Musings from Sarajevo

From Joyce Dubensky, Tanenbaum EVP:

Blogging is new to me, but the week with the Tanenbaum Peacemakers in Sarajevo was so powerful that I thought I’d try my hand at it.

For one thing, in Bosnia, the contrasts are striking and, frankly, unnerving.

It is clearly a post-conflict environment. But nearly at every turn, we encountered extraordinary beauty sitting side-by-side the remnants of yesterday’s war.

I remember when we arrived in Sarajevo, and got through immigration. There was my friend, Friar Ivo, greeting us with his colleagues (we gave each other bear hugs). We all piled into cars, and Peacemaker Ephraim Isaac and I joined Friar Ivo in his car. (In Bosnia, he isn’t called Father. He told Greg that during the communist era, it was dangerous to be recognized as a priest. But he also explained it to me by saying, “there is only one Father.” Thus, he is called “Uncle Ivo.”)

As we drove into Sarajevo, I couldn’t help notice the really, really bright yellow Hilton (I had never seen a bright yellow hotel before) – I later learned that it was where the reporters had stayed during the war.

Just after we passed it, the car stopped at a red light by a beautiful – almost quaint – square. I told Friar Ivo how beautiful it is. He pointed to a corner and then toward a hill opposite it. “They used to shoot from over there – they would hide behind the monuments in the Jewish cemetery. One day, I saw an old woman. She was walking. And then I saw her crumble to the ground. I wondered how they could shoot her? She is just an old woman.”

The structures everywhere in Sarajevo hold contrasts. Beautiful buildings, Eastern and Western architecture, mosques, churches, a synagogue, a library, the Bosniak Institute, standing next to burnt out buildings. Dark circles and holes of varying sizes mark the walls of many, many buildings – evidence of gunfire.

The city is surrounded by mountains. I kept telling everyone to look because the scenery was breathtaking both from within the Old City and outside of it.

When we drove to Mostar, the clouds surrounded the earth, and everything looked totally serene. It was inconceivable that violence, hatred, murder, had taken hold here. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. And I wasn’t alone. Some of the Peacemakers shared that they, too, had the same sense of disorientation.

For me, the greatest contrasts were with the people. I’ve been in lots of hotels in lots of different places. In Sarajevo, the staff in the hotel got involved in our lives. They noticed us and took special care of us. My colleagues from Tanenbaum and I worked late, planning for the next day after the evening meetings ended. By the second day, I was scheduling two wake up calls, to make sure I got up in time. By the third day, the woman at the desk was waking me up and asking, “Do you want ten more minutes?” (I always said yes!)

The staff was kind and very friendly. When we left, the woman from behind the desk carried out my luggage (she wouldn’t take a tip) and hugged me, saying “Our dear guests.” As I hugged her goodbye, I kept thinking that a few years ago, all of the people we had met were living with terror in a state of war. And I felt, just a little, like I was abandoning her to an uncertain future.

The memories are raw and some people still hate. But so many of the people we met seem intent on finding a future, while remembering. Friar Ivo is a local hero. He persists in trying to build community and relationships, each day.

I had only read about the war in the 1990s. But being there was different. Truly, it is a land of multiple realities.

It was also interesting to see how our Tanenbaum Peacemakers reacted to all this. They clearly understood the contrasts, and were deeply interested in the people and the lives that have been touched by the conflict here. While one stayed up talking with the local cab drivers, others went to houses of worship to talk to the worshipers. Everyone found a friend, or somehow connected with people from Sarajevo.

There were lots of memories from the week. Most have to do with our Peacemakers and how they are so full of life, even as they do some of the most challenging and lonely work imaginable. Part of this is how much they relish just being with each other. Their energy and commitment give each other energy. Not surprisingly, they are always talking, comparing notes, sharing, talking strategy.

But they also laugh a lot. And there were some really funny moments, like the time Hind pulled a series of tables together so that 20 or our group could squeeze together – and then she couldn’t get out when she wanted to grab a few minutes to go shopping (to get Friar Ivo a present). Or the way Betty and I got to dance in a restaurant with music – only to be told later by my colleagues that no one was dancing in the restaurant but us.

There were so many touching moments, like Friar Ivo playing the organ in the monastery for us. It’s an old organ, and he makes beautiful music. Or the response that each and every Peacemaker and Tanenbaum staffer had when we learned that one of the Peacemakers might be seriously ill. (Happily, this turned out not to be so.) I remember hearing the news. I just cried, and was struck yet again by life’s uncertainty and how important it is to live each day well. The Peacemakers are examples in how to do this.

No one moment was the best or even the most powerful. I always think that I am particularly privileged to be doing the work of Tanenbaum. And this amazing week, in this land of contrasts, was just one more reason for me to be grateful.

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