Archive | April, 2012

BiH Days 4 and 5: Putting the Perspectives Together

17 Apr

To continue my last blog post, after we concluded our visit to the Srebrenica Memorial, we enjoyed a dinner at a nearby restaurant and then piled in the bus for the few hours ride back to Sarajevo. We arrived late, hit the hay, then woke up for a jam-packed day of meetings –sounds pretty professional, huh? Actually it kind of was. But before we began our meetings, a few friends and I decided to wake up early and attend 8:00am mass at the nearby Catholic Cathedral in Sarajevo. What a unique experience: first of all, the mass was in Croatian, which was a bit challenging for us, but we still managed to follow along. Our group of 6 made up over half the congregation – surpassing the 5 old ladies scattered throughout the first few pews. Perhaps the most memorable part of the experience was that 4 priests presided over the mass – I’d never seen 4 priests celebrate a mass together, not even for my Confirmation, and for a Wednesday morning mass? So that was a really neat experience to take part in. But back to our meetings – we began by meeting with a Catholic Bishop – Mato Zovkic, Vicar for Religious Relations. I believe he said he either was or is a bishop in the bishopric of Banja Luka (, but with his current position he is based in the Archdiocese of Sarajevo, but I could be wrong about that. What an incredible interview he gave as – he talked about the challenges believers faced under Tito’s Communist regime to practice their faith and provide a Catholic education, the role that priests and nuns have played for 100s of years in Bosnia and Herzegovina (most notably the Franciscans) as well as how priests and nuns were killed during the war and how the return of a priest to a war-torn village offered great hope to the local population and facilitated the return of refugees, notably the elderly, and efforts to bring leaders of different faiths together through the Inter-Religious Council in the city. But two comments jumped out at me during the interview and question and answer period. At one point, Father Zovkic said that “Catholics don’t have a monopoly on God’s grace,” and at another point, he said that, during John Paul II’s visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina not long after the war, he instructed the priests of the country to “forgive and ask for forgiveness,” and Father Zovkic said that although he thinks most every priest has forgiven others, he doesn’t think that every priest has asked for forgiveness, and he thinks this is important in order for the country to move forward. These two comments demonstrated to me that Father Zovkic was a man deeply rooted in his faith but that he refused to use his faith as a divisive element between other religious/ethnic groups; rather, his conviction to his faith enabled him to seek peace and reconciliation between groups after the war, as well as the ability to be critical of other priests when they weren’t living up to the same faith they all profess. Whereas I left Srebrenica the day before deeply saddened, I felt rejuvenated and hopeful after meeting with Father Zovkic, because he seemed to have a clear vision of how to move forward in a country that really needs leaders who are looking ahead:

Our next meeting was with the head of the Islamic Community: Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was really neat to meet with him inside one of the bigger mosques in the city.

It was a real honor as well, seeing as he just got off the plane from a meeting in Brazil. It was funny that one of the first things he talked about was charisma – because this guy had plenty of charisma. He framed his talk using renowned sociologist Max Weber’s 3 Categories of Charismatic Authority to illuminate the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims (the Bosniaks are Sunnis, as were the Ottoman Turks who introduced the religion to this region) as well as to demonstrate how the tradition of the prophet is passed down in the form of the elected leader of the country’s Islamic community, a role which he fills today. He went on describe his experience leading a community of Bosniaks in Chicago (who dug the Chicago subway he said) as well as a bit about the education he received at the University of Chicago (the many references to texts, authors, etc. throughout his talk displayed his educational background)…Although many of my classmates were really impressed by the Grand Mufti’s charisma, energy and wide-ranging points in the interview, I have to say Father Zovkic impressed me more. Now obviously I’m biased as a Catholic, but Father Zovkic was clear, concise and coherent the whole way through – one point followed from another, he wasn’t afraid of calling it how he saw it or what he held true to, and his points had much more relevance to what we were interested in finding out (i.e. the role of the Catholic Church during the war and its role in the country today). The Grand Mufti was great, and the visit with him was incredibly insightful, especially with my lack of knowledge or background on Islam and the Bosniak Muslim community, but I thought he was a bit more flashly and jumped around a lot without maintaining the coherence, focus and substance that Father Zovkic did, who I thought really saw the way forward amidst the muck of division and separation.

Our third meeting was with Professor Asim Mujkic, Associate Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at the University of Sarajevo. He gave a lecture on multiculturalism in the context of ethno-nationalism (he used the term ethno-nationalism because simply saying “ethnicities” is actually inaccurate – technically all the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are Slavs – descendents from Slavic tribes who moved in from the East in the 6th century, whereas nationalism captures more of the political struggle for land which largely drove the political leaders of the groups before and during the war). He pointed out that “democracy killed our country” because the introduction of local elections – without national elections – after the break-up of Yugoslavia in from 1989-1991 introduced the ethno-nationalism that led to the war and that still plagues the country. He also noted that traditionally, Bosnia had always been ruled and did well as a part of larger political bodies, whether under the Ottoman Turks, the Austro-Hungarian Empire or as a part of Yugoslavia, so democratic self-rule is a very new thing that the country must grow into, and it certainly isn’t there yet (which makes you rethink if democracy is the best everywhere at all times). His talk focused on how the culture that existed in Bosnia before the rise of ethno-nationalism and the war was truly one pluralistic culture – the culture was a rich mixing of cultures and traditions, and there was generally a history of mutual respect and co-existence. However, when the fall of Yugoslavia occurred, aspiring politicians needed something to legitimize themselves as the ones to fill the power vacuum, and that’s where ethno-nationalism was introduced as politics produced culture. The professor said that really the only thing that differentiates people is the confessional – and a person’s given name serves as the indicator of their religion, but since religion is not regularly practiced by most in Bosnia, it serves as a marker more than it does a deep difference. Despite this, politicians created an environment of fear and resentment that actually produced three different cultures, using such tools as segregated education including different curriculums, school buildings and language instruction. The breakup of language has been especially divisive – we were told that Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian are all closer to each other than British English is to American English, but through a reintroduction of archaic words, an emphasis on correct pronunciation and the official government recognition of three distinct languages (which is a real hassle for street signs) group identity has been intimately intertwined with its own language, even though everyone can understand each other. The media was also used to instill fear and hatred, and still today many media outlets are either owned by politicians or clearly favor one group over another. The picture Professor Mujkic painted us was one of politically-produced cultures which undermines a “multi-cultural” nation model, because the manufactured cultures only reinforce ethno-nationalism which further legitimizes the politicians who maintain the divisions between groups and prevent the country from moving forward. I found his talk to very insightful and revealing – it was a great way to get a more academic perspective and overview of the situation in the country immediately before, during and after the war as well as now from a well-read intellectual who also lived through the whole thing. During questions, one of our professors brought up the Grand Mufti’s point about the importance of charisma from either in the day, and the Professor quickly rebuked this saying that “the nationalistic politicians had plenty of charisma and look where that led us – we need efficient democractic institutions and a functioning political process rather than charisma,” (he indicated he wasn’t a big fan of the Grand Mufti). In regards to another question, he pointed out that under Tito’s Yugoslavia, “Brotherhood and Unity” was the guiding principle, thereby minimizing differences between groups, and still this same generation slaughtered each other, so ignoring differences does not seem to be the answer either. We certainly left this lecture feeling less hope-filled than we had after our two meetings earlier in the day, but also with a much better understanding of what exactly divides these groups and how these divisions came about.

Now for commentary of something a bit more light-hearted: FOOD in Bosnia and Herzegovina: which consists of meat on meat on meat (but actually). And numerous, generous portions – our first meal in the country we confused the appetizer dish of soup, bread and lunchmeat for our meal. But the entrees are full of meat – as in one plate we had considered of peppers stuffed with meat, tomatoes stuffed with meat, and meat – you guessed it – stuffed with meat (a different kind of meat on the inside than on the outside actually, along with mushrooms). And it was all delicious. The most common dish is a sort of sausage/hot dog kind of deal. And for desert, everything is either saturated with or covered in sugar. Here are some pictures of the food:

Thursday morning we awoke for our journey to southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a small town called Mostar in Herzegovina (Herzegovina is simply a geographical area – not another political entity dividing the country along ethno-national lines, thank goodness – there are already enough of those) but whether you are Croat, Bosniak or Serb, if you are from Herzegovina, that is your home, so it is always good to refer to Bosnia and Herzegovina in its full name when speaking with the locals, in order to avoid a minor offense through ignorant over-simplification, which is why you’ll see BiH written many places to abbreviate the long and cumbersome name. The bus ride was long but magnificent – while most of my classmates slept, I was taking pictures left and right (sometimes leaning over them and waking them up in the process). We snaked through mountain passes, winding roadways and traveled alongside a pristine blueish-green river most of the way. Here are a few of the best pictures, but there are so many more below:

Upon arriving in Mostar, we met with a local NGO – Mostar Nansem Dialogue Center, or Mostar NDC. We were given a talk by one of the NGO’s staffers and asked him a few questions. He explained that Mostar was one of the most devastated cities during the war – perhaps even more so than Sarajevo – because there were basically two wars fought here. First, the attacking Bosnian Serbs were fought back by Bosniaks and Croats who make up the majority of the city, but halfway through the war, the Croats and Bosniaks began fighting each other. As a result, there are countless bullet-filled facades and bombed-out buildings on every street, every more than in Sarajevo. The fighting between the Bosniaks and Croats has resulted in a physically segregated city divided by the river that flows through the middle: the Croats live on the side with more factories, schools and shopping, and are therefore generally wealthier, while the Bosniaks live on the poorer, less developed but more touristy side of town. Education is also segregated – the prestigious Mostar Gymnasium (high school) operates as “two schools under one roof” so there is one unified administration and students enter and exit through the same doors, but there are still two distinct Croat and Bosniak curriculums, and most classes – especially language, history and geography (subjects used to indoctrinate ethno-nationalism and manufacture group cultural identity) – continue to be divided. Therefore, most of the work that the NDC NGO does is centered around education, although they face major challenges. Since local politicians control education policies and reform, the NDC must work for what they called “invisible change,” in other words, they can’t advocate for far-reaching changes outright, because they would be rejected, so they must work subtlety, almost behind the scenes, to avoid being shut down by the local powers that be. For example, if they want to take students on a trip to Norway to go through a conflict mediation and dialogue experience, they must seek approval by spinning it in a way that shows they are going for the “cultural immersion” or to develop a foreign language ability, etc., etc. Although they have made small progress with some students and parents, mostly through events held outside of school, they face many obstacles. They just hope that the Bosnian government and the international community decides to re-prioritize education rather than neglect it, which has been the case since the end of the war and which has allowed for the politicization of certain identity-producing subjects (language, history, geography, religion, etc.) by politicians at the local level, thereby reinforcing segregation along ethno-national lines. A more centralized and common, comprehensive approach is needed, both among government actors as well as among international organizations and NGOs, who can often fail to co-ordinate between themselves and sometimes do more harm than good.

After this meeting, we were given a guided tour of the town, which included the Mostar Gymnasium, which we entered to see the “American Corner” a room filled with books about American topics or written by American authors (all in English) as well as computers and various materials and resources for traveling to or studying in the U.S. They had an impressive collection, but were missing Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so I agreed to ship it to them so they can have a copy. We also stopped at a big public park, one of the oldest Mosques in the city, and finished at the famous Mostar Bridge:

This incredible bridge and the beautiful river, hill-side homes and towering mountains surrounding it are what make Mostar so famous, not to mention that the bridge was built by a Sultan around 500 years ago. However, during the Croat-Bosniak portion of the fighting during the war, the Croats bombed the bridge – thereby physically and symbolically dividing the town. After the war, many of the old stones that comprised the original bridge were recovered from the river below and the bridge was rebuilt, offering a sense of symbolic hope even if the city remains physically divided. We spent the rest of the day exploring some the more rural areas surrounding Mostar – which reminded me of Arizona with the more barren land and the rock formations on the hills – and enjoyed an excellent fish dish at a restaurant below a waterfall before making the long drive back to Sarajevo for the night:

Friday we awoke for our final few meetings. First we met with an editor and journalist who works for the Balkan Reporting and Investigative Network and whose main job is to cover war crimes trials (mostly in BiH but some in the Hague as well). We learned about some of the approaches they use, such as taking into account all three perspectives while covering the trials, but most striking was what he told us about the media situation in BiH at the moment:

Next we met with an Australian who is one of the top NATO officials working with BiH to become a member of NATO. He talked about the two-pronged goal of their work: to reduce the size of the standing army to 10,000 professionally trained and full-time troops and to improve the economy. Part of these goals entail finding a way to get rid of all the old and dangerous excess weaponry, explosives and other out-dated devices from the war. He has been living in the country for several years after commanding U.K. soldiers during the war and his wife is from BiH, so he has many strong ties and knows so much about the situation, to the point that he talked so fast that at times is was hard to follow him. But it gave us a glimpse into how a big international organization like NATO can have so much power over a country like BiH’s army and the privatization strategy of the economy. And it also showed how much more receptive BiH is to an organization like NATO, who with mostly U.S. support is perceived as the ones most responsible for stopping the war, while people are more hostile to the EU because Europe is considered to have turned their back on BiH during the war.

To end our trip, we ate lunch in the old Mayor’s house which I talked about earlier, which was a great way to end our trip with a traditional Bosnian meal (with lots of meat and some soup and lunchmeat and some excellent cake with a honey-based icing). I could try and sum up the trip for you at this point, but anything I say now would simply not do the whole trip justice. But I will say, whereas I began the trip feeling a deep sense of gratitude, I ended the trip not really sure how I felt – the situation seems so complex, there is so much to it, and in some ways it seems pretty hopeless, but the people we met with definitely gave me great hope that the country can and is moving forward – even if painstakingly slowly. The people we met with were definitely the highlight of the trip – although we were tourists to a degree and did some of the more touristy things and visits during our trip, I definitely felt like much more than a tourist as we met with so many informed people with valuable insight and meaningful perspectives that had a deep impact on me. Our group left BiH with a much deeper understanding of the country’s history, the war and the situation today than we could have gotten if we had read every last article published on BiH. So I guess the take-home is that the people we met with made our trip what it was, and I feel really grateful that we got to have this experience. 

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