people & places

Way back when I made a photo book of Bosnia and Herzegovina called People & Places. It was my first go at that kind of book. I think it came out ok. It sold out and we never printed it again. Not sure why. Things tend to go like that here for some reason. What I liked more than creating the book was researching it. My travels and my life here in Sarajevo have had me cross paths with some pretty magnificent human beings. In fact, most of my life I have been blessed with knowing many wonderful people and places. This will be my feeble attempt to tell you about some of them. The picture above, by the way, is my lovely partner Sabina and our son Noah. We were on the island of Korcula in Croatia last summer with friends – twas a lovely place and time.

photo by Sabina Cudic

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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Jingle Bells

My son woke me up around 5 am this morning. Well, actually, I had been lying there for some time. Full moons seem to affect both of us equally. The night of the full moon I hardly sleep at all but the few days before and/or after aren’t that much better either. The thing is, although it might be annoying to toss and turn so much, I’m not really all that tired after a sleepless night courtesy of la luna. So it goes.

He came and laid in bed with us. We have been trying to discourage this for several reasons. All of them are for purely selfish ones. Noah tends to occupy the bed. And he has a need to be touching both of us with any given body part which often results with his foot resting on my forehead. Once he’s in bed, we’re awake. Sabina and I generally agree on most things. One thing we most definitely agree on is ‘do not fuck with our sleep.’ Well, Noah certainly does.

So it’s 5. We’re all awake and Noah breaks out into a bi-lingual version of jingle bells (I didn’t know there was a Bosnia version of Jingle Bells). It’s not even Thanksgiving and we get a Bosnian/English version of jingle bells. It’s hard to be annoyed when your three old sings Jingle Bells to you in two languages at 5 am. (Notice that I keep repeating it was 5 am – there I go again).

Now there is no reason whatsoever that I am writing about this except for the fact that I feel that I need to give a little more time and attention to thebosniaguy. What this has to do with Bosnia or the guy…I really couldn’t tell you.

This was the second or third night/morning in a row that he has gotten up around the same time. I could tell he was feeling a bit under the weather. But I took him to pre-school nonetheless. He wasn’t feverish, ate breakfast, and gave me a hard time about putting his jacket on – all signs of a healthy kid. After dropping him off I went to the Hotel Europe for a coffee with Pedja and Danis. Then the phone rang. It was school. Coffee time was over. Noah had a fever.

So we’ve been home all day today. He slept a good part of the day. I did what every parent does with their sick kid. Kiss his forehead every now and then to check his temperature. Made him mint tea. Kept him covered with his soft, baby blue blanket. Put on his favorite cartoons (which vary but today was a Pocoyo day). As I sat and watched him snooze I kept thinking how lucky we are. Lucky in the sense that when and if our son is sick then I have the ability to ‘not work’ and take care of him. There are a lot of imperfect things about this country. Any country for that matter. But I really think it’s one of the few places where I could, and do, get away with it. Living in the ‘west’ certainly has many advantages, free time is not one of them. And it’s my ‘free’ time that I cherish most in my life because it gives me the opportunity to be with my family much more so than the ‘western standards’ the world so desperately aspires to (or for a 10am coffee with Pedja and Danis for that matter).

A lot of people complain about things here. And sure, we have a lot to whine about if we must whine. BUT, one thing we most certainly do get here is time. And it’s up to us how we use that time. Time with my son, whether it’s reading a book or watching him sleep, is the best standard of living I could hope for. So no, I’ll never be a rich man. But man oh man, sometimes I feel like I’m rolling in it.

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Connecting Naturally

I was helping a Swiss tv crew do a documentary on Bosnia some years back. I can’t recall exactly when but I do  know it was summer. They asked me to take them to Lukomir, the highest and most isolated permanent settlement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s as close as one gets to a medieval village in this part of the world.

It was early morning and a weekday, so there were no tourists milling about. Most of the younger people from the village were going about their daily morning chores of milking the cows or taking the sheep out to pasture. I greeted a handful of the village elders as we wandered through their highland homesteads. We made a loop and upon our return I found a village elder, Dedo Duran (rahmetli), sitting on a rocky outcrop in front of a stone barn. He seemed lost in thought. I sat down a few meters to his left in silence.

The tv crew seemed confused. The producer politely asked me what I was doing. I wasn’t exactly sure… until I was. My answer was “I’m keeping him company.” I told them that more elders would soon appear and that they too would just come and sit. Dedo Duran rolled a cigarette. The producer seemed puzzled, doubtful even, of my answer. Within a few minutes a few elderly men strolled over, lifted their pants at the knees and sat down on comfy spot on the rock. Within ten minutes there was six of us there, minus the tv crew, sitting in silence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I think the producer thought I had staged this for him. I assured him I hadn’t.  He asked one of the gentlemen who had come over and sat near Dedo why he did that. Without hesitation he explained ‘It’s ok to be alone in ones thoughts. But we should never leave each other alone. There are enough hard things about life here, we don’t need to make loneliness one of them. We depend on each other. So I sit next to Dedo Duran just like he would come and sit next to me. We don’t always need to speak but its important for everyone to know that they are never alone.’

The other men gazed at the producer in quiet compliance. Dedo Duran licked the cigarette he had just rolled and stuck it onto his bottom lip. This highland shepherd had just laid out, in the most simplistic of terms, the nature of our existence as social beings.

The producer, ecstatic about the elderly man’s profound answer, turned to me, still puzzled, and asked “But how did you know to do that?” At that moment I realized that this was the first time that I was one of ‘them.’ I was always warmly welcomed there. I felt accepted. There was most certainly a reassuring mutual trust among us. But I wasn’t one of them. Not until that summer morning. 

So my respect and admiration for ‘them’ transformed into a sense of belonging. And what I was grateful to belong to was not a state or a nationality, but rather the circle of ancient knowledge, often unspoken, that indigenous people possess about the value and essentials of our social fabric. They connect naturally.

Which leads me to my point…

White westerners have the habit of romanticizing or demonizing ‘old world’ traditions and lifestyles. We tend to view indigenous peoples as poor folks who, of course, need our help to be like us. But for me the highland lifestyles of the western Balkans are a precious – and rare – window into our not-so-distant past. I have learned a tremendous amount from the simplicity and wisdom of mountain peoples, whether they be in Lukomir or Lamay.

In my travels and wartime gigs in the western Balkans over the past 20 years I have discovered a small glimpse of the magic, warmth, and ruggedness of the people of the Dinaric Alps. It is not a pathetic illusion of a fairy tale world. Their lifestyles are difficult and, sadly, dying. They too grapple with problems of the world, old and new. But there is a fierce self-reliance that inspires me as much as the dramatic and pristine nature that is their home.

Many of us wrestle with the challenge on how to protect and preserve this precious heritage – both natural and cultural. There is certainly no single or simple answer. But along the Dinaric Alps that stretch from northern Albania all the way to Slovenia are dozens of remote, traditional villages that have lived in sync with some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in all of Europe for many centuries. So it seems logical to try and connect the dots as, forgive the cliche, there is strength in numbers.

This will manifest itself through a project called Via Dinarica. I believe it’s an idea whose time has come. I will ask you to join us on this journey and share with your friends.

More to come soon. peace

 

 

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Sleepless in Sarajevo

I’m humbled.

It’s been exactly a week since we returned. For five of those nights I don’t think I slept more than an hour a night.  It surprised me how long I made it without any shut-eye. I definitely took sleep for granted. I guess because we have to do it I always assumed I would do it, sort of like breathing. It’s not really a thing one decides to do. It’s sort of done for you. Or maybe not.

I’m not sure if it’s jetlag or insomnia. Probably a combination of the both. Whatever it is, I’m sleepless in Sarajevo.

We came home to pretty much what I expected. The green space in front of our flat was carpeted in garbage. The park behind our house could have made the list as a divlja deponija. I had a cough within twenty four hours. I still have it. Things here just generally look unkept. I won’t even mention how messy things are politically, socially, and economically.

But on Monday I took Noah to his Montessori school. His eyes lit up when he saw his friends and teacher. Tuesday we went to see ‘tajna dzema od malina’ in SATR. We hung out with Pedja before and during the show. It was nice to stumble upon him in a place other than Hotel Europe. Afterwards we had a drink with Alban, who, broken rib and all, did a brilliant job of acting while swinging from the rafters.

photo by oslobodenje

photo by oslobodenje

Wednesday I worked on developing guidelines for eco-tourism development in protected wetlands in the Sava River Basin. Thursday I was in Trebinje, meeting with the mayor about the cross-border conference on tourism development in Dubrovnik that would occur the next day. On Friday I facilitated a US Embassy sponsored cross border reconciliation conference in one of the most beautiful cities in southeast Europe, bringing folks from both sides of the border to talk about working together on tourism development. Just a few years ago the prospects of that happening were next to nil. Thanks to two consecutive years of constructive dialog, we’re getting closer to business as usual.

I spent most of the day today in rest mode, trying to recover from an extreme lack of z’s. And in a semi state of delirium it dawned on me that life here can be pretty darn good. Despite the heaps of bullshit that we have to put with on a daily basis, I think it’s more than fair to say that the people who keep telling me it doesn’t matter where you are but what you do with the cards you’ve been dealt are absolutely right. So I’ll stop bitching (yeah right:).

So chin-chin to getting some sleep and making the most of what we got, where we got it.

peace

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Bosnia’s gold standard

My wife is right. She says when I come to the states I usually find myself rather flat for writing. Today is no exception. But I’ll try anyway. My excuse is that I’m on holiday. I’m taking a break. I’m supposed to unwind. I want and need to unplug. Shouldn’t we all?

She says it’s more than that, though. She says I need to be in Bosnia to write. Right or wrong, giving birth seems easier than writing at the moment (i’m sure a few women chuckled reading this. It’s just a metaphor ladies. I know we men couldn’t handle labor pains let alone the birth part).

So, I was checking my google analytics stats for my blog the other day. Being slightly retarded in the tech field I find it quite a fun little toy to play with. The thing that perplexed me most beside the sheer number of people who read ‘The 10 things I miss most about Bosnia’ was the geography. 90 countries. I didn’t quite get it, until I did.

It got me thinking. Who the hell is reading my blog from 90 countries? Perhaps it would be better put to ask why in the hell would anyone read my blog from 90 countries? Then I started getting a facebook message here and there…a few emails. Some called me a jerk. Some overly romantic. But most were just ‘hey, thanks’ notes from every corner of the world.

I’ve always thought the diaspora were underestimated and under appreciated back home. The simple truth is that some people had to leave, some chose to leave, some had a gun to their heads and were ordered to leave. Regardless, they left. C’est la vie. C’est la guerre.

Many people back in Bosnia still hold a grudge. Although I agree it was much harder to survive the brutal war than to be a refugee in Germany or Australia, it’s still no fun leaving your home and seeking refuge in a foreign country. Not for anyone. End of story.

Simply put, I think the diaspora are worth their weight in gold. I really do. Let me tell you why.

Weight in gold

We give them too much grief. Most of them send money home to loved ones and friends. Many of them come and visit religiously, bringing a fresh wave of energy and ideas (and yes, money too). They are our best support system outside of our borders. And I’d even be bold enough to say they are a better support system than the governments and ‘system’ we have been cursed with over the past twenty years.

Putting the petty tit for tat arguments on ‘gdje si bio ti kad je bio najteze‘ aside, the bottom line is that Bosnia and Herzegovina is over a million strong outside of her borders. What an amazing resource. No sane businessman would trpi  the budalastina that comes with investing in Bosnia. Diaspora often do. Not too many sane people would leave the comfort and security of their new found homes to come back and start something new in a very corrupt, exceptionally dysfunctional country. Diaspora are.

They are our best PR agents. They are our most loyal ‘tourists.’ They are amongst our best investors. They bridge a huge gap between slow-changing Bosnia and the modernity of the new world. They can and do bring ideas, passion, and employment. But above all, they care. They really do. Imagine a functional marriage between Bosnia and its diaspora. Imagine all that it could bring in a time when even we are losing interest in our own fate let alone the rest of the world.

We are not very good at recognizing who our friends are and nurturing those relationships. Whether it be Bono or Peter Cox or 1.2 million Bosnians abroad, the diaspora and friends of Bosnia should be our gold standard.  We should treasure that resource. Ego aside, just think about it. Who else would put up with our shit?

 

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10 things I miss most about Bosnia (while in America)

I openly admit it. I am schizophrenic about where I want to be and when at the moment. What is a man to do? Two great choices. Well, an infinite number of choices. Right now I dabble with two. So as I sit here in 25 degree weather (or 77 if you wanna talk F), with a subtle warm breeze coming in from the ocean, I ponder what it is that I like about home. Home is Bosnia. At least for now. I think I got a little too philosophical with my pondering. I could’ve just as easily said I miss Delikates cafe, Noovi restaurant, hiking in Umoljani, brainstorming with Tarik Samarah, skipping stones on the water with Alban, trying out all the new yummies at Ujedinjena Hercegovina, stumbling upon Pedja at Europe (his home away from home) and daydreaming about when, if ever, will we finish our eco-house. Daydreaming I can do here. So I’ll just philosophize. It’s what southern Slavs do.

1. Coffee. There are a million different brands here in the states. All offering ridiculously large and rather mediocre cups of joe. It’s not the quantity but the quality. I have to travel 45 miles for a good espresso. And it’s not really all that good. Bosnian coffee, both due to the way the coffee is prepared and the quality of water, is second to none. I hear people discussing whether Dunkin Donuts or 7-eleven coffee is better. Are you kidding me?! I’m drinking tea for the rest of the month.

2. Family and friends

3. Time. The western world, especially America, is always on the run. People work hard. Too hard in my opinion, or at least too much. I certainly don’t have the gall to applaud Bosnian work ethic but one thing I do appreciate is the collective ability (generally speaking) to find time for each other. Even if it’s just a ritualistic coffee. Another thing about time that I have learned (it took me many, many years to accept and learn) is sabur. The ability to slow down, contemplate and not always be heading in six different directions at once is – when utilized properly – a tool for success.

4. Modesty. One of the things that I find discouraging about the states is how the entire society is seemingly set up to do one thing – spend, consume and waste ( I guess that’s actually three things). America is 6% of the world’s population and uses 40% of its resources. Ultra consumerism is the way of the world here. It is not sustainable. I have a problem with it. I have a deep appreciation for Bosnian’s mostly modest lifestyles. Consumerism is more based on what we truly need rather than what we want. And we are usually able to recognize the difference. Things usually get used until they can be used no more and, even then, someone will find a common sense use for it.

5. Nature. Pacha Mama is wonderful wherever one goes. But Bosnia and Herzegovina definitely tops my list as the most beautiful swath of mother nature in southeast Europe. What I love most about it is how wild it is. I went hiking in Switzerland some years back…saw chamois…beautiful views. I thought it was me and the mountains. When I got to the top it was a circus. Paragliders, trains, hotel, hundreds of people – all had come up from the other side. Bosnia’s nature is wild, pristine and still largely untouched. For those of us fortunate enough to wander in the outback – it’s a treat that not too many places in the western world can offer any more.

6. Creativity. Perhaps the insanity of the Bosnian ‘situation’ is a catalyst for Bosnia’s creativity. Ne znam. For such a small place I find the creative talent to be utterly remarkable. Inspirational even. My creative juices, however sour, are definitely more fluid whilst embedded in the Bos. The pain, injustice, fatalism…which undoubtedly stem from the fun years of war…have been the foundation of the new Bosnian cultural renaissance. Whether it be film, literature, music, theatre, arts…I’m proud to be a part of what I consider Sarajevo’s better side.

7. Cejf. Bosnians have mastered the art. Thoroughly enjoying the things we love most and doing them as often as possible is the rule rather than the exception in BiH. Narcissism at its finest. I particularly like the cafe culture. Sipping a strong espresso or creamy cappucino over a long chat about war, politics or who slept with who. Mezze is an art form. It’s a magical melange of munching on fine cheese, dried meats (or meat of any kind, Bosnians are the definition of carnivore), an olive or two all carefully washed down with good wine or the local firewater – often both. Cejf almost always involves number 3.

8. Challenge. The war sort of gave us a blank slate in 1996. I don’t find the transitional period to be only a frustratingly painful one. I find it challenging as well. Bosnia and Herzegovina is still not defined as a nation, and I don’t mean politically. It is still taking shape as a new society. It’s identity still unknown although so many centuries old. When I see Bosnia I see potential. And with potential there is always a challenge to realize that potential. I think we’re doing a shitty job of it at the moment but there are those who have genuinely embraced the challenge of creating a new Bosnia. In the states I feel like it’s all been done. I don’t feel the pressing challenge to do or die. I like that rush. It’s certainly worth getting up in the morning for.

9. The fight. Directly related to number 8. The forces that tried, and almost succeeded, in ripping this nation apart at the seams in the early 1990’s have not by any means gone silent. They are still at it. It’s sort of like good versus evil, although I’m not to keen to throw anyone into the evil category. There’s still a good fight to be had…and it’s with our hearts and minds (now I sound like an American military strategist :) instead of the sword. I think it’s easy to walk away…and in all honesty I’ve contemplated it many times. But Bosnia and Herzegovina will only survive if there’s enough good people putting up a good fight.

10. Food. This may seem strange. I think I surprised myself. The choice of foods are very limited in Bosnia, true. But the thing i truly appreciate in its simplicity is the quality. Locally grown food is mostly organic by default. Cows actually graze. GMO’s are virtually unheard of (although Monsanto are trying to creep in the back door). You can buy a liter of milk or some cheese, unpasteurized, from a local farmer. Food is also very seasonal – so we eat what mother nature gives us when she gives us. Tomatoes taste like tomatoes. Apples taste like, well, apples. No perfectly waxed reddish wonders that taste like cardboard. Strawberries are only available for about a month or two per year. Simple isn’t always bad. Locally grown is always good.

back to the sun in sunny South Florida. Vozdra raja. Adios hermanos/as. Nos vemos. peace

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10 refreshing things about coming to America (from Bosnia)

It has almost gotten to the point, after two decades of absence from the US of A, that I sometimes feel like a tourist in my ‘own land.’ Or perhaps somewhere in between a local and ferner.

There are a handful things I truly miss. This is my top ten. So it goes.

1. It’s clean. Really it is. The air. The streets. The parks. Parking lots. There simply isn’t any garbage to speak of. The recycling truck comes like clockwork every Thursday. My clothes and hair don’t stink of low-quality coal particles.

2. Friends and family.

3. Things work. I often criticize the states for waving the freedom flag whilst being the most regulated country on earth. It’s a bit hypocritical if you ask me. You’re free…but you can’t do this, this, this, or this. However, I will readily admit that things work here. Municipal, state, federal. Whatever. Need a driver license. No problem. It’ll take you 30 minutes to get a brand new one. Need a passport? No problem. 7 days via post (you don’t have to be pinched to prove who you are), done deal. Emergency services are admirable here. Truly. Things just work here with relatively little hassle. Nothing needs a stamp. You can register a business online in 15 minutes.

4. Sports. Sports are enjoyable anywhere. But Bosnia and Europe annoy me with their fascist football hooligan war calls. I find it offensive. There is always healthy competition here and we may not like the opposing teams fans all that much, but the bottom line is that there is next to no violence. It’s a place to bring your kids. And there’s no need for body armor or shanks. No war chants. No racial slurs. It’s just a friggin’ game.

5. Sales. I usually get about ten good years of wear on my sweaters. Almost as long for t-shirts and pants. I’m not a big shopper. Americans are. That provides me with a great opportunity. My family lives in south Florida. Winter lasts about 2.5 days. All the stores stock up with winter or warmer stuff. They sell next to nothing. I arrive in February. The stuff they were selling for $150 in December is now $7. I much rather spend my money on travel, food and friends. Ultra consumerism does have its benefits – great sales. I know, shame on me.

6. Parks. They rock. They really do. Not only are they immaculately clean but are a great gathering place and safe space for kids. The playgrounds are super safe, with no money saved to create ideal conditions for our kids to play, for a long time to come, in superb facilities. People take care of them too. There are no destroyed park benches. No garbage. No cement slabs for our kids to bash their heads on. No rusted, outdated, and downright dangerous seesaws or slides to speak of.

7.  Green. Even though I’m in south Florida, which is by no means a progressive, green community, there is a heck of a lot of green going on. Even the main supermarkets have a remarkable selection of organic fruits, veggies and other staples. Then there are specialized shops, with the bohemian hippies and odd kid from high school with dreds serving up a super food concoction to try, or recommending which crystals might help you sleep at night. Expensive, sure. But America’s food industry is the scariest on earth. The GMO’s, the hormones, the processing, the corn starch, the mono agricultural practices. Truly scary stuff. At least the green movement is gaining momentum. They’ll need it in south Florida too…I’ll talk about obesity another time.

8. NO SMOKING. Yes. I can go to the bar and have a pint without inhaling a pack’s worth of secondary smoke. I can eat at a restaurant without my ‘dear’ friend lighting up before I finish my meal and blowing smoke directly into my mouth along with my pasta. I don’t stink like an ashtray, ever. Smokers, almost embarrassed, go out of their way to remove themselves from our company when they have the urge. When will I see that day in Bosnia? Never, I know. That’s why I am revelling in it now.

9. Kindness. Americans often get accused of being ignorant about world affairs…or even domestic ones for that matter. Their geography skills often don’t go beyond the state they live in. For some, perhaps even just the county. But there is most certainly a genuine kindness to folks. People will almost always say hello with a smile when passing you in the street. They’ll lend a helping hand. And if the going gets tough they are exceptionally generous. Some may say its superficial but for those of you who have experienced it first hand, you know what I’m talkin’ about.

10. Colors. Of all kinds. I sometimes frown at the lectures I often get in Sarajevo about multi-ethnicity. Too much back patting for a culture where a handful of ‘peoples’ speak the same language, have similar traditions, similar backgrounds, similar cuisine, pretty much similar everything and claim to be a bastion of tolerance and multi-culturalism. It’s nice to see African, Asian, Latino and every other kind of peeps that constitute this nation. It may not be perfect but the melange of cultures, colors and cuisines is nice. The Balkans are so white.

multiculturalism

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Road Trip!

zagrebI have never – ever – had an uneventful road trip in the Balkans. Barring all barnoneables,

We had just crossed the Sava River, the same natural border that creates the political one between Bosnia and Croatia. After the curvy two lane roads of Posavina it was nice to be on the highway. My old Forester hadn’t ventured over 130km an hour in a very long time. It didn’t take long for the eventfulness to begin. We were going through one of the many beautiful Slavonian forests, with the road lined with big, beautiful hawks perched on posts when we saw the road maintenance crews crossing from the other side to greet a policeman. It turns out the policeman was a policewoman. She was standing next to the fence that divided the highway from the forest. We slowed down to gawk.

The road crews were cutting a whole in the fence. On the other side, next to a drainage ditch, was the dead body of a man. He looked dark purple. He must have been out there all night. I even noticed that he was slightly bald on top and had hair on the side of his head. He wasn’t tall, maybe 5’8”. We must have been traveling at close to 80km an hour and the fence was an easy 30 meters from the shoulder of the road. How and why does the human brain record this stuff in what couldn’t have been more than literally three seconds?!

I can’t remember what I did five minutes ago. I can drive for hours on end and at the end of my journey not remember a second of that drive. I think I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached to my shoulders. I honestly think I could draw this guy with the help of a forensic artist.

I hadn’t seen a dead person (except for open casket funerals of old people) since the war(s). I saw a lot of them then. The rest of the ride to Zagreb I thought about what that guys film must have looked like. Was he killed and dumped? Did he get drunk, stumble around the forest, and pass out never to wake again? I found myself scanning the side of the road for more bodies. Of course there were none. I knew there wouldn’t be. But my eyes still obeyed my brains command to scan.

Then Zagreb. Ah. What a lovely town. It’s so clean. The winter air quality is eons ahead of Sarajevo, where we still use piss-poor quality coal for heating our homes and polluting our air. God forbid we should use bio mass being that Bosnia and Herzegovina has an estimated 40% of forest cover.  I struggled with the order of the place. I had to use every atom of strength to not cross the pedestrian crossing whilst it was red. Everyone stood there, peacefully and patiently. The anarchic Bosnian in me, with its claws dug deep into my rebel soul, wanted to dart across the street….barely missing the cars that dared to be in my way. Cars stopped at crossings with no stop lights. I didn’t trust them. I had to wait (and stare in temporary amazement) to make sure that they had actually stopped for moi.

I stumbled upon a non-smoking cafe. And then another. I could have drank baileys and coffee all day just because no one was chain smoking around me. I went to meetings not smelling like an ashtray. Then I started feeling guilty for liking Zagreb. I felt guilty for comparing everything that was ‘better’ than in Sarajevo. I felt guilty for feeling good here. I obviously have not been able to shake the Catholic guilt trips of my childhood. It made me realize that Sarajevo, or Bosnia and Herzegovina for that matter, isn’t just the place I live. It’s like a member of my family. It’s my son’s brother and sister. It deserves my loyalty. Was I betraying it?

So I ask myself…why am I already looking forward to my next trip out of Bosnia when I am still sitting in my hotel room in Zagreb. I fear something is astir.

peace

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Kudos

I’ve picked up the laptop to write something positive for the new year about a dozen times in the last 48 hours. I have three drafts in my draft box. I’m not too sure any of them will see the light of day.

The thing is, I have a lot on my mind.

Maybe starting the blog and some of its content has me reeling in the past a tad. Today I interviewed a young lady, a mother of three (we’ll call her Amelia for the sake of the blog) about how she survived multiple rapes under years of captivity as a teenager. Her testimony against two of these men led the first ever indictment and conviction at the International Court of Justice for rape as a war crime. She wants her story to be told. I am honored to (try and) tell it.

the woodsThe place Amelia was first caught is a place I love to hike. It is one of the most picturesque areas of the country. The school she was held in with her family before being taken away with 6 other girls in a meat truck is where i worked a few years later with Save the Children. We established a pre-school program there for the little ones. Perhaps I helped re-furnish the very room she and her family were held in.

To say the least, the places of her story are all too familiar to me. Until today, though, I saw them in a completely different light. The town where she was taken to and violated as a 17 year-old is where I do a lot of my development work for the United Nations Development Programme. The national park there is what the Irish would call “God’s country.’

I knew that evil had visited those areas during the war. The stranglehold the ghosts of the past have on these places is eerily visible. So many of the most horrendous crimes of the Bosnian war happened in some of the most beautiful terrain in southeast Europe. The magnificent colors of the River Drina that awes foreign visitors with its beauty was, for example, a sign for her that the end was near. When she heard the sounds of the river, she was convinced she would be shot and her body dumped, like so many in eastern Bosnia, into the cold waters of Bosnia’s longest waterway.

To tell you the truth, Amelia is more than cool about it. Cool as a cucumber as I described her to a friend in New York. The truth has set her free. What confuses me is…well…me. I have been thinking of the men that did this all day. Men. Psychotic or not, this is an age-old pastime of men at war. What happens to us, even before the madness of war steals our souls? I have a hard time getting my head around it. I’m gonna have to if this is going to work.

We ended our interview talking about the definition of survival. Most of the girls she was with ‘survived’ the ordeal. Their lives are a mess. They can’t or don’t talk about what happened to them. They didn’t testify. Amelia did. She owns her life. Not the men or her ‘story.’ In fact, one of them got 34 years for their crimes. So whilst she will dance the night away tonight at Gogo’s Magacin Kabare with a genuine smile on her face, her perpetrator will be sitting and sulking in a concrete box. Talk about karma. Surviving is more than not dying. It’s not letting them win. Amelia did just that. Kudos.

Happy New Year to you sister. I look forward to our journey.

Count your blessings folks. Be good to each other. God speed. Enjoy the new year. peace

 

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so you don’t believe in destiny, you say?

photo by Munever Salihovic

I had just been relocated to the Croatian island of Brac to work in a refugee camp there. The camp was a hotel on the beach, overlooking the beautiful Adriatic Sea. It was a slight step up from my previous gig. Before that I was volunteering in a refugee camp in the western Herzegovina town of Posusje. The camp was in a run down old school. The conditions were horrid. Most of the inhabitants were Bosnian Muslims from the northwest of the country. Many had been processed through concentration camps. There were no men in the camp to speak of. Only women, children and a few old-timers.

In June of 1993 the camp in Posusje came under attack. The alliance between the Bosnian Croats and Muslims had been disintegrating for months. It finally reached us. A sniper fired into the camp from the hillside. We scattered for cover. Military police mulled around the camp. I would later learn it was only a scare tactic and an excuse to ‘cleanse’ the camp, but we certainly didn’t know it at the time. The entire Muslim population of the camp, as well as the international corps of volunteers, were expelled to Croatia and later to Italy. But that too is another story in itself.

Back to my island.

I was a bit stressed and tired after the ordeal in Herzegovina. It was a nice break to be in a ‘refugee’ camp on the beach. One of my first tasks as co-leader for Suncokret was to meet the refugee community leader. So that’s exactly what I did. The woman, Vasva, was a professor from Sarajevo. She spoke English. She was our main contact. She had two children; aged 13 and 10.

One of my duties was to run the teenager program. Her oldest child Sabina was in that group. She reminded me of my little sister, Jenny. In fact, I called her little sister quite often. She had a cute nose and smiled a lot. And although she was a teenager Sabina seemed younger than her age to me at the time. I became friends with most of the kids in the group. Because of the frequent contact with Vasva about refugee ‘issues’, I saw Sabina regularly and became a family friend.

I was still anxious, however, to get back to Bosnia. The comfort of the camp was nice. But I knew what the situation was like just across the border. I wanted back in. And so it was by August of 1993. I was asked to do some reconnaissance for the deployment of a mobile hospital to the besieged East bank of Mostar. Shortly after I was asked to assist with evacuations of wounded children from East Mostar by a British volunteer named Sally Becker. I jumped at both chances. So after going back and forth for a few months, I decided to pack up from my island retreat and head back to the mainland. By then the conflict between the Croats and Muslims had worsened. Vasva too packed her family and left for Germany. I lost all traces of them.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Seven years later. The war in Bosnia has been over for five years. I had just returned from Kosovo from what I hope to be my last war. I had been living in Sarajevo since 1997 and just started an eco-tourism business with friends. A good friend of mine, Selma, kept on mentioning this girl that was ‘made for me’ that I had to meet. She was pitching the same story to this girl. Neither of us were very interested. But with persistent prodding we both agreed. The rendezvous point was the Ramadan concert at the National Theatre in Sarajevo. I waited outside with Zina and Selma. The girl walked up. “Hi, I’m Sabina.”…”Tim, nice to meet you.” A few cordial nods, a smile and we shuffled inside.

We left our coats in the wardrobe section. We weren’t able to find four seats together so Zina and Selma, like kids, nudged us to take two seats together a few rows down. So, like adults, we did. There was a few minutes before the start of the concert. Zina and Selma were two rows behind us. I could feel them eye-balling us from the back of my head. There was a bit of small chat. Sabina was a very pleasant young lady. We inquired into each others backgrounds. It was probably only 4-5 minutes before the light switch went on for both of us ‘Tim? are you from t-t-t tampa?’ I saw the light, “No, its Tallahassee.” “Tim, is that you?!” Yes it was. It was my little sister friend from my refugee island Brac. Mercy me. She was now 20 and I an old man of 30.

We embraced. Zina and Selma gulped in amazement. I assume they weren’t expecting us to hit it off that quickly :). We both had the urge to play the million questions game but the concert soon started. We held our tongues until the end. We chatted and reminisced at a million miles per second that evening. I think I dropped her off at home. When Sabina got home she ran upstairs to Vasva “Mom, you’ll never guess who I just met!” She instantly replied “Tim.” (Yes, I think she may be clairvoyant…or a witch, probably both).

So seven years later without ever hearing or knowing a thing about each other we meet again in Sarajevo. We hung out for a few months, simply excited to see each other and amazed how this reunion of sorts panned out. In all honesty it was a very platonic joy. Platonic at least for another few months. We took a trip to Montenegro for New Years. And the new year started out well. We’ve been together ever since. 12 years almost to the day. Who’da thought?! People, places…and time.

Thanks Selma. peace

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