Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not exactly "Good Night Moon"

[I wrote the bulk of this from Sanski Most, Bosnia and Hercegovina, along the border between the Federation and Republika Srpska, but am now back in Belgrade, having finished my program and finally having a little time to reflect].

For the past three weeks I've sleeping with "War Crimes in Bosnia: Volume II" [which I just want to add covers the year 1992] beside my pillow.  While it doesn't steal the covers, wet the bed, or snore (so things could be worse), and I somehow manage to fall asleep every night without being woken by nightmares, I do start and end every day with the war. In many ways I think I'd feel guilty if I didn't. The house I'm living in was burned out, the family I'm living with fled, the village where I'm living lost several hundred, Sanski Most, about the distance from West West to Putney away, was ethnically cleansed twice during the war. Perhaps one of the reasons why I am so intrigued by what has happened here is that walking through the streets, driving through villages, if I don't look closely enough, I don't have to see the war. I can see farms and a lot of newly constructed houses, some abandoned ones, but I don't have to ask questions about them, I can see boys on bicycles, babies and burek-places (filo stuffed with meat, or other things--but then it's not burek (just to be clear), it's sirnica or zelenica, or tikvica...). But (perhaps) because I haven't seen Sanski Most in 1996, let alone 1992, and thus have nothing to forget, I want to remember.

One thing which still strikes me about being here is the newness of houses: many of them haven't been plastered yet, and are just red brick and gray cement, with red tile roofs. Of those that have, some are discreet yellows, fresh whites, but some are fire-engine red, or bright orange, purple or green. Those tend to stick out. I'm learning to pick out the old houses by the color of their painted plaster, usually muted pastel greens, blues, some yellows, and their windows. Hardly any houses have wooden window frames and that old, not quite perfect window glass that gives slightly imperfect reflections of the world around them. Windows. Just another unsung victim of violence. It's strange to be on the one hand searching for the old--the old stone foundations, worn tile roofs and water stains, while at the same time be living in a village overwhelmingly populated by the elderly, where I find myself wondering where all the children are. 

And these are just the physical things, which I can see, the things which survived. What I can't see is how places have changed. Last night, driving back from the office, Vahidin took a different side road. "this village" he said, "this one wasn't destroyed during the war. down there," he gestured to a field we drive past every day, "that was the air field of the Serb Army while they were here, and that building," green with an industrial sized dough mixer out front along with other cast off equipment, "that was the air base." "and there," a field in the floodplains of the river Sanica (little Sana, the Sana is the river running through Sanski Most, and gives Sanski Most it's name), towards the river it looks like a family is having a picnic. "that's where the first mass grave in Vrhpolje was found."  (How) can I now drive by those places and not now think of them as changed? And yet, the next day, we drove past those same fields, those same houses. are they different houses? are they new fields? no. The physical things havent changed, but their meaning has become more complex.

Yesterday was also an unusual day in that I had two heavy interviews before noon, almost back to back (both of which mentioned towns I had been reading about the night before, before falling asleep), followed by what changed from an exciting mostly-understood conversation [directed at me] in Bosnian about if Osama bin Laden was a terrorist or not, to something almost word for word out of "War Crimes in BiH." I was thrilled to be finally understanding, understanding (I can't stress this enough) what was being said, and utterly horrified by what it was I was finally comprehending: expulsion, seeing family members killed, surviving an execution squad. It was also the first day for a new volunteer at CIM (Centar za Izgradnju Mira), and in the middle of the story--by this time someone was translating for us (from being surrounded by Bosnian I probably comprehend the most of the three of us, but am a leap and a bit away from being able to understand the complexities and details of the story, let alone translate them to others and still keep the thread of the conversation going) -- he asked "is it always like this" (we were sitting at a 3 year old's birthday party in someone's living room, drinking coffee, eating birthday cake and talking about ethnic cleansing)? "not really," I told him.

Because I've been interviewing people here in Sanski Most about their experiences of displacement and return to Sanski Most from 1992-1996, I've asked people to share with me some clearly uncomfortable things. I watched the most beautiful, clear blue eyes of one woman I spoke to yesterday become glossy with tears as she remembered "that time" of displacement, of Sanski Most in late 1995 when she returned.  But I haven't really had these stories just handed to me before. and it's hard to know just what to do with them.  I think that's one of the reasons why this ISP (independent research component of my study abroad program) became so meaningful to me, because it gave me a way, a forum for discussing, for sharing these stories that I had been collecting, gathering, reflecting on.
It's a way for me to strike a balance between remembering and forgetting (Oh Milan Kundera, I miss you so), of situating myself in the present. A present which is sunny and warm, and which shouldn't be spent sitting in front of a computer.

No comments:

Post a Comment