“Fewer than there were yesterday, but more than there will be tomorrow.”
~Me, responding to the question of how many Sarajevo Roses there are
The people of Bosnia seem largely to feel forgotten, abandoned, or otherwise unimportant to the rest of the world. The evidence of this is everywhere, but most commonly I find it in conversations. Emir Sulagic said something that really struck me in a public lecture a few days ago: “I look at Ukraine and feel envy; I feel envy at their relevance… yes I look at Ukraine and feel envy, envy that they are white enough to be worthy of intervention. Apparently we were not white enough to be worthy of intervention.” It twisted my stomach in a knot when he said it; I doubt I’ll ever forget that one. And yet, I’m too old, too experienced, and too hardened to the realities of the world to question what he’s saying. The Afghans, like so many before them, have been forgotten it seems, and I don’t wonder why.
After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, there were a lot of “official visits” and journalists, but more importantly, a lot of foreign investment. The Chinese and Indians have pumped billions in their respective currency into the tiny African nation, and the United States, Great Britain, and others aren’t lagging too far behind. This is a good thing; in a general sense Rwanda benefits from the involvement of outside investors, though one can certainly argue that the average Rwandan doesn’t reap nearly enough personal benefit from it. Nevertheless, the streets of Kigali are all pretty much in excellent condition, and sound infrastructure is a benefit to all. Bosnia, on the other hand, experienced very little support from the outside, and this hasn’t changed much over the years. I’ve attended half a dozen public events commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo in the past week alone, and either the American ambassador isn’t showing up, or else he’s far less conspicuous than any other American ambassador I’ve ever encountered. My money is on the former.
I don’t know exactly to what we should attribute the world’s general neglect of Bosnia, which it bears mention includes refusing the nation admission into the European Union while neighboring belligerent Serbia was admitted back in 2012. I strongly suspect it has something to do with the predominant religion of both nations and, just to head off the skeptics, I suspect just as strongly that the EU has concocted a more palatable and less Islamophobic explanation for people who google this question to uncover. The more time I spend in Sarajevo, the more I love it, and the more indignant I feel about the way this nation has been treated for…well… pretty much forever, but especially for the past thirty years.
So where does that leave Afghanistan? While Bosnia is just over 50% Muslim and, if you combine the Orthodox with the Catholics, over 45% Christian, Afghanistan is, well, run by the Taliban, and as such, entirely Muslim. Will the gross neglect that the world has shown Bosnia carry over to Afghanistan? Are the Afghans destined to suffer indefinitely the neglect of the developed and powerful nations which could, were they so inclined, help elevate their ancient and glorious society to new heights in much the same manner that other nations have lifted Rwanda? It seems to me that the die is already cast.
Monday morning I met Paul on Vjecnica, a stone pedestrian bridge that crosses the Miljaka between his home and my hotel. I met Monty, his dog, a “working” cocker spaniel (as opposed to a show cocker spaniel, Paul explained). We jogged around the park and down to Ambassador’s Alley. I’d been concerned about running with Paul. The man runs ultras and I doubted I could keep up, but Paul was casual and seemed content to jog along, stopping whenever Monty needed to use the outdoor toilet or got distracted by a bird. As we ran, we chatted about everything from work to politics to the Jahorina trail run we’re running in a couple of weeks. “It’s not too technical, I don’t think,” said Pual, looking doubtfully at my explosive yellow Nimbus 23 road shoes. What have I gotten myself into? I asked myself yet again. As we returned to Bascarsija, prayers started to come over loud speakers from the minarets and echoed throughout the city. I stopped on Vjecnica and listened for a moment before returning to my hotel for cereal and an espresso. In all, it was a beautiful morning and a great start to the day.
Running for the rest of the week was my pre-work escape from days spent hunting roses in the sun. Tuesday, I ran five more miles. Wednesday, eleven and a half. On Thursday I got seven miles in. Each day’s run was followed by hours and hours and hours of either following clue, maps, tips, and hunches around Sarajevo looking for Sarajevo Roses, or else documenting what I’d found online, on paper maps, in emails to my student team, and on social media accounts specific to this endeavor (please follow @rosesofsarajevo on Twitter and Instagram). By Thursday night, I was physically exhausted and also mind-numbed, so I decided to take Friday off.
Friday morning, I rose early and ran through the old city, Bascarsija, before anyone but the bakers and pigeons were awake. Deserted, I could more fully appreciate the beauty of the Ottoman part of town and how it transitions to the Austro-Hungarian part with little warning. I stopped regularly to take photographs, including many of the roses in that part of town. I allowed them to dictate my path to some extent, and after two miles turned around, getting a total of four in before showering and hopping in the car with Adi. We spent the rest of the day in Mostar and Croatia, visiting wineries and relaxing. We got back late that night.
Saturday, I ran through Ambassador’s Alley, then up to the old train track. I ran through the first tunnel, then the second. At the third, where I normally turn around, I tried my luck. It was a bright day and while there was still a pitch-black nucleus to the tunnel, running slow and light I managed to get through the blinding darkness without turning an ankle or falling into a hole. On the other side, the ruins of an old train station, an abandoned house, and incredible views. Also, massive rocks under foot. I turned around at seven-and-a-half, aiming for a total of fifteen on the day. Around mile thirteen, I encountered an ambulance, a badly injured biker, and some Canadian tourists trying to help. I stuck around and offered what I could before suggesting the Canadians eat at Inat Kuca and heading back to my hotel. Sunday, my feet were sore from the large rocks under my road shoes. I ran seven easy miles down Wilsonova, which is closed to automobiles on the weekends, and ended the week with 54.5 miles of running, my best since I began to taper for Grandma’s more than a month ago. At long last, I felt strong again.
Sunday, after my run, Adi and I again went to work. The day was typical of this kind of work. We spent several hours wandering in areas where roses were said to be, finding nothing. Then we went to another place on a hunch, found one, then another, then another and another. How many roses are there? Wikipedia says around 200. Many people I meet in Sarajevo say about half that. As for me, after two weeks of scouring, and of finding places that people were sure there were Sarajevo Roses only to discover new pavement and people who didn’t want to talk about it, my guess is there might be fifty left if we’re lucky, and some of them are in such bad shape that if you didn’t know exactly what you were looking for you’d guess that you were looking at a small paint spill, and not the location of a massacre.
I’m here in Sarajevo researching the Sarajevo Roses because memory is important. Because primary sources and evidence are important. Because the victims of the Siege of Sarajevo, not unlike the victims of the Taliban in Afghanistan, are important. Inshallah, I will never find myself wandering the streets of Kabul, searching out the telltale signs of the massacres that take place there.
I’ll end by saying that one reason I was able to run so many miles this week was that I’m finally beginning to feel recovered from my marathon last month. Another, equally if not more important reason, however, is that I’m inspired by the support I’ve received from donors. For every mile I run, we donate $1.52 to help Afghan refugees resettle in Omaha. That’s $82.84 this week, and if I have my way it will be as much or more the next. Thank you for your support of me as I run the Kandahar Marathon, and even more importantly, your support of those Afghans who have made it to Nebraska and are resettling in Omaha, Lincoln, and elsewhere as we speak. Thank you from Sarajevo. Thank you from the world.