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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.