I will be honest. I went to Bosnia with a lingering memory of talks about the war there. As a kid, I heard Bosnia talked about as an example of country where there is a large Muslim community facing great challenges. As an adult, I learned that Bosnia and Herzegovina endured a brutal four-year civil war. I also learned that the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has three major ethnic groups: Bosnians, the largest at almost 49%, Serbs at about 37%, and Croats at 14%.
Pens made of bullet-shells sold as souvenirs for tourists.
Upon my arrival, I learned about the complicated government system. For example, Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have a president. It has three presidents
. I learned about the culture and its fascination with coffee shops. But, I was most surprised how the war was still a very prevalent thing in everyday life even after 20 years.
A wall inside the medresa of all its students and teachers that were martyred during the war.
The war’s prevalence:
It only took less than an hour until someone mentioned the war to me. Not surprisingly, it was Dr. Hajiurdin, who lived in Sarajevo through the war, that mentioned it. It was surprising, however, how quickly it came up. I expected it to be more of a taboo topic than a reminder that a 30-hour and 4-leg flight is nothing compared to living through a 4-year siege.
The next day after my arrival it was raining. I decided to visit a gallery nearby that talks about the Srebrenica Massacre
. The sad reality is that I didn’t know the extent of the massacre, it was the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Photography was not allowed in the museum, but I could not help but sneak a few pictures to share.
The search for the Srebrenica victims remains is still on going.
I visited a gallery about the massacre. It had many photos such as this and endless hours of video testimonies.
Years after the Srebrenica massacre, the search for bodies is still ongoing. The only way to identify victims are by DNA of their relatives.
The walls showing some portraits of the victims. This the only female on the wall. The mother of Hasan Nuhanovic. He was an interpreter for the UN and Dutch peacekeeper forces at Srebrenica. Despite knowing him, 20 years ago they forced his family outside of the refugee camps only to be killed.
Some of the graffiti left by the UN forces
The gallery had a wall of the eight thousand names identified as victims of the massacre. It was striking how family names were repeated over and over indicating that whole families were killed.
The picture on the left shows the international delegates while at the same time the picture on the right shows the families burying the remains of their family members. The Bosnian public is not fond, to say the least, of the UN and the world’s response to the massacre.
In an attempt to hide the mass-graves, the bodies were moved from one mass grave to the other. This makes it almost impossible to find a complete skeleton of victims.
A metal handcuff that was used by the Serb forces to tie the victims
After this visit, I started asking about the war. I asked everyone, shamelessly. If they were old enough, I asked them where they were during the war. If they were young, I asked them if their parents were there during the war. Or, if they had friends from the other ethnic groups.
Edina, my host sister. A 12-year-old 5′ 9″ prodigy. She speaks perfect English which she learned on her own from the TV. The Walking Dead is her favorite TV show. Though she dreams to be an architect, she likes Dr. Oz so much that she wants to be a doctor. She hates history, she says, because history is dead.
Hazim, Edina’s father and my host father. He was a unit/brigade leader during the war. Now, he is the head of finance at the medresa.
Sedin, right, and his wife Nusreta. Sedin was my other (Sufjan is the first) guardian angel in Sarajevo. When the war started, he was 15. He was a boy-scout and good with navigation. He tried to enlist himself and help the Bosnian forces, but they sent him away because he was too young and small. Sedin loves Sarajevo. He, in fact, came back after high-school to study in Sarajevo against his father’s will. He told me of stories of people running into former Serbian soldiers who are now part of the police force.
Farooq hosted me over iftar with his family. He now lives with his wife, mother, grandmother, and three daughters. When the war started, he was serving his mandatory service in the Serbian Army. He used his uniform to come back to Sarajevo and help some of his family members escape to a neighboring country. He then returned as a soldier with the Bosnian army.
The young crowd told me that in Sarajevo they generally have Croat friends, and sometimes, Serbs.* In Sarajevo, I was told, things are okay. The younger generation is at least trying to not talk about the war everyday. Though they told me “Go to Mostar, you won’t be disappointed.” And, so I went to Mostar.
Mostar: A City Split in HalfMostar is the cultural capital of the Herzegovina part of the country. Approximately, 110,000 Bosnians call this beautiful city home. That being said, this city is literally split in half. Yep. There are two universities, schools, etc. Two of everything. I was told that some schools are split within. That is, they have classes for Bosnians and other classes for Croats. The two classes learn in two different languages.
The iconic Stari Most in Mostar
The beautiful city of Mostar
I was invited to a student organized iftar. I asked many in this crowd whether they have friends from the other side of town or not. I got a resounding no. The closest to answer to a yes was, “I had one.”
I attended a student’s iftar in Mostar under the iconic Stari Most. The iftar was sponsored by the Saudi Cultural Center in Mostar. I asked many of those in attendance whether they had Croat friends.
Redina and Elma are best friends and my hosts in Mostar. They say that as Bosnian Muslims they avoid going to the Croat side of the city because it is not safe for them, especially if they are wearing the hijab. However, they see themselves as open-minded and wouldn’t mind having Croat friends.
From left to right: Nermin, Ammar, and Jani. They don’t have an issue with Croats even though their families suffered through the war. Still, they have no real or close Croat friends. But it is logistical more than anything else. There is no place or chance for them to meet them. Different schools, universities, restaurants, etc.
Along the way, I was told, Bosnians were called Muslims spelled with a capital M indicating that “Muslims” were considered an ethnicity. However, Bosnians remain, well, Bosnians; historically a majority Muslim population.
Ema. She’s Bosnian. Her parents were Muslims. However, at some point they felt that Islam was not their religion. They became Catholic. She grew up learning about Catholicism from her parents and Islam from her grandparents. She is not very religious but she believes in God. She is disenchanted with religion as it is associated with war, which she believes is the fault of religious zealots – not religion itself. She also feels that in Bosnia there is no differentiation between religion and ethnicity which makes it a very judgmental place. That’s why she’s excited to go study at the University of Portland in Oregon!
Vanessa (frustrated with how many pictures I took) is from Mostar but grew up in Chicago. She is half Bosnian through her father, and half Serbian through her mother. Her father was in held in a concentration camp during the war and suffers from PTSD. She can’t describe her family’s religiosity, but she said that her dad would never accept her dating a Croat. She does not consider herself religious, and won’t claim a religion as her own.
I did have very strong impressions that although the war is over, it is not resolved. In some instances, it felt that the war was paused. My impressions are not unfounded. Twenty years later, the U.N Security Council has not managed to
call the killing of 8000 men, women, and children a genocide.”I’m a Bosnian Atheist. I do what I do to tell people about Srebrenica, because justice has not been served yet. The perpetrators have not taken responsibility. Actually, no one is taking responsibility, which means someone got away with a genocide,” the guide of the exhibition concluded the tour.
How can the wounds heal? Can they heal?
*trying to understand the sides of this civil was complicated and it depended on the year and the location. For example, in Sarajevo Croats helped the Bosnians against the Serbs. In Mostar, it was a war between the Croats and the Bosnians.
Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.
For more information, visit our page about this journey.