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.