Near the end of their stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a group of Ohio Wesleyan University students visited the Sarajevo Tunnel, built by besieged citizens during the Bosnian Civil War to secretly transport food and medicine into the city. The tour featured video footage of the war, including massive damage to neighborhoods where the OWU students were now living and working.
“In a way, it was good for us to go to the tunnel after our stay in the city of Sarajevo because after walking on these streets, seeing these buildings for six weeks in a row and then going to see what those buildings and the streets were like during the conflict years, it was just so powerful,” said Alina Ruzmetova, a senior from Pataskala, Ohio, double-majoring in international studies and economics.
Ruzmetova, who hopes one day to work for the United Nations, visited Sarajevo over the summer as part of an Ohio Wesleyan Theory-to-Practice grant to examine firsthand how Bosnia and Herzegovina was recovering from its civil war, fought between 1992 and 1995.
Also visiting the former Yugoslavia were Anthony Harper, a junior from Westerville, Ohio, double-majoring in politics and government and economics; Kyle Herman, a senior from Stow, Ohio, double-majoring in politics and government and international studies; Melissa Tan, a senior from Singapore, double-majoring in international studies and economics; and Megan Weaver, a senior from Buffalo, N.Y., double-majoring in international studies and French.
“It was just incredible to see these buildings,” said Weaver, who hopes to earn a master’s degree in international relations and build a career in conflict resolution and management. “You see them every day and then you watch this video, and they are just being destroyed. And not only is it powerful to see that … it’s incredible to see what they look like now compared to what they were then.”
The Bosnian Civil War broke out after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia. Serbia, still a part of Yugoslavia at that time, opposed the ethnic uprising of neighboring Croatians and Muslims. The three-year war was bloody, including the reported mass murders of tens of thousands of Muslim refugees. With the aid of NATO forces and U.S. mediators, Bosnia and Herzegovina was re-established in 1995. It is governed today through a power-sharing arrangement among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.
For Herman, whose long-term career goal involves working as a diplomat as part of the U.S. Foreign Service, the experience provided a tangible reminder of the possible dangers of nationalism.
“My takeaway was the ability to see the human impact of nationalism that has taken place over our own lifetimes and to see how the people are still coping,” he said, noting the profound impact of being able to “actually see the trenches that the Serbs had created when they brought their tanks and their weapons to shoot on the people in the city and to know that it all happened in our lifetime because of what seemed to us to be really arbitrary distinctions between these ethnic groups.”
Herman’s takeaway also included “the idea that we have to be vigilant against nationalism throughout the world to prevent these things from happening again.”
While in Sarajevo, three of the Ohio Wesleyan students—Ruzmetova, Weaver, and Tan—completed internships with the United Nations Development Programme. They obtained the internships with assistance from 2003 OWU alumna Marija Ignjatovic, who works for the United Nations in New York, where she is the desk officer for the Western Balkans Cluster.
Tan said interacting with the U.N. experts and the people of Sarajevo was one of the main highlights of her theory-to-practice experience.
“Models and everything are great,” said Tan, who hopes ultimately to work in U.S.-China relations. “I’m an economics major; I love the numbers, I love the tables, but when you speak to people a different side of the story comes out, and it is not something that academics can illustrate to you through models. … Just talking to people was my best way of doing my research.”
Herman and Harper spent their time volunteering for KULT, a non-governmental organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities for young people.
Like Tan, Harper noted the power of meeting the people intimately involved in rebuilding and bettering their communities.
“We met the people who started up (KULT),” said Harper, whose future may include serving in the Peace Corps, teaching English abroad, or serving in the military. “We really got to meet them, discuss their mission … and discover their [striving] to improve Bosnia and make the Baltic Region a better place.”
While the trip provided all five Ohio Wesleyan students with enduring educational experiences, it also provided equally memorable cultural connections.
“Before we left people were saying: ‘Bosnia? You really want to go to Bosnia? Are you sure? Are you going to be safe? Is that going to be OK?’ Weaver recalled. “And you get there and everybody is so nice and you never feel threatened at all. It’s just such a beautiful place.”
And the OWU students relied more than once on the kindness of Sarajevo strangers. Though they had a hostel reserved for their first night, they had been in talks with a real-estate agent and had planned to rent an apartment through her for the rest of their stay.
Once the students arrived, however, they were never able to reach the agent. The nephew of the hostel operator helped the group find accommodations for their second night, and the clerk at that hostel helped them find half a house to rent. He even drove them up the mountain to see the house, located in eastern Sarajevo in an area known as the old Turkish Quarter.
Herman said the owners lived in the other half of the house and couldn’t have been more welcoming.
“They were absolutely wonderful to us,” he said, often surprising the students with food and driving the women to their U.N. internships.
Charades was the main form of communication, Herman said, smiling as he recounted the family’s repeated attempts to speak to him in German thinking that his blond hair and blue eyes indicated German ancestry. Fortunately, Ruzmetova speaks Russian, which helped everyone to find common ground.
Among the group’s fond memories will be the taste of local ice cream and cevapi, a “very delicious, but very filling” meal that typically consists of grilled beef-and-lamb sausage served in pita bread with onions, lettuce, and sour cream.
As for her takeaway, Ruzmetova seemed to capture the thoughts of all of her OWU peers when she talked about the impact of firsthand experience.
“I was actually there. I met those people. I saw it all with my own eyes,” Ruzmetova said. “I saw these buildings that have been reconstructed after the war. I saw the interaction of the cultures of the ethnicities in the country. I’ve seen how people are moving toward a better future, how they are actually working on improving their lives and the life of their country.
“I think it’s just so much more powerful than you can imagine.”