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.
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).
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?
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.