Leaving the Balkans Behind

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One last, overnight bus ride from Belgrade to Sarajevo, and then back again on the same seven-hour route four days later. Time enough only to say goodbye to Bosnia, and to spend one last night in Belgrade, before returning home to the States.

This part of the world takes on a different face in December. Stark bare trees turn once green hills a muted grey, and the orange-shingled roofs of every Balkan town begin to stand out all the more. In Belgrade, the city becomes grimy and cold with the icy wind cutting in over the water of two rivers; in Sarajevo, the smoke from wood-fired stoves turns the valley into a dense haze that only seldom lifts to provide the rare clear winter day.

This is still a beautiful country come winter, but a harsher one as well, a country that reminds of the stories of the partizan fighters huddled in the snow in mountain villages, or of the long, brutal winter of 1992 that nearly starved the sieged Sarajevo to its knees. Even now, things seem more severe, the mood of things lowering alongside the earlier evenings.

Which is fitting, in a way. This year– 2016– has been a long one, one that has seen not only the further deterioration of a war in Syria so eerily similar to Bosnia’s and several horrible and shocking acts of terror, but also the not-so gradual fracturing of a world order that, before this year, seemed to be slowly– if unevenly– moving forward, towards integration, cooperation, and peace between peoples and nations.

Now, here at the end of 2016, I believe that we all feel a little exhausted from these past few months, a little apprehensive for the future and what is to come in the next year.

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There is a term in International Relations that was born from the breakup of Yugoslavia– “Balkanization”. It is the idea that people who once lived so close together will, when exposed to the allure of nationalism and a few charismatic individuals well placed to take advantage of people’s fear, quickly turn against one another by focusing on their differences and painting entire groups in broad, often unfair, strokes– “otherifying” them. It is a cycle that can quickly descend into conflict, war, even ethnic cleansing, genocide– look only at Syria today.

There are many, many lessons to learn from the Balkans– of the consequences of intervention, and of the consequences of not intervening. Of the mistakes made in peace building and nation building that need to be learned from, and of the successes in conflict resolution that should themselves be studied. But most of all, the lesson to learn from the Balkans is the dangers of the false siren song of otherifying, of nationalism, of placing leaders on super-human pedestals based on false promises and fiery rhetoric.

If there was ever a lesson to learn from the Balkans, it was that. And if there ever was a lesson that we in the West failed to learn, it was that. This year we are faced with Trump and Brexit, along with resurgent, barely in-check Russia that is led by a man who cares little for human rights or ending wars. Next year we face the prospect of Le Pen in France and nationalist figures in Germany and Italy. The sad part of all of this is that it has happened before. It happened in Bosnia and Serbia. It happened in Rwanda and is happening in Syria.

If those seem like extreme examples– and they are– remember that we, in the West, have done this very thing ourselves not even a hundred years ago, and sent the world to the brink in the process.

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This entire year, I have spent traveling in parts of the world that are the way they are in many ways because of our– Europe and America’s– actions. I saw the refugee crisis in Jordan and delved further into the repercussions of war in Bosnia, have watched nationalism take a new face under a different leader in Serbia who, after the events of this year, is likely to lead his country even further away from European integration and into another kind of authoritarian state.

All of this I have tried to write here because I feel that we, the West, need to be better. We need to see the repercussions of our elections, of the actions our governments make and of the consequences we face should we choose to go down a certain path.

Five years from now, I want to see a world where Bosnia and Syria are not allowed to happen, where humanitarianism takes priority over national interest. I want to see a world where nationalism is cast aside in favor of understanding others, and of cultures that are encouraged to interact and learn from one another rather than incited to clash. I want to see a world where the refugee is welcomed, the immigrant invited, the worker protected.

I want to see a responsible world, in short, one that has learned from its mistakes– mistakes that have led to what I have seen in Bosnia, Serbia, and Jordan just this year– and becomes better for them, not worse.

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I no longer know if that world will become a reality, but I hope that if I continue to write, to travel to where things went wrong, and to advocate for understanding, compassion, human rights, humanitarianism and peace– and that others like me will do the same– then things might change. The direction our world is heading might still alter, the future we are creating for ourselves might not come to pass.

For now, I am leaving the Balkans behind. I have not seen all I have wished to see– not Kosovo nor Montenegro, Slovenia nor the Dalmatian coast– but I have seen much, and I hope I have come to understand much as well. When I first traveled to this part of the world over a year ago, I found myself inspired to work towards and fight for a better world, a world where the Siege of Sarajevo does not happen again, where Srebrenica does not happen again, where the rise of Milosevic or Tudjman does not happen again.

I am grateful for the Balkans for putting me on that path, at the very least, and though I don’t expect to return for this part of the world for so long again, it still holds a special place for me. This is a beautiful country, but a country scarred, a country that is complicated and colored by so many shades of grey. Its problems are far from over, its future far from certain.

But even in leaving it, I am wishing it the best– and wishing the best towards those fighting for a better future for this place, people who work to fight corruption through journalism, or bring together divided ethnicities in the name of peace, or push for openness between borders and peoples alike.

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There is a fountain in Sarajevo, and the legend goes that if you drink from its waters, you will always return. I did not expect to return to this part of the world so soon, but I did. And though I again hold little expectation in coming back in the near future, I did make sure to go and drink from the fountain one last time.

There is much to learn from this land, these countries, these peoples. Much of it is hard to learn, much unpleasant, but neither the difficult future that faces the Balkans nor the horrendous events of the past detracts from the beauty and history that lies in these hills, cities and fields. I encourage everyone who reads this blog to come to Bosnia or Serbia one day– and when you come, to keep an open mind. For this is not just Eastern Europe, or even merely the former communist Yugoslavia; this is the Balkans, and it a place unique in a way that is unlike anywhere else on Earth.

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(Photo credit: Sydne Mass)

I will be putting this blog to rest for now, until I find myself traveling once again. For now, I head back to my divided country, with the hope of helping fix the damage that has been done– by those on both sides of the political spectrum– and to heal the problems that have caused us to fall into the very kind of nationalism that we once fought against.

I am apprehensive and even scared for my country and our world, but the future is still not set in stone. And I am confident that enough good people, working together for the right things, can still change things for the better.

The United States of America, Europe, and other parts of the world that stand for equality, inclusiveness, and peace– in ideals if not always actions– can, and I hope will, pull through the events of this year, and be all the stronger for it. 2017 does not have to be the year when the world fell apart; instead, it can be the year when we collectively told ourselves: this is not the path we choose to travel down.

Until next time.

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