed numerous bombed-out buildings scattered with bullet holes – a grim reminder that the war was fought only 20 years ago):

Our first stop on the tour was to an old house which was contained one of the entrances to the famed Tunnel. This Tunnel ran under the airport, which was controlled by the U.N. during the war in an effort to funnel food, medical supplies and other humanitarian aid into the besieged city.

However, part of the deal was 50% of all food and other supplies had to be given to the Republika Srpska army (the Bosnian Serbs), which occupied the surrounding hills and was conducting the siege. So, this Tunnel helped provide necessary additional food, medicine and weapons to the badly under-supplied people of Sarajevo. Weapons had to be smuggled in through the Tunnel because the U.N. instituted an arms embargo on the country of Bosnia during the war in an effort to limit the fighting – however, this greatly weakened the Bosniak Muslims, who lacked the heavy weaponry and professional soldiers which the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats possessed, since these two groups were both supplied by Serbia and Croatia respectively (for a quick historical background). Construction on the 800 meter Tunnel began on either side of the airport, and despite not knowing where the other group was digging, when the two groups met, they were only centimeters apart. The Tunnel looked like something out of The Great Escape with Steve McQueen:

After going through a very small preserved portion of the Tunnel, our guides told us what it was like in Sarajevo during the siege. The Serbs on the surrounding hills would fire at anything and anybody moving in the city – combatants or non-combatants, men, women, children, vehicles, you name it. Even if a light was on in a house or in a room in a building at night they would shell it. A main road in the city was nicknamed “Sniper Alley” because the Serbs took up positions in buildings on the street in an effort to cut the city in two. The Serbs even shelled the city’s market place twice during the war, resulting in numerous civilian casualties. You can still find “Sarajevo Roses” throughout the city – red paint outlines marking the spots where people were killed. The only access to water in the city was at the local Saravejsko Brewery, since it is built on an underground spring. Countless people died trying to reach the Brewery simply to fill up a bucket of water for their family. Families would often live in the basements of buildings for the entire duration of the war: our tour guides remembered going to school as 5 year olds in the basements of neighborhood homes. With the situation so dangerous and the fighting so close, how was it that the citizens of Sarajevo managed to hold out and successfully defend their city? Our tour guide Elsa provided the answer when she said that her father was positioned down the street from her family’s home, so if he were to let the Serbs through, it would be the end of his family. Elsa’s story gave a much deeper meaning to what we had previously read about how the Bosniaks had “better morale” than the Serbs – because they were defending the things that mattered most to them.

On a bit more light-hearted note, one of the funny moments at the house with the Tunnel entrance was an exchange between one of my fellow classmates, Tayma, and the owner of the house. Tayma is Bosnian, or Bosniak Muslim, and her family spent the entire war in the basement of a house in the city of Mostar, which is south of Sarajevo and is where we visited later in the week. Her family moved the U.S. after the war, but she still speaks Bosnian, and after watching her engage in an animated conversation with the owner of the house, Tayma explained to us that the owner wanted her to marry his son (this served as a good reminder that we were not in Europe anymore). Another reminder was after we jumped back in the buses and proceeded to drive across the city. At one point, our bus driver pulled off the road and picked up some random guy who was waiting in a parking lot. He jumped in the front seat, said hi to us, and then we continued on our tour with our guide giving us a look like ‘what the heck was that?’ But that’s how things work in Bosnia – this is an old-fashioned country that operates on favors and based on who you know. Bosnian time is much different than Danish time (I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no word for ‘punctuality’ in Bosnian) but it’s all a part of their culture and it was refreshing to be thrown into it for a week.

As we continued on our tour, we drove down Sniper Alley and past the hideous monstrosity that is Tito’s Communist architecture from the 1970s:

Looks like a bunch of tetris blocks or a scene from Inception. Anyway, moving on, our next stop was the former Olympic Stadium, which was largely destroyed during the war, but part of which was redone to hold soccer matches:

Finally, we concluded our tour at the top of a mountain on the Eastern side of the city (the Tunnel and airport were located on the Western side of the city). From atop the mountain we could look out on the old trading route that connected Istanbul with Europe (via Sarajevo) and was the reason why Sarajevo sprang up as a major city during Ottoman rule (with tour guide Elsa in the picture):

And here are both our tour guides, Adnan and Elsa:

Here’s the old front which was bombed out during the war:

And some pictures of the magnificent view we had from atop this hill:

The old Sultan’s palace (also bombed out during the war):

And where we began the tour, way off in the distance beyond Tito’s skyscrapers:

To end our tour, we stopped at the Latin Bridge:

This is significant because right next to it is the corner on which World War I started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Astro-Hungarian throne:

And our hotel was only one block away (my mind was blown at this point – we were staying only one block away from the spot where World War I started, unbelievable). Here are all the pictures (but don’t miss my last paragraph below):

At this point our tour was over and we thanked our tour guides for not only sharing so much information with us and taking us around the city, but also opening up and sharing such personal stories with us to really give us a deeper understanding of what happened in Sarajevo during the siege. At the end of the day, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude – I just wanted to find somebody to thank for giving me an incredible opportunity to go on this trip, meet these people, hear their testimonies and see where so much history and suffering has occurred alongside a rich blending of cultures and religions. But more on this in my next posts – since is plenty for now (and it’s only day one of five!) Stayed tuned for more on my week in Bosnia and Herzegovina…

Villanova Invades Copenhagen!

3 Mar

Alright folks, I’m here to tell you about PROBABLY THE BEST WEEKEND I’VE HAD SO FAR IN THE WONDERFUL CITY OF COPENHAGEN. (the reason it’s “probably” is because Danish advertisers aren’t allowed to claim their product is “the best” or “#1,” and it’s a perfect reflection of the Danish modesty as well as their underlying self-assurdedness, which is summed up in this quote:

“The Danes are the most modest people in the world. And in this as well they are World Champions” -Piet Hein)

But back to the weekend – it couldn’t have happened if it weren’t for a visit from two fellow ex-pats and friends from Villanova: Tom Belatti and Ashley Dodge. They both are studying at Oxford this semester and made the trip to Scandinavia to find out just what exactly is this mystical place called Denmark that Nate talks about all the time. As you can see, we hit the ground running (I was in tour guide mode basically the entire weekend):

 Taylor Rose and I served as impeccable tour guides for the entire weekend. We began by showing them City Hall on the wall to their hostel – which conveniently had a British art display, so Tom and Ashley were loving that.

Next we took a stroll down Stroget, which is the main walking and shopping street in Copenhagen (and which is conveniently pronounced “Stroll”):

And of course, on our way we had 

to make a stop in the Lego Store, since the Danes are the inventors of the famed toy block that, along with Thomas the Tank Engine and Indiana Jones, defined my childhood:

Next stop was Taylor’s and I’s favorite cafe for a  meal of fresh laks, or salmon (sticking with Lenten tradition – fish on Fridays baby). After a few hours of Danish beer and catching up, we met up with some friends to hang out in a nearby apartment, and then called it an early night.

Saturday morning we were all up bright and early for

a full day of touring about the city. We started our morning by ordering some Danishes in Danish (it was really in English, but that would ruin the pun):

Next we took Tom and Ashley to Konigs Nytorv (King’s New Square) and out to the famous Nyhavn or New Harbor, where the iconic canals are. It was SUPER windy, resulting in this picture (one of my favorites of the weekend):  

Next we stopped at Frederikstown, a planned, grided portion of the city with the Marble Church and the Royal Palace where the Monarchy resides (which got to go inside as a part of a guided tour for another class, but more on that in another post). After that we headed over to Greyfriars  Square where the old Franciscan Monastery used to be before the Reformation, followed by Amagertorv, a big market square that used to be along the water and was home to several wealthy merchants. Next was over to  Christiansborg Palace where the Parliament is located and the Bourse or Old Stock Exchange (really a commodities exchange or a big indoor trading market back in the 1600s). All these pictures will be in the photo gallery at the end. Then we crossed the bridge to Christianshavn (Christian the IV’s Harbor – he built it in the early 1600s to modernize the naval facilities and improve the harbor for military and merchant shipping/commerce purposes. On the way we stopped for a classic Copenhagen hot dog:

 Next stop was a church with the most  wood-carved organ I have ever seen:







Then it was onto Christiania, one of the most peculiar places in all of Europe if you ask me. Its basically the Danish-version of Woodstock except its a permanent settlement. Ever since the 1960s (hippies and cultural revolutions happened on this side of the Atlantic too) these people have been squattering on land and facilities in an old naval yard, and they recently reached an agreement to buy the land from Copenhagen for a very discounted rate (10% of what developers would have paid for it). It is an independent community outside of the city system of taxes and laws with its own Council of leaders (think Occupy Wall Street only a settlement in one of the parks that worked and became permanent). A big attraction for foreigners is Pusher Street with its long line of pot vendors. You read that right – pot vendors. Although weed is illegal in Denmark, the police don’t really enforce the ban in Christiania because there is a long tradition of cooperation between the community and the police. Most of the trouble occurs when outside people come in and take the stuff outside of the community, or introduce hard drugs (Christiania has long been adamently opposed to hard drugs). Therefore, no cameras and no running are the rules as you walk down Pusher Street. Here’s a picture from the entrance way: (on the other side of the sign it reads “You are now re-entering the EU”).

After exploring (and not buying nor smoking anything) we crossed back over the bridge to take Tom and Ashley to the top of the famous Round Tower to show them the view of the city. The Round Tower was built as Europe’s oldest observatory for Kobenhavn Universitet by, you guessed it, Christian IV (when in doubt, just say Christian the IV built it, cause he probably did). Talk about a visionary – this guy was way ahead of his time. So far ahead that he lost a bunch of battles to Sweden and bankrupt the country – but he still is the one that expanded Copenhagen and made it into the distinguished capital city that it is today. You’ll see the views from atop the tower in the photo gallery below.

Our next stop was to the Carlsberg Factory with a huge group of friends from my international law course. We got the 15 person group discount, and since the tour included 2 free beers at the end, it was well worth it. Highlights included learning about the Carlsberg founders (a father and son who actually were rivals for a while), the brewing process (they introduced a new Bavarian style beer to the Danish markets which put them on the path to success), seeing the world’s largest collection of un-opened beer (20,000+), watching Taylor’s scarf almost get eaten by a horse, me finding a house named Carl and then galloping around, riding a Calrsberg beer bike, the two free beers, and finding a playground to run around on after the tour!

  The rest of the day we took it pretty easy, but we finished with a large dose of culture on Sunday when we took Tom and Ashley to a concert at the Carlsberg Glyptotek. Turns out Carl Jacobson was not just a brewmaster but also a big time donor to the arts in Copenhagen, and set up a foundation to create this museum filled with impressive art and artifacts from all over the world. We explored the museum for a bit then listened to a classical music performance by a 4 person group. It was really nice cause Tom and Ashley got to meet my host parents, as well as family friends of theres, Adrian and Jette, who then hosted my host parents, Taylor and I for dinner later that evening. I finally got to try the Danish staple dish of herring, and I loved it!

But anyway, after the concert we said farewell to our friends after a wonderful weekend of catching up, touring, exploring and taking in all the history, culture, architecture and social scene that Copenhagen has to offer. Taylor and I both agreed that spending a weekend with familiar faces was just what we both needed. So many thanks to Tom and Ashley for making the trip – I hope they will not be our last set of guests during the semester!

Below is the photo gallery with all the pictures from the weekend, and below that is a picture of whole group at the Glyptotek, and below that  Hope you enjoy it!


Rachel in Denmark

[American] Expat living in Copenhagen

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