As many of you know, I’ll be traveling to Sarajevo, Bosnia this summer with the William & Mary Bosnia Project . Alongside students at the University of Sarajevo and four teammates from W&M, I will be teaching English, nonviolent communication, and media skills at both a summer camp for middle-school aged kids and a preschool. I’ve been preparing for this trip since November, and I am unbelievably excited that it’s less than a month away!
I’m hoping to keep this blog with thoughts about my travels while I’m in Bosnia. I’m not sure how much Internet access that I’ll have, but hopefully I can post once a week or so about my experiences. In the meantime, I want to clear up some misconceptions people seem to have about my trip. I’ve gotten some really… interesting reactions when I tell people I’m going to Bosnia for the summer.
Misconception #1: Isn’t there a war going on?
Good job! Very true! There indeed was a war in Bosnia, including a siege of Sarajevo… between 1992-1995. Eighteen years ago. In fact, the war in Bosnia is the reason that the W&M Bosnia Project was established. In 1998, Mihailo Crnobrnja, a Yugoslav scholar who was teaching at William & Mary for a year, recruited some students to go to his hometown in Bosnia, Zenica, to work with children who were affected by the war. Students from W&M have been traveling back to Bosnia almost every year since then. We now work in Sarajevo with a great NGO called Creativus, advised by our incredible W&M professor Dr. Paula Pickering. Even though the children we teach now were all born after the war, they still live in a fragmented society where the three ethnic groups–Bosniak, Serbs, and Croats–are often segregated from each other. Our goal is to bring together children of different ethnicities and backgrounds and help them learn how members of different groups can form meaningful relationships. Furthermore, our secondary goal–to help children learn to speak English more fluently–is also a result of the war. Since the war and increased European and American presence in the country, as well as increased exposure to American media, English has become far more important in Bosnia.
With that being said, the actual fighting in Bosnia is long over. In fact, Bosnians have rebuilt most of the major cities and sites damaged by the war, including completely rebuilding the 15th century Old Bridge in the historic city of Mostar by hand, using traditional methods! Nevertheless, the predominant image that people have of Bosnia is of a desolate, war-destroyed landscape. The reason for that is largely due to the reactions of Western media outlets and their fascination with death and destruction. Dubravka Usgresic, a Yugoslav writer, has described the phenomenon of Western news outlets sensationalizing replaying scenes of devastation from the siege of Sarajevo as “the pornography of death.”* I personally think there is at least a limited value in replaying scenes of tragedy on the national media–it helps outside actors understand what is going and can influence people to educate themselves about the situation–but one of the problems that emerged from the media blitz surrounding Bosnia is that when most people think Bosnia, they think destruction. It’s true that parts of Bosnia were largely destroyed during the war, and that parts of Bosnia are still destroyed, but Bosnians are remarkably resilient. When I look at Bosnia today, I’m amazed at the physical recovery from the war. Looking at a birds-eye view of Sarajevo without knowing it’s history, it’s impossible to imagine the destruction the city faced just fifteen years ago.
That being said, images of Bosnia today don’t often make the national news. There are many reasons for that. First of all, post-conflict Bosnia is not an entirely rosy place. Sure, people aren’t shooting each other in the streets, and there’s a much higher standard of living than other post-conflict zones such as Rwanda, but unemployment still runs rampant–the official unemployment estimate is 43.3%. Most neighborhoods and schools are segregated by ethnicity. Furthermore, there are still serious conflicts over war retributions between the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, a gerrymandered section of the country that is completely controlled by Serbs yet still under the same republican government. The situation in Bosnia has greatly improved since the war, but it’s complicated, and if there’s one thing that the American media hates, it’s complications. Furthermore, some of the problems in Bosnia can be traced to American inaction in the start of the war or the American-led negotiation of Dayton Accords, which ended the war, which makes the complications even more uncomfortable for American media.
The biggest reason why images of Bosnia today don’t often make the national news, however, is that peace simply isn’t sexy. Media outlets sensationalize stirring stories and images of death and destruction to draw in viewers from their competitors all the time. Despite the fears of pundits, it’s nothing new–just do a quick Google search for “Yellow Journalism”–and I would argue that it can even be a good thing. The mainstream American media should show footage of the murder and atrocities in Syria rather than showing Bosnians drinking coffee at a Sarajevo cafe. However, that being said, it’s not going to take away from the focus on current conflict too much if the mainstream media would air a segment on postwar recovery in Bosnia. In fact, studying past conflict and resolution in Bosnia might even help us find ways to improve the current situation in Syria and other conflicts (Shocker! The past can be used to help learn about the present! Who would have thought?)* However, I highly doubt mainstream media will ever focus on post-conflict Bosnia enough to correct common misconceptions about the country. It’s just not attractive enough to viewers. War and death, even in a remote foreign country, is sexy. It brings in viewers. Rebuilding does not.*
And because of the quirks of the mainstream media, I have to explain to almost everyone that I meet that I will not be teaching in a war-zone this summer.
*Disclaimer #1: I don’t agree with many of the postings on the American Thinker and even have some qualms about the final point of the article I’ve linked, but it’s definitely food for thought.
*Disclaimer #2: I’m a history major, so of course I’m going to plug for my own speciality. I’m also no expert on Syria, but many observers who are more educated on the situation than I am have made similar comparisons. This article somewhat over-glorifies American intervention in Bosnia, but it’s a good overview of the two situations.
*Disclaimer #3: I included the phrase “in a remote foreign country” for a very specific reason. I have been surprised by the mainstream media’s attention on rebuilding at the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy. However, as a NJ resident and frequent visitor to the Jersey shore, I might be paying more attention to the issue/be more exposed in my local media. Also–and this is entirely reasonable–most Americans probably care a significant deal more about rebuilding in their favorite vacation spot versus rebuilding in a country most of them will never visit.