January 20-25, 2017: Sarajevo Study Trip

The Album: https://goo.gl/photos/cc3jDhKtK6NiG5N58

We had a one week break between finals and the start of the spring semester. I was debating between traveling to Morocco (like I’ve always wanted) with some friends, or going on the study trip to Sarajevo. I can’t say I’ve ever really had much of a desire to visit Sarajevo but that’s the trip I chose. I felt kind of pressured to go because it’s run by my advisor and boss and professor. I am glad that I ultimately went.

It is unbelievably difficult to reach Sarajevo. There are no direct flights from Italy. Most of them go through Germany or Turkey. There are less than 10 flights a day going into Sarajevo, which I found ridiculously few for a major city that once hosted the Olympics. Clearly, the Olympics did not bring development to this city. Scott found us a (relatively cheap—they’re all expensive) flight through Cologne but it left from Bergamo. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. Sure, it took 3 hours to get to Bergamo, but the time passed. We even coincidentally saw Chelsea at the airport in Bergamo on her way to Morocco. She bought her flight for around 20 euros! We were looking for a screen at the airport showing the inauguration but there were none. All the better. Scott and I both independently worked on a fellowship application on the plane. We sat separately and did not coordinate. I had a whole row to myself. I was quite comfortable.

We spent the night in Cologne. In Cologne, Carnival season lasts from November till the end of Febraury. In comparison, everywhere else in the world it is only February. Essentially, it is an excuse for everyone to drink for four months. We saw people walking down the streets in costume. It’s like perpetual Halloween with everyone in capes and onesies. The highlight of Cologne is the massive gothic cathedral. From the top, you get a view of the whole city. The spiral staircase going up is dizzying and claustrophobic and tiring. There are some beautiful stained glass windows. It is a relatively new-looking modern city as it was rebuilt after the war. The city has a cool bridge going over the Rhine. And something I found very funny, the concert venue in the city is hosting The Bodyguard, the musical live, which we don’t even have in the US, as far as I know.


Our Airbnb was very loud all night. There was only WiFi in the hallway, so people were in the hallway. And some guy took a call at 6am in the morning! Someone even opened our door, which was not locked for some reason. He saw me and said “ni hao” and then closed the door. Europeans with that casual racism. The airbnb also had this weird toilet that I’ve never seen before (though since then I’ve seen it a few more times in various places across Europe). It’s as if it’s backwards where the drain is in the front of the toilet rather than the back. Why? I have no idea.


I had a bratwurst on the way to the airport and it was as glorious as sausage always is. The airport was pretty empty. Security was fast, but they were very thorough. They made me take off my hoodie and everything.

When we arrived in Bosnia, it was freezing. There was snow on the ground and in the hills. The hills with the homes up there were kind of pretty in the snow, but I do not like snow, and I don’t really have proper winter attire with me in Bologna. Let’s just say it was really cold. The ground was icy and dangerous.

The tram system

Sarajevo had the first tram system in Europe. And it looks like they haven’t updated it since then. They look really funny, like something out of the Soviet era. They’re really dated.

The Balkan Han hostel was actually pretty nice. It was in a good location. It helps that we had the whole place to ourselves. There were less than twenty of us. Only one University of Bologna student came because they are in finals. So we were mostly SAIS students. There were two rooms of 6 and one room of 8 sharing a common space and a bathroom with 3 showers (stalls) and 3 toilets and 3 sinks. It was pretty clean. It was definitely one of the better hostels. Our hosts Unkas and Ivan were very nice and they hung out with us. I found that in general, Bosnians were very nice.

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The Eternal Flame, which the locals basically just use to warm themselves

That first day we didn’t do too much. We explored the old town a little bit, which is not very big. It was basically just one shopping street lined with small gift shops and mosques. There is a fountain that is apparently iconic of the city. We didn’t recognize it as a fountain, but that’s what it was. We walked right past it in the square. Everything in Bosnia is pretty cheap too. We got hamburgers for about a dollar. They weren’t American style burgers, but they were good nonetheless.

The spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, beginning WWI
Can you tell that’s a fountain?

We had group dinner at a famous old brewery. Fun fact, the brewery was one of the few places that continued operation during the siege of Sarajevo because it has private access to the river, or something like that. The brewery had live Bosnian music, like with accordion. It’s very Eastern European sounding music. Vesselina said it’s the kind of music her parents listen to. It sounds Russian folksy. The people there were really into it, dancing in their seats. The food was good but really slow. They did not have enough people working there. Also, as we would find out, smoking is permitted indoors in Bosnia. So every establishment is filled with suffocating smoke. It gets in your eyes and burns and makes you dizzy. It’s the worst. And all of the venues are like that. There was another place our hostel hosts took us to that is so cool and exclusive that it’s only open on Monday. They have a guy frying and selling French fries in the lobby. There is a band of old musicians, one of whom looks like Bernie Sanders. And there is smoke everywhere.

Afterwards, a few of us went out to a bar named after Tesla. In this bar, they were showing an MTV show called Geordie Shore, which is the British version of Jersey Shore. Believe it or not, it is even trashier than Jersey Shore. In Europe, they don’t have the aversion to casual nudity that we have in the US. So they are all just a whole mess. What I did enjoy was the rock club we went to after. The band performing was actually really good. I did not expect to enjoy any music after hearing the terrible traditional stuff at the brewery but the rock band was fantastic.

Bosnian underground rock club

On our first full day, we went on a tour with a tour guide that did not speak any English. He speaks French, so May translated for us. Professor Frosini would’ve done that for us if he came but he didn’t come this year. I think he was tired of going after going every year. Carna came but I don’t think she speaks French and despite being an expert on the Yugoslavia conflicts, she was not very helpful and she didn’t really teach us anything. This tour guide runs an organization that helps children. During the war, he was a general or some high up position in the Bosniak army. He told us about his experiences during the war. He was not a very good tour guide. We would’ve been better off with Ted giving the tour. He read all the guidebooks and is basically a tour guide.


We all got on a bus and visited the tunnel that the Bosniaks used to access the airport during the siege. They used this tunnel to smuggle supplies into the city. Why did the Serbs allow them access to the airport? I still don’t quite understand that. It seems to defeat the purpose of a siege. But anyways, you only get to see a very small section of tunnel. The rest is closed. We might as well not have gone to the tunnel because you hardly see anything. We then visited the Jewish cemetery, which is up in the hills. It is the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe after the one in Prague. I imagine there used to be larger ones in Poland that no longer exist. It looks bigger than the one in Prague, but I guess it’s not as dense. There were kids sledding in the cemetery, which seemed kind of inappropriate. The Bosniaks had a base in the cemetery and of course, there were snipers up in the hills. From the cemetery, you can see the whole city. Katherine was not feeling well and she threw up on the bus. We sent her home in a taxi. I don’t think the weather was helping. I also just realized that all of the school trips I’ve been on (Geneva, Sarajevo, the Hague) have included Katherine.

It is still freezing, and I didn’t have a proper hat so I was scouring the city for a souvenir hat that said Sarajevo. But I guess that’s something they don’t really do, because I had a hard time finding one. Their souvenir shops do not have the typical souvenirs we have in the West. I settled on a hat for the national soccer team.

This was my first time visiting a Muslim majority country. There are mosques everywhere. And I’ve actually never been to a mosque before. We went into the main mosque, which was empty because it was not prayer time. You remove your shoes before entering a mosque. There are separate sections for men and women. We, as tourists, were only allowed into a modest small space. The walls are kind of plain, but the ceiling is decorated in a nice but understated pattern. They certainly don’t spend as much money to make these as elaborate as the Catholic churches. There is a sign outside the mosque that prohibits the use of drones but the picture has this weird shape and it is not immediately obvious that that’s what it means. But I also can’t imagine this was a problem they often had. When it is time for prayer, you hear the call to prayer broadcasted outside the mosques. Most of the people I saw seemed to ignore it though. For the most part, they seem to be not very strict. A minority of women wear headscarves. Carna told us that there was a program to pay women to wear headscarves, probably funded by the Saudis or Turks. It was  a significant sum of money, too.

Bosnian coffee and Turkish delight

I had Bosnian coffee. Obviously, I’m not much of a coffee drinker, so I don’t have too much to compare it to. It comes with a small piece of Turkish delight. You pour the coffee out yourself from the copper or silver cup thing. On the streets, they have stands where they sell fresh pomegranate juice. It’s a nice and tart drink. There are young children out on the streets who beg for money. They bang on makeshift instruments and look really pathetic. You feel bad for them, maybe even more bad than you do for the Czceh beggars who kneel down and bend over and hold out bowls/cups as if in deferent offering.

I visited a Srebrenica exhibit in Sarajevo. It was good that we got the background on it before actually going to Srebrenica. Because I admittedly knew nothing. It was a very small exhibit but there was a computer that literally plays out the genocide day by day very thoroughly. There was a video as well documenting the genocide. I think that’s what really gets you. This happened in the 90s. It was late and contemporary enough that we already had video and the genocide is documented in video. It happened at a modern enough time when we kept detailed records such that we know what exactly what happened day-by-day, hour-by-hour. We watched and let it happen. It was a massive failure by the international community. That thought really sticks with you. It was really responsible for how we do modern peacekeeping missions. There was also a documentary by Bono about the Siege of Sarajevo. It features the original song Miss Sarajevo, featuring Luciano Pavarotti. It was really well made and Bono made it to draw attention to the conflict. He followed regular Bosniaks living in the siege and really gave some humanity to the siege. The children laugh as they race across the street, briefly out in the open, to try to evade the snipers. The young girl is defiant. They have parties, they have fun. The symphony orchestra, looking for a safe place to practice performs in a parking lot. The exhibit is well done.

For our first day of meetings, we visited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). We learned about some of the problems that still plague Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) from the people that deal with them every day.  I learned a lot about important issues in BiH that are perhaps less prominent in our curriculum.

At OSCE, we were shown the so-called “Picture of Horror,” a chart outlining the very complicated structure of the Bosnian government, color-coded by ethnicity. For a small country of around 4 million inhabitants, the government is disproportionately complex. Amidst ethnic tensions between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, there exist a small population of Bosnians who do not fit in any of these categories and consequently face discrimination under the current system, which favors absolute equality between the three major ethnic groups. The European Court of Human Rights heard a case brought by a Bosnian Jew and a Bosnian Roma and ruled in their favor, but failed to implement its ruling effectively.

At UNHCR, we learned about the apparent disconnect between reality and political currents. Politicians stress that return must happen. But the reality is that over two decades after the Dayton Agreement, return is essentially over. If people were going to return, they have already done so but to many, such an acknowledgment is tantamount to endorsing the genocide. The fact of the matter is that UNHCR cannot (and has no desire to) forcibly return migrants who do not wish to go back.  People have the free right to choose. In reality, fewer Serbs have chosen to return to the Federation than vice versa. Often there is an education problem with returnees whose children are minorities in their schools, faced with the difficulty of language and controversial history curricula.

We had other meetings scheduled but they canceled on us last minute. It made what was already a kind of disorganized trip a little more disorganized. Sofia had a lot on her plate, but she was not great at communicating the organizing details with us. The best part was probably when she scheduled a film screening in Bologna after most people had already left and then assigned a 5-hour film to us the day before the trip. I am promising that the Hague trip will be better organized, but we’ll see if I can follow through.

Sarajevo itself is not very lively. There is not much business. We learned at OSCE about the extremely high rates of unemployment. The biggest employer in BiH is the state. The major business is all conducted out of two buildings. The rest of the city has very little going on. It’s really quite sad. I wonder if it was also like that before the war. Really, for a city that has hosted the Olympics, they reaped zero benefits.

The second day, we had a cool meeting at Al Jazeera. The woman we met with was very candid with us. Sarajevo is the headquarters for Al Jazeera Balkans. Afterwards, we had a terrible meeting at the Constitutional Court. It was so hot and boring, I fell asleep in the front row. They have an extremely convoluted court system that they attempted to explain to us. The court has international members on it to ensure impartiality. It is made up of two thirds Federation and one third Republika (sounds like Star Trek or Star Wars, doesn’t it?). Republika Srpska is the breakaway part of Bosnia run by the ethnic Serbs that is largely allowed to run its own affairs. It is an autonomous entity within Bosnia, as is Brcko District, but we never really got much of an explanation about how they are run. We met the President of the Court who was very politician like. He took questions, but didn’t really answer any of them. And he didn’t speak English. And his speech basically said nothing. The most interesting meeting was the one we had with the EU delegation. They somehow made economics interesting.

What have we learned about Bosnia’s prospects of joining the EU? It was promising at first, but now they’re lumped into the same category as Turkey. That is to say that they will never be part of the EU. In order to apply, you have to fill out a very long form about how the government is run. Except the different members of government cannot agree on this because it is very overcomplicated. For example, Bosnia has a rotating presidency, which alternates between Bosniak, Serb and Croat. Somehow this is supposed to be equal, even though the population is predominantly Bosniak.

The yellow hotel across from Parliament is where the first snipers hid out, shooting at protesters down below. It used to be a Holiday Inn, now it’s Hotel Holiday. This street was known as “Sniper Alley,” notoriously dangerous during the siege–you couldn’t even walk outside in the open.

We had a strange meeting at the University of Sarajevo with university students. It was boring and pointless. I think the CCSDD has some kind of partnership with a program at the school, but the program is very specific to Democracy in the Balkans. So the students were mostly from the Balkans, plus two stupid Americans, whose tuition is paid in full compared to the Europeans who are all funded by the EU. One of them studied abroad in Sarajevo, and for some reason decided to come back and bring a friend. If you’re not going to work in Sarajevo, the degree seems impractical. It seemed like they were almost trying to sell us on this program despite the fact that we are all already in a different program. The students gave us tourism presentations. Apparently they were told not to talk politics. But we were there to talk politics. So instead, we learned about foods and music, like did you know Rita Ora is from Kosovo? The presentations were kind of poor and pointless. We were treated like we were in grade school. They usually show a documentary, but they chose to do this instead. I, for one, was looking forward to the movie. The school itself resembled a concentration camp, completed with barbed wire fences. There is no quad to speak of as we have at Hopkins. It just doesn’t look like a university. The buildings, like much of the city, still have bullet holes from the war. Some of them are filled in, but they are a different color and it’s really obvious.

Do you see the brains?

Ted, being our resident expert on all things, showed us different Bosnian foods. There is Cevapcici, burek and klepe ravioli. I am a big fan of burek. It’s basically meat filled phyllo dough. You can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. One morning, we went for breakfast at a local place that had locals eating too. Usually, you don’t see Bosnians eating, only drinking or smoking. (the smoke does not come out of your clothes for weeks). There is a yogurt sauce that you can either have on the burek, or you can literally just drink it. I also had kanafeh for the first time, which is a typical middle eastern pastry. Even being from metropolitan New York, I’ve never really had this type of cuisine before. I’m sure it exists, but it’s just something I’ve never sought out. There are corners of the world still left to be discovered. I did make one very bad move. It was at a restaurant near our hostel. The chef basically just came back from the market and whipped up a menu and dictated it to us orally. I ordered the veal dish, which optionally came with brains, and I went for it. Brain has this melty texture that made me squirm. It had no flavor. And the ratio of brain to meat, was surprisingly 50:50. I thought the brain would be more of a second fiddle, but it wasn’t. And you could actually see the shape of brain. I could not finish the brain. I think the chef was a little offended, but I really tried. It genuinely made me uncomfortable.

It was gloves-on-feet freezing!

The next day we all took a bus to Srebrenica, the sight of the genocide of the Bosniak Muslim men. It is firmly in Republika Srpska territory, which is majority Serbian Orthodox. We met with the Association of Srebrenica Women (only the women were left) there in a local cultural center that didn’t have heating. It was really hard to concentrate on what they were saying because it was so cold. We all kept our jackets on and were still freezing. There was a big space heater at the back corner of the room, but they decided to turn it off because it was loud. But it’s not like we understood the Bosnian women anyways and the translator was close enough and loud enough that we had no problem hearing her. She was an excellent translator, by the way. We literally went around the whole room and the women told us what the Association does for them. In reality, this was probably better than hearing war stories. That would’ve been a lot for them and for us. This might’ve been the coldest I’ve ever been for such a prolonged period of time. We sat there for a couple hours. Sofia, who was trying to limit our questions so we’d finish up, asked two questions over her own limit. We were livid.

The monument is really heavy too. They have the same video footage as the exhibit I saw in Sarajevo, but it is very well put together. There is this large empty warehouse where the refugees were kept. Some of their belongings are on display. The UN peacekeepers from Holland failed to protect them and were perhaps a little complicit. Some men and boys tried to take their chances on foot, taking to the forest. But they were mostly found and killed as well. There is a section on the criminal tribunals. Essentially, everyone committed atrocities on all sides. Though we are mostly getting the Bosniak side of the story, we shouldn’t be mistaken. The Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats all committed war crimes.

Back in Sarajevo, we were supposed to go to a jazz club and I was excited because I kind of like jazz now. But we ended up not going there. We went to some other bar with live music. Musicians in Bosnia are actually pretty good. There was a creepy Turkish guy that tried to join us. He tried to fake being an American from Berkeley for some reason. But he had a pretty obvious accent and Chelsea called him on it. Why fake that to Americans? We could tell.  He was also a pompous ass, a fake know-it-all. We tolerated him for a bit and then quickly left.

Walking around town, it’s a pretty small town, we saw SAISers all around doing some last minute souvenir shopping. They sell lots of metal works, like copper coffee sets. And there are plenty of artillery shells and bullet casings, ostensibly leftover from the war, that they sell too.

In the end, I am glad that I had this experience. It was enlightening, if not unreasonably cold. And I can tell you, I most certainly won’t go back in the future, so I’m glad to have went now. It wasn’t Morocco, but I guess that’ll have to wait.


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