Running for Refugees

Running is one of my favorite past times. I make it a point to run every time I am in a new place. Not only is running a great way to get to know a city, but it also helps me relax when I am dealing with stressful situations.

Study abroad can often be stressful. While it is a truly rewarding experience and I would recommend for every college student who has the opportunity to study abroad to take advantage of it, it isn’t always easy.

My daily run gives my day more structure and helps me start the day off on a good note or end on a good note(depending on when I decide to run on that particular day).

I wrote a blog post earlier about how I have been running and training with Belgrade Urban Running Team(BURT). We are all getting very excited because the Belgrade Marathon is coming up in about a week, on April 16th.

A picture of the start of the race(courtesy of Google Images)
A picture of the start of the race(courtesy of Google Images).

I have run one marathon before and considered running in Belgrade, but in the end I didn’t have enough time to train for the full marathon. Instead I am going to run the half.

The Belgrade Marathon has been held every spring in Belgrade since 1988 and is one of the biggest sporting events in Serbia. While running a marathon or a half just to run is a great experience, running for a cause helps motivate people during their training and can raise awareness about important issues.

The refugee crisis in in the news on a daily basis, yet it often seems far removed from our lives in the states. In Belgrade it is impossible to ignore the refugee situation.

I knew I wanted to volunteer to help in some capacity before I arrived in Belgrade. It took me some time to plug into an organization but in the past month I have been volunteering with an organization called Refugee Aid Serbia(RAS). The organization was started by local Belgraders due to a need they saw in the community.

RAS logo(courtesy of Facebook).
RAS logo(courtesy of Facebook).

Last summer the park across the street from the SIT study center was filled with families sleeping in tents who had nowhere else to go.

The park across the street form SIT last August (courtesy of Balkan Insight).
The park across the street form SIT last August (courtesy of Balkan Insight).

RAS has been working hard to provide warm meals, clothing, and support to as many refugees as they can. I have helped with their meal distribution several times am so grateful that an organization like this exists. RAS tries to fed between 150-200 people every night, but food is expensive and they rely solely on donations.

Finding ways to fundraise is important so they can continue to do the work that they do. Their “Run for Refugees” campaign is one way they have though of to fundraise.

Anyone who is running either the marathon, half-marathon of the 5k can join the RAS team. What this means is that you receive a t-shirt with the RAS logo and you try to raise money for the organization by getting people to sponsor you. Many organizations use races as a way to fundraise.

I am glad to be raising awareness about the situation in Serbia, as the situation here is not often reported on, or if it is the Balkans are simply mentioned as countries that refugees pass through but no attention is given to what happens while the refugees are here.

I will be explore the refugee crisis more during my independent study period. One the the reasons why I chose to study abroad with SIT is because during the final month of the program each student conducts an independent research paper on a topic of their choosing.

I really enjoyed this experience in Tunisia and am looking forward to the independent study month, though my project will be a bit different this time.

SIT Balkans is a bit different form other SIT programs because it has a journalism track. I chose to enroll in the journalism track since it is something I enjoy writing and was excited about the opportunity to conduct journalism abroad.

Our independent study period began on Friday. Several of my fellow students left for Sarajevo as they will be conducting research there. Since SIT Balkans covers Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo we are able to conduct research in any of the three countries. However, all of the journalism students are required to stay in Belgrade since it is a newer part of the program and SIT does not have connections for advisors in Bosnia or Kosovo.

I will write more about my project in my next blog but check out the website of Refugee Aid Serbia and the work they are doing.

Refugee Aid Serbia


Summer Adventures

It’s hard to believe I only have one week left in Belgrade. This semester has flown by, what with the independent study month, multiple excursions and travel weekends. But my adventures are not over yet.

After the program ends I will be traveling around the Balkans, spending time in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria for a few weeks. During the program I have had time to visit countries in the Western Balkans, so I decided to head east.

I will be starting my trip in Budapest and from there heading to Romania and Bulgaria.
I will be starting my trip in Budapest and from there heading to Romania and Bulgaria (photo courtesy of Google Images).

I will be traveling to some large cities such as Budapest and Sofia, but I will mostly be in smaller villages. I have never traveled to any former Eastern Bloc countries so I’m excited to see what I learn.

After my travels are done I will be doing research on the quota system for women in the government in Kosovo. I really enjoy field research and am excited to be doing research in Kosovo as it is a small country which likely means I will have access to many people for my interviews.

The library at the University of Prishtina where I will likely be spending much of my time (photo courtesy of google images).
The library at the University of Prishtina where I will likely be spending much of my time (photo courtesy of Google Images).

The reason this research is possible is through a grant I received from the Andrew W. Mellon Scholars Program. This is a Hope program aimed at providing guidance and resources to students across disciplines in the Arts and Humanities to complete independent or group projects. I highly recommend freshman students to take a look at this program as it typically begins sophomore year, but occasionally juniors are also admitted to the program.

After my eight weeks in Kosovo I will have some more traveling to do as I will be meeting my German sister in Croatia!

When I was a junior in high school my family hosted an exchange student from Germany. We have remained close throughout the years and try to visit each other when we can. We are really excited to be traveling together since it has been a few years since we’ve seen each other in person.

Korcula-an island in Croatia we plan to visit in August.
Korcula-an island in Croatia we plan to visit in August.

Though this semester has been a great experience and I’m looking forward to my travels, I am also looking forward to being back on campus in the fall. The things I have learned studying abroad are not something that can be learned in a classroom as there is no substitute for living in a country you are studying. However, spending time in a classroom and learning how to synthesize the information you learned is equally as important.



Long Weekend in Bosnia

Most SIT students require students to stay in the country they are studying in for the duration of the semester. The SIT program in the Balkans is unique in that way. We have two free travel weekends. For the first one I went to Slovenia-which I wrote about in an earlier post. Though we only had two days for the first travel weekend, we had four days for the second one since May 1st is a holiday in the region so we were given that day off and allowed to leave on Friday.

For my second long weekend I wanted to travel to the beach since it would be a little warmer but I also really wanted to visit Mostar, a town in Bosnia that has become well known because of the famous bridge that was destroyed during the wars in 1990s by Croat forces. It was later reconstructed in 2004.

A view of the famous Mostar bridge.
A view of the famous Mostar bridge.

After doing some thinking I decided I would go to Mostar and then Neum, the only town in Bosnia on the coast, that way I could see Mostar but also spend some time by the sea.

I went with one other SIT student, Smrithi, who also really wanted to see Mostar.

We left early on Friday morning on a bus to Sarajevo. The ride took longer than expected as we had to wait for over an hour at the border since someone on our bus did not have the proper paperwork.

Since we ended up missing the bus we planned to take to Mostar from Sarajevo we had some extra time in the city. Sarajevo is so beautiful so we spent some time walking through the old town.

The ride from Sarajevo to Mostar was beautiful. Bosnia is very mountainous and has many villages nestled between these mountains. Mostar looked very much like these town we had passed on the way, surrounded by mountains on all sides it was beautiful.

A view of the beautiful mountains surrounding Mostar.
A view of the beautiful mountains surrounding Mostar.

We found our hostel and headed to grab dinner. It was about 8:30pm at this point but the town was pretty quiet and not very many restaurants were open. Smrithi and I joked that Mostar comes alive at 2pm.

The next day walking around there were certainly many more people, especially in the old town. We sat and had coffee at a cafe overlooking the bridge. We actually got to see some people jump off the bridge! This is uncommon but we were a little surprised because the weather had not been that nice lately, which is probably why the jumper was wearing a wetsuit. I can’t imagine the water was anywhere near a comfortable temperature.

Enjoying some baklava and Turkish coffee.
Enjoying some baklava and Turkish coffee.

After a nice relaxed morning in Mostar we took a bus headed towards Dubrovnik as Neum lays between the two. There were many backpackers and tourists on our bus. It shouldn’t have surprised us since Croatia is a popular tourist destination but coming from Belgrade we were not used to seeing this many tourists.

We were the only people that got off at Neum-besides an elderly gentleman who seems to be from the area.

The town is right on the water with houses built into cliff, it was a beautiful sight. The weather was pretty nice when we arrived.

Once we found our hotel, which took some time as it was on the far end of the town, we went for a walk along the ocean. We found a nice cafe by the water for dinner. We chatted with out waiter who initially thought we were from Spain.

The view form our hotel room.
The view form our hotel room.

This is because when we approached the restaurant we tried to talk in Serbian, but we must have said something wrong because the waiter looked confused. He asked us what languages we spoke and as we both speak Spanish we said Spanish and English.

He tried proceeded to talk to us in Spanish and asked us what part of Spain we were from. When we told him we were from the States he was surprised and asked us what we were doing here. He was even more surprised when we told him we were studying Yugoslavia in Belgrade. He was really excited we were leaning about Yugoslavia, as are most people I have met in the region. It is not something people often study.

We saw many beautiful boats in Neum-such as this sailboat.

The owners of our hotel, two brothers, were equally excited when we told them what we were studying. We spent several hours talking to them about history and politics over the weekend.

Though Neum is part of Bosnia, most people who live in Neum are Croatian. It was nice to have a different perspective since in our program we don’t have much time to focus on Croatia.

It was also nice to be in a small quit town for the weekend and just relax and not worry about my independent study project.

Thou Saturday was beautiful we woke up to rain on Sunday, but this didn’t stop us from exploring. We left the hotel with out umbrellas in hand and came back very wet. We took a siesta in the middle of the after noon but ventured out again to visit our waiter friend for some ice-cream in the evening.

Enjoying the view- despite the rain.
Enjoying the view- despite the rain.

We had dinner at the restaurant below the hotel and meet a family from Sarajevo who was also interested in what we were doing in Neum. Before we knew it we were discussing politics with them.

On Monday morning it was time to head back. We started the long journey from Neum to Sarajevo and from there to Belgrade. We got home around 12am, tired and hungry, but overall it was a great way to spend the long weekend.



Building Community Through the Practice of Bikram Yoga

During ISP/ISPJ period we have very flexible schedules. We don’t have any scheduled class time, the entire month is devoted to working on our projects.

Since I am spending less time in class I decided to take advantage of having a few more hours in my day. While my project takes up a good deal of my time, I always have room for some exercise.

After the half-marathon I decided to take some time off from running and try yoga instead.

I have been attending classes at a Bikram studio I found in Belgrade. Here is a short profile piece I wrote about the owner:

The room is surrounded by mirrors which fog up with steam as class begins. Stephen Donegan stands at the front of the room directing his students. They interlock their fingers, place them underneath their chins and breathe deeply, extending their elbows upward as they do so. Sweat drops begin to stain the floor as class progresses and Donegan pushes his students.

After the 90 minutes pass, students stand around chatting. Many friendships have formed in this cozy studio in the basement of a building in Belgrade. The man responsible for this is yoga instructor Stephen Donegan, an Irish expat who manages the only Bikram yoga studio in the Balkans.

The building on the right houses though studio.
The building on the right houses the studio. Though its in the basement the studio is quite nice.

Of average height, looking younger than his 40 years and a lean build from years of yoga, Donegan chats excitedly with a student after a one-on- one class, explaining a pose she didn’t understand.

“We are trying to build here a community, not just people coming and going,” said Mina Djunisijevic, a local 28-year- old who started teaching with Donegan at the studio several months ago.

Mina works the front desk.
Djunisijevic works the front desk.

Donegan had not always practiced Bikram, a form of yoga consisting of 26 postures, practiced in a room that is heated to 104 °F. Until 2006, when he became a certified Bikram instructor, Donegan worked in the IT industry and moved working locations every few years, spending time in Amsterdam, Australia, and Ireland. Although unhappy with his IT job, Donegan has always enjoyed traveling, “it’s my main passion since I could look at a map.”  Having gained his yoga instructor license, he began traveling once more. Only this time he was doing something he truly enjoyed.

Donegan performs triangle in the yoga room.
Donegan performs triangle in the yoga room.

Having gained his yoga instructor license, he began traveling once more. Only this time he was doing something he truly enjoyed.

In 2014 Donegan was teaching yoga in Denmark when he received an email from a Serbian friend he met in Turkey- he needed help running a Bikram studio in Belgrade.

Donegan took over the studio in January 2015 and has unintentionally been fostering a community ever since, as to him it is something that happens naturally. “I think that is more organic…from studying or practicing in other studios we pick up a lot of different things we think are good or not and see what works, what doesn’t, and what way you want to do it.”

But Donegan’s engagement with the community does not end in the yoga studio. Occasionally students go to a nearby Japanese restaurant for dinner following class or attend events together such as the Belgrade Story Club, a true story telling event which Donegan will be hosting in March.

Donegan almost always has a smile on his unshaven face which his students notice even in the classroom.

“He’s really funny and unlike other teachers he doesn’t really stick to the script but he sort of does his own thing and he’s hilarious,” Jasmine Sanders, 31, an expat from Germany said.

Perhaps one of the reasons Donegan’s students keep coming back is because he is committed to his students. His goal for every class it to “make sure they feel comfortable and have fun and go home feeling a little bit lighter in spirit.”


The Belgrade Marathon

This weekend was the 29th Belgrade Marathon. I had heard about it before arriving in Serbia and knew I was going to run the either the full or half marathon. In the end I decided to do the half because I did not have enough time to train for a full marathon.

The finish line
The finish line at this year’s marathon

On the day of the marathon it was much warmer than I expected. When the race started at 10am it was around 75 degrees, but by the time most people were finishing the half marathon it was already 80 degrees. It was also humid and a strong breeze on a long stretch of the course made running more difficult. Overall, the conditions were not the most ideal but it was a really fun experience.

Marathons and half-marathons are an event everyone should try at least once. You might be sore for a few days after the run, but the experience is worth it. Here are 9 reasons why I think you should run a marathon.

  1. Run for a cause
    A picture of my friends and I in our RAS shirts before the race.
    • As I mentioned in my previous blog, I was running on the Refugee Aid Serbia (RAS) team. We all wore t-shirts to raise awareness about the organization. It also served as a fundraiser for the organization since all the runners asked people to sponsor them by donating to the organization.
    • If there is a specific cause you really care about you can probably find a race that focuses on raising money for a certain cause. Here are a few examples.
    • Running for a charity can also improve your chances to participate in highly competitive races such as the Boston Marathon.
  2. Get to see a new place
    • Running is a great way to get to know a city. I always try to go for a run when I am in a new pace because it gets me outside to explore!
    • Marathons are held all over the world and it can be a good reason to travel to a place you’ve always wanted to go. When I ran a marathon in Chile I met a woman who had run a marathon on every continent! Yes, even one in Antarctica!
  3. Meet new people
    • Most marathons have several events leading up to race day. For instance, many races will have a free pasta dinner where you can mingle with and meet other runners. You also get the benefit of some much needed carb-loading.
    • If you traveled for your marathon, you will likely have the opportunity to meet other runners and people wherever you are staying.
  4. Bond with old friends
    • Haven’t seen an old friend in a while? Why not plan a trip to visit your friend and run a marathon together? Many races have options for relay teams so you can get four or five friends together and enjoy a long weekend, while also completing a marathon.
  5. Free stuff
    • Most marathons include a free t-shirt with registration. Sometimes you are given water-bottles, bags and discounts for athletic wear.
  6. Learn to push yourself
    • Running really is a mental sport. It requires strong endurance but also significant brain power to keep running for 26 or even 13 miles.
  7. Encourages daily exercise
    • Running is great exercise. Training for a marathon requires a lot of planning and hard work. Once you register for a marathon you have a goal to work towards and motivation to train on a daily basis.
  8. An excuse to eat sweets
    • After running a marathon your body needs to re-fuel. It is okay to eat a little extra sugar the week following a marathon since your body used up a lot of its energy while running.
  9. Fun!
    • Marathons are just plain fun. There is often live music, people line the streets to cheer, and the overall mood is exciting.




The ICTY Comes to A Close

Last Tuesday, March 22, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia(ICTY) based in The Hague announced that Radovan Karadzic was guilty of committing genocide in Srebrenica.

While the Balkans is usually a forgotten place in the world, last Tuesday articles about Karadzic appeared in newspapers worldwide. As I read those stories and imagined people at home reading those stories I couldn’t help but feel they would not be getting the full story.

Karadziv awaiting the verdict in the courtroom
Karadzic awaiting the verdict in the courtroom (image courtesy of Google Images)

First is the fact that the ICTY has a very long history. It was opened in 1993, while the war in Bosnia was still going on. So far the ICTY has indicted 161 people.  Only two cases remain before the court is to be closed. The remaining cases are those of Vojislav Seselj and Ratko Mladic. Seselj’s trail will be announced on March 30 while Mladic’s verdict is expected in November 2017.

The their website the ICTY states some of its achievements as follows: “By holding individuals responsible for crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, the Tribunal is bringing justice to victims.” Additionally they have “established beyond a reasonable doubt crucial facts related to crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. In doing so, the Tribunal’s judges have carefully reviewed testimonies of eyewitnesses, survivors and perpetrators, forensic data and often previously unseen documentary and video evidence. The Tribunal’s judgements have contributed to creating a historical record, combatting denial and preventing attempts at revisionism and provided the basis for future transitional justice initiatives in the region.”

As I mentioned in my previous blog, not all victims feel brought to justice. Our tour guide at Srebrenica was angry with the lack of justice he and other victims had received. While he told us that the ICTY was doing important work by documenting the war in Bosnia he did not see it as providing justice. Instead he saw RECOM, an initiative for a regional commission to establish facts about war crimes and other  human rights violations committed in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as being able to provide justice. Though he had hope in that process when it began in 2008 though it had not had a huge amount of success.

While scrolling through Facebook last Tuesday after the verdict of the Karadzic trial was released I noticed how many people had written posts about how the Bosnian people had finally been given justice.

I also read this in several news articles. The main points in the trial were covered in all the articles I read. Karadziv was charged with ten of the eleven indictments he was charged with, including the genocide in Srebrenica.

Charging Karadzic with genocide in Srebrenica was far easier than charging him for genocide in genocide in seven other municipalities of Bosnia at the beginning of the war since Srebrenica has already been named as genocide. Karadzic was charged with ten of the eleven crimes he was charged with, the one he was acquitted for was committing genocide in those seven other municipalities in Bosnia.

Genocide is one of the greatest crimes in international law and is extremely hard to prove. In order to prove genocide one must prove that the person who committed the act had the intent to destroy a certain group. It is proving the intent that often proves the most difficult.

While some in the region felt that the Karadzic verdict was fair, others felt it did not go far enough and even others held rally’s to support him and protest the verdict.

As future generations come of age in the Western Balkans it remains to be seen how much justice the ICTY did bring to the region.

For more information about the Karadzic trial and Srebrenica I recommend the following articles:

Why Karadzic’s Conviction May Matter More in the Future

Exploring the Past in Sarajevo

Sarajevo is a beautiful city. The hotel we stayed in was in the old town which is in the center of the city has many shops and cobblestone streets. Sarajevo is in a valley and the city is surrounded by beautiful hills. I went running up these hills and was in awe of how beautiful my surroundings were.

A street in the Old Town
A street in the Old Town

On my way up I came across several graveyards. The main graveyard in Sarajevo is nestled in one of the hills surrounding the city. During the siege of Sarajevo which lasted from April 5, 1992 – February 29, 1996, people were unable to access the main graveyard. Bosnian Serb troops were stationed in the hills around the city and to even leave your house was to risk your life. The siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

When I told my parents about Sarajevo and how beautiful I thought it was my dad was taken aback. In his mind Sarajevo was still a war-torn city. Though the city is very beautiful today, reminders of the past are everywhere, such as the graveyards scattered throughout the city. Since people were unable to access the main graveyards, they had to create smaller graveyards within the city limits that people could access in order to bury the dead.

One of the graveyards found in the city
One of the graveyards found in the city

Walking around the city you can also see what look like bullet holes in some buildings. They are in shelling that were created by mortars. When a mortar bomb was fired from the top of the valley, it would hit the ground and the impact would send pieces of the sidewalk and other debris flying into the air, often to come in contact with a building. The holes and craters seen in many buildings today are from the debris created by mortars.

The buildings have not been fixed because the city does not have enough money but also because they serve as a living reminder of what happened there.

We learned a lot about memory on our excursion to Sarajevo. One of my favorite lecturers we had was Jasmin Mujanovic, a Canadian citizen who was born in Sarajevo. Mujanovic had many things to say to us. We talked about the current constitution of Bosnia, which was created as part of the Dayton Agreements, and the many problems its poses. We discussed the protests that occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina(BiH) in 2014 and how divisions between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs are deepening.

If interested in learning more about the “Bosnian Spring” as the protests in 2014 were called, I recommend the following articles:

In southeast Bosnia lies the city of Mostar. The town is divided by the Neretva River and the iconic bridge used to cross that river. On one side of the bridge there is a Bosniak community while Croats live on the other side. While some people in the city cross the bridge everyday, others have never crossed it in their entire lives.

One of the lessons that I was most surprised to learn has to do with a story  Mujanovic told us about Mostar. While visiting Mostar Mujanovic met a young Croatian. He began talking to him and the two started to talk about the division in the town. The Croat mentioned he had never crossed the bridge because he was afraid. When Mujanovic asked what he was afraid of his response was that if he crossed the bridge he would be recognized because Bosniaks are danger.

Suddenly the division that exists between these communities became racialized. But this is not only a problem in Mostar. The way Bosnia is set-up today is causing divisions between ethnicities to grow. As I mentioned in my previous blog there are people living in Srpska Republika who are afraid to enter the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mujanovic only sees the problem getting worse as younger generations have no way to interact with peers of different background. He claims BiH will have to have some sort of revolution or some movement to cause things to change. He doesn’t think it can happen overnight, but Mujanovic points to the protests in 2014 as BiH coming closer to transformation and social change.

As we continued learning about BiH I kept this in mind.

Our last visit before heading back to Belgrade was to Srebrenica. We all knew this would be a heavy day.

On Sunday morning we left Sarajevo and headed home. In a few hours time we arrived at the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potocari. Srebrenica is a town that became a Muslim enclave during the war in Bosnia in 1992-1995. It was the site of genocide in July 1995 committed by Bosnian Serbs and lead by the command of Ratko Mladic, who is currently being tried at the Hague. Over 7,000 Muslim men and boys are estimated to have been killed.

Potocari is located roughly four miles from Srebrenica so we did not visit the town but Potocari is a very important place as it was the base of the Dutch battalion of UN Peacekeepers.

In April 1993 the United Nations declared Srebrenica  as a “safe area” under UN protection. This peacekeeping force was called the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) and consisted of 400 armed Dutch peacekeepers.
Our guide had survived the genocide at Srebrenica. At the end of the tour he invited all of us to ask questions. Since the Karadzic verdict was to be released next week (Karadzic was on trial at the Hague for crimes committed during the war in Bosnia, including genocide in Srebrenica), I asked our guide if he felt the ICTY had provided the victims of Srebrenica with justice. His reply was that justice had come too late.

As I walked through the grave site I reflected on his words. We were all waiting to hear the verdict of the trial that would be announced on Tuesday. But I wondered if it really mattered. While our guide mentioned the ICTY was important because it was documenting the history of what occurred at Srebrenica, could the ICTY  bring justice to the victims of Srebrenica?

The grave site at the memorial center.
The grave site at the memorial center.

The Dayton (dis)Agreements

After spending a week in Belgrade after returning from Kosovo we left once again, this time for Bosnia & Herzegovina.

The situation in Bosnia is very complicated. I will start first by describing the political situation. The current government system and way the country is divided was established in November 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Agreements, which have come to be called by some as the Dayton Disagreements. During our trip we came to understand why some choose to refer to the peace agreements as such.

The treaty was put together with help from the United States, specifically Richard Hoolbrooke, who served as the U.S. peace negotiator and Warren Christopher, secretary of state at the time. The negotiations took place in Dayton, Ohio while the war in Bosnia was still ongoing.

What is is interesting to note, and something many of our speakers last week pointed out, was that the president of Croatia and Serbia were also involved in drafting the agreement. While the president of Bosnia was of course also present, it seems strange that two other countries were invited to decide the fate of Bosnia.

The treaty that was created in 1995 maintained Bosnia as one state, but divided it into two parts, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska while Sarajevo remained the capital. A third section of the country was also created called the Brčko District. This tiny self-governing administrative unit was created to separate Republika Srpska so it could not break away from Bosnia and either join Serbia or form its own country.

The Dayton Agreement divided the country along ethnic lines, enforcing ethnic divisions. What I mean by this is that Republika Srpska is predominantly Serb. When I say Serb I do not necessarily mean someone from Serbia. It could be someone who was born in Bosnia but is Orthodox and so identifies as being Serb. Likewise a Croat in Bosnia may also have been born in Bosnia but is Catholic so identifies as being Croat just as a Bosniak would identify as being Muslim.

Identify in the Balkans is very complicated and it not viewed in the same way as it is in the states. Citizen identity is not very strong. Indeed, those living in Bosnia cannot define themselves as Bosnian, but rather one of the three constituent people(Serb, Croat, Bosniak or other).

Our trip to Bosnia helped us understand the complexities of the situation in Bosnia.

Our visit to Bosnia began in the Republika Srpska

This map shows the three entities of Bosnia

We spent two days in the capital of Republika Srpska, Banja Luka. It was a pretty small town, but we had the chance to meet various organizations while we were there and learned a lot about the situation in the region.

On Tuesday morning we visited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe(OSCE) Mission to Bosnia an Herzegovina office.

The OSCE office in Bosnia mainly works on monitoring rule of law and human rights in Bosnia. They described to us what they see as of the biggest problems in the country right now such as a poor economy, high levels of unemployment, and the education system.

With the Dayton Agreement came the establishment of the school system that is still in place today “two schools under one roof.” This refers to the fact that while Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs might attend the same school their classes or divided based on ethnicity and they are taught different curricula, the biggest difference being history.

While the war in the 1990s in Bosnia was fought between Bosniaks and Serbs, many scholars disagree that the route cause of the war was ethnicity. In order to understand the situation in the Western Balkans in the 90s we must remember what happened a few years earlier when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia fell apart. The elites at the time used the rhetoric of nationalism to rise to and cling to power, hence causing ethnic division to be created.

Today the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided into 10 cantons, most of which are not ethnically mixed.

A map of Bosnia with the 10 cantons outlined as well as the entities.
Ethnic Map Bosnia Ninety One
A map showing the cantons along with their ethnic break-down.

These divisions have not served the country well as younger generations are growing up only interacting with those who are part of their ethnic group.

While visiting Republika Srpska, we heard stories of how some Serbs are afraid to travel to the Federation because they think it is not safe for them and vice versa.

The time we spend in Banja Luka laid the ground work for gaining a critical understanding of Bosnia. The remainder of our time was spent in Sarajevo. An incredibly beautiful city which is often overlooked due to its history.

My adventures in Sarajevo will be shared in my next blog so stay tuned!

Picking My Way Through the Pijaca

I enter through a side entrance of Kalenic market to find myself among fur coats and random assortments of high heels. My boots “click-clack” on the uneven cobblestones as I make my way towards the food stands. Someone is playing Serbian music on a radio. A light rain begins to fall, yet people continue their shopping. I pass by kitchen appliances, purses and even diapers before arriving at the food.

A local walks through the Kalenic green market in Vracar

While Kalenic is one of the largest markets in Belgrade, it is by no means the only one. Each neighborhood has its own pijaca where neighbors come to shop, catch up on the daily gossip and enjoy a coffee after the shopping is done.

fresh spinach and peppers- yum!

Most customers are loyal, returning always to the same vendors, bringing with them family and friends to share the secrets of their favorite fruit seller. As a local from Belgrade said, “I go to the same people because I know them and I know where the food comes from.”

Even children work at the stands. This past Monday, Mihajlo, 16, was at his mother’s stand since he was off school due to a state holiday. His mother started selling her products 20 years ago when she lost her job. Though she is from Belgrade, her family owns a small farm 25 kilometers from Belgrade. All her products are from the farm.

Mihailo tends to his mother's stand.
Mihajlo tends to his mother’s stand.

According to Manolis Zografakis, 42, a stall owner from Greece, he is the only non-Serbian who works at the Kalenic market in Vracar. His products do very well here, with olive oil being the most popular.

Manolis at his stand in Kalenic.

While Zografakis is coming up on one year at the market in March, many of the sellers have been here for at least 20 years. Every morning they wake up and come to the same place, some starting their day as early as 6:00 a.m. and not ending until 5:00 p.m.

Contested Memory in Kosovo

This past week was our first study visit. What I love about SIT programs is that study trips are always included as part of the program and part of the learning process. These trips are invaluable as they really help contextualize the information we learn in class.

For our first study visit we traveled to Kosovo, one of the newest nations in Europe as it did not declare independence until 2008. However, not every nation recognizes Kosovo as some still consider it a part of Serbia.

The history of Kosovo is complicated and long but I will do my best to sum up the main points. Kosovo was an autonomous province during the time of Yugoslavia and was never given the same status as a republic. In 1989 Milosevic removed Kosovo’s autonomous status and began a project to unify Serbia and Kosovo. Albanian workers were replaced by Serbians and in some cases Serbians were even brought from Belgrade because they did not have enough people to fill all of the positions. During this time 80% of Albanians lost their jobs. Schools also became segregated at this time and Serbian and Albanian communities split.

Kosovars began to fight back. One way of doing this was through education. A parallel school system was created, which was part of the non-violent resistance taking place in Kosovo. Ibrahim Rugova was the leader of this non-violent movement but towards the end of the 90s when the situation was not improving in Kosovo people began to see the non-violent movement as a failure.

A guerilla group was created named the Kosovo Liberation army(KLA) and led by a man named Adem Jashari(more on him in another post). Tensions between Serbs and Albanians escalated and from 1998-199 there was armed conflict mostly between the KLA and Serbian forces. The international community was watching what was happening the decided to take action. Bill Clinton is the one that led the way and on March 24 199 NATO began a bombing campaign in Serbia. The fighting lasted until June 10, 1998 when the NATO bombings finally stopped and Milosevic, the president of Serbia at the time, signed an agreement.

I had been told by my most family that Kosovars love Americans. This is because they consider American to have liberated them from Serbia because of the NATO bombings. When we were driving into the city we noticed a large number of American flags all around the city. There is also a large statue of Bill Clinton downtown.

The Bill Clinton statue in downtown Prishtina.
The Bill Clinton statue in downtown Prishtina.

We arrived to Prishtina on Monday evening and had a delicious three hour meal together. It was a great start to the week.

On Tuesday morning we had a memory walk of Prishtina. It was lead by a professor from the University of Prishtina who has done research on memory studies. The first place we visited was a house school which was part of the parallel school system. This particular school was in use from 1991-1999 and was burned by the Serbian police in 1999. The woman giving the tour had actually attended this school.

The house school we visited on our memory tour.
The house school we visited on our memory tour.

The families who live nearby built a roof over the remaining structure to preserve it. Though the building remains it is not an official memorial site.

House schools were used by the Albanian population in Kosovo as an alternative to the education system imposed on them by Serbia. The Albanian language was banned in schools and history was taught solely from the Serbian perspective.

Thus the house schools were created first as a necessity because many students no longer had a school they could attend. As they continued the schools began to symbolize the national struggle. The idea was to fight back with education because it was a way they could survive as a nation.

Next we visited two monuments located in the center of Prishtina, yet very much in contrast to each other.

First we visited the Newborn Monument and then crossed the street to see the Heroinat Monument. Though they are in close proximity to each other, the Newborn Monument receives much more attention as it is easier to spot and more well-known.

The Newborn Monument was erected on Feb. 17, 2008 to commemorate the independence of Kosovo. From 2008-2012 it was left alone but since 2013 it has been repainted every year. Currently the monument is light blue with white clouds. A barbed wire fence pattern atop the blue and white design represents the isolation Kosovars face, especially youth. 90% of Kosovar youth have never traveled to Western Europe due to strict visa laws and economic setbacks.

The Newborn Monument
The Newborn Monument

No annual celebration takes place across the street to commemorate the Heroinat Memorial.  The monument depicts an Albanian woman and consists of 20,000 pins. Each pin represents a woman raped during the war from 1998-1999. The monument has received criticism from feminist and civil society organizations. As our guide explained to us, “We wanted to commemorate women’s contributions…but we wanted it to be more diverse and not just Albanian women.”

The plaque for the memorial was never finished.
The plaque for the memorial was never finished.

It also limits women’s experience to just being victims of sexual violence when many women were active in other roles during the war, there were even women who fought for the KLA. Women were also active in the non-violent resistance that took place.

After just a few hours and visiting only a few sites, my classmates and I were beginning to see what a complicated issue this was. It is amazing what you can notice if you are informed about the history of a place. Throughout my week in Kosovo I noticed many things and learned a lot about the state-building process. I began to notice similarities between certain things I had seen in Tunisia and what was happening in Kosovo. But I will save the details on that for my next blog.