Volunteering in Bosnia, September 2011, Part 1

by Sheri Rosenfeld, LICSW, LCSW-C

Day 1: Sarajevo

Sarajevo 2011

After a long day and night and day of travel, I have finally reached Sarajevo as part of a group of volunteers with Women for Women (WFW), an international organization that helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives.  I had no idea what to expect of Bosnia, although I had seen pictures, but it is more beautiful than the pictures.  The mountains are covered in lush forests and the homes have terra-cotta roofs. The colors are spectacular.  I’m not sure what I expected, but at first glance the city seems to be “old meets new” — young, hip people mixed with men and women in their later years, people who walk with limps or canes and have a worn look on their faces.  Liam, our guide, tells me that everyone here has a story to tell, a loss to share, or a burden to live with directly related to the war.  Up on the hill overlooking the hotel I can see where the snipers took their positions.  I was told that the Olympic sharp shooters were the best snipers.  How difficult to imagine.

The market has a Middle East feel reminiscent of Istanbul except that it also has a European feel with a mixture of Germanic, Slavic, and even Spanish and Italian cultures represented also in the food and in the appearance of the shoppers.  My first taste of the food was this fabulous large circular pastry bread filled with spinach and cheese.  They also come with just cheese or plain.  I gobbled that up like I hadn’t eaten in days.  It was delicious.

Bosnian meat sandwich

Day 2: Sarajevo

I spent the next day getting acclimated while the rest of our participants arrived. As I walked around the outdoor market I came across something I wanted to buy.  After much thought, I decided to purchase it.  The shopkeeper told me that they only take cash.  I noticed that even the restaurants only take cash.  Credit cards are rarely accepted, even for large items.  I think that is when I realized one lasting effect of the war may be that trust and delayed gratification are not in their best interest.

Outdoor market

I asked Liam, our guide, about the overall sense of trust here in Bosnia Hercegovina.  He said that in the war neighbors fought against neighbors in what was once a melting pot of Muslims, Catholics, Christians, Jews, and Orthodox, all residing together.  Now the tension is palpable,  I thought a great deal about what it would be like to have lived next to a Serbian neighbor or intermarried into a Serbian family and then have them take siege on you and your family.  What would the lasting effect be on relationships.  I was told that for the most part people are trying to rebuild trust, but for those who lost so many or watched horrific tragedies at the hands of the Serbians, it is quite hard to forgive.  I learned the difference between the massacres in Rawanda and Bosnia is that the Rawanda government made tremendous strides and effort to reunite the people so that there would be less bitterness. .  I did feel the bitterness in Bosnia.  The tension runs high and in some ways contributes to a very unstable environment.  You have a sense that the earth is rumbling here.

Nonetheless, the town center is bustling and people are here enjoying the summer days and drinking.  There is a lot of drinking and not enough working, I am told.  The work ethic is very laid back which contributes to Bosnia’s lack of productivity.  While on a guided tour of the city, we noticed how filled the markets and the cafes were.  Our guide told us that since the war, 16 years ago now, the factories have shut down, the job rate is so low and there are no jobs to be had.  The young, especially, appear to have a lethargic response to work and spend their days drinking coffee at the cafes.

I took this photo of the building’s facade:

Austro-Hungarian architecture with sniper's bullets

because I was struck by the juxtaposition of beautiful Austro-Hungarian architecture to buildings and stone walks riddled with bullet holes.

Another facade with bullet holes

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