Leaving the Balkans Behind


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


(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.


Scars on the Face of an Uncaged Beast


“When I walk downtown and see these communist, concrete structures built right up alongside the older buildings from before the world wars — I see scars, scars on the face of a beast that refused to be caged.”

I met an old Serbian friend of mine the other day in a little cafe across the street from the  Church of Saint Sava, a massive orthodox cathedral in Belgrade’s Vracar district. Over espresso and tea we talked about the usual things– our respective studies and work, the U.S presidential election, politics– before finding ourselves on the subject of Serbia itself: its culture, its history, and most of all, its city– Beograd.

Few people I’ve met have been so passionate about their city and their country as this friend of mine, and in a way that is far from blind nationalism that so often colors the politics of this country. For him, to love his country isn’t just to acknowledge its flaws, but to appreciate it even more for them. For Serbia isn’t the same groomed, sleek showdog as France, or a sturdy working animal like Germany: it is a mutt, scarred from its fair share of scrapes and wounds earned from past fights, yet nevertheless loveable, proud, and loyal to a fault.

Belgrade, like Serbia and the Serbs, is much the same. A “beast that refused to be caged”, as my friend said to me: weathered, beaten, and bruised, yet still proud, still independent, still nothing but not entirely, wholly, and unashamedly itself.


The weight of history is different here from the rest of the Balkans. Sarajevo, Zagreb– for most of their past, they sat well within the borders of their respective Empires, far enough from the front lines to avoid the worst of the wars that cropped up every few decades between Russia, the Ottomans, and the Austrians. But Serbia.. throughout the medieval ages and the continent-spanning conflicts of the 18th and 19th centuries, Serbia and its capital were a battleground. Between 1690 and 1790 alone, Belgrade was raised to the ground three times as the city changed hands between Hapsburg and Ottoman armies.

Most importantly, though, Serbia was, and has always been, a country of rebellion against Empires. The First Serbian Uprising happened in 1807 against the Ottomans, the second in 1815. The nation was occupied by the Austrians in World War 1 and, later, the Germans in World War 2– occupations that both saw their own share of resistance and rebellion, including Tito’s partizan guerrilla campaign which led tot he communist Yugoslav state.

But rebellion carries a cost: just as Belgrade was sacked three times in the 18th century, the city found itself once again nearly destroyed in the conflicts of the 20th. Shelling during the First World War, bombing by the Axis in the first half of WW2 and by the Allies in the second half. In 1999, a concentrated bombing campaign by America and NATO during its intervention in Kosovo.

Regardless of how the individual Serb feels about Milosevic’s rule or the Kosovo conflict, the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia feed into this very national story, repeated over and over: a story of a Serbian independence and resistance against a greater, global-spanning power, be it Ottoman, Austrian, Russian or American. The NATO bombings are but a part of this much larger tale, a tale that has caused Serbs to at heart view themselves as rebels, the same “beast that refused to be caged” as this city.


Belgrade’s scars are different from Sarajevo’s. In Bosnia, there is an effort to repair damaged history, to reclaim what has been lost or destroyed from the past. Serbia has instead always looked forward, ever pushing to be new and modern.

Every sacking, every bombing is thus seen as a chance of rebirth into something new: the older, Austrian-style buildings were themselves only built after the original city was raised in the 1700s in emulation what was then the capital of civilization and culture, Vienna. After World War 1, the style of Paris was seen as the new, modern re-birth, and following World War 2– by far the most destructive conflict to affect the city in modern times– communism was seen as the way forward.

Instead of being rebuilt, Austrian and French style buildings bombed by the Germans and Allies were replaced with the very gray, imposing concrete blocks seen today. Walk down the streets, and you can trace the bombing paths of the world war by the pattern of these communist buildings as they wind their way through the city. Today they may seem ugly, crude, or archaic, but in the 1940s they were seen as the peak of modernity, just as the older, 1800s-style buildings that stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside them were once perceived.


I know many who would consider Belgrade ugly, especially compared to Vienna, Paris, or even Zagreb or Sarajevo. But to see its “ugliness” for what it really is– the wounds of resistance– is to see Serbia and the Serbs for what they are at heart: rebels, fighters, independent for all their faults. Once you take that into account, Belgrade’s ugliness takes on a new meaning, and dare I say even begins to have a bit of a romantic quality to it.

Something else also impresses me about this city: it’s vibrant street art scene, which colors every street and marks nearly every building. It seems to me a way for Serbs to reclaim their city, to turn its wounds into something beautiful, as a person might incorporate a tattoo around their own body’s scars.



In the end, Serbia, and its capital, are hard to come to absolutes on– so much of this city and this are bathed in shades of gray. It has resisted oppression and been the oppressor, the victim of violence and the perpetrator. It has at some moments in history allied with and sought to emulate the West, at other times been vehemently against it, and at still other periods occupying some tenuous, neutral middle ground between world powers.

But I love it, not despite its faults, but in many ways for them. And, just like Sarajevo, I will miss it when I’m gone.


Photo credits: Sydne Mass @Syd_Mass

At the Sava and the Danube

For as much as I love Sarajevo, it lacks a certain kind of excitement that can be found in some larger cities– Belgrade, on the other hand, practically buzzes with energy. Crowded trolley lines packed shoulder to shoulder on rainy days; crowds rushing back and forth downtown as street bands jam on guitars and violins. Lovers making out on park benches. Bars packed at night, cafes packed by day.

Always, a crazy, gritty, sometimes dangerous but always hip and young vibe that is unique to Serbs and to their city. I have missed this place.


This city reminds me of the title of an old Hemingway short story: The Capital of the World. Hemingway was at the time writing of Spain’s Madrid, but Belgrade in many ways has that very same feel, at least as far as the Balkans are concerned. For as beautiful as Zagreb is, as significant as Bosnia is, not Zagreb nor Sarajevo, Podgorica nor Skopje, nor ever Bulgaria’s Sophia or Romania’ Bucharest carry the same kind of importance to this part of the world as Belgrade. This was the capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the seat of communist Yugoslavia. This was the heart of the old Serbian Kingdom that was once the last nation standing between Vienna and the Ottoman Empire. Even in 2016, it remains in many ways the Capital of the Balkans, the Capital of Southeastern Europe.

To many Slavs of the former Yugoslavia– many who still think of themselves as Yugoslavs– that makes it the Capital of the World.

14787569_10209448504683264_1049781966_oI came here on another overnight bus trip (which are becoming my go-to way to travel through the Balkans) in order to continue the second half my journalism co-op, but also to seize the opportunity live for a few months in the White City. I find Sarajevo to be the most beautiful city in all the Balkans, and to be sure Belgrade’s post-communist grittiness can’t hold a candle to the Austrian architecture of Croatia or the Turkish minarets and bridges of Bosnia. But something about Belgrade– something about the energy of its nights, something about the Serbian people themselves– has made me fall in love with it.

Two rivers cross here, the Sava, which flows from Slovenia through Croatia and Bosnia and forms the northern border of the Balkans, and the Danube, which snakes its way from from Germany through Vienna and Budapest before turning from Belgrade into Romania. The Sava, like the Drina on the Bosnia-Serbia border, has always been a chiefly Balkan river, but the Danube serves as perhaps the greatest reminder to Serbia of its connection to the Central Europe, today entirely part of the European Union.

It’s all just symbolism of course, but like Croatia, Serbia has recently been divided between being part of “Western” Central Europe and standing on its own between West and East as the capital of the Balkans. Yugoslavia was in its own time that very European “Third Way”, but much has changed in the past few decades, and today Serbia finds itself at a crossroads: to join the nations of the European Union, many of which were part of the NATO campaign against Serbia in the 90s, or risk a tentative partnership with the newly nationalistic, unpredictable and growing Russian bear.

I still don’t know which way the wind will blow in answer to that choice– but even over just the past year, Serbia’s willingness to join with the European Union has diminished significantly. Nationalism is rising like ever before, spurred by examples in Hungary, Poland and Austria. Tensions with Croatia are only building, further eroding Serbia’s appetite for being its partner in the Union, and meanwhile corruption, organized crime, and far-right extremism continue undeterred.

14795911_10209448504723265_627930898_oEven as I love this country, city, and people, I do worry for what the future might bring for it– although I know that not I, nor anyone else in the West, can be the one to decide this country’s fate. The people of Serbia must choose for themselves where their nation’s path lies, even if its a direction that goes against the European Union and the United States.

But whether they decide to join the rest of Europe or forgo the idea the Union represents altogether, Serbians still have much work left to do for their country’s future: to curb government corruption, to eliminate the influence of organized crime groups, to prevent unchecked nationalism from spiraling out of control, to promote greater tolerance and acceptance of ethnic, sexual and religious minorities.

Luckily, there are many Serbians– journalists, activists, even a few politicians–  willing to put forward the effort to make their country into something better, even if they may be labeled in less-than-favorable terms by those who benefit from today’s status quo. I’m proud to be a part of that while I’m here, in whatever small way that I can.

October now. The wind has turned cold, the leaves brown, and people on the streets have already begun to bundle up in thick winter jackets. Fall always passes fast, and winter will be here soon. It’s been a long time since I had any kind of real time in the States, and I find myself looking forward to this coming December as the months continue to roll by.


Photo Credits: Sydne Mass @Syd_Mass

The Vienna of the Balkans


It’s hard to imagine all of this– the former Yugoslavia– being one single country not so long ago. Belgrade, with its communist blocks and gritty, graffiti-marked streets; Sarajevo, as much Catholic and Orthodox as Muslim and Turkish; and now Zagreb, all old Austrian buildings and Viennese cafes. In an area no larger than today’s Germany or France, all of these varied cities, religions, and cultures were held together within one single set of borders. Even knowing well the ultimate collapse of that country, I still find it incredible.

I came to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, just after sunrise on a Thursday in mid-September, stiff and cramped from eight hours of travel on an overnight bus. Ever since returning to the Balkans, I had wanted to come to this country, in part because I felt that it was the missing “third part” of the Western Balkans that I had not yet seen, as important to the story of Yugoslavia as Serbia or the Bosnian War.

Most of all, though, I came to Zagreb to see the Austrian side of the Balkans. In Bosnia, you get a glimpse of this while walking along the river towards the old town, and even Belgrade has its own parts leftover from when the Empire controlled much of Southeastern Europe. But Zagreb…well, it more than owns up to its title: “Little Vienna” or “The Vienna of the Balkans”.




Everywhere you go in this city, it feels as though you are as much in Central Europe as the Balkans. The buildings, with their 1800s Germanic facades, the Austrian cafes and bistros, the hipster bars and restaurants that wouldn’t be out of place in Budapest or Prague.

In many ways, it was all a breath of fresh air from my usual day-to-day life in the heart of Bosnia, and as much as I love Sarajevo and Belgrade I found it refreshing change of pace to be in a city that is more, well, familiarly European.


All of this does, however, create a strange kind of paradox in this city. Croatia, and Zagreb in particular, seems to be divided between two worlds: on one hand, Central Europe, the European Union, Austria and Germany, on the other, Yugoslavia, Southeastern Europe, and Titoist Communism. You can see this subtly simply by walking through the capital’s streets: as many EU flags wave from buildings as those with the historic crest of the Balkan Croatian kingdom, and every Austrian-style building sports the same orange-shingled roofs that are so prevalent in Southeastern Europe.

You can, unfortunately, see this divide as well it in the politics of the day , with Croatia striving to join the Eurozone and the Schengen area while still clinging to the nationalist rhetoric of the 90s, labeling the expulsion of Serbs from Kraijina a triumph against Serb aggression and denying many war crimes committed during the fascist Ustashe state during World War 2.

This is a country that seem to desperately want to be seen as Western European in a way Slovenia or Poland have themselves managed to do since the fall of communism, but at the same time can’t seem to completely let go of its nationalism-tinged past. In the end, this has created a strange kind of identity crisis that I’m not sure the country has quite yet managed to resolve.


But that’s the thing about the Balkans, that very contrast. This part of the world– by the chance of geography more than anything else– has been so characterized by the empires who fought over it that’s its almost impossible to completely separate the “Balkan” part of these countries from the influences of the empires that ruled over them. The German-influenced Slovenia and the Venetian Dalmatian coast. Austrian Zagreb, Hungarian Vojdovina, Ottoman Sarajevo and Kosovo. Even Serbia, which clings so tightly to its sense of national culture, has itself been influenced by the likes of other eastern Orthodox countries, such as Russia.

That’s not to say that the cultures of these countries are not their own; rather, the nations of the Balkans have taken the cultures of these occupying empires and created a unique, “Balkan” version of them, combining Austrian, Turkish, and Orthodox culture with uniquely Balkan traditions and ways of life. Instead of completely loosing their own identity to the influence of greater powers, they have instead changed Ottoman and Austrian ways to be unique to the Balkans, and in doing so have crafted a part of the world unlike anywhere else.

Zagreb is no different, and while it may feel more “European” or “Austrian” than the rest of the Balkans, it’s still unique in its own Balkan, Yugoslav, Croatian way. The same goes for Sarajevo, Belgrade, Mostar and others across the former Yugoslavia.


Slowly, slowly I find myself seeing more and more of the Balkans, and am discovering that I am falling in love with these countries increasingly more with each passing day. I hope as well that I have come to better understand this region as time goes on– even while fully knowing that I will never truly understand it in its entirety. I can only offer my thoughts, and hope that my thoughts and my writings can do justice to this part of the world, and that they try to know this part of Europe for what it really is.

I’m not always successful in that of course, but the intent is at least there. I think that matters.

Off to Belgrade soon for the next two months, then back- for a brief time– to Sarajevo before I return to the States. Will keep the blog updated.


Photo Credits: Sydne Mass @syd_mass

September: Journalism, Writing, and the Hidden Secrets of Sarajevo

I caught the first scent of autumn a few days ago, while walking past a little yellow tree on my way home from work that had just begun to lose its leaves. Since then, the mornings have grown progressively colder, the days noticeably shorter, the breeze cool and smelling of falling leaves.

This summer– from Jordan to France to the OCCRP newsroom, here in Sarajevo– has been a chaotic shuffle from one part of the world to another, one way of life to the next, so much so that the season seemed to have gone by without me even noticing it.

Coffee at my favorite cafe by the river

But, even though I’m embarking on less traveling than I thought I would, and spending most evenings watching the sun dip below the mountains instead of enjoying a round of drinks at a bar, I’ve come to enjoy this quiet life, especially when compared to the rigors of school. Most of all, I’ve come to love the work I’m doing here at the OCCRP, and wanted to share some of the writing I’ve been doing with the rest of you.

A note, first: at the OCCRP, I’m part of the daily news team, and not as much involved in the writing of the more investigative pieces that appear on our site. Because of that, my pieces are usually only four or five hundred words a piece, but I’ve started to enjoy writing them, and am proud of the work I’m doing:

Russia/Ukraine: Sanctions Hit Putin’s Crimea Bridge

France: Production Lines– Cocaine found at Coca-Cola Plant

Finland: Dark Web Drug Operation Exposed

Russia: US Court Convicts Son of Lawmaker for Credit Card Hacking

Israel: Police Bust Network Trafficking the Disabled

Ukraine: Larry King Paid Through “Black Ledger”

Russia: St. Petersburg “Night Governor” Gets 23 Years for Assassination Attempt

Italy: Authorities Done with Corleone’s Council

These aren’t all of the articles I’ve written, but they’re some of the most interesting stores I’ve covered so far. I’ve come to love this kind of writing– chasing down an interesting lead, finding local media and official reports, and then rolling out a story by early afternoon that others can read, and learn more about the world from.

I get a rush from it (one that is compounded by the copious amounts of instant coffee I chug every morning) and it’s by far my favorite part of every day. Although I don’t manage to get a story out every day, my productivity is becoming better and better each day, as is the clarity and potency of my writing. With each submission, my editor cuts less of my writing, points out fewer holes in my stories, and I find that my writing skills have improved drastically from where I’ve started.

I see myself as a writer first, and a political scientist second, so it’s strange to have to think, now, as a journalist– to analyze things not in a way as to look at its political consequences, but to instead see what is interesting in a story, what grabs a reader’s attention, and changing my approach to writing accordingly.

It’s a challenge, but one I think I’ve adapted to over the past few weeks.

Downtown Sarajevo, near work
Looking down Marijin Dvor

So too have I been trying to keep up with writing here, although that has come with its own fair share of difficulties. When I first came to Sarajevo, over a year ago now, I found that this city– with its orange haze sunsets, its mosques and churches and synagogues all jumbled together, the legacy of its horrible war– inspired me to write more than anywhere I had ever been to previously.

There’s a feeling this city has, a weight of history and a sadness of past conflicts, and above all a feeling of overlooked importance that I have always wanted to write about. Many nights, I’ve found myself sitting on my terrace with a notebook in hand, trying (and usually failing) to capture some of that in words.

Yet when I try to do so, I always feel as though my words fall flat. It is not a question of writer’s block– instead, I feel that my sentences can’t do justice to this city and country, between my own background and the little time I have lived here. Books and stories have been written by Bosnians, on the siege, the genocide, on older things like the First World War and the long Ottoman Years (Andric, Yugoslavia’s only Nobel laureate, in particular is fascinating to read).

With all of that, I feel that there is little a young American kid from Appalachia can write, little that can be written that hasn’t been written before, and by those who are more intimately connected to this land than I am.

Bridge over the Miljacka

It’s something I struggle with not only here, in Bosnia, but also when trying to write about Jordan, or when thinking of writing of future travels and experiences. I’ve always felt that those who write about a place best are not those from the West, who can only understand a place so much, but those who have lived their lives and grown with a place’s culture, those who have experienced firsthand its struggles and conflicts.

There is still a place for American writers, for Western writers, but I don’t know where my own writing fits into all of that. For now, all I have are my thoughts, written down here or in the looseleafed pages of notebooks.


There’s one last thing I want to share here. On a hill that overlooks the city center lies a little-known secret in Sarajevo: a vast Jewish cemetery, dating back to at least the 17th century and the second largest of its kind in Europe (the largest is in Prague). It’s a place I had heard about before but only just stumbled upon today. And standing amongst these centuries-old tombstones reminded me of one of the reasons why I love this city so much: its vast history, which can come to surprise you at the most unexpected moments.

The synagogue at the entrance to the cemetary

While Sarajevo is usually seen as a Muslim city, there is an Orthodox history here too, a Catholic history, and yes, a storied Jewish tradition as well. When the Sephardic Jews were driven out of Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, it was the Muslim Ottoman Empire that opened its arms to the refugees when France and Italy turned them away.

Today’s Bosnia, what was then was a vassal of the Turks, was one of the foremost places where many of these Jewish refuges were resettled. They would go on to found a long-lasting and unique community within these Southern European hills, with this cemetery being a testament to that history.


Walking through these graves, you come to realize why this city is called the Jerusalem of Europe. In the face of the current refugee crisis of Muslims from the Middle East coming to Europe, it’s important to realize that, not so long ago, Muslims had themselves opened their doors from those fleeing persecution in the West.

Bosnia is not the only testament to that, but in our current world of the Palestine-Isarel conflict, the Maghreb immigrants to France and Spain, the Turks and Syrians in Germany, we often forget that this so-called “Clash of Civilizations” used to be anything but.

Look to history, and you’ll find times where Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians all coexisted without conflict, and despite what right-wing figures may say today, that can very well happen again in the future.

That’s all of my thoughts for today, but I’ll be sure to post again later on this month. Only a few weeks left in this beautiful country and beautiful city, and then to Serbia and Belgrade.



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.

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.

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.


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”.

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.


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.

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…..

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Home for the next few months