“Why Remember?”

(The name of the conference I attended this week in Sarajevo and Srebrenica)

I landed in Sarajevo a bit bedraggled from the journey. I’d slept some, though not well, on the leg between Chicago and Vienna, then took my coffee and worked on some writing in the airport in Austria before boarding an Austrian Airlines flight into Bosnia. After being seated, I removed Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn on the Frontline of Politics and War by Kenneth Morrison, whom I had had the pleasure of meeting when we both presented at a conference in Royal Wootton Bassett several years ago, frommy bag and began reading.

“Good book?” asked the man to my left.

“So far,” I responded, indicating that I was in the front material. “I’m heading to a conference that’s being held at this hotel over the next few days. Figured I should read it.”

“I think I’m heading to the same conference.”

Craig Larkin was born in Belfast, and now works at Kings College in London where it has more than once occurred to me to pursue a second doctoral degree. We chatted the entire flight and upon landing I asked Adi, my friend and also my interpreter, to drop Craig at his hotel before taking me to get a sim card.

Earlier in the week, I’d spent time gradually packing, hanging out with friends, grilling food, and spending as much time with my wife and kids as I was able. I ran five miles on Monday, July 4, and four more miles early on a sweltering hot Tuesday morning, then having breakfast with the family one last time before they dropped me off at the airport. By the time I got to my hotel the following afternoon I was exhausted, but this wasn’t my first rodeo and I knew better than to succumb to the desire to take a nap. Instead, I texted Sonja before lacing up my running shoes and setting out into the hot Bosnian afternoon. I ran just three miles down the banks of the Miljacka River, which was complicated less by fatigue and more by the fact that Sarajevo is a bustling capital city, and also a place where it’s perfectly acceptable to park a car on the sidewalk.

The next two days, I woke early, went for a run, then spent the rest of the day attending the “Why Remember?” conference—a rhetorical question, of course—at the Hotel Holiday, what was once the Holiday Inn. The hotel’s history puts it on par with the Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali. Towering over Sarajevo’s deadly Sniper Alley, it was a place where international journalists headquartered themselves during the Siege of Sarajevo. Built for the 1984 Olympics, the penthouse that was once occupied by the Olympic commissioner later became a temporary headquarters for Radovan Karadzic, the murderous general who led the Siege of Sarajevo, and it was from that window that some of the earliest shots of the siege were fired. Kenneth, the author of the book I was reading, gave us a fascinating talk about it, and I was honored that he remembered me after so many years.

Thursday evening I was at a museum with other attendees, and Paul, one of the conference organizers and someone whose work I deeply admire, said casually, “You know there’s a trail race before you leave.”  Paul is one of those mad ultra-runners. Two weeks ago he knocked out a hundred mile race, yet despite being old enough to have photographed the Siege of Sarajevo and having gray hair he’s as spry and energetic a man as I’ve ever met. I eyed him incredulously. “There’s a 27K option,” he said, perhaps somewhat coaxingly. I did some rough math in my head before responding “Sounds good.”

“You’re doing the Jahorina Trail Run?!” asked Josephine in a voice that clearly stated “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into.” Josephine, who presented on my panel with two incredible students from Jajce, a town in the Federation of Bosnia where student-activists had succeeded in desegregating their school, ran at Johns Hopkins before joining a professional running club in Germany while she did her Master’s. She and I had discussed writing a paper together, and in speaking to her I learned that she had just run a half marathon in about fifteen minutes less than it takes me. Her incredulity about the trail run had me worried.

“Er…” I stammered.

“Only the 27K,” chimed in Paul. 

What have I gotten myself into? I wondered.

Friday, after a late night with the other conference attendees at a restaurant that offered wonderful food, excellent Bosnian wine, and fantastic views of the city, I found myself wide awake at a quarter until four in the morning. Unwilling to waste the opportunity, I read for a short bit, then went for a run of five and a half miles through Bascarsija (bass-char-see-uh with the emphasis primarily upon the second syllable), Sarajevo’s old city, to the Hotel Holiday. On the way I stopped to photograph several Sarajevo Roses, the primary artifacts which are my true reason for being in Bosnia this summer.

Friday was spent at Srebrenica, the place where 8,372 Bosnian men and boys were murdered horribly in 1995. I saw Hassan, now an old friend whose book I used in my class on 20th Century Genocide, and met Emir, the director of the Srebrenica Memorial. Both men are survivors of the genocide that took place there. It is powerful to be in that place, and also difficult. Sometimes I wonder how I chose the field of genocide studies. Other times I feel as if it chose me. I spent the day learning, taking in everything that was said. I was reminded of when I first entered the field of Holocaust education, how I took copious notes anytime someone spoke and found every last detail to be of the greatest interest. The level of denial, the extent to which many work to deny the genocide that occurred here, is staggering. Mass graves were moved, relocated to try to hide them. The Dutch would seemingly prefer to forget it ever happened. The Serbs actually state that it never happened. As Paul and I drove back to Sarajevo that night, he pointed to what appeared to be a brand new building. It was actually a very old building, he explained, but it looks new because it was the site of a massacre, and recently the owner of the property had filled in the bullet holds and whitewashed it—literally whitewashed it—to cover up the blood stains. Such things are not uncommon here, and it punctuated for me the importance of the research I am here to do, documenting the existence of a unique primary sources before time, politics, or prejudice sees to their disappearance.

That evening, back in Sarajevo, we went to the opening of an exhibit by two photographers who are documenting the war in Ukraine. I saw several images I recognized from reading the New York Times, CNN, and the Napa Valley Register—my three daily newspapers. The event was held in an old theater, the Red Cross building in Sarajevo, which was burned out during the Siege. It was a fitting space for such an event. After that, dinner. We were walking through the old town, Bascarsija under strings of festive lights. A man approached me, asking for money. Sarajevo is not immune to the general position of indifference that every other city in the world to which I have traveled harbors toward their downtrodden. The one I live in currently is among the worst by far. Most people seem to ignore the poor; I suppose they make us uncomfortable, make us feel things we’d rather not such as guilt or pity. Or perhaps they remind us that it is good fortune and circumstance, rather than merit as we so like to tell ourselves, that divides us.

I have always struggled with the poor. I help, when I can, when it is convenient, but it is a rare occasion that I actually turn my car around to return to someone and offer them help. I make no judgements about what people spend their money on, and I don’t assume everyone who needs help to be an addict. For me, the primary problem is how ubiquitous the needy are, coupled with the realities that many of them are exploited. By that I mean to say that I think many of them gather money only later to have it robbed of them. I know this to be true through some of the conversations I’ve had over the years with people asking for money. Imperfect though it seems, I typically try to give them something when I have it, though admittedly not always.

That night, on the way to an after party, when the man approached me asking for money, I was hesitant at first. I was distracted and did not immediately engage with him. “Please,” he said simply, and I turned to look him in the eyes. Of course. I pulled a coin from my pocket, realized it was small, and pulled a second one out. Whether it was two Bosnian Marks or five I don’t recall, but I gave it to him and he seemed quite pleased. He held out a packet of wet wipes and a package of tissues, small travel-size types of things. “Take?” he asked. “Oh no, I’m fine,” I told him. Perhaps he could use them himself, or maybe he could sell them. Either way I didn’t need them. “Please,” he said again, with the same subtle urgency in his voice, and at last I realized that if I accepted, then he hadn’t begged me for money, but instead we had simply had a business transaction. This seemed to matter to him, and I think maybe I understand that. Nobody wants to beg for money, of course, no matter what the privileged elites who were born with silver spoons in their mouths may grumble to the contrary.

I walked into my hotel room and set the package of Fresh Junior Wet Wipes on my desk, then texted my wife. A few minutes later a Facetime call came in and my little girl, Zooey, was telling me about her day. Not long after, Titus joined the conversation. It was so great to see their faces. Finally around midnight I got to sleep.

Saturday morning, Eid. Adi had invited me to services, but I had been struggling to keep my eyes open for two days and when he told me it was “very early” I thanked him and told him I’d take a rain check.  I awoke at 10:25 and hurried downstairs in the hope of finding some remnants of the hotel’s complimentary breakfast remaining. I grabbed a plate and gathered up some apple baclava, strawberry yogurt, a croissant, a few pickles, and a fresh peach and took them back to my room. I worked most of the morning, then attended Amra’s book talk at the BuyBook bookstore in the afternoon. Amra, like her husband Paul, was a correspondent during the war. They met that way, and married in 1995, well before the Siege of Sarajevo had ended. She worked for Reuters during the war. A brilliant writer and thinker, I’ve been reading her book, Sarajevo: The Longest Siege, and have found it to be thoughtful, enlightening, and accessible. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is seeking to learn more about the Siege of Sarajevo (so I recommend it to everyone). After the talk, I got a quick five miles in on a trail Paul told me about, the Alley of Ambassadors, which runs along the river through deep canyons and is flanked for miles by plaques bearing the names of ambassadors to Bosnia and Herzegovina, each with a tree planted above it in honor of their service. I wonder if one day I might be so fortunate as to…

That evening, I attended the opening of an exhibition of photography from Srebrenica. Much of it I hadn’t seen. There were also some incredible posters from the siege, mostly American iconography remade to represent the Siege during the war. “I want YOU to save Sarajevo,” declares Uncle Sam, his finger pointed into your heart. The more I learn about what occurred in Bosnia, what still occurs in Bosnia, the more convinced I become that I am destined to devote much of my energy and career to this place, to the people who live here, for years and years to come.

Sunday morning I awoke before my alarm, did some writing, then struck out for a long run. Paul had told me at dinner the night before that if I continued on the trail past the Alley of Ambassadors, then took a right over a beautiful stone bridge and ran, in essence, straight up the mountain for about a mile, I’d be on the old train track. I followed his instructions and soon found myself at dizzying heights, surrounded by amazing views of the valley below when the trees and overgrowth did not obscure my line of sight. I made it through the first two train tunnels before arriving at a third in which I could see no light breaking through on the other side. Perhaps I’m too old to be scared of the dark, or perhaps I’m wise enough not to fall into a hole and turn an ankle running in pitch blackness when I know Paul has headlamps I can borrow if I really want to forge my way through. I returned to the hotel, a fairly easy run given that it was almost entirely downhill, having run twelve and a half miles on the day—my longest run since finishing Grandma’s Marathon now three weeks ago. With that, I had logged a total of just over forty-one miles on the week, which at my current rate of pledges means that this week—with your support—I raised just over $62 to help support refugees. It is a modest contribution, perhaps, but it is one I’m pleased to make. To all who are supporting me: Thank you.

Back at the hotel, in lieu of Gatorade I sucked down several glasses of apple juice, then allowed myself some eggs and sausage—cholesterol be damned—as a reward for my efforts. I’ve been in Bosnia nearly a week now, and while I miss my wife and children a great deal I can’t help but feel fortunate that I’m able to do the work I’m doing here. We should all be so fortunate as to feel as if our work is important, and the time I’ve spent this week with war correspondents, journalists, photographers, and many more has only served to further galvanize this belief. As ever, thanks for following along on the journey, and if you don’t already please consider pledging me by the mile for the rest of 2022 in support of Afghan refugees resettling in Nebraska.

Cheers,

Mark

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