“What I found was indeed a beautiful land of mountains, rivers and forests, and rich culture and history on every corner. Signs of a vibrant, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society were everywhere. But sadly, also signs of conflict and wounds yet to heal.”
Potocari Memorial Centre
Such a beautiful landscape, such warm people, such culture and history. So why did Bosnia and its surrounding countries descend into war in the 1990s? And what is the situation like now? These were the questions running through my mind when I embarked on a study visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina with a group from North East England.
I was always interested in Bosnia, ever since I saw images of the wars in the former Yugoslavia on television as a young teenager.
What I found was indeed a beautiful land of mountains, rivers and forests, and rich culture and history on every corner. Signs of a vibrant, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society were everywhere. But sadly, also signs of conflict and wounds yet to heal.
I marvelled at the ancient mosque of Stolac, just a short distance from the rooms of a former hospital used for the beating of civilians caught up in the war. I soaked up the calming atmosphere of Mostar and its famous bridge, while listening to the harrowing story of a former prisoner of war. I was amazed by the mix of old and new, east meets west, in the capital city Sarajevo; the mosques, churches and synagogues all just a stone’s throw away from the places where shells had fallen and shots had been fired towards the population of the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’.
There were many positive signs, such as the interfaith work of young people and women, aimed at taking people away from poisonous ideologies and developing their skills so that they can contribute towards the advancement of their society. There was great potential in the friendly and knowledgeable people that we met. But there are also obvious challenges that need to be overcome.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery. The sight of so many graves was only bearable due to the strength and humanity we saw in the women of the Mothers of Srebrenica support group, women who have lost so much but continue to struggle for justice with dignity and determination.
Reflecting on the situation in Bosnia led me to think about my own community and society. And this was the main lesson I learnt from the trip. That people can descend into darkness and violence when there are divisions between people based on ignorance. We need to understand each other, learn from each other, and respect each other’s differences. I hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina continues its ongoing journey towards this goal and that, like me, people can visit and learn from the experiences of all Bosnian people.