New Member of the CNA Team

March 2018, the winter in Sarajevo drags on. It’s cold. I need to get up and turn on the heating. What possesses a normal person to move to Sarajevo in the middle of winter? Suitcases and boxes in the corners of the flat, and outside just smog and dreariness, the death that this city must wake up from, to drink coffee and craft beer in nicely decorated shelters and basements. At least there’s never been any shortage of that here. I should get up and learn to swim again.

***

Looking into myself in order to write a text about returning again to the city where I was born, I tried to find the first hints of awareness that now everything in my life will depend on me. My independence and my readiness for change were the starting points on my journey to this moment. I had to find a path I could write about in detail, a path full of traces and deep changes in me. One such path, that I am still walking today, began in Bijeljina. A town that lies in a valley, or as I like to say, along a straight line that divides the population into locals and refugees.

***

Still, this is not the only path I’ve started on in my life. There were many before it and, of course, they always bring up my first childhood memories. The bus station were the last civilians got on buses in 1996 and left Sarajevo. The tin cup I got at the entrance to the collective centre which was meant to be used for tea, water and bathing. Perhaps, the beginning was that the first time I got my own room, my space, with a bed and a desk, was when I was 16. These were my paths traced with scars.

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It was a challenge to live in Bijeljina. Apart from my identity as a student, I had always also felt the identity of a refugee, which somehow equally closed and opened many doors. I have written and spoken about this identity many times, but I have never managed to understand how we refugees seem to so visibly carry this label that makes us different from others. Inevitably, I struggled with my identities in my early twenties, trying to find a way to grow and re-examine my role in society.

 

My volunteer work started in early 2013, at the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in RS, a non-governmental organisation that brought special value to activism, full of solidarity and trust building between individuals and groups, and I found myself in it completely. I stayed there for a little under five years, learning the values of a work ethic and responsibility, but also finding I loved the job. Back in 2013, I had written my first motivation letter to apply for peacebulidng training that would focus on dealing with the past, peacebuilding, reconciliation, national identities, interethnic cooperation, nonviolent conflict transformation, etc. How did anyone manage to fit all those topics into just 10 days of training? Volumes have been written about these topics, each has been approach from various perspectives, yet these are still topics enveloped in silence because they threaten to tear down national and strictly divided narratives in the aftermath of the bloody war in the Balkans. The peacebuilding training was organised by the Centre for Nonviolent Action Sarajevo-Belgrade and it was held in Ulcinj. In my motivation letter, I talked about the breakup of Yugoslavia, the truths of war, the truths of each of us in that war, about endangerment and injustice.

I returned with many questions that would take me back to my own beginnings, questions about changes inside me and around me. I started thinking about whether I knew myself at all, re-examining my role in society, my feminist reflection in the mirror. Where do my own prejudices lie, since I’m going to try to identify them in others, and what gave anyone the right to unload the weight of the war on my generation? These questions started some changes and processes within me, making me question whether I would have the strength to deal with them, to transform them into understanding and empathy with other victims of injustice, on all sides.

March 1996. My mum, my brother and me are standing at the bus station with two suitcases and a plush toy. It’s cold. Mum is talking with someone, looking for our names on a list, two seats. My brother was not yet one, he was crying, the tiny red fluid-filled blisters all over his body were itchy. They call our names and we get on the bus, I squeeze my mother’s hand so tight as if we were heading off into forever.

Shortly after 2013, the CNA team and I started working together through ideas and actions, sharing the good and making patient nonviolent steps to build peace in Bosnian-Herzegovinian society. We worked together, documenting the life stories of people who had exchanged their homes after the war, and a particularly important nonviolent action I took part in, and which is still ongoing, is the marking of unmarked sites of suffering throughout BiH.

The invitation to join the CNA team and come work in Sarajevo was a surprise for me. I remember thinking I should make a list of pros and cons, but I soon realised it would give me nothing to go on. I needed questions, like the ones I had felt after the peacebuilding training… to make me move, to collide within me. Why are peace and war trauma intertwined on the margins of society? Why are young people thrust into an image of the past fashioned by ethnically divisive nationalists? Why are the victims the ones to call attention to unmarked sites of suffering, while the majority erect inappropriate monuments and memorials? All these questions contain dilemmas and fears, but they were also my motivation to accept CNA’s proposal.

***

My name is Tamara, I was born in Sarajevo in 1989, by the river Bosna. I grew up by the river Drina and spent half my life being a refugee, a student, and now I am a returnee. Today, I walk along the Ferhadija Street, the day crunching like snow under my feet as if trying to compact itself into the path I am preparing for it. I stop by the Bey’s Mosque fountain, drink some water and think: I have returned.