From Belgium to Bosnia: Reflections On Europe

Fries, beer, chocolate, and waffles all quickly became staples in my Belgian diet. As well as the removal of the word ‘French’ before fries because, as I learned, there is an ongoing dispute between France and Belgium about where the fries were invented. Regardless of the dispute, the Belgian fries were delicious and you eat them with this tiny fork, which I love. A small aspect of my weekly routine that I miss.

Traditional Belgian ‘frites’ at an outdoor concert by the Atomium

I spent this past fall studying European peace and security studies in Brussels, Belgium. This specific program, while through my host institution, pooled the expertise of the Belgian military, NATO, the European Union, and the Global Governance Institute in discussing contemporary security challenges from a distinctly Brussels view. These courses were incredibly difficult as the professors were very distinguished practitioners in the field of security studies (a bit intimidating to say the least). The students were also primarily graded based on a midterm and a final, something I was not used to at UM. These courses were perfect for studying my GLI theme of social inequality/human rights and the balance between human rights protection and international security concerns. 

Bosnian ćevapi at an outside restaurant in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

In addition to Belgium, I was able to do a fair amount of traveling, and visited 13 countries over the course of 5-ish months. However, one country caught my attention that I wanted to highlight in this post because of the impact it had on me both personally and professionally. Before I proceed, I want to write a trigger warning in this post as I will be talking about a very emotionally difficult subject: genocide. As many of you might know, Model United Nations has been a big portion of my life and something that I enjoy doing. I love stepping into the shoes of other nations and seeing international issues from their point of view. Last year, the UM Model UN team was assigned to represent the Eastern European country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the annual New York City conference. After intensely researching the country for well over a year, I decided that I had to visit this place as plane tickets were not too expensive and I had a week off of school in October to travel. 

Olympic Tower in Sarajevo Commemorating the 1984 Winter Olympics

I landed in Sarajevo and it was one of the most beautifully complex places I have ever seen. It reminded me of home in Montana, with the mountain ranges and the river flowing through town. It was my first time in a Muslim majority country, and the mosques were so intricately constructed that I could stare at them for hours. Yet, beneath all of this natural and man-made beauty, the scars of the deadliest European conflict since World War II looked fresh and raw. Holes from shrapnel puncture the walls of buildings, graffiti telling stories of the war through art were scattered across town, thousands of white and grey tombstones line the many city graveyards, and 200 ‘red roses of Sarajevo’ mark a spot where at least three people were killed by a mortar shell explosion during the siege of Sarajevo from 1992-1996. The town, which was the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, looked as if it was a city slowly coming out of a coma. 

Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide

During my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I visited the tiny town of Srebrenica, a place synonymous with a massacre where 8,000 perished. My tour guide was a former soldier who fought for the Bosniak Muslim army during the war when he was my age, and he recounted the war from his perspective. After the tour of the Srebrenica cemetery and memorial, my guide took me to see a woman on the Serbian border who lost many male loved ones during the genocide. She made us traditional Bosnian coffee and snacks, and I was able to have a conversation with her (through my guide as an interpreter) about her life and ways she coped with losing those around her. The woman told me, “for what I have been through, and this country, things are finally okay.” Even though I could see incredible sadness in her eyes, I saw someone who was resilient in the face of unimaginable loss. Courage does not always come from someone who fights with a gun during a war or politicians who command an army, but through individuals who try to pick-up the pieces of their lives even when there may only be a few pieces left.   

The historic village of Počitelj in southeast Bosnia and Herzegovina

My trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was a surreal experience, one that brought me to tears at times, as well as almost to the bathroom to throw-up from the stories. It pains me that the country is still synonymous with war, chaos and destruction. Many of those close to me, at times, strongly urged me to reconsider travel there because the war stories are still etched into people’s memories. But what I found was a country teeming with beautiful landscapes and the warmest people I encountered in all of Europe. Inspired by my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the year I spent researching the nation, I intend to pursue a law degree focused on humanitarian law, an area of study closely related to my GLI theme of social inequality and human rights. I believe my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina has given me a new, powerful perspective on how international organizations, for lack of a better word, fail to protect human rights during times of conflict. And the thing is that it is (and can) happen again. In various roles at UM, I had learned how to discuss uncomfortable issues in a professional matter, and that was a vital skill that I exercised during my excursion to Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Thank you for reading this somber part of my post. I promise Europe for me was more than learning about the dismal record that international organizations have on protecting human rights. As I adjust back, I am still processing all the ways that I am a different person and, to be honest, while I am, it is hard to exactly write in what way. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t planning my trip back to Brussels to visit my lovely, smart, free-spirited, 82 year old host mom from Germany and her, sometimes terrifying, cat named Blair. 

The medieval castle Gravensteen in Ghent, Belgium

If I had to take-away one reflection from my time in Brussels, and Europe at large, it is to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You won’t always have all the answers or know exactly what’s going on. You might dress differently or be forced to eat a food you hate because it is the social custom (Brussel sprouts for me). Or you might have to quickly (and discreetly) google translate the words on your menu before you order at a restaurant. I walk away from this experience with a whole new meaning of the phrase ‘c’est la vie,’ and the knowledge that change is possible if we allow ourselves to step into the shoes of other nations.