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Tone from the top

I wonder where our leaders have gone. I’m not talking about the ranks of a Mandela or a Gandhi…I’d just settle for an intelligent, level-headed individual who is aware of two things:

  1. How incredibly and irreversibly intertwined our lives on this planet are and
  2. How incredibly and hopefully not irreversibly fucked we currently are.

I know we’re knee-deep in the information age so we have access to more things going on around the globe than ever before. And yes, I follow world affairs way too much. But some have the illusion, though, that we are living in one of the most prosperous and peaceful periods in human history. I’d love to pop one of those happy pills if they have any spares.

I know the World Bank will tell us that poverty worldwide is in decline too. And for any of you that know me…I am, usually, the optimistic type. But the heavy doses of real politik is a real ass-kicker these days and the only voice of reason from western quarters that I’m hearing right now is from a German physicist named Angela.

Although I’ll never sing the man’s praises, Vlado is, in his usual fashion – calm, cool and collected. I’m sure the Syrians at the receiving end of MiG jet bombings would beg to differ. And sure, they messed with US elections. Why? Because they could. Besides, we do it on a regular basis anywhere we bloody want to. Including Russia. I think we need to get over the ‘shock’ that elections can be rigged or meddled with. Shit, they’re rigged all the time – ever heard of gerrymandering?

The Iranians have now tested their Khoramshahr ballistic missile. I’m sure this has something to do with a bit of taunting from Old Orange. The Iranian deal isn’t the disaster O2 and Bibi would like us to think. And it brought us to the table with the Iranians for the first time since the Carter administration. Call me crazy but I’ve liked every Iranian I’ve ever met. Granted, I’ve never had tea with the Khomeini but it couldn’t be much worse than having a beer with the trumpet, could it?

Although some will adamantly deny this, the geo-political construct of the Middle East, held loosely together by post-colonial artificial nation-state borders is seemingly disintegrating before our very eyes. The Shi’ite – Sunni divide (to horribly oversimplify) appears to be redrawing a Shia dominated northern Middle East to the Mediterranean and a Sunni dominated southern Middle East. We now see Syria, Iraq, and Iran and their Hezbollah brothers in arms in Lebanon facing off with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Emirates – all at the expense of the people of Syria and Yemen. I won’t even mention the unfolding Sunni divide between Qatar and the Saudi’s. Gotta love the Saudi regime, though – BFF!  Perhaps we could just bring in the Kurds to mediate all this bickering, huh? OK, bad joke.

And oh, did anyone notice, by the way, that the West has decided to let Assad (and the Russians and the Iranians and Hezbollah) be the victor(s) in Syria? So much for the revolution, huh? Just ask Orouba and Halla Barakat. They’re all terrorists anyway, right?

Our buddy Kim on the other side of the pond is playing with the idea of testing a hydrogen bomb. How fun! Old Orange and Fucknut Kimmy are exchanging personal jabs like two special needs teenagers while the Koreans south of the border hope and pray that these two munters don’t light the fire that could literally roast Seoul. Kimmy truly is a bellend but most yanks don’t realize or remember that the US brutally killed at least 2 million North Koreans in the 50’s. They certainly haven’t forgotten that. The rate of civilian casualties in the Korean War was higher than both WWII and Vietnam. I mean we’re still mad at the Japs for Pearl Harbor for Christ’s sake. I’d say that Kimmy is the result of a half century of collective PTSD. But who am I to judge?! Again, I’m no fan of fuckwit or fucknut or whatever you’d like to call him, so please don’t send me messages accusing me of being one. (If you’re wondering where I learned my French, that would be from the Norfolk boyz).

The Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar are being flushed out of Rakhine at an equivalent pace to the cleansing of Kosovar Albanians in 1999. Irma and Maria have quite possibly just created the first generation of climate change refugees in the Caribbean (I know, I know…it’s just a Chinese scam, silly me). The Iraqi Kurds are heading towards an independence referendum…which will certainly lead to further destabilization and fuel the fire of independence for Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iran. The Kurds have historically gotten the short end of the stick so my guess is they won’t back down on this one, not even with Agent Orange pressuring them to do so. But the region is already teetering on the edge. Humpty Dumpty will be difficult if not impossible to put back together from this fall. Now to the Catalans. They are heading in a similar direction which could lead to another European shit show with Scotland, Republika Srpska, the Basque country, Vojvodina, Northern Ireland, or Macedonia following suit. Precedent is a bitch. Let’s not forget the party brewing in the Baltic’s either.  

65 million refugees on the run around the world and no one, I mean NO ONE, wants them. Except for, of course, the flourishing slave trade in the Sahara comprised of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa (does this ring a bell, anyone?). Greece and Italy struggle daily with the silent arrivals of thousands of refugees and migrants. I won’t even mention the numbers Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have to deal with. I’m too tired to even talk about ISIS, Boko Haram or the rise of fascism and the Neo-Nazi’s in the West. 

If you’re not stressed out yet, I think it would depress the hell out of most if I were to list the places that are genuinely (or at least partially) fucked at the moment. But being that I’m on a roll, here’s the list if you insist: Ukraine. Yemen. Syria. Iraq. Somalia. Myanmar. DRC. Libya. Gaza. Houston. The Keys. Puerto Rico. Dominica. Barbuda. El Salvador. Charlottesville. Afghanistan. Nigeria. Mali. Burkina Faso. Liberia. South Sudan. Greece. Macedonia. Turkey. Lebanon. Pakistan. Kashmir. Tibet. Sierra Leone. CAR. Chad. Haiti. Mexico. Standing Rock. Feel free to add if I’ve left anyone or place out.

So what’s the point of all this, you ask? Is this a collective call for a cyanide induced mass suicide? Don’t be silly. It’s a call to point out that the tone from the top really does matter. As does the noise from the bottom. Rhetoric is not just words. It sparks fear, angst, paranoia, and – you guessed it – war. The language we hear from the top at the moment will lead us down only one road…and I’m quite sure it’s not one we want to go down. Cool heads count in clutch moments in history. And right now I’m hearing too many shitheads spewing fire and brimstone from the rooftops.

So where are the ones trying to tame the flames? The decisions and mistakes we make now will be the ones our children will inherit. Either that, or we’ll just all burn (or drown, depending on geographic location).

If we’re not yet aware that we are pawns with serious skin the game…or, worse yet, just not willing to do anything about it…do they get to call checkmate?

To be honest, I’d rather build a tree house for my sons than a bunker. But that’s just me.

peace

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Peace

I used to sign my emails with ‘peace’ instead of ‘best regards’ or ‘sincerely.’ The reasons for me doing so wasn’t entirely because I’m an old hippy, though. It had a lot to do with how I wanted to communicate my intent.

The Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, say ‘peace be unto you.’ The Bavarians and Austrians say grüß Gott, meaning may ‘God Bless You.’ But that’s not exactly where I’m comin’ from.

My social psychologist wife has always told me to never conduct an argument or disagreement via email. There is a likely chance that your language and/or intent will be misconstrued. It’s too easy for us to (mis)interpret what the sender might have meant (or not) to say. Granted, if they say ‘fuck you’, then it’s pretty clear what the intended message was. I get it. But generally speaking, there is a lot of room for error.

So I used to sign emails with peace and I no longer do. I remember having a beer with Yuri Afanasiev, the former UN Ambassador (Resident Coordinator to be exact) to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Back then, I still used my peace greeting. Yuri is a beautiful mix of Moscow and New York – the two places he spent his formative years in. He has the attitude that matches both. I respected him (and still do) for many reasons. One was that he certainly told you as he saw it. He wasn’t one for bullshit. So back to our beer.

After a sip or two he looked at me and said “so what is it with signing your emails with this ‘peace’ shit? I thought you were some fucking tree hugger or something when I first started getting your emails. Now I find myself defending you to others….’no, no, Tim’s cool’, he just signs his emails like that. He’s not really like that.”  ‘Like that’ I took to be a spacy, new-ager that promotes vegetarianism and obsesses over his astrology readings everyday. Although I do fully support vegetarianism…I have never followed my astrology readings. I swear.

So we talked about perceptions…and how he perceived me before he knew me just because of this one word – ‘peace.’ Horrible little word, isn’t it?

I found it quite fascinating. I discovered that he had conversations with others about the fact that I signed my letters with ‘peace.’ People ‘were wondering’ about it too. I guess most prefer the bland and safe greetings of ‘best regards.’ I’m still not entirely sure what that means. But I do know what peace means to me…so let me tell you.

Perhaps when I was a youngster it was a naive construct for me. It was full of fluff and love, true. But a few wars and two and half decades in the Balkans later it has lost its fluff. It has much deeper meaning to me now. The fluff is gone. It doesn’t just mean the absence of war to me either, though. I’m certainly not going to talk metaphysics with you (or with anyone for that matter)…but the intent behind that frequently used and rarely realized word packs a tremendous punch for me.

I don’t believe in world peace. I wish I did. So that’s not at all where I’m coming from, either. I’m coming from a place that is, yes, hard-core anti-war. But I’m not one to push my own philosophy (hahaha, right?). It’s more a genuine intent that 1. I earnestly do wish you peace and 2. I am coming from that place as well.

The reason behind this story? Well, I’ve decided to go back to using peace again. I’ve resigned from my UN job (the institution intended to, among other things, promote peace). No need to feel misunderstood by the terms usage any longer. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no need to feel insecure about wishing anyone that or letting them know where you’re coming from. I’m guessing it won’t affect my professional life all that much. And if it does, well, fuck it. If people think I’m a fruit, well, perhaps they’re right. I’ll take my chances.

That leaves only one question open for me, does that mean I should sign ‘fuck off’ if I’m pissed off at the recipient? Consistency is important, n’est pas?

peace

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I think Anes was right

Today is World Environment Day. I was invited to be a panelist to discuss environmental issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a well-organized event in the Botanical Gardens at the National Museum. There were ambassadors and ministers, public figures and fellow activists.

I have avoided any public speaking gigs lately…largely due to the fact that, if I’m truthful, my enthusiasm for this place is waning and has been for some time. But I put on my usual optimist hat and spoke on various subjects, ranging from media coverage of environmental issues, green politics, to green living. On more than one occasion I stated that, in spite of the fact that we still have a lot more work to do and the situation is far from ideal, things are getting better. I emphatically stated that things are better than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

When the panel discussion ended several people came up to congratulate me…all reinforcing what I said and how I said it. Then I saw my old friend Anes Podic.

‘Tim, what is better than fifteen years ago?!” Anes asked me in is his usual soft tone. No immediate answer came to mind. I had to contemplate his question. The answers I gave, like our ability to communicate with ministries, the fact that we can take the big boys to court and actually (sometimes) win, the reduction in illegal logging activities, that the Via Dinarica can be a locomotive for rural development AND environmental protection, or that the ENGO sector is working much more closely on vital issues regarding the environment, didn’t convince him. He systematically shot down each one of my arguments. And I could shoot down none of his.

I have known Anes for 20 years now. He is a walking encyclopedia on environmental issues and regulations here in BiH. I have always known him to be a man of exceptional moral integrity. I have not always agreed with how he seeks change but I have never disagreed with him on why. He and his wife Ceca are consistently on the front line of most important social issues in this city. The hijacking of the general hospital. Air pollution. The Urban planning farce. Destruction of our water protection areas. You name it, they are on the picket line. So when he asked me again “What is better?” I had nothing to say. Not a single word.

I took the umbrella gifted to us by the Federation Environment Fund and a walnut tree seedling and silently headed out.  I saw my friend Lilly from the US Embassy, who has been masterful in bringing environmental groups and individuals together to talk, lobby and argue with local authorities. I told her that I didn’t think I was going to do talks like that anymore. She cocked her head to the side, almost like a curious pup, and asked why. My answer was this:

‘I think Anes was right.’

She assured me that things weren’t all black and white. And that although things were far from perfect, progress had certainly been made on several fronts concerning the environment. It didn’t soothe my conscience one bit, though. As I was walking back to my car from the National Museum towards Grbavica market I scanned through the last fifteen years of our activism. Things were certainly bad then…and the exploitation of this country’s natural resources was literally a free for all. We lost most of our battles. We were threatened. Taken to court for libel and slander. We were systemically silenced…and generally ignored.

Today we can speak more openly about it and occasionally get someone to listen. But the bottom line, as Anes poignantly pointed out, is that we still don’t have laws on forestry…there is no spacial planning…mayors can decide on their own, with zero control, on what to build and where…we still have the lowest level of protected lands in Europe…our forests are disappearing and our water sources are gravely endangered…we sometimes have the most polluted cities in the world during winter (yes, the world)… and plans are being implemented to allow wealthy Arab investors to buy up the best swaths of land to build resorts and whatnot in some of our most pristine natural areas. His list was actually much longer. But I think you get the point.

And so I went over what I had said during the panel discussion in my head. I was predictable in that I tend to want to please my audience. Perhaps I was saying things were better because I knew it would be popular. Or maybe I said that because we are drenched and drowning in negativity and I try to offer at least a glimpse of hope when I speak about this country. I strolled by the large poplars along the Miljacka. By the time I reached Cappucino this is the next thought that dominated my mind:

“Or did I just sell out?”

Did I? As harsh as I can be on myself…I still like to think that I didn’t. I’d like to think that I tactically engaged my audience. I’d like to believe that in this unbelievably dysfunctional country there is still an inkling of hope remaining. I try to instill the belief that pessimism is easy…but the real challenge is to find the silver lining. That real change starts in the mirror.

I am more than willing to accept (to myself) that this country has accelerated its downward slide on an already slippery slope. Things are not really all that rosy. And my attempts to stay positive, sugar coat or live up to what I think is expected of me doesn’t do this country or myself any service at all. But publicly I often balk at jumping on the ‘Bosnia sucks’ bandwagon. It’s just too easy.

By the time I reached my car I hadn’t convinced myself of much of anything…except that I was still pretty sure of this:

The planet is in peril. Bosnia is no exception. Whatever we’re doing is simply not enough. I think Anes was right. Maybe things aren’t better.

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Walking the walk

The carnage in Syria has gnawed at my conscience since the bloodbath began in 2011. But unlike the Bosnian war, which was up close and personal, or the slaughter(s) in Gaza, Syria seemed just far enough out of reach for me to conveniently put it on the back burner. The flow of Syrian refugees just to the east of here has changed that. It has challenged the very principles we purport to live by. With some of us failing miserably at it. But not Germany.

Germany all too often gets a bad rap.

My wife’s family sought refuge from the brutal war in Bosnia in the early 1990’s. After short stints in neighboring countries they finally made it to Germany in 1993. Germany welcomed them with open arms. My mother-in-law Vasva, who is a stickler for good education, wanted her kids to go to the best schools. In the community they had relocated to, Koblenz, the Catholic school was apparently the best. The hitch was that only Catholics actually go to Catholic school in Germany. A Muslim had never attended that Catholic school in its century-plus old history. That changed with Sabina. She was accepted without prejudice and became the first Muslim to be admitted and graduate from there.

I admit it, Sabina’s appreciation and admiration for Germany has certainly rubbed off on me.  But it’s more than that. The German people are living proof that people can change. That we don’t have to be slaves to parts of our ugly past. That we can be better. That it takes a lot of work and discipline to heal the collective wounds of the past. And that there is redemption in taking responsibility, collective responsibility.

For all the jokes on how mechanical, orderly and anal the Germans can be and insist on being, there is a lot to learn from them. They certainly rank among the most progressive nations in the world today. They shine in domestic policies such as the environment, food production, renewable energy, education, health, child-care, and housing. They nurture a capable and fairly paid labor force. Germans fly German airlines. They buy German products. They collectively live rather modest lifestyles.

We can give them shit about their treatment of Greece. And yes, they were too harsh. But I honestly believe they would do the same thing to themselves if they got themselves in such a mess. And besides, nobody’s perfect (just ask the Greeks).

There is a genuine humanity that resonates from Germany, however, that is rare for a contemporary world power. The US and UK no longer welcome the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free like they did for my ancestors. The Russians and Chinese never have. France did so reluctantly. Some will dismiss Germany”s generosity as a way to strengthen their blue-collar work force. But people coming to Germany are coming first and foremost for humane treatment. And that they will most certainly get. They undoubtedly come for work but also for fairness, for a good education for their kids, and for the opportunity for a normal life. For the most part, Germany delivers on that promise.

Now I am no Germanophile, trust me. That would be my wife. But I do tip my hat for them leading by example and exemplifying progressive European thought. What the Syrian people have been through is no less than a torturous half decade of evil and brutality. Germany has the might to front the bill…and they are doing so in fine fashion. Imagine getting off a train after escaping war, living in a Turkish desert refugee camp, crossing into Greece on a dingy, and then walking through four countries to be met by this:

welcome to germany

Credit should be given where credit is due. Kudos to Deutschland…and danke schon for showing the world that Europe still has a heart and is capable and willing to walk the walk.  .

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Dog eat dog world

This may be depressing. Then again, maybe not. No, it probably will be.

Not too long ago we had the good fortune to move into the eco-house we have been building for seven years. It was a rewarding and equally frustrating process. One I am most certainly grateful for.

I sat on the terrace to admire the view a few days back. Trebevic Mountain dominates our southern skyline. The peak of Bjelasnica veers into view to the southwest. We even get smaller peeks (no pun intended) at Jahorina and Treskavica. It was a sunny day. The birds brought the silent forests to life. We were finally home.

Then the chainsaws kicked into action. Several of them at once. The echo from the surrounding valleys tricking me as to their location. The sounds of trees being felled was soon dwarfed by the explosion of machine gun fire. Although I didn’t have a visual and the echoes of rapid gun fire bounced back and forth across the valley, I knew the exact location and origin of this violent disruption.

Well over 300 trees, small and large, were illegally cut down this past winter in our little neighborhood alone. We all know the name and surname of at least one of the culprits. I have regular conversations with the police, who have – on several occasions – caught him in the act. The dispatcher sighs in annoyance when I call now. I call almost every day when I hear the chainsaws yanked into action. And promise to keep calling until it stops.

One of the culprits, a man named Enver Klico, pulled up to my house not long ago to apologize for stealing around 20m3 of wood from our little patch of forest. He said ‘I didn’t know it was yours.’ My answer to him ‘but you did know it wasn’t yours?’ He was confused by my rebuttal. Why would I care if he cut someone else’s forest down, right? In the trunk of his car he had around 15 fresh logs. When I inquired about his load he said ‘ oh, this is from state owned land.’ He asked me not to report him. I told him if I saw him again in this neighborhood I would call the police. He sneered ‘zovne’ (call them). Two hours later he was back with his unregistered car and driving his vehicle without a drivers license. The police caught him. He was back the next morning and again that afternoon cutting down trees. And most mornings since then. I still call the police almost every day.

Maybe I’ll find myself in court again for naming names. But the truth has to mean something, n’est pas?

Donje Biosko, our little village of a dozen homes at 900 meters in the hills around Sarajevo, is a water protection area. The large karst field feeds Moscanica River in the valley below, which provides most of the Old Town with drinking water. The loss of forest cover from here will and does effect the quality and quantity of water that finds its way to the Moscanica source. No one seems horribly interested in this fact. Not for now anyway.

The rapid gun fire comes from the police shooting range down the road. The only open air range in Europe that is located in a residential area in the capital city. A residential area that survived 1,400 days under siege. Although every single resident of the neighborhood has signed a petition to stop the constant gunfire just a hundred meters from their homes, the municipality has issued a questionable ‘concession’ to the ‘Green Berets Association.’ These are supposed to be the men that defended the city during the siege. They have switched roles now, offering free and prolonged torture for all those traumatized by the longest siege in modern European history. It is a playground for police with heavy machine guns, right smack in the middle of town.

Now back to the terrace.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a large man walking a pit bull down our street. The pit bull had a heavy chain around its neck that dragged on the ground. He was severely undernourished. The pit bull that is. The man walking him more resembled the mountains around us in size.  A neighbor later confirmed my suspicions that he was ‘training’ (aka starving and torturing) the animal for dog fights in Hladivode. Happy days.

I looked around at the handful of handsome homes in our idyllic little community from our perched terrace. Almost all of them had been robbed at some point in the recent past. Some more than once. The police regularly tell us it’s a ‘local job’ and they ‘have their suspicions’ as to who it might be. Yet no one has ever been caught. None of us believe anyone ever will be.

This is most certainly a mere drop in the ocean in comparison to the monumental problems Bosnia and Herzegovina faces. I find it, however, rather indicative of the current state of affairs. Nothing seems sacred or safe. Not much of anything here is fair. It’s a brutal and bitter reality that the citizens of this country have to swallow on a daily basis. And I wonder how long it will be until something gives way. When and if it does, it ain’t gonna be pretty.

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Sarajevo School of Hard Knocks

“Imaju čudne akcente, nisu rođeni na Koševu. Ne znam ni da navijaju za one plave ili one bordo. Nema ih na nasim fotkama iz mladosti. Ne žale za starim vremenima. Čestitam Jim i Tim. Nadam se da ćemo i mi od vas naučiti kako danas biti Sarajka/Sarajlija.” — ‘They have strange accents, they weren’t born in Kosevo Hospital. I don’t know if they cheer for those in blue or those in bordo. They aren’t in our photographs from our youth. They don’t yearn for the old times. I congratulate Jim and Tim. I hope that we will learn from them how to be Sarajevans today.’ Amra Baksic-Camo (A behind-the-scenes star of Sarajevo’s cultural scene and dear friend). Long silence….

tim and jim

Living in Sarajevo is no walk in the park . Although the city is well-known for welcoming its guests with some of finest hospitality one can imagine, when one ‘goes local’ one can expect a long-term initiation into the school of hard knocks. We can be harsh critics of each other, very often too harsh. We can show unbending stubbornness in the most petty of circumstances more often than we care to admit. Without a serious layer of thick skin, Sarajevo can wear one thin, even for domicile Sarajevans.

Sarajevo, and indeed Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a land of contrasts though.

I again began this blog with only a remote sense of what I might say and even less of how I may say it. I think Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later Sarajevo, has made me a more humble man – both because of the war and the generally modest lifestyles people live. It has made me a better man. It has made me a better person. It has given me a perspective on life, and what matters most, in ways that no other place has done. Sarajevo is not an overtly progressive or liberal city, though. It is sometimes frozen in its traditions, both good and bad. It seems to have always gotten the butt-end of historical and geo-political quagmires since the time of Christ. But there is always, always a struggle to break free of those confines.

Despite some claims to the opposite, Jim and I are no heroes. Although I can’t speak in his name I will take the liberty to say a few things in our name. Perhaps it’s our ‘bostranac’ status that gave and still gives us a sense of urgency to help our neighbors during the floods. I know a lot of that comes from lessons we learned in our new homeland. Lessons too many have forgotten. But in all honesty, it was us that reacted to you…not the other way around. We simply joined the spontaneous and selfless efforts of thousands of Sarajevans like Caki, Emela, and Ines to help those in need.

I am personally very humbled by Amra’s post….and, quite frankly, by the remarkable show of support from those we know and those we don’t for our April 6 Award nomination. I know we don’t take an honor like that lightly.

Amra: We aspire to speak BHS as good as Alban one day. Even if it’s still with a slight (and strange) accent. Our sons were both born in Vojna (kakvo Kosevo :) ). I root for ‘plavi’ because I have to, my father and brother in-laws would disown me if I didn’t. But I don’t have any problem giving a cheer for the ones in bordo either (i oni su nasi despite popular plavi beliefs). Jim could give a shit about blue or bordo. And no, we can’t be found in old high school photo albums. Those too have become a distant and alienated part of our lives that we left behind. The only old times we yearn for is when we all stood together as one and simply lent each other a helping hand – because we all knew our personal well-being was so dependent on the collective well-being. And the reason we stay is because we know that is still the essence of Sarajevo, Sarajke i Sarajlija. Hvala Amra.

And thank you Sarajevo – for keeping us humble. For keeping us real. And for continuing to teach us lessons from the school of hard knocks.

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iphones and Macbook’s

It’s been an awful long time since I pressed the blue ‘publish’ tab on my wordpress blog administrator. My draft box is full. None of them seemed all that worthy of the blue button. I wonder if this one will. I’ve asked myself to press it regardless of what may emerge in the coming minutes. Let’s see if I listen.

I sit here in one of the powerhouse towns of American intellect. No, it’s not Boston or Boulder, but rather Palo Alto. Home to Stanford University where my better half is a visiting Fulbright scholar. I, to be honest, have been brought in as the live-in babysitter. The Silicon Valley is no Tokyo…but I certainly feel many steps behind the curve. I could be wrong that I’m the only person here without an i6 phone and a featherweight Macbook but I’m probably not.

Wrong that is.

I don’t even own a credit card. I pay in cash. People here look at me strange. Since when did cash become a foreign currency?

We spent the last few weeks in San Francisco. It would take a lot to describe my second impression of this amazing city. I’ll try to be short.

Progressive. And by that I don’t mean drum circles and gay parades. They simply come with the territory of a city that thoroughly embraces not only diversity but cutting edge technology aimed at sustainable and efficient living. It’s a city with an open mind. Probably as open as they come.

diversity

Modest sophistication. For a town with so much going for it I sort of expected a bit more snootiness. I’m a New Yorker and, just like Sarajevans, we think we’re from the best place on earth… and have the attitude to prove it. San Francisco has style. Food. Design. Architecture. Fashion. Recycling (yes, i do view recycling as a sophistication). But folks here are laid back, outdoorsy and genuinely friendly. I’m sure there are plenty of snobs smirking at us paupers from their mansions in Marin or the Silicon Valley, but I am one who holds modesty in high regard. San Fran gets an A+ on that front. What they aren’t modest with is prices. Real estate prices are astronomical. They scare the shit out of me. Then again, house cleaners get at least $20 an hour.

Organic. As many of you know, I have a serious problem with the American food industry. It is a big lie of GMO, additives, preservatives, hybrids, and animal torture. There is a deep sense of awareness here, as much as there is for recycling in Germany or Sweden, for organic and wholesome foods. The industry plays all the tricks they can on us, no doubt. Many organic foods ARE in fact genetically modified. The American definition of organic versus the rest of the world’s certainly differs. Nonetheless, people care. Green matters. Organic is more the rule rather than the exception.

Diversity. I sat in the park the other day with Noah. I listened to French, Russian, Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Arabic being spoken around me.  It was music to my ears. Colors and ear candy galore. Freaks, hippies, LGBT, Asian, Black, White, whatever. It just works here. People here don’t really talk about it much. My presumption is that it is a non-issue for most. Kudos. 

Yet whilst I walked through Muir Woods, sipped wine at the Chateau Potelle in the Napa Valley or visited the Visitor Center in Fisherman’s Wharf, my mind constantly wandered back to the Boz and Herz. Every good idea was one to steal and try to implement back home. For me, the greatest charm of Bosnia and Herzegovina is the symbiosis of its cultural and natural heritage. San Francisco, on a very different scale, shares that charm. They just get so many things right here. And I believe that much of that comes from the ‘live and let live’ mentality. People will be creative, by nature, when we allow them to be. By allowing bio-diversity to thrive in nature, we know it becomes more resilient and productive. The community of life is only strengthened by it. Back home, all too often any diversity at all is seen as taboo and, aware of it or not, reinforces the status quo. And I think it’s killing us.

Point Reyes along the Pacific Coast or the Cataract Falls Trail in Marin, for example, are mecca’s for locals and tourists alike. They are well maintained, protected, and visitor numbers are staggering. Bosnia and indeed the Western Balkans have as much stunning nature to show for as any corner of the world does. Where we miss out on, however, is the creative and organizational sides. By creative I don’t mean our budding repertoire of film makers, actors, musicians, or writers but rather ordinary folk, like you and me, with a story to tell or an idea to be realized.

With a bit more of out-of-the-box thinking and better management I see what I have always seen for Bosnia and Herzegovina – a land of opportunity (forgive the cliche). Our potentials are limitless. And we are the only ones standing in our way. So it goes.

Oh yeah, Happy New Year too!

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Dream with me

I ordinarily would agree with people who argue that donations should be made directly to the Red Cross or other well established, ‘official’ channels. It is their job and they are (or at least should be) well versed in any type of emergency response. But I also understand people’s distrust in Bosnia and Herzegovina as there have been many deviations in the not-so-distant past and I have already experienced them in the field in recent days. The organization of the response by mandated institutions to this crisis by most accounts is, at best, piss poor.

Although I’m flattered by your trust and confidence, I am personally hesitant to take anyone’s money…and that’s why I am not setting up any personal accounts or gofundme or whatever the hell they’re called. At this point in time it’s a distraction from the monumental task at hand and what I feel most comfortable – and motivated – to do, which is to be in the field.

I posted the Terra Dinarica bank information yesterday and I am most comfortable working through that channel. Don’t forget though…there are many good organizations doing great work. So keep your eyes and ears peeled for who are doing the right thing. I know it’s hard to decipher who are the most efficient and honest brokers but trust me, they are out there. I’ll do the same.

For those of you itching to pitch in…dream with me here for a moment. Sanida Hasanović Čar helped rekindle this idea for me with her initiative to help the kindergarten in Maglaj (which we will be visiting today). We did something similar to this in Albania and Kosovo during the conflict in 1999 with Save the Children. It was an exceptionally powerful tool. Safe zones for children. Listen.

After the assessments and whirlwind tours of delivering aid in the coming days and weeks, the reality of the calamity that just happened is going to set in and it will set in hard. Many kindergartens that I helped establish in Bosnia with Save the Children in the late 90’s have been completely destroyed. But the structure and organization of them is not. The idea is to get kids in a ‘normal, familiar, and safe’ environment as soon as possible. Call it front line intervention if you will. This allows the parents and indeed the whole community to deal with the challenges and heartache of cleaning and rebuilding knowing that their children are well looked after and happy. It also helps them deal with the trauma of their experience.

Again, the impact we can have as a small group of wanna be well-doers will not save the world, but it can make a real and meaningful difference to a handful of communities that we can help rather quickly. I have already been in touch with the leaders of the kindergartens that we trained and equipped back in the day. I am getting a full report with photos from them in the coming days.

There are several phases to this process, obviously. The first being cleaning and sanitizing the play spaces and getting public health officials/experts to inspect the safety and give the green light to move back in. This too can be done rather quickly in some places, although not all. Phase two is equipping the spaces with new mattresses, carpets, kitchen facilities, toys, books, desks, and everything nice.  That’s where you come in. The third is the easiest, bringing the kids back to their play spaces.

kid-safe-zone-children-playing

In short…as the dust clears I think this is a noble way to donate your money and have a direct impact on the affected communities. The networks are all in place. We know where the kindergartens are. And it can be done fairly rapidly in many places. Same deal, little or no overhead. Complete transparency. No bull shit.

I will always be frank and up front with the many people who have reached out through cyber space and beyond. I am moved by your compassion more than I could possibly explain in this therapeutic blog of mine (my therapy, of course). I can promise you this. I will keep running around like a madman trying to get good information to you quickly. We will continue, as long as we can, to move aid to isolated affected areas. But I think that the safe zone is a splendid way to chip in and, perhaps most importantly, it’s something I KNOW we have the capacity to do and to do well.

Expectations of the people involved in the aid efforts are high…and we are all stretched thin. What I want to make sure of, from our little corner of this crisis, is that we deliver what we say will. Again peeps, thank you for the outpour of support. We’ll keep on truckin’….I’m just trying to keep it real with y’all.

Tell me what you think…

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First Response

I’m about to hit the road but I feel compelled to write this before I do.

Justifiably, this is an emotional moment for most of us. A good chunk of the country is under water, so many have lost everything after perhaps just getting on their feet from the war years, and our government seems to have, once again, failed us miserably. I have a slightly different take on the latter.

We all know what to expect and what not to expect from our beloved institutions. First response, particularly in a poorly organized country like ours, should have been a complete disaster. But it wasn’t. Not even close. Hear me out.

Crisis is a time to come together. And that we did. Granted, the resources and response (or lack of) from the Civil Protection Force was less than admirable. However, the armed forces response was swift and effective. The mobilization of GSS (mountain rescue service) and the rafters made my heart swell with pride. They not only came through put passed this very crucial test with shining colors. They saved lives, many lives. And that’s what it’s all about people. These folks are damn good at what they do, especially with the limited resources at their disposal.

We may be angry or feel even desperate – especially for those watching (or trying to watch in between cooking and music programs) from afar. And although it all seems that the response has been less than mediocre – we came together and in a very meaningful and effective way.

We’ve shown ourselves, once again, the true meaning of solidarity. It should feel good.

The tasks ahead are monumental indeed. First response will soon be over as the water dwindles and everyone is brought to safety. The overwhelming show of support from ordinary citizens was heartwarming but the spontaneous civilian mobilization and organization of emergency aid that reached people within 24 hours was fucking amazing. It proves to me that can have a country, in fact, there just might be one buried under this veil of incompetence and nepotism. We just have the wrong people running it at the moment. Do us all a favor and vote them out this year, will ya!?

The next phase is crucial and cannot be an emotional improv job. We need to get organized…and I honestly believe that is on the horizon. Many may want to hurl insults at the international community for doing nothing but let’s be honest with ourselves, first response is our job. Our friends will be here (and, in fact, already are) for the very complicated and technical next phase of emergency response, rebuilding homes and infrastructure, and working to build the capacity of our slow and inefficient civil protection force.

This could (I know…I’m the irrational & eternal optimist) be a wake-up call to the powers that be that October is close and we won’t forget this. In a cataclysmic event such as this I think it could have been much worse. With years of uncontrolled logging, authorities turning a blind eye to illegal development on unstable terrain, poor water management, and little or no investment in organizations that are supposed to protect life and property – I’d say we did ok. Not great. But ok.

Can we do better? Always. I hope we all realize there is a long road to recovery ahead of us and that we don’t get collective amnesia in a month’s time. People will need our help and I’m confident that in the coming days the organization of the aid effort will improve. It’ll never be perfect, it never is.

Keep the faith. And thank you for reminding me why I’m proud to call this place, fucked up or not, home.

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Stepping up

During the war most of the aid that arrived in the country first went to the most populated areas. Eventually, if they were lucky, some of the aid trickled down to smaller towns and villages. For that very reason, our team always took the road less traveled. In our 4 ton Bedford trucks we delivered aid to some of the most remote communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. More often than not the recipients of that aid had never even seen a humanitarian convoy. They were off the grid. And due to limited capacity and resources the places that didn’t make the news didn’t get the aid. Simply put.

I am touched that Bosnians from far and wide have stepped up to help even as the flood waters continue to rise in some places. In the absence of anything resembling an organized nation (with the exception of the armed forces) – ordinary people have rallied to do what in most developed nations would be the responsibility of the authorities to whom we pay taxes.

I hope, however, that we all ask where the 20 million KM emergency fund that was intended for civil protection disappeared to. I hope we ask why rafting companies and volunteer mountain rescue services had to come to save people trapped in their homes instead of a well-equipped civil protection force. I hope we ask why local officials continue to turn a blind eye – and even give permits to – poor people who build homes in dangerous landslide areas. I hope we ask ourselves why we are such gluttons that we allow them to continuously disregard the safety of our families, homes, and communities. This natural disaster did NOT have to be this bad.

We’ve heard of the heart wrenching stories of families who first lost everything in the early 1990’s to war, managed to rebuild a modest life and home for themselves, only to have it destroyed again. These people will need help, both emotional and material, to go through the rebuilding process once more.

floods

There seems to be a flood (forgive the pun) of aid heading towards Maglaj. And no doubt this town will need all the help it can get. But there are also many other communities who have yet to be even mentioned by the local media. And the wave of water heading from Bihac to Bijeljina will certainly wreak more havoc in the coming days.

I recently formed an organization with some friends called Terra Dinarica. We are not an aid agency but rather a group dedicated to nature conservation and sustainable mountain development in the Dinaric Alps region of southeast Europe. We’re putting that aside for now and will be heading off the beaten path again. Gil Scott Heron once sang ‘no one can do everything but everyone can do something.’ That something for us is helping our friends in Zavidovici, a small community in Bosnia’s northeast.

I have already been asked by many people on how they can help, who to contact, and what is most needed. There are many great organizations, like pomozi.ba or the Center for the Promotion of Civil Society who are organizing aid. Everyone is trying to do their bit. We’ll be heading to Zavidovici tomorrow to first see what they need most. We’ll take a jeep load of baby clothes with us and will let folks know what we learn and what the needs are.

This is not an appeal to help us help them. It’s an appeal to remind everyone, especially diaspora, to help in a smart way. Please be wise on who you send money to. Check the organizations you put your trust in. There are many outstanding and honest organizations and individuals who are mobilizing others to help. There are also others who don’t deserve our trust and who will undoubtedly take advantage of this catastrophe for personal gain.

Too many people in Bosnia know what it means to lose everything. And sadly some have to go through it again. I tip my hat to those who have so quickly stepped up and mobilized to help. Thank you. I humbly follow in your footsteps. peace

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