Story by Nile Drochak, Dialogue of Civilizations⎜Photo by Annie Sigl
As I shoved my unfolded clothes into my suitcase and snatched my passport while rushing out the front door for the airport, I thought, “Wait, where exactly is Bosnia and Herzegovina? And is it one or two different countries?” At the time, I did not know that my first time in Europe would be filled with inspiring experiences and lessons.
Early in the trip, as we made our way through the streets of Sarajevo, we decided to have lunch at a café with trees and plants inside. While waiting for our food, an old woman was asking people inside the café for spare change. I reached for my pocket for anything I had at that moment and prepared to help this woman as she made her way around the café. Being away from home, halfway around the world, the fact that my act of charity couldn’t possibly follow me back home enticed me to help a stranger. To me, a true act of charity means to give without receiving anything in return. As she came towards our table, I thought, “This is an opportunity to make someone’s day better and my actions will not be rewarded.” I reached across the table to give her money. With a smile, she kissed the coins, pointed toward the clear sky and gave me a blessing in a language I did not understand. As I sat there thinking about what had just happened, we finished our food and headed back to the hotel to learn about politics and war in the Balkans.
The ethnic war between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs in the 1990s destabilized the region, suspending the Balkans in conflict created by negative peace. While positive peace is a proactive process which requires the efforts of the people and government to restore relationships and promote future cooperation, negative peace is simply the absence of conflict. In places with negative peace, like the Balkans, tensions remain and the eruption of violence is possible. The most infamous event during the war was the Srebrenica genocide where more than 7,000 Bosniak men were ethnically cleansed by Serb forces despite the United Nations being assigned to protect them. The UN misjudged the scope of these events and their inaction allowed the Serbs to continue perpetrating these acts. Consequently, I have come to realize that evil does its best work when we don’t believe it exists.
The tension between ethnic and political groups that was furthered by the war still exists today. To move toward a peaceful future, mending relationships should be based on the future rather than the past. We should think about the possibilities for cooperation rather than trudge in past mistakes because trying to move forward with the past in mind can lead to future conflict and tense relationships.
Toward the end of our trip, we visited a refugee camp that housed migrants seeking asylum, most of whom came from the Middle East. As we passed, I felt uncomfortable because we were mere onlookers, but I wanted to have some sort of human interaction. My mind was overwhelmed and scrambling for ways to do so, and I felt paralyzed. “After everything you learned about passivity, how can you just stand there?” I thought. I was inspired by a fellow classmate who initiated a conversation with the refugees in the camp. Sometimes taking a small step can open the door for greater action. Experiences like this taught me that it is important to use logic to solve problems but that your heart can also be a moral guide on how to act. So ultimately, having the courage to follow your heart is what’s important.
From being unable to locate Bosnia and Herzegovina on a map to having these valuable experiences and lessons in the Balkans, this trip helped me grow into a better person at an exponential rate. Although my trip may have ended, the responsibility to take action and do the right thing is far from over.