On Thursday, I returned from spending four days with an unusual combination of Eastern European study-abroad alumni and Peace Corps volunteers in a small Ukrainian village. If you’ve seen the movie Everything is Illuminated, you don’t need me to describe our village. This is the first time that I have traveled internationally purely for “business,” but I still had a little bit of time on our last day to explore Kiev with some of my new friends who I will be teaching with this summer. As we ran around Kiev’s historical center in a few hours, I realized how much my time in Sarajevo is changing the way I see the world.
Kiev is a very cool city (it’s cliched, but there’s no other word for it), with lots of cobblestoned streets with painters and artisans selling homemade handcrafts in the background of stunning cathedrals. Ornate and colorful European-style buildings stand next to Communist monstrosities. We were exploring the city on a nice day, and people were everywhere–in cafes, in the parks, on the street. In a way, it reminded me very much of Sarajevo. Yet for me, the most moving part of our visit to Kiev was our visit to Maidan Square, the site of the Euromaidan protests in 2014.
Between 100 and 700 people died in these protests, which lead to Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution and the Russian annexation of Crimea. In Maidan (and Kiev in general) it’s almost impossible to see the effects of these ongoing conflicts. Besides some ongoing construction on buildings that were damaged and few spots in the square where the bricks are still being replaced, the only sign of what happened is the “Heavenly Hundred Heroes Avenue.” This section of Instytutska Street leads from Maidan to the main government buildings–it is now home to hundreds of moving memorials to the protesters who were killed.
As I looked at these memorials–the colorful votive candles, images of men and boys smiling in school and work photos, the endless flowers–I realized how knowledge of one conflict deeply understands understanding of other conflicts. When I looked at the photos of the men–and sometimes even women and children–who were killed in Maidan, I was struck by how much they reminded me of the photos I have seen of the victims of Srebrenica. I read their names, but in my head, I replaced them with the names of my friends’ fathers who were killed during the war, the men who I will only ever hear stories about. I thought about the impact that their deaths had on an entire generation and the gaping holes that they left behind in an entire society. I thought about the testimony and reflections I have read from Sarajevo’s war children, and how the lives of children in Kiev, in Donetsk, in Crimea, have been irreversibly changed. No matter how much research I have done and how many stories I have heard, I still don’t know what it means to live through a war–and I hope I will never find out–but I know more than I did six months ago. And given what I know now, it is impossible for me not to feel more empathy when I hear about conflicts.
It is an empathy that many people in Sarajevo share. I didn’t tell too many of my students and colleagues exactly where I was going, but almost everyone who did know asked me to email them to ensure that I arrived. Once I returned, most of them asked me directly about how the war over Crimea was affecting daily life in the capital. As my colleagues-turned-student-turned-friend in Student Services told me, “Once you have lived through a war, you naturally are more interested in other places that are going through the same thing.”
Leaving Sarajevo for five days also made me realize how at home I feel in Sarajevo. Many of my friends and colleagues asked me to email them to let them know I safely arrived. As a point of comparison, my parents don’t even ask me to do this anymore when I travel. I spent a significant time while I was in Kiev emailing and messaging friends in Sarajevo–more so than I was talking to most of my friends in the US–and by Wednesday, I realized that I even missed going to work. When I returned to FIN on Thursday, one of my students greeted me with a huge hug. I know I am just a temporary guest in Sarajevo, and sometimes I feel smothered by the amount of people telling me to eat, to take a day off, to relax because you are our guest or because you are so young. But when I think about how happy I was to get back to Sarajevo, and how I was greeted by my friends and colleagues on Thursday, I am falling into the illusion that Sarajevo can be–and is–my home.