by Zachary Fletcher
SIT Fall 2018
University of Puget Sound
I was recently messaging with a friend back home to see how things were going in the US. I shared that I had just returned to Belgrade after an excursion to Bosnia – a trip that included two different cities, dozens of incredible meals, and serious thoughts about the past and present of the region. These thoughts, I told him, had really challenged my notion of what peace and conflicts are and it made me incredibly thankful for the opportunity to spend a semester here.
“Oh cool. What war happened there?” he responded.
I think this comment – more than anything – caused in me reflection rather than frustration, realization rather than bafflement, and understanding rather than confusion. It made sense because I was in the same position as my friend before traveling here. I was at first tempted to launch into a multi-paragraph text rant with him. I wanted to give him everything I had from this current semester, but I simply couldn’t. It’s not that he was ignorant of the history of the Balkans, nor was he belittling the importance of the region by asking this question. I saw it less as a matter of knowledge and more as a matter of thinking and seeing.
My friend who asked this question, in my opinion, missed what a semester in the Balkans has provided me with through the first two months in Belgrade: perspective.
As someone studying abroad on a continent away from home, time differences and physical separation can lead to a strong sense of isolation and distance. People are asleep at different times, friends are in class at unusual hours, and mornings and nights blur together into much longer days. While studying abroad in Europe, lifestyle differences change as American “norms” fade into European realities. Everything from the abundance of Wi-Fi to the multi-functional design of windows changes the way your life operates on the most basic and functional level. In the Balkans, the place of academic focus for this semester, viewpoints, responsibility, and positionality have all been called into question in relation to the shaping of my newly acquired perspective.
What constitutes a nation? Coming from US, the borders that surround my house, state, and country warranted no second thoughts as I boarded the plane to Belgrade. Yet, as we started to prepare for our weeklong excursion to Kosovo, I began to see a different picture. The idea of “contested statehood” had barely entered my mind before I came to the Balkans, yet the work of some scholars in the region centers less on the function of a state and more on its basic existence in the first place.
Our discussions in Bosnia mirrored this fact; a multi-ethnic country separated out by cohort challenges the very way I think about identity and what it truly means to be a “citizen” of a nation. A discussion with local students in Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, furthered this thinking on nationhood, as students and professors alike discussed the fragile state of Bosnia through their complex political, social, and cultural structures. The excursions I’ve experienced this semester offered a new view on nationhood, giving me perspective on how the very definition of the word can be called into question at any moment for any reason.
Who is responsible? This question has really pushed my conceptions of justice and reconciliation because it goes beyond individuals and possibly expands to entire societies. Some non-governmental organizations (NGO) are working to bring out the normalization of relations between majority and non-majority communities, while also attempting to engage young people in the world of activism and human rights. Museums are engaging in memory work with regards to past conflicts (Museum of Kosovo, Historical Museum of BiH, or the War Childhood Museum), and students my age are talking about these issues with passion unlike any I’ve seen before.
History is a living, breathing thing in this region, and it plays a role in the way people think, how they interact with others, and what people dedicate their lives to. I don’t know who is responsible, I don’t know how it could ever be made right. But the exposure I’ve had to the people and organizations working to stimulate discussion and preserve memories has made me rethink the role of history both as a discipline and aspect of everyday life.
Position of an outsider
What is my positionality in all of this? I am not a local here, and I can only glean from my interactions with locals how people talk about their country, their politics, and their past. I will always be an outsider, an undergraduate researcher, and an American who can easily fall into the trap of the “zoo effect” by looking at a culture just to look. I risk approaching situations with the tendency of “othering” and analyzing foreign systems with a western-liberal bias, and interacting with locals as if they’re people to be studied and not humans to interact with. I have a strong desire to learn all I can, but being a foreigner always brings an inescapable social and cultural distance.
As I reflect back on the conversation with my friend in the States, I find myself thinking about how I would’ve responded two or three months ago. I probably would’ve responded with a shrug of my shoulders, a quick Google search, and a swift segway to another topic. This reflection in itself is a product of my semester abroad. The perspective I’ve gained here isn’t just exposure to this history but a recognition of its importance. It’s not just a subject I’ve learned, but something I’ve been able to live within and challenge my own ideas on; it’s a new perception of learning, a different way of a living, and a unique and challenging way of thinking.