This War of Mine

It has been over a month since I’ve been here in Sarajevo, and a little less than that since my last blog post. Time has passed quickly, and in a way defined by routine– a routine of work, of long days in an office building tucked way in the middle of Sarajevo, of writing daily news briefs and shifting through databases for investigations. What time I have remaining for myself is spent decompressing at the end of the day with a big bottle of Sarajevsko and a book on the terrace of my house, looking out to the cityscape of the downtown below me slowly wash into that orange glow that only Sarajevo gets at dusk.

It’s not a bad life here, and I enjoy the work at the OCCRP (which I can’t blog on too in-depth,  but that is at its heart a dedicated, passionate, unglamorous effort to tackle the kind of corruption that seems rampant in this part of the world). I’m learning a lot as well: how to write better, clearer and more concisely, how to chase a lead, how to dig into the details of public records to catch the kind of illegal and corrupt practices going on that all too often are hidden in plain sight.

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Orange sunsets from the terrace

But I’m not here to write on the OCCRP. Too often, walking through the streets of Sarajevo, my mind wanders not to corruption and organized crime but to conflict– the conflict that barely twenty years ago scared the buildings of the streets I walk on, the conflict in Syria that drove millions of refugees into where I studied Arabic this summer in Jordan, the conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, South Sudan…

When you’re constantly surrounded by the memories of war, as in Sarajevo, those conflicts seem less far-away than they do in the States or in Western Europe. They seem all too recent, all too close.

I’ve always have been as much a video game aficionado as I have been a literature buff– I love games that tell stories, like the sci-fi soap opera Mass Effect, the post-apocalyptic horror of The Last of Us, the fantasy inspired realms of The Witcher. In the right hands, a game can place you in the mind of a character more than even a book can, and although most games still follow the mindless shooting of Call of Duty, a few show more heart than just splattered brains and guns.

This War of Mine is one of those games, which I have started to play here on my laptop here in Sarajevo. Instead of being a soldier in a war or a hero in a galaxy-spanning adventure, This War of Mine puts you in the shoes of three normal people trying to survive in the midst of an unknown conflict in an unnamed Eastern European city.

The war in This War of Mine, coincidently, is based on the Siege of Sarajevo, the city itself nearly carbon-copied from the likes of the city I live in now. And, because of that, it has become all the more impactful to me– a way not only to put myself in the shoes of  those enduring a war, but of the survivors of this war. A war I have come to know and understand and feel personally about more than any other.

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The parliament building during the siege (Wikimedia commons)

Little things, like trying to find food every day, or finding yourself not knowing who to trust or who is in fact dangerous, or the constant struggle to stay warm in the depths of winter without electricity or running water. You hear about these things in the news, read about them in books, but somehow having to actually put yourself in the mind of the characters you control, to act out these day-to-day struggles, brings it a little closer to home than those mediums  sometimes can.

Or, maybe, it’s just the eerieness of seeing the war-torn skyline behind my character directly mirroring the one I see every day from my window that gets to me.

I’ve taken to taking long walks in my spare time on the weekends, and on those walks I’ve started to really look at the city and its scars in a way I never had the chance to in my brief time here last year. My favorite walk of all  is along the river, where on Sundays the road to closed to cars and children come out in bicycles, lovers cuddle on riverside benches and old ladies sit gossiping in cafes. Yet despite how it seems that everything has moved on during these lazy weekend walks, there are signs to show otherwise: the still collapsed buildings that were never fully repaired where beggars now make ramshackle homes in; the bridge I walk on every day from work, where a memorial stands for two young lovers shot down by snipers while trying to flee the front lines. The bullet holes that trace lines over my own house that I return to every night.

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Sometimes, at night I sit awake and think about the people who once slept in the same room as I– who might have been in these very rooms while bullets grazed the walls. I think about my Bosnian friend from work, who has a newspaper clipping that shows him as a kid standing amidst the rubble of a street with a tiny penguin-shaped backpack, full of emergency supplies his mom made him take everywhere in case they were every separated. I think of the war veterans cafe right beside my work, and the things the people there have seen– and possibly, themselves, had done.

And in those moments, I think of Damascus. I think of Aleppo, Homs, Benghazi, Baghdad. I think of how long it has taken this city to heal, and how much longer it will take those nations to recover from the wars we have not yet come to bring an end to. I think, too, of the other cities that may one day experience that same kind of pain and hardship as more wars unfold in future years.

But there’s also this: a few years into the war, a group of Bosnians came together in the city and, in a small house that could only be reached through climbing through a hole in a wall in order to evade sniper fire, created the city’s first film festival. The Sarajevo Film Festival has since been repeated every year, bringing together movies from all over the world in Southeastern Europe’s largest annual movie showing.

One quote from one of its founders in particular has stood out to me: “With just food and water we could survive, but with movies, for the first time since the war began we were living”.

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At the Sarajevo Film Festival

Even in the darkest of places– even in a hell as these streets once were– people manage not just to survive, but to find small beautiful moments to live for. I think that says something, and the more I’m here, the more I see that, despite the lingering affects of the war, people are in fact moving on. People are healing, even if all the wounds haven’t yet mended. And people will move on and heal once the wars in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq finally, one day, end.

There is hope in that, and I try to keep those thoughts in mind as I watch on my news feed yet another city, yet another country, suffer the same fate as this city once endured.

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Neum, on the Adriatic Sea

The bus that travels between Dubrovnik to Sarajevo is one of the most popular routes in the Balkans– tourists from Western Europe, Russia and East Asia, having traveling to Croatia for the beaches and sun of the Adriatic coast, often will take the 2-3 hour bus ride to the halfway point of the route to reach the Bosnian town of Mostar, just on the other side of the Croatian-Bosnian border.

The weekend after arriving in Sarajevo, I also found myself on that route, an 8 hour overnight bus that left the Bosnian capital at 10 and was scheduled to arrive in Dubrovnik at 6 in the morning. My destination, however, wasn’t Dubrovnik, nor even Mostar, but a tiny little town on the Bosnian coast– in fact, the only town on the Bosnian coast: Neum.

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Neum. Photo Credit: Daniela Castro

Bosnia was never supposed to have a coastline. For most of its history- as an independent kingdom, as a vassal state of the Ottomans- the country was landlocked, nestled in the midst of the Balkan Mountains, with the Dalmatian coast split between the Venetian Empire to the south (in current day Montenegro) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the North (today’s Croatia).

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Venice and Vienna often warred over this stretch of coastline, with the city of Dubrovnik, the capital of the small Republic of Ragusa, the sought after prize (just north of Neum, in fact, lies the twin cities of Ston, name so after the massive walls that were built to guard against the myriad of wars that used to define this coastline during the Middle Ages).

To put an end to these wars, a tiny corridor of sea was given to the Ottoman Empire– of which Bosnia was at the time it furthest territory– with the thought that neither Empire would risk enraging the then-still powerful Turkish empire by moving soldiers across its lands. When Yugoslavia became its own country following the First World War, this little stretch of land was given to the State of Bosnia for historical reasons, yet as free movement between states was a given in both the Kingdom and Communist state, it never became much of an issue.

That, of course, was until the wars. Today, Neum remains part of Bosnia, but to get to it, one must go through Croatia– or else travel through a winding, dangerous mountain road that runs through the narrow corridor that links Neum to the mainland.

Unfortunately, while I myself can enter Croatia visa-free, one of my friends who I was traveling with was a Kyrgish citizen…..

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Early morning in Neum. Photo Credit: Daniela Castro

Stopped on the border at 3 in the morning, and finding ourselves unable to continue through the highway to Neum because of visa restrictions. Forced to take a country taxi in the middle of the night through winding roads without a shoulder and cliffs on either side, with only the headlights ahead giving a glimpse of how dangerous the trip was. Finally arriving at five in the morning, stiff, cramped, sleepless and cold, and crashing on beach chairs while the sun had only just begun to lighten the sky.

Waking up an hour later, and finding the day slowly waking up. Older people come at 7, 8 in the morning to begin early morning swims. Workers come to clean the trash left over from parties the night before. A few boats beginning to head out to sea. Feeling, after a week of traveling from France to Belgrade to Sarajevo, for the first time peaceful and at rest.

Traveling is both trying and rewarding at the same time.

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Photo credit: Daniela Castro

In Neum, there are few hotels, but there are what are called “apartments”- usually an upstairs floor with a bunk bed, pull-out futon, tiny kitchen and bathroom in the house of someone else’s family. The family we stayed with was incredible– Bosnian Croats whose son and daughter were visiting from their jobs in Zagreb, complete with a host of tiny children who ran circles around us while we sat on beach chairs by the shore, reading, swimming, and playing cards.

In particular there was the patriarch of the family: an older man who had served in the war, and who both before an after was an architect– and an influential one, at that. Nearly all the homes in Neum were his handiwork, and a fair few in Ston and Dubrovnik as well. Although he spoke only broken English, he welcomed us into his family with open arms, though we were only to stay for a night. Taking us out on his boat, telling us stories about the older days in Neum, helping us arrange our travel back to Sarajevo while avoiding the Croatian border….in Jordan, Serbia, Bosnia, the generosity and goodwill of people never fails to surprise me.

Though the beaches of Neum are filled during the days, at night the crowds thin out, and walking along the shore, smelling the roses that climb along the side of the houses that face the sea, hearing the subtle noise of people gathering for dinner or cards through open windows that let orange-yellow light out onto the night– it reminds me of France, or Italy, and made me nostalgic for the likes of Nice and Grasse.

We took the same winding, treacherous road back the next morning via cab, and though it was almost as terrifying as at night, the road was also beautiful beyond belief: tiny villages that have not changed much for hundreds of years nestled into the crooks of mountains, ruins of old castles up on the hills, a lake so clear it reflected the shape and color of the mountains on its blue surface.

This country never fails to surprise.

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Photo credit: Daniela Castro

 

Returning to Sarajevo

Much changes in a year.

For those who have been following this blog since its start, you would know that Sarajevo was one of the first places I’d ever traveled to abroad, and the first time I set foot in Europe. Coming to this city for the first time– just out of my first year of college, not yet fully past the introductory Political Science courses of my Major (Globalization and International Affairs, International Relations, reading cover-to-cover The Globalization Reader…) was in a way both magical and eye opening. This was only my second time seeing a culture other than my own (the first being a High School trip to the Dominican Republic with a church from back home), and by far my first time seeing the after affects of a conflict.

Memories of Sarajevo from that time are of drinking Sarajevsko at a cafe by the river at night and playing cards with friends; of watching the orange light of evening fall in a haze onto the city from atop the Yellow Fortress, perched on the edge of the green hills that surround the city proper like a bowl; of hearing the call to prayer for the first time, of meeting a great many people of another faith for the first time, of hearing spoken around me a language radically dissimilar to any I had ever heard before.

Memories also of looking at bullet-torn walls for the first time, of walking in the footsteps of genocide for the first time. Of talking of the heavy subjects of conflict, and ethnic cleansing, and death for the first time with people who had experienced these things personally, only twenty years before. Of feeling a particular, lingering sadness to a city that I have never felt before or since.

Much changes in a year. Since that summer, in barely a year, the world has changed to be almost unrecognizable. The rise of Trump. Brexit. The Syrian Refugee Crisis. Paris. Brussels. Orlando. Istanbul and Ankara and Istanbul and Ankara again. Beirut and Baghdad. The Dallas Shootings. Our world has seemed to have grown darker, angrier, more cynical, more afraid in the span of only a few months. And as the world has changed, so have I.

I have another year of university beneath my belt now; two new languages that I have begun to learn, and travels in an entirely different part of the world that I am still thinking through. Those things add up, and even though I find myself in a familiar city, it is in many ways less familiar as it should be, now that I see it with a slightly older, slightly wiser, slightly less wide-eyed gaze.

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In Sarajevo once more. Photo Credit: Sydne Mass

There’s an urban legend in this city, that if you drink from the fountain at the heart of the Old Turkish District, you will always return to this city. I always did expect to return, but never this soon.

I came here as part of my six-month International Co-Op experience, fresh off the heals from my time in Jordan. This wasn’t my first choice: initially I had planned to travel to Istanbul, to work with a journalism team there that focused on women’s issues in the Middle East, but the bombings that were striking the city at that time caused both the employer and my university to call off the program for the year (with the latest events in Turkey causing tensions to increase rather than subside, that decision was more than fortuitous). And so I came to Sarajevo again, to work with the OCCRP, or the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Organized crime and investigative reporting into corruption is, off the gate, not my area of expertise, or even really my area of interest. Yet I chose this Co-Op for a simple reason: to be in the midst of a dedicated, passionate small journalism team, to see what they do, how they work, and learn from them. And in that at least, the OCCRP is proving itself to be more than what I anticipated.

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The view from my house– the city center lies in the distance, ~ 15 min walk away

A little of the OCCRP, first: the organization was founded with two goals in mind: to form a dedicated organized to investigate and help combat Organized Crime and Corruption in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia, where resources and the knowhow to do real investigative reporting were scare; and to train local Bosnians, Serbians, Ukrainians, Russians and others investigative tools to jump-start their own investigative projects. It’s behind-the-scenes, often thankless work, but in this part of the world, it isn’t conflict, or poverty, or even nationalism that causes the most damage sometimes. It’s the capability of corrupt people to take advantage of the less fortunate to their own ends, and to do so without much consequence.

This part of the world needs a  watchdog, and the OCCRP serves that role. And its investigations have shown results, with corporate heads, parliamentary figures, and even a Prime Minister all having been removed from power due to this small team’s investigative work. Again– it is not what I see myself doing in my life. But there is still a lot to learn here.

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Atop the Yellow Fortress at evening

It’s taken me some time to get used to living here again, as familiar as the city is– it is the time away from home, the months that stretch ahead, that intimidate me more so than the fact of being far away. But gradually, ever so slowly, I find myself sinking into a routine, of work, reading, writing, and sitting in little Bosnian cafes.

I will be updating this blog with travels across the Balkans, beyond what I was able to do with the University that I now have the opportunity for with this longer period of time before me. I won’t be posting as much as in Jordan, but I’ll be sure to keep updating this little blog as time goes on.

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Home for the next few months