Skip to main content

NU in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina

Comparative Public Health: Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina

Program Page

Blog

Never Completely at Home Again

Upon arriving to America a few weeks ago, there were several thoughts floating in my mind. Angst for impending school, excitement to eat comfort food, ease in being back in my bed. I had traveled for about a month after my study abroad program to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, so it had been almost three months since I had been back in the country I call home.

Me sitting on the fortress in Kalemegdan while watching one of the last sunsets in Belgrade.

Home is a concept that I very deeply grapple with, both during my travels this summer and while I was living in Serbia and BiH. For some, home is the place where one is born, and for others, home is the place where one is surrounded by those like oneself. Such concepts can be used to describe one’s nationality, the country with which one identifies. For me, a daughter of immigrants, I was brought to America as a two-year-old nestled in my mother’s arms through an incredibly long airplane ride. I learned how to ride a bike and read a book in America— this was the only country I ever really knew.

 

But, this concept I had of calling a place home only after being acquainted with it for so long changed when I studied in Serbia and BiH. For Serbs who lived in BiH, Serbia might be called home. For Croats who lived in BiH, Croatia may be their home. Even those who have lived in BiH for generations might identify as something different than Bosnian when questioned.

I found this concept of home and nationality very confusing, but after studying the history and culture of the people in the Balkan region for a couple of weeks, I understood how meaningful and impactful one’s ethnic and linguistic identity was to them. For them, it was enough to speak one word differently than the person next to them in order to be considered from different countries.

While ethnic and linguistic identities were core to a Serbian or Bosnian person’s nationality, it was stranger to see how these play out in politics, and how specifically they are used to draw out feelings of nationalism. This leads to the second takeaway I’ve gathered from this trip— that just because one is different does not mean one should fear the other. During the week where we focused on the mental health services in BiH, I learned that not too long ago, people genuinely feared each other’s neighbors, simply because they were not a Serb, Croat or Bosnian. Fear drew out the worst in people here, especially considering the bloody ethnic cleansings that happened in the 1990s. Looking at these atrocities and the perspectives of former political leaders, it may seem that at first, America is very different. However, it was soon clear to me that every country has very similar problems— the crux of the problem is the same, but the manifestation of it may look different. In America, we otherize through differences in race, ethnicity, class and other identities. Americans also hold illogical fears like how undocumented immigrants or refugees are terrorists coming to attack Americans. Americans once feared that pirates from African countries will threaten their security back home. Amongst countless others, I realized that people, leaders and nations often let fear get the best of them, but what the people I met in Belgrade and Sarajevo taught me is how to live life fearlessly.

Me as I take a moment to take in the view while hiking a mountain in Sarajevo

The people in Serbia and especially BiH have had their fair share of bad days, and despite the traumatic wars in the ‘90s being so present in their collective memory, they persist and support one another. Their communities, though not necessarily tied to the land upon they stand, are resilient, strong-willed, and ample. Having been welcomed to their communities, I felt at home even though I barely knew the people. And this notion, that home is a feeling, was one I carried with me as I traveled around the world and eventually back to America.

 

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” ― Miriam Adeney

 

Coming back to America, I was thrilled and exhausted, but also a bit sad because I felt that from traveling and connecting to different places, I started to miss the feelings of being in a certain place or with people I’ve met. I also felt lucky to have access to the things I have, whether it’s running hot water or plentiful vegetarian options. But mostly, I felt fulfilled knowing that I never really leave the places I felt at home because I’ve left pieces of myself there and I’ve taken pieces of the place with me everywhere I go.

To be Bosnian

Prior to arriving in Sarajevo I had considered Bosnia to be a Muslim country and as such was excited to be able to visit its Mosques and hear the call prayer surrounding me. I had spent so much of my life in countries that were Christian dominated that I wanted a change. Essentially, I needed to be surrounded by others that shared the same religion as me and to learn other ways of being a Muslim as for the past three years since starting college I had been engulfed in a phase of re-discovery.

This picture is of the Latin Bridge and is regarded as the Bridge where World War 1 started. What I would learn on a tour of the city is that this was not actually where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated. Rather the assassination took place on the street directly off the bridge, but I guess saying the “Bridge that Started World War 1” is much cooler than if the phrase had the word “street” in it. Additionally, it was this incident that put Sarajevo on the world stage. 

 

A picture of Sarajevo taken from a mountain named Trebevic. Myself and another student had taken cable cars up the mountain and were in awe of the view in front of us.

Bosnia is in actuality not a Muslim country. It is also not a Christian country. The best way to describe Bosnia is as a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country. I will attempt to explain this but bear with me, spending four weeks in Sarajevo has unfortunately not made me an expert and the situation in Bosnia is much too complex to simplify in a single blog post. In Bosnia, there are three dominant ethnic groups which are determined by an individual’s familial religious affiliation. These three groups are Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholic Christians and Muslims. Being affiliated with one of these three groups also serves to determine an individual’s national identity. What I mean by this is that even if a person is born within the geographical confines of Bosnia-Herzegovina, they do not necessarily identify as Bosnian. Whereas in the U.S. if you are born in the U.S. or are a citizen of the U.S. you identify as American, the same cannot be said for people from Bosnia. Instead, it is religious affiliation that gives way to the national identity that one subscribes to. So in Bosnia-Herzegovina, if a person subscribes to the Christian Orthodoxy, then they nationally identify as Serbian. If they were to subscribe to the Roman Catholic church, they would nationally identify as Croatian and lastly if they consider themselves to be Muslim, then they would nationally identify as Bosnian. Thus, of the three ethnic groups that exist within the confines of Bosnia, only one of the groups nationally identifies as being Bosnian. It’s completely ok if you’re confused. I still am, but this is the reality of the situation in Bosnia, and even though in the present day most people originating from and living in Bosnia are secular by nature, these historic divisions still exist and are used as political, economic and social tools by various religious leaders. Furthermore, the recent war that happened in the region following the collapse of the Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia only served to further cement the divide between the three groups.

This is the Sacred Heart Cathedral. It is a Catholic church and is the largest cathedral in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is the center of Catholic worship within the city of Sarajevo and is located in the city’s Old Town District.

If you’re also wondering why religious affiliation is considered to be an ethnic identifier, it is because religious affiliation is determined by familial relations. Before a child is even born, the religion that his/her father subscribed to would be inherited by the child and would therefore determine to which of the three nations the child belonged to. Ultimately, the best way to understand the divide that exists among the different groups in Bosnia is to see it as a result of human nature. Human nature is such that in the same way that we seek social interactions and engage in the formation of groups, so to do we prioritize differentiation and the establishment of an “other.” Were it not for distinguishing the “other,” the groups that we cherish and find ourselves in would have no meaning. Thus, when you really think about it, the divisions amongst the groups of Bosnia was inevitable. In Western Europe, nations are distinguished on the basis of language while in Bosnia national identity is shaped by religious affiliation. This is because in Bosnia everyone looks the same. On the ground level, they deal with the same issues, speak the same language, wear the same clothes and have the same conditions of life. So what is different between them? Religion. And so, religion was used to differentiate the three groups, and continues to be used by political leaders with agendas to ensure separation between Bosnia’s three ethnic groups.

This picture was taken in Mostar on our first excursion in Bosnia. The central focus in this image is the Old Bridge (Stari Most). The bridge was built during the reign of the Ottoman Empire at the command of Suleiman the Magnificent and had existed for approximately 427 years prior to being destroyed by Croatian forces in 1993 during the Bosnian War. It was rebuilt following the war and its significance is that in Mostar there are regions of the city that are ethnically divided. This bridge connects the two parts of the city (the Croatian Roman Catholic side and the Bosniak Muslim side).

I hope now you will see why we can’t say that Bosnia is a Muslim country. To say so invalidates the roles that both Serbs and Croats have played in shaping the history of Bosnia. Yes, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats may not want to nationally identify as being Bosnian, still these two groups had a hand in shaping Bosnia into the country that it is presently.

Taken during a tour of the city that was facilitated by one of our Bosnian professors, Emir Filipovic. This is the Emperor’s Mosque and is Sarajevo’s oldest Mosque and one of the oldest in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is believed to be the first Mosque built in the city, as it was built following the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Bosnia.

Another dilemma that I found particularly fascinating is the position that Bosnia is in as the bridge between the east and the west and how this position further complicates the identity of Bosnians. While doing research for an essay for the Bosnian portion of our Slavic Civilization class (yes, you do get assignments while study abroad, it’s not just all fun and games!) I came upon the following statement: “Bosnians are not regarded as Europeans that happen to be Muslims, but rather as Muslims that happen to be living in Europe.” These are often the view points of Western Europeans towards Bosnians and reflects the notion that Western Europeans see their eastern neighbors not as Europeans like themselves but rather as invaders that happen to exist within the same continent. In fact, Western Europeans often see the countries of Eastern Europe such as Bosnia as lesser and more inferior, preferring to regard them as primitive societies that are in need of western influences. What further adds to the confusion of what it means to be Bosnian and why we cannot simply see Bosnia as a Muslim country is that individuals from other Muslim countries see Bosnians as not being “Muslim enough”. That is to say that, they regard Bosnian Muslims as being “ignorant of the true faith and thus in need of instruction and proselytizing.”

Sarajevo is often regarded as a place where the East meets the West. This picture is of a sign in the Old Town District. If you were to stand on this sign, and look around you, you would notice the end of the Ottoman Empire’s influence in the Old District and the beginning of Western influences and the effects of modernization on the city. This truly is the spot where East meets West.

So now do you see how complicated identity can really be? Bosnian Muslims are stuck in between the influences of the east and the west. Their identity and the validity of their identity is often challenged. To the west they are seen as invaders that must be brought up to speed while to the east they are regarded as lost children that need to be brought back into the folds of their religious ancestry.  In trying to understand the complicated reality of identity in Bosnia, I realized the need to take people at their word. The identities that an individual subscribes to is of their own choosing and must be respected. Yes, most of our identities are socially constructed, but it is in them that we find comfort and an ability to define for ourselves who we are. I have barely scratched the surface of the complexity that exists in Bosnia, but I hope that this blog did justice to one of the topics that will forever stick with me from my experience in Sarajevo.

Taken in Pocitelj, the central focus on this image is the Shishman Ibrahim Pasha Mosque. Pocitelj is a city in Bosnia and has both Oriental and Mediterranean influences. The Mosque was built in the 16th century and served as a model for other single dome Mosques that were later built in the Balkan region. During the Bosnian war, the Mosque along with various parts of the city were destroyed by Croatian forces. The Mosque was rebuilt following the war, but some of its damaged pieces still remain and are left for visitors to see as a reminder of the war that took place in Bosnia.

Taken on a perfectly sunny day, this picture is from Hrasno, an area close to Novo Sarajevo and the building which serves as the main focus of the image is a reflection of the multiple foreign investments that are being made in Bosnia. The building although seeming to stand tall is actually slowly sinking into the ground due to failures in its infrastructure and currently has no residents living in it. The building’s situation highlights the lack of accountability regarding the many investments being made.

The Last Week

During our last week in Sarajevo, which covered learning about the work of the nonprofit Wings of Hope in providing mental health care services in Sarajevo, I learned quite a bit more about how history can take multiple perspectives, and I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the themes of the program as I prepared to write the final assignments. For instance, we learned about how the complicated political situation can create further divides amongst ethnic groups, which causes each person to develop a different version in retelling their traumatic past. Being in a region where war was a part of life for many years (and recent years at that) makes me realize how desensitized and distant I was being in a different country, especially a country like America where I’m not only separated by an entire ocean from other war-stricken nations but also a country whose status affords me to the privilege of being safe and sheltered. From attending museums like the War Childhood Museum, where everyday objects from the lives of children who grew up during the Bosnian war are displayed, I discovered how incredibly lucky I was to not have had to grow up in a time where shellings and snipers were common.

View of the cemetery that was seen when walking down the mountain

Picture of one of the photographs in the Srebrenica exhibit, Gallery 11/07/95.

Another theme that I grappled with was genocide, specifically the one that occurred in Srebrenica on July 11th, 1995. Prior to the program, I did not know that this event was one of the worst instances of ethnic cleansing since the Holocaust. Moreover, feelings of guilt took over when I realized how the international community failed to protect the UN safe zone of Srebrenica. In my schooling in America, we learned quite a bit about World War II, but the Holocaust was something that I was so far removed from. But, there’s color footage of the genocide that occurred in July of 1995, survivors are younger than my parents, and it happened only a couple years before I was born. The feeling that this instance was so recent makes me feel troubled, especially given the cases of ethnic cleansing that have happened since then. Things like genocide are more common than I realized, and having to understand this, along with the difficulties of having to support a nation’s people whose collective identity is nonexistent and whose collective suffering and trauma have such great implications on their current lifestyles, was trying. Grappling with these issues and forcing myself to view different perspectives than my own is exactly what my experience abroad allowed me to do. Surely, these thoughts and questions will continue when I come back, and I’m curious to see how my life and my ways of thinking will change having had this experience.

View of Sarajevo from the Avaz Twist Tower

 

 

 

Looking back… and forward!

It is truly amazing what you can learn about a people or culture by simply living among them. We have learned about the basic philological principles that underlie the Serbian language, as well as the historical developments that have formed the current social and political states of the country itself. In this immersive program format, I can immediately step outside the classroom, and begin to experience how our learning may actually apply to the narrative of those who live in Belgrade.

There was one situation in particular that has certainly framed my thinking initially regarding the Serbian world-view. During a lecture regarding the architecture of New Belgrade, we came across a building that had been built so solidly with reinforced concrete that it had withstood 78 days of intensive bombing by NATO in 1999. To paraphrase, the lecturer made a comment about how this building had been able to survive three Tomahawk missiles, while our towers had not survived a plane. A certain chill could be felt within the room, and students shot clandestine glances at each other, trying to figure out if we had heard him correctly.

Over the course of the program, our awareness of the region rapidly developed as we explored some of the politics surrounding the dissolution of the Former Yugoslavia. It has already become clear to me that the politics in the Balkans are some of the most convoluted in the world, due to multitude of ethnic and nationalistic identities. Each side -Serbians, Bosnians, Croats- unceasingly hyperbolizes the atrocities of the opposing side, while minimizing those committed by their own.

Having now studied the power of language and its capability to support divisive nationalism, and now how even Holocaust memorials can also be propagandized for political gain, I am feeling hyper-aware of my own feelings of patriotism. Through the liberalization of education, many of us are also realizing that these so-called ‘freedoms’ are not as nearly as available to all who live within the borders of the United States. This has caused a cognitive dissonance that has now extended all the way to even now. I have found many reasons to be skeptical of the American mission to spread freedom and democracy to the world while ensuring these same freedoms back home. This being said, I am certainly afforded many privileges as an American citizen, and I will not let these go to waste. Another of the most important takeaways is that one must be extremely careful before buying into any narrative, as every story has a bias. Rather than subscribe to one story, it is important to use a variety of perspectives to inform my own world view.

One of my most impactful experiences was our visit to Srebrenica, the site of the genocide of approximately 8,000–9,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys. As I listened to the story of a survivor who had lost both his father and twin brother during this time, I could not help but feel emotional. These were deep feelings of despair and grief that people could even imagine doing this to one another. I also thought of how I would feel in his shoes, as I also have a brother of similar age. Whenever I encounter such evil, I always wonder if I would have had the courage to not follow such as regime and perform such actions. Evil is incredibly quick to arise, and that it requires deliberate vigilance and urgent action to ensure that history does not repeat. There are nationalistic sentiments may be more intense in the current generation than even those present in the generation that committed such crimes of war.  It is truly up to our generation to call out evil as it is, in all of its various forms, and to act with haste.

There is a quote (I can’t recall the source) that I feel has underscored many of our studies related to the Bosnian political and healthcare structures, that states “the Bosnian political system was designed at the end of the century to prevent war and related atrocities from happening in the future, but has simultaneously created a system that prevents progress.” This is certainly illustrated in the cantonal political system upon which the Bosnian government is based –in this decentralized government, it almost seems as if each of the 10 cantons must fend for themselves. This is a major problem that BiH will face in the ensuing decades.

In our learning about the history and culture of the Balkan region, I cannot help but feel in awe of all these people have endured. The lasting effects of war and related atrocities is a collective trauma of entire populations. It becomes clear that efforts must be mobilized from within their own countries in order to address these problems. I feel so grateful that I was able to take a piece of this narrative, allowing it to inform me in my own life and career. I will miss these places, but I will miss the people much more.

Lessons from Belgrade

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things to me about my time in Belgrade was the fact that it felt almost like being back in Chicago. Yes, there was the fact that the words on the buildings were either written in Serbian Cyrillic or Latin script, but still I felt like I was back in the windy city mainly due to the sheer size of Belgrade and the acknowledgement that it’s population size was only relatively smaller than Chicago’s at approximately 1.2 million. Yet, even though being in Belgrade at times felt like I was back in Chicago, there are a few lessons from Belgrade that Chicago could never have taught me:

Refrain from Comparisons: 

Belgrade is unlike any other city that I have been to. Personally, the best way to describe it would be as a beautiful-ugly city. It has been completely leveled to the ground approximately 50 times in its history and this can be seen in its architecture. As you walk down the streets, you come across buildings that are both old and new, some covered in bullet holes and others still in the process of being rebuilt. The city’s history is very clearly reflected in its architecture and it’s hard not to be fascinated by what its people have had to endure. So, should you have the chance to visit Belgrade, refrain from comparing it to other cities that you have been to, whether in Europe or elsewhere, as by doing so, you run the risk of missing out on the beauty that it does have to offer. That was what I did when I first arrived. I compared it to Chicago (case in point with the opening paragraph of this blog) and in so doing almost lost out in appreciating the history that its buildings had to tell.

The buildings in this picture are apartments. Many citizens of Belgrade live in apartments and you will rarely see houses. In fact, I don’t think that I ever saw a house in my time in Belgrade.

The following image was taken on one of my main streets that we would walk to get to class at the Rectorate. In this picture as in the previous image, most of the balconies you see belong to the apartments that many people in Belgrade call home. The buildings are a reflection of the socialist era when there was a focus on ensuring that all citizens had homes and so apartments where built block style to accommodate the population.

Being Blunt is the Norm: 

My very first taxi driver was the one that took me from the airport to the student dorm that I would be staying in for my four weeks in Belgrade. During this ride, upon registering that I had flown in from Chicago, he told me point blank that “in 1990 NATO bombed us.” He then proceeded to drive by the bombing site and pointed at the building left standing while looking at me seated in the back seat and said “this is where you bombed us.” Prior to arriving in Belgrade, I had done a fair amount of research, mostly to prepare myself for the inevitable culture shock that I would experience and to make sure that I was aware and cognizant of the city’s social rules, i.e knowing what to say and what topics to avoid. One such topic was the war and the subsequent NATO bombings. In fact one of the blogs that I spent hours pouring over, specifically mentioned that I should not by any means mention the war. So imagine my shock when the first person that I meet is talking to me about the war. As the shock faded and I registered what he had said, shame overcame me. Shame at being affiliated with the U.S and the destruction that it had caused in this region. And so, I silently sat in the backseat of my taxi and listened to my driver as he pointed out other historical sites. What I would later learn from class is that my driver was not placing the blame of the bombing on me or other U.S citizens per say. When he said “this is where you bombed us,” he was merely stating a fact that yes, this is the site where the U.S had indeed dropped a bomb on Belgrade. The bluntness with which my driver had talked about what had happened was a foreshadow of the bluntness with which individuals here talk about their history. It is stated as a matter of fact and that was simply the norm. A norm that I would eventually learn to become well acquainted with.

The building in this image is one of the casualties of the NATO bombing. There is now an attempt to rebuild it and join the two severed halves as one once again.

Another image showing one of the architectural casualties of the 1990 NATO bombing of Belgrade.

Why Serbia? 

This was a question that we would often get when we told people that we chose to do a study abroad program here in Belgrade. The reason for this question was perhaps because people were often surprised that we, as American students, willingly wanted to come to this region of the world and learn about it. In fact, it baffled most people that we encountered that there was interest in coming here as they couldn’t fantom that people were interested in learning about their history and about what had happened to them. Thus, upon realizing that we were genuinely interested in learning about the region and about its rich and often complex history, people would express gratitude that we came here and were willing to listen to their stories. They would in effect thank us for taking the time to listen to them and would often ask us if we were enjoying ourselves here and what we thought of Belgrade. Such questions were not isolated only to encounters with locals. As during the public health section of the program in Belgrade, we came to realize that our professors were somewhat focused on highlighting the positives of the Serbian health care system and often refrained from talking about its challenges. This, I came to realize was likely due to a pre-occupation with presenting the best parts of Serbia to us American students and ensuring that we saw only the good sides. It reminded me of the tendency of Westerners to look down upon those they have deemed as “other” and the struggle of the “other” to prove themselves worthy. From these encounters I came face to face with an inherent privilege that I have as an individual living in the U.S and was thereby reminded of the importance of working towards deconstructing the tendency of “othering” individuals from backgrounds and cultures different from my own and ensuring that all cultures, histories, backgrounds and stories are treated equally, without one story being highlighted as more worthy than another. So, to answer the question Why Serbia, I say Why Not Serbia? I chose to come here because it was a region of the world that I was unfamiliar with and that I wanted to learn more about. It is a region of the world that like so many others, deserves to have its history known.

Taken on a beautifully sunny Sunday, this picture is of one of the many entrances to the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade.

The following picture was taken on a Sunday hike of Kalemegdan and shows the confluence of the Rivers Sava and Danube.

Week one in Belgrade: A lesson in Identity.

My time in Belgrade came to an end approximately four weeks ago, however because I was so focused on being present in every new experience that I was having, I forgot to keep up to date with my blog post. No worries, my memory may be weak but there are some events and moments that have stuck with me! One such moment is when I first arrived at the Belgrade Airport.

The first thing I did when I got off the plane and made my way towards passport control was look around me. Not so much to take in my surroundings (I told myself that I would have more than enough time to do that later), but to see if there were others that looked like me. I had been told at the orientation for this program, that POCs (persons of color) were a rather small minority in Belgrade and that the likelihood of seeing someone that looked like me would be small and limited. So, I had mentally prepared myself for this. Essentially, I had expected to go through this airport as the only black person in the vicinity and this would serve as the beginning of a two month long experience of inadvertently standing out.

A view of the Kalemegdan fortress from the outside. Taken on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon walk.

Yet, in spite of my mental preparation to often be the only one that looked like myself in the two countries I would be spending my time in this summer, I could not stop myself from looking around me. My four years spent at a primarily white suburban high school where I was often the only one of my race in a vast majority of my classes did not seem to be enough preparation for the summer I was embarking on. And so here I was, less than 30 minutes into being in this new country, hopelessly looking around the airport to see someone else with my shade of skin. When I did finally spot someone, they were were a part of a family that was in line at passport control waiting like I was to enter the country. Upon encountering this family at the airport of my strange new surroundings, I gave a sigh of relief and took small comfort in knowing that I was not going to be the only one. So, even though those that looked like me would be a very small minority here in Belgrade, they at least existed in this space. This for me in a lot of ways validated my ability to exist here.

 

A black and white image of one of the gates within the Kalemegdan fortress.

For the remainder of my first week in Belgrade, I spent a decent amount of time looking around me to see if I could spot more people that looked like me. Eventually, I started to play a little game where I would count the number of black people that I came across in my time in Belgrade. And while this number was small, a total of 18 by the end of my four weeks here, the worry and fear of being alone stopped gnawing at me. There was even a point when I forgot that I was looking around for others like me and only upon spotting someone do I smile to myself, take a small breathe and feel reassurance that it is ok for me to be here and that I should not be scared of being a very visible “other” within my surroundings.

An image of the Victor Monument at Kalemegdan taken from below. The monument was built to commemorate Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires during the Balkan wars and the First World War.

Final Week in Sarajevo

As we approach the final week of the comparative public health program, I am truly beginning to realize how much distance we have covered in terms of history, culture, trauma, and public health. This last week, we were able to study in depth the Bosnian health care system for the first time. There is a quote (I can’t recall the source) that I feel has underscored many of our studies related to the Bosnian political and healthcare structures, that states “the Bosnian political system was designed at the end of the century to prevent war and related atrocities from happening in the future, but has simultaneously created a system that prevents progress.” This is certainly illustrated in the cantonal political system upon which the Bosnian government is based –in this decentralized government, it almost seems as if each of the 10 cantons must fend for themselves. When it comes to resources and funding for the healthcare system, this reality is especially relevant. The Canton of Sarajevo is easily the best funded and has the most cutting-edge healthcare relative to the rest of the country largely due to its revenue from tourism. On the other hand, provinces that are characterized by more rural populations lack the funding they need to modernize healthcare systems, and it seems that there is no equitable process in place to distribute funds throughout the country. Furthermore, it seems that corruption plays a large role in the inability to translate the significant taxes raised from employers and employees into development of infrastructure. This has also contributed significantly to the brain-drain phenomenon throughout the country, as many of the skilled and educated are migrating to urban areas or simply leaving the country for more developed countries in Europe and the Middle East.

I think one of the most lasting impressions from this week was our opportunity to meet with an anthropologist actively involved in the nation-wide project in identifying remains from primary, secondary, and even tertiary mass-graves using archaeological methods. Though I found it quite fascinating to actually be able to handle bones that date back to the 1500s, it was more interesting to me to see how important this project was to a native Bosnian who had survived the war. While other archaeologists may be quite distanced from the artifacts and bones they collect and document, this man was literally returning the remains of family members back to their surviving family or relatives. When asked about how long the project of identifying Bosnian victims would last, his answer was “probably 50 or 100 years.” If you consider this length of time to be accurate to any degree, this is also the length of time that the war atrocities committed during the 1990s will be on the minds of future generations of Bosnians. Though this on-going project is meant to help with reconciliation, I still wonder about how healthy it may or may not be to continually have the horrific acts committed during the war. It is a constant struggle of ideology between the memorialization of those who perished to prevent something similar from happening again, and the potential mobilization of nationalistic fear and anger regarding these events to accomplish a political agenda.

On another note, I thought that the opportunity to meet with a family medicine specialist was incredibly enlightening. I have had the opportunity to shadow a family physician in the past, and what continues to stick with me is the incredible wisdom and benevolence exuded by those primary care givers. These physicians must be able to treat the whole body, which certainly includes all the emotional and psychological baggage of war and its traumas. I am aiming to finish the program strong, and absorb as much as possible in the few days I have left.

Also, we happen to be in Sarajevo during the Sarajevo Film Festival, which initially began in defiance to the Siege in the last year of the war, where directors from all over the world helped kick-start this gathering with some even smuggling their films into Bosnia themselves. Should be a great time at the premiere!

View from Kod Bibana restaurant!

 

Premiere film at Sarajevo Film Festival!

 

Transitioning from Belgrade to Sarajevo

The unique aspect of the NU in Serbia and BiH program is in fact that students get to live and study abroad in two different countries in the Balkan region and directly experience the vast differences and similarities in the respective country’s conduction of education, public health and mental health programs.

Although only a week has passed, I have begun to feel more at home in Sarajevo in such a short span of time. Perhaps the weather, the people or the smaller size of the city have contributed to this increase of comfort and ease in a city that was previously unknown to me. Sarajevo is vastly different from Belgrade— it’s easier to explore and the various ethnicities that manifest differences in architecture, food and neighborhoods create a sense of an exoticness, which I feel wasn’t as visible in Belgrade.

Me in front of the bridge in Mostar, a different city located in Herzegovina. Here, there are ethnically divided neighborhoods and the city holds importance to the formation of the Bosnian identity.

From the experience of this week, I gathered that people here are more willing to strike a conversation, while people in Belgrade seemed reluctant to speak to a crowd of American college students. I enjoyed all of the conversations I had with locals in Belgrade, but for most if not all, I had to start the conversation. However in Sarajevo, I’ve had the same amount of people talk to me in one week here than the month I spent in Belgrade. Taxi drivers seem to play an important role in this type of attitude. They’re playful, always joking around with their fellow taxi driver friends, and drive insanely. When I asked one driver whether he likes having foreigners visit his city, he replied saying how he appreciates tourists not only because they provide him a steady job and boost the economy, but also that he likes how people are spending the time to learn about his culture and home. Another driver shared that he thinks his job is important because taxi drivers are integral in connecting the city’s people and culture with the tourists. Being rude or embezzling extra money from tourists (which unfortunately is more common in Belgrade) is frowned upon because then foreigners will develop bad impressions of Sarajevo and formulate a negative image of their home. I also asked the students from the University of Sarajevo, who are here for their summer to guide us around, whether they appreciated the influx of tourists, and they spoke of it in a positive light. Overall, it surprises me how open people are about initiating a conversation with a foreigner about a whole host of topics considering how much trauma and horror locals have witnessed a little more than twenty years ago. (In the 1990s, the region was immersed in a bloody war, now termed the Bosnian war, which involved three main quarreling parties: the Bosniaks or Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats supported by Croatia who are Catholic, and Bosnian Serbs supported by Serbia or former Yugoslavia and are Greek Orthodox).

Statue in the park of the children’s memorial. It is of a man calling out for his son, who fled to the hills during the war. The story, which is true, goes that the Serb forces told the father they would not kill his son if he called him to come back, and so the father did. However, tragically the Serb forces did kill both the father and his young son.

There is artwork all over BiH like this that shows the sentiment of not forgetting the terrible war that occurred.

    

Something I’ve grappled with this week is religion. From my coursework taught in Belgrade, I already knew that religion is what mainly divides the three ethnicities of Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, but this fact was finally noticeable when traveling from a more homogenous city to one that has multiple groups of people living in the same vicinity. From the people I’ve met, it appears that most don’t practice religion as a doctrine of beliefs they live by, rather religion forms the basis of their culture. For instance, I culturally practice Hinduism because it is a way for me to be connected to my roots and my family when I celebrate holidays with food and song. Similarly, though the majority of Sarajevo’s people are Muslim, most don’t pray five times a day; rather being Muslim forms their cultural identity and I relate to them in this aspect. Not only did I see this here but I also saw this in Belgrade, because Serbians don’t really adhere to conservative Orthodox religious beliefs. However, what confuses me is how religion as a cultural identity can cause so much tension between these three groups of people. And how is it that this cultural identity is so strong that even those who are born or brought up in Bosnia-Herzegovina (but not Muslim) consider themselves not Bosnian. Last month, we learned that people in Serbia don’t really think Bosnian Serbs as their own, and the likelihood of accepting the Republic of Srpska (if it were to secede) would be highly unlikely. So what has to happen in order to form a Bosnian, not necessarily Bosnian-Muslim, identity?  Do non-Muslims who are born and brought up in Sarajevo or other parts of BiH consider this city or nation their home?

Sarajevo is surrounded by mountains, and I captured the sun as it set behind one from my hotel room.

These are the kinds of questions that are important to consider when exploring a region so unfamiliar to me. It is sometimes easier to look at a group of people living in a region from an outsider’s perspective, but the benefit of living in the region for a longer period of time allows one to actually see the insider perspective, the viewpoints of the locals. Hopefully, in the last remaining weeks, as we tackle learning about the public health systems and the mental health care, I’ll better understand the way people in Sarajevo live and approach life.

 

View of Sarajevo from my hotel room

 

Final Week in Belgrade

In our final week in Belgrade, I certainly have a wide range of topics to reflect upon. This last week has been focused on mental health care in Serbia. It has been incredibly fascinating, as I have not been able to study psychiatric care in any particular depth until this program. The additional attention to challenges most prevalent and pressing in Serbia has been of particular interest. Ranging from mental health challenges during social transition, to addiction and abuse, to suicide and youth violence, it has all been incredibly enlightening.

The experiences that have been most meaningful to me involve our opportunity to meet actual patients at the Mental Health Institute. The first woman we met was struggling with borderline personality disorder and depression, exacerbated by the recent miscarriage of her child. This was the first time that I had actually interacted with someone openly about a psychiatric condition. It was her highly lucid self-awareness of her conditions that most struck me. This woman had been coping with various manifestations of her mental condition, including self-harm habits, compulsive eating, and mild dissociation with reality for most of her life. Overall, I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to meet someone who was willing to speak candidly about their struggles with a disorder. We are all very human.

There was another very interesting point raised that day regarding the social and historical coding of psychiatry. The characterization and diagnoses of mental disorders has universally reflected the vested interests and fears of a given population, and it is a continuous struggle to separate science and sociology in psychiatry. At one point, homosexuality was a disorder. Nazi eugenicists had a plethora of mental disorders to fit their agenda. Runaway slaves in U.S. were seen to have a disorder. I would definitely be interested to learn more about how political biases manifest in psychiatry, and examine the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement further.

Reflecting on my time in Belgrade, I have simply been immersed in the region, absorbing all of its history, conflicts, language, and public health challenges. It would have truly been impossible to understand the health challenges faced in the Balkans without an understanding of the inter-ethnic conflict and Western intervention that has occurred in the past 50 years. Having now studied the power of language and its capability to support divisive nationalism, I am feeling hyper-aware of my own feelings of patriotism. Especially after having celebrated the fourth of July abroad, I am forced to think about the reasons I have for being patriotic, and whether these feelings are dangerous. I, like many of my fellow peers who have been raised in America, have been engrained a sense of pride in our country and its freedoms. This has caused a certain cognitive dissonance that has underscored my time here in Belgrade. I have found many reasons to be skeptical of the American mission to spread freedom and democracy to the world while ensuring these same freedoms back home, which is emphasized by my study of the history of the Former Yugoslavia and the Republic of Serbia. This being said, I am certainly afforded many privileges as an American citizen, and I will not let these go to waste.

EXIT Music Festival 2018 in Novi Sad!

One of the most important takeaways from this experience so far is that one must be extremely careful before buying into any narrative, as every story has a bias. Rather than subscribe to one story, it is important to use a variety of perspectives to inform my own world view. I am so looking forward the comparative study of history and public health when we begin in Sarajevo next week!

Protruding Pieces of Concrete can be Beautiful

Belgrade is an odd city— while walking the streets, you can find historical sites nestled next to new, more modern structures. From when I whiz by in a local taxi or when I take my time strolling the city’s sidewalks under the hot sun, I can tell that Belgrade has an in-between identity that can be intimidating or frustrating at first, but from knowing the historical and cultural roots of the “white city”, everything makes sense.

Church of St. Sava, a Serbian Greek Orthodox church built in the early 1900s.

It is an understatement to say Belgrade has witnessed a lot— the region has endured through period after period of social and political turmoil. The social influences that have shaped Belgrade’s character over time include the changes in name of the city, the number of wars its people have witnessed, the dialects spoken in the region, the existence of several ethnic groups and the consistent struggle to reach a uniform national identity or coexistence of multiple identities. Historical influences that simultaneously affected Belgrade’s path include the different governing authorities, the clash between Turkish and Roman cultures, the West’s stereotype of Eastern Europe as “Europe’s Other”, and the NATO bombing in 1999. Furthermore, political forces such as strict socialist regimes and the current campaign to accede into the European Union also contribute Belgrade’s liminal personality.

“La Santa de Belgrade” painted by Guillaume Alby depicts a saint with multiple arms that appears to protect and destroy the city, symbolizing the many times Belgrade has been razed to the ground throughout its tumultuous history.

These sociopolitical and historical factors contribute to the culture of Belgrade today. For instance, when walking to class, I pass by buildings built to mimic European “Romantic” architecture, old churches and temples, and tall Brutalist apartment structures built during Tito’s socialist period to provide satisfactory and equal housing. The Brutalist style of architecture that inspired many of the edifices in Belgrade remind me of Northwestern’s Main Library, which is also an example of this architectural style. Overall, there is no one identity that can fully describe Belgrade, because it has it all, and the lack of uniformity or organization is odd at first, but understandable once you get to know the city and the people who live there.

Picture taken from Kalemegdan Fortress, where locals often go to see the sunset. The building in the background is a popular Brutalist piece, Genez Tower.

The locals I’ve met while living in Belgrade are what make my experience memorable. To be honest, it is difficult to strike a conversation with a local person if you’re with a bunch of other foreigners, especially Americans. And the people here, from taxi drivers to restaurant waiters to store clerks, generally don’t initiate small talk like many of us are used to in America. However, the times when I go out of my way to make conversation are times that I appreciate living in Belgrade. During my last week, I had a store clerk at a grocery store telling me how exciting it was that we were studying in Belgrade, that we had chosen to come to Serbia. She, along with many of the medical school and mental health institute faculty, had a sense of pride that their city, despite its outward appearance, was found fascinating enough. Although at first this sentiment felt surprising to me, I found it quite common amongst locals, and later found it humbling that I could have this experience because I probably would never have considered visiting Belgrade otherwise.

Sunset as seen from the Kalemegdan Fortress, possibly the oldest structure in Belgrade.

From the architecture to its people, Belgrade is a city worth remembering and revisiting.