A Voice For the Voiceless
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Alison Morse and Bosfam
A loose-fitting floral shirt and matching skirt hide Nura’s small frame. She sits in a swiveling office chair with one knee pulled to her chin. Her other foot dangles over one of the wheels of the chair. Her hair is covered by a beige floral scarf, tied loosely at her chin. I sit across the table from her, slowly sipping at my morning coffee, thinking that the computer screen behind her is an inappropriate backdrop for her traditional attire.
Her speech slows and her eyes glass over. She brings her hands to her forehead and gently places her palms over her eyes. She looks up with tears in her eyes. Yesterday she went to Srebrenica for the first time in nearly a year.
July is a difficult month for the women of BOSFAM. Although it is a time to reconnect with family members who are visiting from abroad, many of these reunions are not happy ones. Many of the women take the month of July to visit family and friends, primarily to pay their respects for loved ones buried at Potocari. These are not typical family vacations – days at the local pool are interspersed with days of mourning.
“I hate it there. It is no longer home.” Srebrenica is an abandoned town: there are few residents and fewer jobs. Nura grew up in a small town just outside Srebrenica. Her husband left before the war to work in Serbia and never returned. She fled with her children during the war, moving regularly between refugee centers. Her brother is missing along with her brother-in-law and a cousin. Her father and father-in-law are buried in Potocari. All were victims of the massacre.
“How does one go to the bakery and not think that the person selling bread did not kill my father?” In a small community where everyone knew their neighbors prior to the war, it is of little comfort to know that these strangers now occupy their homes and streets. There is little trust and therefore little incentive to return.
Neighbors changed during the war. Those that once shared garden vegetables later set fire to apartments after stealing everything inside. How does one forgive their neighbor after witnessing such acts of violence? How does one walk the street knowing that those out watering their gardens were not in fact the same people who committed some of the most ruthless, gruesome acts against humanity in recent history?
“Those who are lucky got out.” Nura bows her head and continues to cry. She gestures with her hands and her voice gains strength. She repeats the same story – this time with more anger than sadness. She is trapped here. Her relatives who visited from the U.S. do not have to live with the daily struggle of putting food on the table or finding work. They do not have to walk by bombed out buildings and watch images of mass graves on the news.
This is BOSFAM. It has been a quiet month of work with many of the women gone, but this one exchange over coffee is what is at the heart of this organization. Listening to this story is a small gesture, but to Nura it is a safe place to express her anger and her loss. Her family members have returned to the U.S. and she now must rely on her family at BOSFAM to support her.
1980 -the same year I was born. While I was in the last weeks of my freshman year of high school teenagers here were emerging from four years of war – curfews, bombings, and refugee camps. I strolled by their graves - row after row etched with birth dates so close to mine. Seventy-two graves in all.
Each grave is carefully tended to – pots of recently-watered flowers, teddy bears and trinkets lay at the base of many of the tombstones. They are identical - white with no symbols of religion to separate them. A picture of each victim hangs above their name – all teenagers and twenty-somethings. The youngest victim – a three-year-old boy – was sitting on his mother’s lap when the grenade hit the center of Tuzla.
There is no escaping the images of war here. An innocent afternoon stroll through the city park in Tuzla brought me to the memorial for the young victims of a grenade attack in 1995. The war had nearly come to a close and the people of Tuzla, having spent countless nights tucked inside their homes, again started to gather in the city center. A group of young people filled the tables outside the cafes – and were the unlucky victims of one last attack by the army of the Republic of Srpska.
Serbs and Bosniaks are buried together on this small hillside surrounded by pine trees. In death they are all the same – innocent victims of war. The families of the victims made a bold statement towards reconciliation in allowing them to be buried together. Neighbors heard the whispers in the middle of the night when the families gathered to bury the few remains of these young victims. The war allowed no other option. There was no way to gather during the day without attracting unwanted attention.
There is a memorial to the victims in the center of the Korzo in Tuzla. It often gets lost amid the throngs of people out for an evening stroll. However, on my way home at night, when the crowds have dissipated, the memorial is often the lone light in the square. Watching the last groups of young people stroll home after a night on the town and passing by high school couples camped out on the park benches, the memorial stands as an eerie reminder of a similar summer night in the not-so-distant past.
Tonight it hit me. I flipped through the television stations while preparing dinner expecting to find my usual line-up of British comedies that occupy my meal. Instead, every station had footage from Srebrenica and Potocari. Coffins covered in green canvas, skulls unearthed from mass graves, survivors testifying at The Hague, refugee women pouring out of UN trucks. And then the footage I had heard about – six men, hands bound, curled up one on top of the other in the back of a truck. One of the men sits up and makes his way to the edge of the truck and jumps down. The others follow. One by one they kneel down in a ditch on the side of the road, faces to the ground. The camera focuses on two of men being shot in the head.
As I watched this footage I felt my body sink a little further in my chair. I used the sleeve of my sweater to wipe my tears and curled my knees up to my chest. I had just spent the day at the memorial service in Potocari, watching as coffin upon coffin was handed through a human chain of men and boys, but it was the faces of those men on the television screen that finally allowed me to share in the tragedy that occurred here twelve years ago.
A cold drizzle provided the appropriate backdrop to the events of the day. The road from Tuzla to the memorial site at Potocari was dotted with police and ambulances. Buses slowly climbed the winding roads and convoys with tinted windows and diplomatic plates darted in and out of the slow-moving traffic. Our car crept through the crowd of people as we approached the memorial site - teenage boys with Bosnian flags draped over their shoulders, headscarves in a variety of pastels, men in suits with earpieces, an elderly man washing his feet at a roadside fountain.
The gates of the memorial site were lined with on-lookers. Shovels rested on piles of dirt. Women, shoulders heaving and hands covering their faces, sobbed uncontrollably around graves. Leaders from the Muslim community gathered in the central pavilion with the 465 coffins ready for burial laid before them. Men flanked the grounds on either side of the pavilion, bowing together in prayer.
The prayer ended with a speech by the imam – a portion of which was translated into English. “Never let Srebrenica happen again – here or anywhere in the world.” As this country continues to struggle to find the answers to what happened here and rebuild its communities, this is a powerful message. However, as these words hung in the damp air I could only think of their emptiness on the international stage. Ethnic and religious divides in Iraq, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflict zones around the world clearly demonstrate that the international community has not heeded this message.
As the prayer ended the crowd broke to allow for various dignitaries to exit and the burials to begin. The name and year of birth was read for each person – a range of boys as young as 16 to men in their 70s. The coffins were moved quickly through the wall of men, many of whom reached up to touch coffins as they passed.
Three hours later our car was again navigating through the crowd of people. Roadside vendors had set up stands to feed those pouring out of the ceremony. Wheelbarrows filled with soda bottles, folding tables topped with fresh goat meat, and wood crates of tomatoes and cucumbers lined the street. A woman, held at the elbow on either side, stood out among the crowd. She was shaking and could barely walk. As we drove by I turned to see her face; her cheeks were soaked with tears, her lower lip quivered, she bent over and let out a loud cry. I watched her disappear among the swarms of people as we drove out of town – feeling uncomfortable as an onlooker to such personal pain.
Krumpir, sir, jaje, i hljeb. Potatoes, cheese, egg and bread. I have been served all forms of these four staples over the past six weeks. Traditional pita with potatoes, locally produced smoked cheese with peppers, pizza with a giant puddle of fried egg yolk in the middle. However, serving the “American” version of these items to the women of BOSFAM elicited a reaction akin to putting a plate of brussel sprouts in front of a five year old.
I paced the aisles of the Omega grocery store racking my brain for something remotely American to serve on the 4th of July. Hot dogs and hamburgers were the clear choice, but as a quasi-vegetarian I figured I would not subject the women to watching me squeamishly handle raw meat. Fortunately, Bosnians love two things: coffee and condiments. Ketchup is used to drown just about anything – including pizza. I therefore decided to make my childhood favorite – a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of ketchup. Moving on to the mayonnaise selection, I decided to accompany the cheesy delights with some traditional potato salad.
With potato salad on the mind, I stopped at the market and picked up a kilo of spuds. I then moved from stall to stall in search of celery – nothing. I strolled by a neatly stacked pile of lemons and thought about really capturing the American spirit with some homemade lemonade. That idea was quickly scratched when my common sense returned to remind me of the mini-fridge in which I would have to store it. I decided to round out the cholesterol fest of eggs, mayonnaise and cheese with some tomatoes and cucumbers and headed home.
After losing a few pieces of bread to an ancient frying pan, I got in the groove and whipped up fourteen grilled cheese sandwiches. Then, channeling my inner Martha Stewart, I carefully cut each one on the diagonal and laid them around the edges of two plates. In the middle I placed a small bowl with some ketchup for dipping. I unwrapped the potato salad, which had been chilling overnight in the teeny fridge, and went about slicing tomatoes and cucumbers. An hour later I emerged from the kitchen, pleased with my work, and invited the women to eat.
The first thing that came to mind in watching the women eye my creations was my mother’s voice telling her nursery school class, “You need to take a no-thank-you bite.” Granted the cheese I purchased was of the pre-sliced, disturbingly orange variety – and could perhaps warrant some concern – the ingredients of the meal were otherwise familiar to all the women. Three of the women helped themselves to full plates. The other four, however, sat and picked at the plates of cucumbers and tomatoes, not wanting to partake in the American experience. It was one moment when I have been happy to not understand what was being said.
My efforts, however, were not all lost. Though my creations likely will not become the latest craze in households throughout Tuzla, the women joked with me that my display of cooking significantly increased my eligibility to marry a “nice, Bosnian boy.” Not exactly the same as “my compliments to the chef,” but it’s a start.
So as I indulge in my third meal of left-over potato salad, I am just happy that I did not go to the trouble of crushing peanuts to make the true all-American delicacy – PB&J.
I will state at the outset that I am just about the furthest thing from fashion-forward that one can imagine –opting for staples as opposed to the latest trends, flip-flops as opposed to three-inch heels, and a quick once over with lip balm as opposed to layers of liner, lipstick and gloss. Therefore, in Tuzla, I am the epitome of a stranger in a strange land.
Walking the Korzo, the main strip of shops in the old town of Tuzla, on a Friday or Saturday night is a bit like attending a post-prom party circa 1986. The streets around the local bars and cafes are packed with teenagers strolling up and down, all sporting fashions inspired by Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” years and Don Johnson’s role on “Miami Vice.” I have randomly surveyed my five TV channels in hopes of finding a never-ending rerun of “Pretty in Pink” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” that would explain the trend, but to no avail. I do realize that aspects 80s fashion have returned, but the teenagers of Tuzla seem to have really embraced the best of the decade. I have never seen so much blue eye shadow and big hair in one place – not to mention the omnipresent leggings and mullets. Needless to say, people-watching can absorb hours of one’s time.
Eighties fashions aside, living in Tuzla can give the low-maintenance types like myself a bit of a complex. In contrast to the city’s generally drab, industrial appearance, the under-30 crowd of Tuzla is glamorous – not to mention scantily clad. Young women strolling the Korzo favor backless shirts, mini skirts and the highest of heels. Sequined bags, acrylic nails and wide gold belts seem to accompany every outfit. Moreover, each of these adorned women is about 5’10, making them hard to miss.
Borrowing from their American counterparts, young men, slouched in their seats, roll by in Volkswagens and Audis with basses blaring hip hop hits from my 8th grade dances. It is a novelty to have a car here and so showcasing it becomes an activity unto itself. Having a car to park downtown on a Friday night brings a certain celebrity status among the younger population.
Families and elderly couples strolling the Korzo get tangled in the mobs of young people, providing a jumble of new and old, traditional and modern. The effects of war are plainly seen on many of the faces of the older generation; they are tired, worn, and washed out. Tuzla’s young people, by contrast, are clearly carving out lifestyles that separate them from the images of a post-conflict country. This younger generation is more impressed by designer labels and more interested in talk about American hip hop than the intricacies of Bosnian politics.
The women at BOSFAM have only solidified my observations. Botox has become one of those universal words like email and hamburger. I picked it up recently in one of our morning coffee sessions. I am curious to know what these women, who during the war lived without food, never mind new shoes or dresses, for months on end, think of the high-maintenance members of the next generation. Their hand gestures and tones seemed dismissive of the matter, but as it was outside of my realm of vocabulary about vegetables, it is hard to say.
Having packed a modest wardrobe of skirts and t-shirts I find myself eyeing the scissors in BOSFAM’s office – pondering a shortening of my hemline or the cutting of my t-shirt into something more of the mid-riff variety. However, the thought of high heels and Tuzla’s poorly paved streets has temporarily deterred my fashion make-over. Perhaps I’ll start with a thin layer of blue eye shadow.
Drinking coffee is a tradition in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, coffee provides more than a caffeine jolt before that morning meeting or a way to usher out the guests at the end of a dinner party. It welcomes visitors, gathers friends and connects one to strangers.
Coffee here does not come in the tall, extra hot, no fat, no whip, shot of vanilla, dash of cinnamon variety. Its consumption is a simple ritual: it is served in a demitasse, black, with two cubes of sugar on the side. The sugar cube, held at the very tip of one corner, between thumb and index finger, carefully breaks the thick, brown surface, quickly turning the white to a rich caramel color. The cube is then eaten; often lingering on the tongue until a slow sip is taken, dissolving it completely.
Not wanting to be ones to break from tradition, the women of BOSFAM gather twice daily to partake in their caffeinated beverage and its sugary accent. The first round is served around 9:30 a.m. and the second around 2 p.m. Coffee preparation rotates daily. The woman who prepares the coffee is then the designated server – a skill that combines the fine art of evenly distributing the rich brown liquid with a trained eye to monitor the level of each drinker’s cup. If one is not quick to turn over an empty cup, signaling completion, the server will promptly refill before a firm “ne hvala” (no thank you) can even be uttered.
For the women, these breaks are a time to talk about the latest bounties from their gardens, recap the headlines from the previous day’s news, report on their children and reminisce about the days before the war. For me, these breaks provide two opportunities a day to observe the dynamics of this patchwork family. Once the conversation moves beyond talk of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, which are the only Bosnian words I have mastered outside of the standard niceties, I take my role as the silent observer to the animated hand gestures, outbursts of hearty laughter and drying of tears.
I watch the circle of women erupt in laughter as Nura’s wiry frame leaps from her chair as she gestures wildly with her hands. Sajma is the first to respond. She carefully balances her weight on the tiny stool beneath her as she folds over in face-reddening laughter. She wipes tears from eyes and takes in a few breaths to calm herself before commenting –though she barely makes it through her sentence, words running together as she doubles over again. Tima sits squarely on her chair, her legs spread and her calloused hands tightly gripping the tiny handle of her cup; her mannerisms often remind me of my high school gym teacher. Though she contributes little to conversation, her low, raspy commentary balances the high-pitched laughter of the others. Zifa, hands folded in front of her, smiles widely, boldly exposing her three top teeth. She is clearly entertained by Nura’s antics. Though I have absolutely no idea what has been said, I find myself nodding and smiling along with them.
These moments of uncontrollable laughter are welcome breaks in conversations that frequently circle back to the war. Srebrenica and Potocari are casually added to conversation, drifting in and out of talk about the weather and the destruction caused by snails in the garden. It is easy understand why the war dominates conversation here – for some, it has never ended. Nura awaits word of missing family members. Tima lost her husband. For Zifa, it was her brother killed. For others, the upcoming burial of a neighbor, the return to one’s pre-war home, or the headlines announcing arrests of war criminals all bring memories to the surface. It is in those moments that the dynamics of the circle shift – a hand is placed on a shoulder, eyes stare blankly at the table, a quiet sip is taken while conversation lingers on talk of missing relatives. Talk of war is so commonplace, however, that it is not long before someone steers the conversation to laughter, breaking the silence that is brought on by tears. This range of emotions abruptly ends by the turning over empty cups, returning everyone to work until the next round of kaffa is poured.
The pale yellow cooler door opened and I stepped into the storage room. 4,000 bodies, now bags of bones, stacked one on top of the other from floor to ceiling. Paper bags filled with personal belongings – a sweater, an ID card, a pair of glasses – lined the top shelf, each carefully marked with a number written in permanent marker.
The Missing Persons Institute in Tuzla is responsible for the identification of the bodies exhumed from the mass graves found after the war and has particularly focused its efforts on identifying those lost during the massacre outside Srebrenica. It is estimated that over 8,000 men and boys were killed at Srebrenica – 2,000 have been buried, just over 4,000 are housed in this morgue, and an estimated 2,000 are missing. Some may never be found. Some of those found may never be identified. Thirty mass graves have been exhumed and search teams are still combing the landscape for more.
The identification process is long, sometimes tedious, and often yields no results. Bulldozers were often the machinery of choice to make these mass graves, burying bodies deep in the earth. Bodies were often moved from one grave to another, possibly even a third, in an effort to hide the evidence. Stacked one on top of the other, bodies were slowly reduced to piles of bones, leading to a comingling of parts – the rib bones of one mixed with limbs of another.
Mass graves present unique obstacles for teams trying to piece together the history of events – and their findings often provide little solace to families. An ulna found in one grave, the piece of a skull in another – every bone must be examined . One can live without a foot or an arm, so when does a family stop losing hope that their missing son or brother may still be alive?
A national campaign encouraged families of missing persons to have blood samples taken, creating a bank of potential DNA matches as bodies were exhumed. In some cases, whole families were killed, leaving no link to bodies found. In other cases, remaining family members have passed away, unable to identify those who have been matched to their DNA.
The identification system that has been established here is the most advanced in world and has assisted with identifications from Hurricane Katrina, Sri Lankan victims of the tsunami and the recent Cameroonian airplane crash. Despite its state of the art technology, the process of identification is slow. A decade later families anxiously await word of a positive match.
For those who are identified the family is contacted and a death certificate is written. The primary cause of death listed in the majority of cases – gunshot wound to the head. Once the family has identified the body, the slow bureaucratic wheel begins to turn in order to have the body reburied at the July 11th ceremony at the memorial site in Potocari.
As I stood in the cooler, the smell, though not overpowering, slowly seeped into my system. Ammonia mixed with the mustiness of old clothes. I could feel the saliva building at the back of my throat. I stared at the cement floor, beginning to tune out the statistics and images of bones and bodies now in my head. I wanted to leave, to take in a breath of fresh air, to close the door and forget the stories that lay inside.
He stood in the street, hunched and poking his wood cane at some weeds growing between the cracks in the asphalt. He was wearing a black beret and a heavy blue blazer, clearly not bothered by the warmth of the afternoon sun. “Is that him?” Yes. The car eased into a nearby parking space.
I traveled to Srebrenica with Beba, the director of BOSFAM, and her friend, Ulrike, to deliver yarn to some of the weavers who are unable to make the two hour drive to Tuzla and to deliver food to several elderly men and women who have few means to support themselves. We planned to make five stops: Mr. Kahriman was our first.
I wrestled with the box of food tucked neatly into the trunk of the car – one kilo of coffee, two of rice, a few bottles of olive oil, tomato sauce, pasta – enough food to last about a month.
Without regard for my puny muscles I was assigned to carrying this box up five flights of stairs to Mr. Kahriman’s apartment; I was, after all, the youngest of the group. I followed behind as Beba and Ulrike climbed stair after seemingly endless stair. We arrived at the door and I flung off my shoes before entering, unable to juggle the both the box and my sandal straps.
A lamp with no shade sat on the table in the entryway. Mr. Kahriman, breathing heavily from the climb and sporting a toothless smile, invited us into the kitchen.
I happily deposited the box beside the sink and took my place on the couch in between Beba and Ulrike. In true Bosnian tradition Mr. Kahriman asked if we would like coffee. As I looked at the rusted pot on the stove and the antique sink, I was secretly relieved when Beba declined the offer.
Beba proceeded to explain that he had two foreigners in his kitchen, bringing a curious smile to his face. And then his eyes began to fill with tears.
He looked down at his hands, which were yellowed between his index and middle finger from years of smoking. He drew in a long breath before beginning to speak, calming his emotions.
As more tears welled in his tired, sagging eyes Beba turned to give me a brief translation. Mr. Kahriman is 82. He lives alone, his wife passed away, and his children moved away during the war. He receives a pension, but barely enough to buy food or medicine. He returned to this apartment after the war, but has lost so many friends and neighbors that it is not the same. He has nothing, no one. I stared at the floor as Beba explained this to me, feeling an ache at the back of my throat that only comes when I am about to cry.
Beba, in her gifted way, shifted the topic of conversation to our plans for the day, things she noticed on the drive, updates on the neighbors in town. She turned and gestured that it was time for us to leave.
Mr. Kahriman stood to see us out and Beba joked that he needed to get a lampshade, which again brought a smile to Mr. Kahriman’s face. As we descended the five flights of stairs, I was able to take in more than on the way up – plastic donated from UNHCR covering the windows, graffiti on the walls, the remnants of a mailbox now gutted and filled with trash.
Having worked with the elderly and with refugee populations in the past I am not unfamiliar with these stories of loneliness and loss, yet there was something so tragic about Mr. Kahriman’s life.
There he was, an elderly man standing on the balcony of a dilapidated cement building in this town destroyed by war. He supported his weight by resting one arm on the railing and used the other to alternate between waving good-bye and wiping his eyes. There was no BINGO game to attend, no social worker to assess his trauma, no hopes of a holiday dinner or an annual visit from the grandchildren. He was alone.
Six steps lead to nowhere. Cracked cement foundations contain bouquets of wild flowers and weeds.
In the middle of a field on the road to Srebrenica it is not uncommon to see these vestiges of war – deserted, bullet-riddled frames and collapsed, red-tiled rooftops.
It is hard for me to distinguish between new and old here. New houses have clotheslines dangling across wall-less rooms and potted plants marking the edges of balconies without railings. Buildings along this stretch of road are open and unfinished. Post-war reconstruction clearly comes in pieces.
These simple structures are suddenly broken up by the large iron fence that lines the perimeter of the memorial site at Potocari.
It is here where 2,000 bodies from the massacre that occurred in the surrounding hills are buried. There hardly seems to be enough room for the additional 6,000 bodies that are expected to be laid to rest here.
Many of the bodies of those killed when Srebrenica fell in 1995 may never be found. Some that have been found may never be identified as there are no longer family members left to claim them. Still, there is hope that they too will someday be memorialized here.
There is a stone wall that creates an inner circle in the memorial site. Over 8,000 names are etched in alphabetical order followed by date of birth. I stand towards the end of the alphabet and skim the names. It is clear where both father and son were killed, and sometimes there is more than one son.
I wander to the underground photo exhibit. Black-and-white photos depict the aftermath of war – a dirtied doll’s face staring up from a grave, a drop of blood on a fingertip from DNA testing, and wire handcuffs wrapped in a plastic bag marked “Evidence.” These images mark only the beginning of a very long process of discovery, identification and reburial.
Across the street from the memorial site is a small souvenir shop. Among other items it sells small carpets, each with a giant “S” woven in the middle, made by the women of BOSFAM.
The proprietor is a middle-aged woman who lost her husband when Srebrenica fell. She now watches over his grave from her shop across the street. At the end of the war she and her son, who had fortunately escaped, returned to their home just outside Srebrenica.
Her son was killed by a landmine planted inside. She is slowly rebuilding her life, hoping that visitors to the memorial will give her enough income to survive.
The emotional landscape of the people who survived here mirrors that of the physical – shattered, exposed and abandoned, yet slowly gaining the pieces needed to rebuild.
Each year approximately 500 bodies are buried on July 11th at this memorial site in Potocari, bringing closure to some families. This year will be no exception. However, at this rate, it will take 12 years to complete the burials for those who lost their lives here. Even to an observer of such loss this wait seems agonizingly long.
Tuz is the Turkish word for salt. Tuzla is an industrial city – the outskirts are populated with tall chimneys puffing smoke, coal heaped in piles and sinkholes from years of salt extraction.
Though Tuzla has all the makings of your average city – cars that don’t stop for pedestrians, horns and sirens going at all hours, and people shuffling from place to place – it also has a very rural feel.
This morning I was awakened by the rooster that seemed to be perched outside my window. As I poured some water at the kitchen sink I noticed two cows grazing on the hillside nearby.
This evening the ringing of the area church bells was aided by the barking of every dog in the neighborhood – a cacophony that overpowered the general din of the city.
I arrived at BOSFAM, my post for the summer, and instantly acquired four new mothers – I’m sure there will be more as I am introduced to more of the weavers. There is an easy pace to the organization, which will not be possible for me to maintain if I am continually consuming the multiple cups of potent coffee served throughout the day.
Raised as a tea drinker, I have quickly learned that I am going to have to make the transition to caffeine for the summer. Coffee is a tradition in Bosnia and clearly an important time for the women of BOSFAM to gather.
I equally fear that I will need to visit a dentist shortly upon return to Boston as coffee is traditionally served with cubes of sugar that are dipped in the coffee and then eaten once they soak up enough coffee, turning the white to a caramel color.
I sipped slowly on the morning round, warned that an empty cup would only be refilled. I could feel my blood racing through my veins throughout the morning, and just as that feeling began to subside it was time for the afternoon cup.
I can tell that my work is going to be challenging as there are many administrative pieces that lack organization and I must learn to balance my Western expectations of efficiency with the needs of the women and their pace of life.
Now that I have arrived I am curious to see how much I can accomplish in just two short months. Though there is much to be done to help Beba and her team of weavers build a stronger, more sustainable organization, my initial impression of BOSFAM is of an organization that is filled with friendship, compassion and a sense of survival.
Ten minutes outside of Sarajevo and I have forgotten that I was just in a bustling metropolis.
The road to Tuzla is winding, bumpy, and not for those who are prone to motion sickness. The bus driver puffed on a cigarette dangling from his lips and blasted the latest Top 40 pop songs as he effortlessly navigated hairpin turns, narrowly escaped oncoming logging trucks and floored it past sputtering cars.
I took it as a sign that I should pay attention when the elderly woman across from me started to pray as we made a lengthy descent through one mountain pass. Vast farmlands and forests are broken up by the rare stop in a town that is nestled at the bottom of a mountain.
Men camped out on rocky ledges watching their sheep and women working in their fields often paused to watch us cruise by.
Red signs with a skull and bones demarking mined areas speckle the roadside – a reminder that even after more than decade the dangers of war still exist. These signs, along with the run-down UNHCR buses acting as local transport in Sarajevo, signify an abandonment of this country by the international community.
The mini-Marshall Plan, which was implemented over a decade ago, clearly provided the initial infrastructure needed to rebuild after the war, but the lingering presence of land mines and lack of running water in many small towns suggests that most foreign aid agencies have up and left, leaving these poor communities to fend for themselves.
About an hour into our journey the bus pulled into a roadside restaurant for a ten minute break, at which point every passenger poured out and quickly lit up a cigarette – save for the elderly woman next to me who continued to pray.
As we ventured on after our break the air conditioning began to rattle and as we gently rolled down a sharp incline the driver eased on the break and pulled us off the road. Again everyone poured out of the bus – seemingly please with this additional cigarette break.
The driver returned fifteen minutes later gesturing with greased hands at another bus that had pulled up behind us. Through his hand gestures I figured out that our bus had broken down and we were now to get on the local bus that would take us on the remaining hour drive to Tuzla.
I juggled my many bags as the bus rolled out from underneath my feet and stumbled into a seat next to a toothless elderly gentleman who smiled at me graciously. Those around me giggled and smiled as I panicked that I had just committed some cultural faux pas. I clearly the object of attention – the foreigner among the bus full of locals.
Someone recently referred to eastern Bosnia, my destination for the summer as “somewhat of a black hole.” The region is known for its salt deposits and coal. As my task for the summer is to work on a project of social tourism to attract visitors to Bosfam, the organization where I will be working, I have been trying to think of how to work with the “black hole” comment. No catchy slogans are coming to mind. The difficulty of this project is only compounded by the general lack of understanding of what social tourism is exactly. Prior to departure I have been talking to family and friends about the work I will be doing – only to be met with blank stares. Eco-tourism has gained momentum, particularly in Central America and Southeast Asia, but social tourism has not yet started to grace the covers of various travel magazines. Much of my first few weeks will be defining social tourism for myself and trying to find models from which to work.
In recent weeks I have also started to work on another project that will have me coordinating an event to commemorate the massacre at Srebrenica on July 11th. The focal point of the event is a quilt made by the women of Bosfam. Each patch of the quilt has the name of a victim of the massacre. St. Louis is the target destination as there are over 50,000 members of the Bosnia diaspora living there.
Bosfam, with its many events, networks, and personalities, seems to be a bright spot with the perceived “black hole” of eastern Bosnia. Bosfam is an organization that provides assistance to women survivors of the Srebrenica massacre. In addition to providing a support network and refuge for women, Bosfam also offers a unique opportunity for the women to build a sustainable livelihood. By weaving rugs, traditionally called kilim, and producing other crafts, the women help generate income for themselves and their families. Having never traveled to the region I am eager to arrive at my post and begin learning about the history of the organization, the population they serve and the ways in which these women hope to be catalyst for social justice in the region.
Alison will be working with Bosfam in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is pursuing a master's degree in law and diplomacy at Tufts University's Fletcher School, where she focuses on development economics and human security.
She is particularly interested in issues affecting refugees and displaced persons, particularly women. She is also interested in nonprofit management.
Prior to graduate school, Alison worked for the International Institute of Boston, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive services to refugees and immigrants in the Boston area. She worked in both the fundraising office and in the social services department where she worked with survivors of human trafficking, torture and domestic violence. Alison graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a BA in international relations.
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