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Bosnia 2003 Diary

Categorized in these topics: Bosnia


Bosnia held me at such a tension I thought I would snap. It was my first time seeing the landscape of physical war. How is this not a metaphor for the violence against women, against the home and the earth?

They say they don’t really know about what kind of metals and isotopes from the scatter bombs are leeching into the soil, they say DON’T YOU DARE drink the water. Don’t even brush your teeth with it.

As we drive along the Bosnian river from Sarajevo to Novi Travnik, Brahiem, not two years my elder, tells me of how during the war, at 16 he would walk through the killing fields, bullets whizzing past him, playing the bugle or the drum.

He said "I don’t want to kill people, I become a musician."

The hills roll deep, a thick green of true forest, complete with a true canopy and a dark forest floor. You don’t walk in the low woods because there are estimated to be more than a million undetonated landmines.

You don’t walk in the fields. You don’t walk of the sidewalks in towns. After 10 years, this terror is spoken like a non-issue. I feel an awkward sorrow when these words pass through his lips and his face sits unchanged by it, as is he is talking about a bad dinner. This is normalized is what that says to me. Brahiem thought I was insane because I kept my window rolled down and leaned my head out slightly, letting the wind tickle my scalp after being held up in the stale air of the airplane.

"What are you doing?" he asked, looking at me like I had lost my mind. "You will get sick!"

I learned that in Bosnia the idea of rolling down windows somehow was taken as a catalyst for major illness. Even when it was a hundred degrees out, the windows stayed tightly up. This would be reinforced on the bus to Neum when hundred-degree sun beamed into a bus with no windows at all.

It would be painfully recollected as I shuffled to the restroom during a stop to vomit from the heat. I would, like a survival instinct remember the childhood art of fan folding as if It was the epoch of my third grade education, and wear my wrist out for the next few hours of daylight.

As we drive through Zenica, Brahiem tells me about the war crimes that took place there, just 10 miles or so outside of his own town. This is were the soldiers came and slaughtered people in their homes and made the children watch.

"Some of these children are in my class," said Brahiem, who is a music teacher in the local school system. On the left side of the street the homes are charred black. The roofs are gone, burned, and the sun shines through the mortar holes. On the right side the houses have been rebuilt. There are new businesses springing up. This is the Croatian side.

Later that day I meet with the Kolo women. I walk a small trail to the school, which Brahiem teaches at. There a group of women wait for me and Ms. Anderson to arrive. Instantly there is such an overwhelming sense of love and appreciation.

I recognize Vahdeta, who sent me a photo last year when I donated money. I was hugged, and talked to excitedly in a language I did not understand. I was hugged again.

We sat in a circle. I felt so much mother energy, shocking for me since I did not have a very present mother. Ms. Anderson translated their quick questions; there was so much excitement.

I savor that energy of women gathering. It is powerful to me.

A helicopter flew overhead. I was scared, they circled three times directly over us… the women seemed not to notice, and they giggled at me for my concern. They still have bases. They oversee congregations to prevent uprisings.

They circle the meetings often, citing these women as true threats which I must admit, thought a sad fate, sill has a touch of complement to it, a recognition of the power stirring along with the pain deep within these survivors.

We met in daily Kolo’s with the women for the conference, and after we would have meeting Kolo’s to process our experiences.

The emotional work was both fulfilling and staggering. During one Kolo session we walked to in the mountains. I heard stories of the rapes of women during the war, soldier’s gang raping women to death. I thought of how violently one must have to reject the feminine, life giving power to kill and destroy lives with such ferocity.

How in order to induce such violence the perpetrator must first completely dehumanize the victim, and in doing so dehumanize themselves.

I met a women and her 8-year-old daughter who had to hide in the woods for almost a year in order to save herself and her child. This need to go back to nature took many forms. One of them was medicine.

Medicinal plants became vital during the war when there was no modern medicine. Elder women showed the other women plants, how to use them, how to find them. The woman and the woods met much of the same fate.

Others could not leave there home. Snipers who popped off shots day and night surrounded them. One woman told of how she could not go to her garden and get food because the snipers waited for her, how she had to put sheets up in front of the windows and even then she was not safe.

The physical devastation to the land seemed to amplify to me with how short time is, or geologic time. Castles thousands of years old met the same fate as nightclubs. I walked through them both and was struck at how they now held the same kind of power… the mystery of death and destruction.

The establishments made eternally old before there time by artillery that still lay scattered in places. I was shown bomb shelters. These were straw lined hovels, old storage rooms underneath stone houses were people would spend weeks in he dark waiting silently for the danger to pass.

We traveled to Neum, the last scrape of sea remaining on Bosnian land.

But we needed to pass through Croatian roads to get there. Since in 1991 when Yugoslavia was divided Croatia took all but this 12-mile stretch of coast. For many of the 20 women who came, being checked at the Croatian border for passports was there first interaction with the uniformed Croats since the war. They came aboard the bus with a nonchalance that had a biting effect on such a fresh wound, they exited.

They let us pass.

During our time in Neum I witnessed transformation. Women left Novi Travnik for the first time in a decade. The first time they could walk down the street and not press still fresh memories further back into their stomachs along with black coffee and compulsive smoking.

We danced the Kolo… keeping in steady time and losing ourselves as one mass, we listened to stories of how the woman had not only lost loves but betrayed themselves with their silence. At night we snuck away to swim under the stars in the Adriatic Sea, the stars reflecting so crisply on the black water, the salt making war ravaged bodies so buoyant that they were flying.

A lot of the therapy work in dealing with trauma, I learned, was listening. This is something I was only recently taught how to do.

Listening and honoring a story, no judgment, no competition, just taking it all in, asking questions, and listening more is timeless. It is history through the spoken word. I learned how to draw lessons from the pain and the joy, how to honor these things as wisdom.

Stories were told on the beach while playing a jax like game with the worn beach rocks. They were told in the heat-distorted air of the bus like a mirage. They were told amongst coffee cup readings at the nightclubs, or while cooking pita. Some where told with tears and others were spliced with curses. Death tolls of family members were presented along with honey sweet baklava.

On our last night there I was shown a secret that ran in my Romanian genealogy. I knew somehow how to pound the dough, and how to toss it paper thin along a broomstick handle.

This is the building block of eastern European food. This art leads to the squash-filled mazes of pita, to the sheets of baklava and quiches and strudels. I was shown how to cook something from scratch.

Not how to substitute mayo and water for the milk in Mac and Cheese recipes, or the adding of Jell-O to devils food cakes that for a decade I called my family’s recipes, passed down from my mother who did not take a liking to her mothers richly flavored eastern Jewish kosher atrocities of meat and cheese.

I felt pride in this. It was an alchemical process of water, and flour, and fresh vegetables… a pinch of salt, becoming sustenance and so becoming self love.

The next day, as we drove through Sarajevo, passed the twisted metal skeletons of hotels, and the apartments decorated with mortar scars and newly built flower boxes I found myself confronted with the parting of intimacy I had shared over the weeks with these woman.

I held Selma, only a few years my elder in my arms and I cried. I held the quiet intimidating older women who always stood back to gossip who painstakingly wiped my tattoos with their shirts with the look of disgust that only comes with the love of a grandmother.

I thought of my own grandmothers who had passed away without sharing there stories with me, that flowed so feely here in the aftermath of death, be they glorified of truthful, glazed over or rambled on… in the appreciation of the moment. I said I would come back, maybe in a few years… feeling unsure even as I spoke these words if I would ever see them again.

That parting, that little death that we all held some kind of trauma around escaped in our tears. Into the plane. Over the Alps, over Düsseldorf and Amsterdam, back to New York where I was confronted with the contrast of my own family, onto Chicago and then finally back to Olympia.

I sat with my stories finally. Digesting until now, a year later I sit in New York letting them out.

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