Hello. My name is Hunter, and this blog post is two months late! At the end of June, I actually wrapped up my internship with the Post-Conflict Research Center in Sarajevo and returned back to the U.S. Nevertheless, I wrote one last post to summarize and commemorate this wonderful experience on the other side of the world:
The Jerusalem of Europe. The catalyst of the World War I. The heart of the Bosnian War. Perhaps it was a mistake to have no expectations when I arrived in the city, but it turned out to be better that way; there would be so many opportunities to learn. It snowed heavily when I arrived. As the taxi made its way to Mejtaš, near the center of the city, the driver asked me why I had chosen to come specifically to Sarajevo.
Everyone who was working in the Center for Global and Intercultural Study was going abroad during the summer. Adelia had just won the Wallenberg Fellowship, Jamal received the Bonderman Fellowship, Cheyenne was about to embark to Japan and Rome, and Keisha was leaving for Iceland. I admit, I felt the pressure to go abroad too. I was happy that I received an internship in DC for the summer, but to be honest, something did feel off about not going abroad again. For the past two summers, I had participated in study abroad programs in Central America and Western Europe. This time, I wanted to pursue an experience in a non-traditional location, something that pushed me outside my comfort zone.
I had found the opportunity through the LSA Opportunity Hub’s International Internship Program. Looking up keywords and scrolling through filters, the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) appeared in my search. I had an interest in human rights and transitional justice, and I’d written a few articles in past for various student newspapers. Having studied irregular migration in Greece the summer prior, I knew that the Western Balkans was a key route for mixed migratory flows from the Global South to the European Union. Working as a “Content and Journalism Intern” for the PCRC seemed to be the best fit out of all the programs I found. There was a promise on the information page: “Interns are encouraged to propose their own ideas [for articles] related to their academic and personal backgrounds and interests.” I knew my topic already! Working as a journalism intern, I would be interested in writing about migration trends in the Western Balkans¸ I wrote in my application. I want to explore the phenomena of migrants who have settled in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the war, with a special focus on racial minorities.
“I’m here to work,” I said curtly. The driver nodded. We arrived at my apartment.
Over the next seven weeks, Sarajevo would gradually confirm itself to be one of the most surreal places I have ever visited. At least once a week, I would casually walk over the site of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. On Monday nights, the other interns and I would dance shamelessly in a re-purposed cinema, serenaded by a Bosnian folk band. And throughout my internship, the most innocent of places would be reveal themselves to be some of the most tragic sites of the city. The farmer’s market you are shopping at was the site of a massacre, two massacres. The fountain you walk past on your way to the mall commemorates children who died during the Bosnian War. Yes, I would hear personal accounts of some of the most heart wrenching events that took place during the conflict. But yes, I would also learn about some of the greatest acts of heroism in such a dark moment in history. While we explored and learned about Bosnia’s history at our own pace, the PCRC made sure that its interns learned about the everyday heroes who stood up to injustice during the war. Inspiring humility and hope, the documentary series, “Ordinary Heroes” by the PCRC is something that everyone should watch.
Working with one of the region’s leading NGOs on post-conflict research and transitional justice, I had the privilege of attending numerous events in Sarajevo including the Point 6.0 Conference, Pussy Riot’s debut in Bosnia, and the Balkan Diskurs Youth Correspondents Workshop. The complexity and difficulty of working in an emerging democracy was clear. While achieving goals like “ensuring the rule of law” and “turning diversity into a source of cooperation and empowerment” seemed like nearly-impossible goals in Bosnia, the PCRC demonstrated how important it was to still chase after these ideals. At the end of the day, there is no turning back; democratization, achieving justice, and progression is the only way.
The freedom of being a journalism intern was the best part of my experience. “Write about what you’re interested in; we’ll consider anything,” my supervisor would always say. While trying to prove my manliness (in sociology we would say, “Hunter is attempting to perform Bosnian masculinity”) over a few rounds of rakija one night, one of my friends from the region pulled me close in the bar. “You know, there’s so many rumors about kineska radnjas here in Sarajevo,” she whispered into my ear. “Organ trafficking. They say that some shady stuff is going on behind there.” Was this the rakija speaking? Is this potentially racist? Wait, organ trafficking!? I tried to respond coherently, but we ended up too invested in a Kidz Bop remix of “One Dance” than to the continue the conversation that night. Afterwards, they played a deep house remix of a Bon Jovi classic.
The next morning during our work shift, I kept pestering my friend about what she told me last night about the kineska radnjas, or “Chinese shops.” She explained that after the war, Sarajevo experienced an influx of Chinese migrants who opened small businesses throughout the city – restaurants, clothing stores, wholesale. You name it, the Chinese have it. All the natives loved the arrival of the Chinese; they sold electronics and household supplies for dirt cheap prices which was essential for a population recovering from war. People would come every week to the Chinese strip malls in Rajlovac to go shopping. During an interview with a Sarajevo local, she began to cry about how wonderful it was back then. At one point, kineska radnja had become synonymous to “general store.” Today, they are nearly all gone. All that is left are rusted signs and rumors of why the Chinese left (or “fled” as some put it). “I can speak Chinese, and you’re from Sarajevo. Let’s go find who’s left,” I told my friend. My boss gave us the green light and later that day, we were following leads on Chinese migrants who were still living in the city. To find out why so many Chinese migrants are leaving the country, you’ll have to wait until my article is published.
Living in Sarajevo was like dream. My days were filled with adventure, culture, and history. But, it was also difficult reconciling with the social conservatism of the country. Coming back from an interview with the Sarajevo Open Center, one of my coworkers best captured the region’s attitude towards the LGBTQ community: “Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia are constantly fighting each other, but they are united in their homophobia.” There were many moments where I felt it was necessary to hide my sexuality, but there was rarely a moment where I felt like I was in true danger as queer person. To be honest, hiding my sexuality in Sarajevo was no different than hiding my sexuality in Muskegon, Michigan. Nevertheless, I benefited enormously from my identity as a U.S. citizen and Asian American; these identities overshadowed my sexuality. I even attended a small protest for LGBTQ rights, and people would still assume that I was straight. Any mannerisms that didn’t fit with the strict measures of heterosexuality or masculinity were often labeled as “foreign.” My privilege allowed me to avoid the discrimination that LGBTQ natives face on a day to day basis, and it is important that I point out this fact. I remember during
my second week in Sarajevo, a college student began to chat with me in Pirpa, a great falafel store on the other side of the river. Trust me, you will end up visiting after eating burek for the umpteenth time. Joking about Bosnian culture, he told me, “If you’re a vegetarian, they’ll kill you; but if you’re gay, they’ll actually kill you.” I told him I could never give up meat.
Sarajevo brought me so much joy this summer. Professionally, I gained first-hand experience of what it is like to work in a NGO. Academically, I explored the intersection of human rights and journalism. But personally, I experienced a part of the world that I would have never considered otherwise. After my scheduled seven weeks, I flew back to the U.S. to prepare for my next internship. When I arrived in DC, I felt quite nervous because I had no connections to the city. Just like my arrival to Sarajevo, I came without any friends. I was going solo into my internship, and once again, I was moving into a house full of strangers. Leaving for my first day of work, I plugged my workplace address into Google Maps. When I exited the metro and began walking to my job, I noticed an oh so familiar flag hanging undisturbed in the hot, humid DC weather. Blue and yellow, white stars running diagonally through the middle. Stuffy looking men in suits and pencil skirted women walked nervously pass me as I couldn’t help but just burst out laughing in the middle of E. Street. The Bosnian Embassy sits right next to the building I work at. It is a small world, everybody. It is truly a small world.