About the Blog

I recently accepted a position from Teach and Learn with Georgia, a Georgian Ministry of Education program designed to bring native speakers of English into classrooms around the country. I will be moving to Georgia in August of 2014 to begin my assignment.

Before this latest adventure, I studied at Bogazici University in Istanbul Turkey and at Azerbaijan University of Languages. I speak English German Spanish, Turkish Azerbaijani and Uzbek and am currently trying my hand at Georgian.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Balkans Part II

Mostar and Stari Most
Bosnia on the other hand is moving on. I only spent two days in Bosnia, one is Mostar and one in Sarajevo and yet this was the nation that most struck me, that moved me and spoke to me and where I felt most at ease. Bosnia seems to have been slightly cursed throughout its history, constantly facing assassinations, uprising, invasions, internal struggles and violence. Yet Bosnians have accepted it. I found Bosnia to be friendly, and it greatly reminded me of Turkey with its architecture, food and general air of focusing on people. 

Damage in Mostar
Mostar stills shows all the scars of the war, which in this particular town pitted Croats against Bosnians and resulted in the main tourist site, the old bridge built by Suleiman the Magnificent, being shelled and destroyed. They rebuilt it but at a small former mosque next to it, a loop of video of the bridge plays, from the prewar era of 60s dresses and family outings to ferocious gunfights and wooden barricades being put up above the bridge, bits and pieces pulled together is a besieged town to cover Bosnian troops from sniper fire. The old Turkish bazaar has been rebuilt and is now thriving with a steady stream of tourists in and out. The main road the remains of pock marked buildings cover both sides of the street and just off it a tiny public park across from a mosque now holds a cemetery. The graves are slightly jumbled, indicating that this was not set up like most cemeteries, that this was not official, and was put together in a hurry. When you look down to the dates on the stones you find that all of them are from 1993, when the town was destroyed from the inside out. The ages range from a few days octogenarians, people who lived long enough to see their land torn apart time and again by forces they had no control over, only to find in the end that neighbor turned against neighbor. Many of the graves were young men, 18 19 20. People who I think of as men, and yet some were younger than I am now. That night we enjoyed dinner overlooking the bridge with three Turkish compatriots, who, delighted to find that I spoke Turkish, entertained us with stories and paid our bill at the end, but only after getting the waiter and all the other patrons involved in their games. Bosnia reminded me somehow of how beautiful life is, so why not enjoy it. The nation is so far from carefree, and yet people walk past the wreckage of the war 20 years on like it doesn’t register. Yet divisions remain. 

Near Mostar we saw plenty of Croatian flags being flown, yet we were clearly not in Croatia. What a message. Many of the road signs had portions sloppily blacked out with paint. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, surely not that many towns had disappeared in the conflict, until we got nearer Sarajevo and fewer signs had been altered. No place had been eliminated. However, the old signs featured the place names written in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabet, one for Serbs, who use the latter and one for Bosnians who use the former. The Cyrillic was being eliminated.  Each of these nations has their own national language, Serbian Croatian and Bosnian. Yet apart from some phraseology, the languages are the same. No one wants to admit this close connection though, so the language has been given three names, for the three nations where it is now used. The alphabets remain a political issue. In Sarajevo we saw more instances of the impact of the war and the continuing tension.

Damaged building in Sarajevo

 We visited the History Museum, which had two exhibitions, one about the history of Bosnia-Hercegovina which felt like a plea to be recognized as a real country, trying so hard to prove that it has been a country since the beginning of time and was not created in the 20th. The other chronicles the siege of Sarajevo and everyday life for its inhabitants. The museum was heavily damaged during the siege but its exterior has remained unaltered, as another testimony to the fighting. Slowly churches and historical buildings are being restored with US and Turkish funding. The US seems to be paying for the churches, for Sarajevo was and still seems to be a richly diverse city. Turkey pays for the mosques. The National Gallery exhibits portraits of the defenders of Sarajevo, with their ragtag weapons and uniforms, sometimes the only item provided was a badge. The ages varied, some men looked like they had battle experience from decades beforehand, other faces looked like they had never seen a razor. One portrait struck me. It showed a young soldier, perhaps 20 walking down the old Turkish section of town, an area that we had just been through, throbbing with people in the wake of some religious graduation at a mosque and tourists from around the world. In the portrait though, the place is deserted but for this solitary figure. In one hand he holds an ice cream cone. The other hand slings a rifle over his shoulder, like he’s never known a day when it wasn’t there.  

Men playing chess in Sarajevo
Leaving Sarajevo was yet another reminder of how far these nations have to go towards peace. Because Sarajevo has two bus stations. One is in the center of the city, near to the river and the sights. It serves both domestic and international locales. Yet we were told there was only one bus to Belgrade every day, leaving at 6am and no other buses going in that direction otherwise. So too at the train station we struck out, to get to Belgrade from Sarajevo you have to go through Zagreb. At tourist information in the center of the city were told that to get to Belgrade we needed to go to the other bus station. We spent more than half an hour on one of Sarajevo’s slightly nostalgic but mostly tired and in need of renovation trams to get there. This bus station was way out on the suburbs, in a neighborhood which my traveling companion found creepy, but felt fine to me, perhaps because of my time in Azerbaijan where I learned about ugly communist architecture and how to be ok walking through unlit streets by myself at night. This bus station only serves a few locations, all in the Respublika Srpska (the Serbian autonomous region in Bosnia) and Serbia itself. Everything at the bus station is written in Cyrillic. Let’s be honest: its segregation, putting space both mental and physical between the two states. Bosnia is troubled, its mountains hold ghosts beyond number, and all along its roads there are gravestones, marking where soldiers and civilians fell during the 90s. Bosnia is haunting, with its beauty and richness paired with craters and pockmarked buildings. Bosnia can’t forget the war, or try to deny it because it still exists. The war may have been history for me when I left Istanbul but I understand now why it still lingers in the international community. A conflict that pits friends and neighbors against one another, that involves indiscriminate killing, where streets become battlefields and parks transform into cemeteries, that can’t ever be forgotten. I loved Bosnia, but I will never understand it. 

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