Alumni / Summer 2017

A return to Sarajevo, 20 years later

The Stari Most bridge as it looks today. Photo by Keith Jones

Twenty years is a long time. Technology has changed drastically. Styles and fashions have evolved. New generations have been born. And life has moved forward.

For me, 20 years means something different. Something a bit more special. Something more character-defining.

Twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to do volunteer work in the former Yugoslavia following the breakup of that country. As part of DU’s Pioneer Leadership Program, I spent two summers working with kids who had experienced horrors I had only read about or seen on TV. On my first trip, I worked with other DU volunteers to run a day-care center for children at a refugee camp located on the island of Brač, near Split, Croatia. Over my second summer, I worked with DU volunteers to teach English and computer skills to teenagers in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In Croatia, I lived in the same building with refugees—people who had a new view on hatred and divisiveness. I ate with the children who were rediscovering parts of their childhood. I learned of their experiences and how war changed their lives forever. I heard stories about fathers, brothers, uncles, sons being killed. Stories about shelling, grenades and land mines at all hours of the day. Stories about homes being burned and destroyed and physical possessions being taken away. Stories about fleeing in the middle of the night to escape what was happening.

These stories led me to want to do more, and I volunteered to go back to the war-torn country. This time, it was to Sarajevo.

During my time there, I experienced living in a city that was once under siege. Blown-out buildings. Homes destroyed and burned. Fences and light posts riddled with bullet holes. It was a city of fresh wounds on their way to becoming scars. New stories emerged from the teenagers too: running for cover from sniper fire while trying to get water and bread; the constant and persistent sound of military fire on the city from the surrounding mountains.

My time in Croatia and Bosnia changed me. I became more appreciative of life, grateful for the things I’d been given and the opportunities I had. I became more curious, with a tremendous desire to learn. I became more self-aware and conscious of the impact I can have on people—which ultimately led me to a career in human resources.

In November 2016, I made a trip back to Sarajevo. I needed to see it again. I wanted to see how the people and the city had moved forward. As the plane landed, I was glued to the window. I expected to see blown-out homes, burned-up cars and damaged buildings. Instead, I saw homes rebuilt, buildings restored and cars on the road. I saw a bustling city full of life.

On the cab ride to the hotel, my breath was taken away on multiple occasions. Buildings I remembered as devastated or damaged had been repaired and rebuilt. Train cars were operational, carrying passengers. New buildings changed the skyline I remembered. The city was vibrant, with people out walking the streets and drinking coffee and beer in cafes and bars. Gone were the warnings for land mines, the soldiers with machine guns on each corner. It truly felt like a different place.

Over the next few days, I was able to explore the city and revisit many of the locations and sights I had seen 20 years before. On the surface everything appears to have moved forward in Sarajevo, but a little more questioning and digging tells a different story. Yes, there is vibrancy and activity in the city, but a tour guide told me that much of that can be attributed to the high unemployment rate. As I learned, most students who go to university move away to find employment since jobs are scarce.

During my return visit, I spent quite a bit of time in museums and on tours. I felt it was important to re-immerse myself in the area’s history. I made my way back to Mostar and was able to see the Stari Most (aka the Old Bridge) rebuilt. I experienced the old town in its restored beauty—once a tourist destination, then completely destroyed by war, and now moving forward as much as it can. However, the rest of the city, even just one block away from the beautiful restorations, still betrays a tremendous amount of damage. Signs around the Stari Most remind people to “never forget” what happened there.

The trip was sobering. It was great to see how much the city has changed and moved forward from the destruction, but on the flip side, it was hard to hear about the divisions that still exist among the leaders of the country and its people.

As I sit back and reflect on my 20-year journey in the former Yugoslavia, I’m very humbled and very grateful. Thanks to DU, I took my classroom learning to a new level and became part of the history that would one day be written about in books—a history that would become only a distant memory to many people even though their lives were forever changed because of it.

I look forward to seeing Sarajevo in another 20 years and continuing this amazing chapter of my life.


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