Confronting Global Corporate Power through Graffiti

Graffiti has such an established role in Sarajevo that even after it disappears from the walls it finds a new place in the city. Locals make an effort to preserve famous graffiti from the war in particular, from pictures featured in the Historical Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina to T-shirts sold at souvenir shops in Baščaršija (Sarajevo’s “old town” or “Turkish quarter”).

Two of these T-shirts are “enjoy Sarajevo” (made to resemble the “enjoy Coca-Cola®” logo) and “Rakija: connecting people” (a take-off of Nokia’s motto).

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These T-shirts are also fascinating because the play with the tension between graffiti and commercial advertisement. Whereas billboards advertising products are legal and regarded as legitimate uses of public space, tags advertising graffiti artists are frowned upon as criminal. This contrast reveals a power differentiation between companies capable of paying for the privilege to mark public space and people who write graffiti for no more than the cost of a can of spray paint.

One graffiti artists I talked to complained, “People don’t care if Coca-Cola® made some huge billboard on some building, but if I made a piece there, it’s a problem. I advertise myself but I don’t want to pay…it’s all about money in some way because they think ‘okay, but Coca-Cola paid for this’ – and I didn’t.”

 Just as graffiti manipulates corporate logos, companies are using graffiti to advertise their products or create a local, stylish atmosphere in Sarajevo. One current example are ads in bus stops that promote chocolate bars using imitation style-writing and a drawing of someone spray painting the company’s name onto a candy wrapper .

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This marketing technique impacts graffiti culture in two ways. First, it indicates that graffiti has established a niche for itself in society, whether because it is considered aesthetically pleasing or because the target audience perceives it as “cool.” By implementing graffiti in its advertisement strategy, this company is acknowledging graffiti’s legitimacy as a part of local culture. On the other hand, however, companies taking this approach hijack the stylistic and cultural appeal behind graffiti to advertise their product, not only stripping the art form of its fundamental and empowering characteristic— the personalized and unsanctioned re-appropriation of public space — but also robbing graffiti artists of that space.

 Graffiti artists and private companies are now competing for public space and the city’s attention. Instances in which these actors confront and taunt each other (whether they do so consciously or not) are visible throughout Sarajevo. The first MacDonald’s® to ever open in Bosnia, for instance, is decorated on the interior with graffiti wallpaper and the bathroom door signs are drawn to resemble images scratched on to a wall.

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In this case, MacDonald’s® is luring people off of the street (away from Sarajevo) and into the restaurant (towards corporate American culture), yet appropriates a central component of Sarajevo’s street culture to create its atmosphere. A MacDonald’s® billboard in another part of town reveals that locals are retaliating, albeit in a simple (and most likely unintentional) way. The billboard features a giant hamburger and says “Chicago is so juicy;” but someone came along and changed the C to Č to make the spelling resemble Bosnian more than English.

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This gesture is small and humorous, but also shows resistance to the epitome of American corporate power, MacDonald’s.® It sends a signal that the streets belong to Sarajevans and any effort to infringe upon that space by corporations is subject to “correction” (in this case, a spelling correction). Just as Sarajevans implemented graffiti to assert their ownership of the city streets while under siege 20 years ago, they continue to do so now as their city is invaded by corporate power.

In Defense and Pursuit of Graffiti

The Independent Study Project (ISP) takes place during a month long period at the end of the semester. This opportunity to do independently-designed fieldwork abroad as an undergraduate student is the reason I chose the SIT program. It’s also the reason I’m sharing an apartment with 2 other students in Sarajevo, spending my days wandering the streets to look for graffiti instead of sitting in classes. How does this qualify as “research?”

I walked into my first ISP meeting with the idea that I would come to Sarajevo to look at post-Dayton “democracy” (emphasis on the quote marks) in Bosnia to determine if this country should continue to be the paradigm for American intervention and nation building. The driving force behind my curiosity was the suspicion that democracy here is not what Americans believe it to be, and that Bosnia is in fact a poor example to use when justifying other interventions– as diplomats tend to do. After listening to an explanation much like this, my adviser (a Polish scholar who lives in Sarajevo and is doing her own research in Srebrenica) was quick to tell me that everyone already knows democracy in Bosnia is a myth.

“Well, people in America don’t seem to know that…our politicians keep mentioning Bosnia as a good thing and saying we should do it–”

“That’s absurd, I’ve never heard anyone use Bosnia as a positive example of anything.”

She then went on to tell me how many authors from various places have written books about Bosnia as a “failed state” and other depressing things. Basically, I would be writing more of the same if I chose this topic, which I could have done on Whitman campus instead of coming all the way to the Balkans.

Feeling discouraged, I said before leaving, “there is one other thing I have in mind.”

I told her that I’ve noticed a lot of graffiti during this semester. “I could do something with that.”

“I love it.”

That’s great. But how do I take graffiti and turn it into an academic topic?  Graffiti in relation to Peace and Conflict Studies is an underdeveloped subject, which means I’m pretty much on my own here. It’s exciting! But also confusing. Every adviser who reads my project proposal comes away with a different idea about what I’m doing. When people I try to interview ask me what I’m doing, I say, “uhm, uh, well…I’m looking at graffiti.” If this doesn’t seem to make sense, I add, “and uh…what it indicates about post-conflict social dynamics in Sarajevo–ethnic tensions, sentiments toward the international community, things like that.” There, that sounds academic. Ish.

And then people ask me how I plan on researching graffiti. What am I going to read? Who am I even supposed to talk to? Where should I go?… I don’t know, go down an alley, read whatever is written there, talk to anyone who writes it…sounds straight-forward. Some of my friends have taken the liberty of offering their opinion, “oh, so it’s bulls***.”

🙂      [this is the passive-aggressive smile I’ve been using]

Fine, here it is: my best effort in defense of graffiti.

Graffiti is important to consider as a political tool because it is universally accessible, unlike many things in the political arena, and it is a way that citizens directly engage in politics. Unlike academia, graffiti is available to people without a high level of education; in cases where graffiti is an image rather than words, it is even accessible to anyone illiterate. This makes graffiti an instrument of marginalized locals— from those who are impoverished or uneducated to those who lack official status as citizens. A particularly striking feature of graffiti is that it can be used to rewrite mainstream narratives quite literally: authors can deface state-sanctioned monuments and establishments with a can of spray paint. They can confront a version of the truth erected by the government and “vandalize” it with their own words. Graffiti is also a paradoxical approach to politics for it ruins the quality of public space in order to create an alternative record. For those who use it wisely, graffiti is empowering.

My spontaneous decision to research graffiti is ironic in a way. I came here pursuing a heavily academic and traditional topic. I came to investigate the political system, to view it from the top-down. But now I’m abandoning all the methods I’ve been using and the sort of topic I’ve been training to research in order to investigate politics from the opposite end.

 

 

 

Behind the Scenes with the “Villain”

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Villain from the movie “Abduction”

I’m eating lunch and watching the movie “Abduction” on TV with my host mom. Neither of us has seen the movie before and when we finally find out that the villain is a Serb we turn to each other and laugh.
“You always have these evil Serbs or Russians in your American movies,” she comments, clearly amused but confused.
I never noticed that Serbs had any role at all in American media before I decided to come here. Maybe the “Serb” villains are portrayed so much like “Russian” villains that I didn’t realize they were supposed to be different. (Are they supposed to be?)
If the only impression you have of Serbia and its people is President Milošević and the 1990’s, then maybe the “evil Serb” motif seems fitting. But after I have been living in Serbia for about 3 months and trying to block out any outside interpretation of this country aside from my own,  this Hollywood conception of a Serb seemed ridiculous. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of scholarly work portrays Serbs in a similar way (this is a topic a friend of mine is researching), which means this negative image is not just silly or harmless.
It was startling to see the image of the “evil Serb” when just the day before I had been telling someone how I love living in Belgrade because I view people in Serbia in such a contrasting way. People in Serbia (and Bosnia and Kosovo) are natural when they interact with each other. They do not flash superficial smiles or lie and say “I’m good!” just to be “polite” the way so many people in the U. S. do. This doesn’t mean they’re rude or unwelcoming, they’re just open. There is nothing awkward about approaching strangers to ask for help (even just a cigarette), commenting on something someone has, or starting a conversation and inviting someone to come along with you wherever you’re heading. If someone is struggling to carry a large bag onto the bus, someone else might run up and help them hoist it up, and every time an elderly woman gets on the bus someone immediately offers their seat to her. People acknowledge each other’s existence and it feels like they actually share the city instead of bustling along looking at the ground or straight ahead, locked into the individualistic mindset. People make use of public space by sitting and talking/smoking/drinking/playing music wherever they feel like it, even in the middle of the night–and why not? The city is FOR them, they may as well live in it instead of hiding in their “private property” to lead “private” lives.
People here are not enslaved by the boring, everyday routine that drains so many Americans of their humanity. They keep themselves from blending into the background or becoming constrained by menial tasks, even if it’s their job. For example, waiters are quick to make jokes or remarks, even stating their opinion if they find your order unusual or if they think you look tired.
People don’t tell you their opinion out of self-righteousness or anything like that; they tell you what they think because they want to suggest whatever it looks like you need.

Sometimes they go out of their way to make sure you appreciate simple things with them. When I was sitting on the bus pulling into Sarajevo, the man sitting behind me saw me peering into the darkness through the window to my right. “You should look left,” he suggested, or else I would have missed the thousands of twinkling lights that dotted the hills surrounding the city, almost as if the stars had fallen and nestled there.

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Across the Road–Memories from Srebrenica

How did I come to find myself alone in the remains of a battery factory with chips of the floor missing where bullets fell and the only sound that of turning pages in a book echoing around me?
I’m here because about six thousand refugees found themselves in the same place nearly a decade ago. They were victims of ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia seeking protection in and around the town of Srebrenica–an area that the UN declared a “safe zone” at the time. When refugees came to the factory, which had already been abandoned and re-inhabited by NATO forces, Dutch soldiers told them who could enter and who could not because there was not enough space for everyone escaping the Bosnian Serb army. Soon after, however, it didn’t matter who was granted their protection because General Ratko Mladić confronted the NATO forces with an ultimatum: they could step out of the way and survive, or they could die with the people huddled inside the factory.

 
Across the road from the factory is the Srebrenica genocide memorial and graveyard for victims of the massacre. It is estimated that more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed in less than a week in July 1995. Six thousand of their bodies have been found and 1,000 are currently waiting on the shelves of a facility in the city of Tuzla so that they can be identified before joining those which are already buried across from the factory. The other thousand are presumed to be in mass graves yet to be discovered.
On our way to the Srebrenica memorial we stopped at a gas station that is rumored to be built on top of a mass grave. Apparently, there is a monetary reward for locals who share any information they know regarding this rumor or the location of missing bodies. No one has spoken.
Across from the gas station is a small Orthodox church. Next to the church is a blasted, burned, and abandoned house. If the Bosniak family who lived there survived the war and came back, it would be clear to them who the town “belongs”  to now. One woman did come back. Her entire family was killed, but she returned to her home–located just behind the church. She is petitioning to have the town move the church away from her property.

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Houses abandoned and destroyed in an ethnically cleansed town on the way to the Srebrenica memorial.
This seemingly godforsaken corner of Bosnia became infamous for the tragedy it witnessed. For the Clinton administration, it was a source of guilt–how could 8,000 civilians die in three days while the international community watched? The story goes that the Dutch commander stationed there sent  a request for airstrikes to counter the Bosnian Serb army, but he submitted his request using the incorrect paperwork and was consequently ignored by the UN. Regardless of whether the mistake was so trivial, international diplomats have been trying to make up for it ever since. Claiming that we could not allow Srebrenica to happen ever again, the United States took responsibility for the rest of the conflict in Bosnia as well as the war in Kosovo. Srebrenica’s name continues to echo in assemblies when international organizations like the UN turn their attention towards potential genocides in other regions.
Some American journalists and politicians pat our country on the back, touting, “See? We like Muslims, we saved Muslims in Bosnia,” as if to redeem the War on Terror. Angelina Jolie was so moved by the genocide and other tragedies of the war in Bosnia that she directed a film set during the conflict and co-hosted a global conference this year addressing rape as a weapon of war.
But when I enter that factory across the road from the memorial, I can see that the international community is far more invested in displaying the dead bodies that justify intervention than it is in displaying the lives that existed before the war or the suffering that those bodies experienced before they were thrown into mass graves. I can see this because of the difference between the rows and rows of blinding white grave stones and the dim, icy building I enter.

The factory, now labeled “Srebrenica Genocide Memorial Room,” is lit only by natural light seeping through the windows and holes in the walls. The pictures hanging between graffiti and broken pipes are deteriorating. One of them is so damaged I can’t even see what it depicts, but like the rest of them, it is most likely a picture of refugees scouring for food in the trash NATO troops left behind or women and children mourning as they are taken from the safe haven and the men in their families as the Dutch soldiers surrender the factory. The small paper captions taped to the pictures are torn and curling from the moisture in the air. Consistent mistakes in spelling and grammar make it clear that someone from the local community took time to put this exhibit together, not a professional curator from the outside world. Awkwardly placed in the middle of the factory is a display of photographs of men who died in the Srebrenica massacre accompanied by personal belongings that were exhumed with their bodies. Marbles, a lighter, a watch, a pair of glasses…behind the glass protecting these objects there are cobwebs and mold.

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Further down the road is a room full of TVs playing footage from the war and trials at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Unlike the Memorial Room, this room is clean and its contents well-kept. Again, I wonder, why are the tributes to dead bodies and the men who decided their fate so carefully tended to while the memories of individuals, their lives, and those who survived growing mold and disintegrating? Are we commemorating tragedy to the point where we obsess over “cold-blooded hatred” and death rather than honoring the lives lost? The victims of Srebrenica are not numbers for the history books or white pillars standing in meticulous rows, even if that’s all we see left of them. That should not be all that we see left of them.
Our group returns to the factory to use the bathroom before leaving, and I decide to flip through the visitor’s book in the front entrance. Everyone else trickles out of the building while I stand there filtering through poems and prayers written in various languages. A prayer signed “from Palestine;” a signature from a group of Japanese students; half a page written in Arabic; but more than anything, written over and over in English and Bosnian: “never forget Srebrenica.” Someone wrote this and then added “never forgive.” I suddenly realize that the only sound I can hear is the swoosh of pages turning, cutting the cold silence. How strange it is to find myself reading a book alone in a battery factory tucked between the hills of eastern Bosnia. Why is such a thing possible?

 

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Written on the Walls

A significant part of adjusting to Belgrade has been about processing everything that I see during my daily routine. There is the bus I take, recently jam-packed with commuters, and the familiar voice constantly announcing sledeća  stajalište (“next stop”). When I step off the bus and onto the street, there is often the smell of cigarette smoke, and I typically witness people jaywalking across the street after looking both ways to make sure the police don’t see them. Sometimes I see a policeman jaywalking with them. Every so often, drivers get confrontational and blare their horns for a good 20 seconds; once or twice I’ve seen drivers leave their cars to yell at each other or greet a friend before driving away. If I’m on my way to an early morning class, I pass by trucks delivering fresh bread and groceries to the bakery and convenience store on the corner. When I remember to look up, I see buildings from various time periods looming above; some of them are modern, some have been standing for centuries, while others feature the concrete, blocky facade of communist architecture.

Historians often mention how cities are layered with history, how the bones and ruins of ancient civilizations lay beneath successive layers of streets. In Belgrade these layers are vertical, too. Even a single building can have layers from the inside-out. In daylight, I pass many buildings that look decrepit and abandoned (one of them didn’t even have a roof or glass in the windows); when I pass by at night, however, those buildings come alive with the lights, sounds, and smells of Belgrade nightlife. No corner in this city goes to waste–if there’s room, there will be a cafe or kafana.*

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One of the buildings I passed that appears abandoned. It is a project in the Savamala area (a scene where Belgrade’s youth gather) known as “the Spanish House.”

Yet, the most startling element of my surroundings is something that isn’t foreign to me at all: graffiti. And it’s everywhere.

Graffiti here ranges from meaningless scribbles on the bus to elaborate, politically charged street art. In some cases, graffiti is how  local residents express their political views and frustrations. In other cases, it reveals hostilities between people with opposing values. I’ve come across negative, hostile, even chilling sketches; I’ve also seen constructive and inspiring critiques of Serbian society.

One particularly haunting image I passed featured Gavrilo Princip,  infamous for assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and igniting World War One. Princip remains a controversial figure, for according to some he is a terrorist while according to others he is a national hero. Serbia’s way of handling this controversy delicately was to name a street after Princip, but to choose a street that was not significant (in fact, this street is where prostitution in Belgrade took place). The original artwork displays Gavrilo Princip and the words he wrote on the wall of the cell where he was detained until his death: “Our ghosts will walk through Vienna, and roam the Palace, frightening the Lords.” Like many things written on the walls of Belgrade, however, this street art has layers: someone else came alone one day and blinded Princip by painting his eyes white; yet another passerby later added the symbol for marijuana, maybe indicating that the past is irrelevant to them.

The original graffiti (accessed http://www.vaseljenska.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Gavrilo-Princip-1.jpg)

The graffiti now, after numerous contributions.

I also pass by graffiti addressing current politics–especially concerning Serbia’s recognition of gay rights. This weekend, Belgrade held its first Pride Parade in several years; I’m happy to report that it was safe and successful, but not without a considerable amount of resistance. Belgrade’s street art reflects this dynamic, as some graffiti advocates gay rights and other graffiti is crudely added on top of it with expressions of open hostility.

Unlike graffiti in the United States, which is usually washed away or painted over, Belgrade’s messages become a part of the city’s atmosphere (most likely because there is neither money nor priority to undo it). Graffiti is also something that happens in broad daylight. I’m not sure if it’s completely legal, if street artists get lucky and escape the attention of the police, or if the police look the other way… regardless, I’m getting used to seeing those faces stare back at me every morning. Belgrade’s graffiti is yet another way for me to learn the language and social dynamics here. It makes the walls come alive–they evolve with the times and document the city’s history. Many people here keep telling me that Belgrade has a soul; I think they’re right, and I think its secrets are written on the walls.

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Two teenagers spray-painting a new image onto the street. And yes, that is Robin Williams on the wall (he appeared there the day after his death).

 

*more traditional bars/cafes known for playing local music

First Impression and an Unrelated Picture

A view of the rivers Sava and Danube where they meet in front of Belgrade's fortress, Kalemegdan. Photo cred: SIT Balkans

A view of the rivers Sava and Danube where they meet in front of Belgrade’s fortress, Kalemegdan. Photo cred: SIT Balkans

I would like to tell you about Belgrade, but I’m not sure where to begin. Even the most basic facts about this city, including the origin of its name, are up for debate. As a tour guide told us one day, there is one thing we can say for certain: everything here is complicated.

“If something is simple,” she added, “don’t worry–we’ll make it complicated.”

In addition to complicated politics and history, there is also a variety of opinions about these topics. A trivial example of this is the meaning behind “Beograd” (Belgrade). According to one opinion, Beograd–meaning “white city”– got its name from the white stones of the city’s ancient fortress.  The next day, I heard a different interpretation when our language teacher insisted that the color  white used to be associated with the direction East, meaning Beograd was named such for being an eastern city. In this case, the discrepancy isn’t important, but you can imagine how quickly things become convoluted. If you are a believer in facts, you will hate it here.

That being said, there is still a lot of truth to unveil in the Balkans. In my mind a quote from the author Tim O’Brien keeps echoing: “A lie, sometimes, can be truer than the truth…”. Various memories, interpretations, and fabrications of events make it difficult to discover what actually happens, but after reflecting on all the narratives, it is still possible to understand the significance of what happens here. In other words, while different perspectives in the Balkans are often at odds with one another, it is entirely possible for all of them to be true. Furthermore, these narratives reveal a great deal about human nature and conflict beyond the context of the Balkans.

Belgrade reflects this principle in details as commonplace as street names. Depending on how power changes in the international arena or in the Balkans, the names of significant streets change, too. (For example, a street may be named after someone who is a martyr of one era, but considered a terrorist in the next). Sometimes you can ask several people what street you’re on and they will all give you a different answer. Technically, each answer is correct, since the street has been called all those names; however, the name by which each person calls it  indicates how long that person has lived in Belgrade, how in tune they are with current politics (or if they sympathize with the current government), or simply how much they care about something so trivial. By the time you finally make it to your destination, you still won’t know what street you’re on; but, you will know a little bit about its past and the people who walk along it.

 

*I was unable to upload a relevant picture because my camera died and I need to buy a new charger. My advice to anyone about to travel abroad: double-check that you packed EVERYthing. Like right now.

Actually, it’s none of those

People are excited for me. They can’t wait to hear about my experience in Siberia, Sweden, and “I know this isn’t right but…S-Syria?”
Thank you. But actually, it’s none of those.
When I say, “Serbia” (which is where I’m going), they get confused again.
No, it’s not in Russia; yes, it’s safe now; oh, it’s in the Balkans. The Balkans is a region between Italy and Turkey.
And actually, my decision to go there is not so random. Several years ago, I traveled to Bosnia (not Botswana, and it’s also in the Balkans) for a high school social justice and learning opportunity. I had no intention of returning to the region. However, a class in International Politics and many readings that mentioned Bosnia and Kosovo changed my mind.
In short, I realized that the Balkans is still relevant in American foreign policy. True, American news sources rarely report on developments in the region, but “the Balkans” continues to serve as a memory and a metaphor central to the concept of “humanitarian intervention.” Many students fail to realize that the foreign policy we debate in the classroom  is influenced by the role that the U.S. government played in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In fact, I think it is fair to say that America’s approach to the Balkans became the blueprint for 21st century American intervention.
In current politics, diplomats who advocate intervention in countries such as Iraq and Syria enjoy pointing to the Balkans as an example of how successful American “leadership” can be. Well, “point” is an overstatement, given that so many people have trouble finding it on a map—let’s say they mention it. And nothing more. They drop the “B word” in passing as if mentioning it by name is enough to prove they are right.

On the other hand, there are journalists who criticize America’s approach to the Balkans by claiming that the region still simmers in “tribal hatreds,” barbaric nationalism, and the culture of an ancient era. (Even casual comments about the Croatian World Cup qualifier contribute to this stigma).

So, are we to regard the Balkans as an example of successful international intervention, a lost cause, or just another mess the U.S. got itself into?

Actually, it’s none of those. Because each of those statements is a way to dismiss the Balkans from further discussion. In many ways, countries in the Balkans are struggling; however, discarding them from political discussion in the West is both short-sighted and dangerous. Every country that I’m visiting deserves attention right now:

Serbia is caught between Western Europe and Russia, seeking membership in the EU yet refusing to impose sanctions on Russia as many countries have done as punishment for the situation in Ukraine.

Earlier this year in Bosnia people protested in the streets, finally expressing outrage at a government that is so dysfunctional it can’t even control the number of stray dogs inhabiting the capital city.

Among many troubles, Kosovo continues to struggle for international recognition (even for acknowledgement from websites such as Skype and Amazon.com).

Studying these countries will reveal a great deal about what it means to be a “new”  country in this century, the significance of national identity and how it is fostered, and how nations caught between East and West strive for their own best interests while forging relationships with surrounding, competing superpowers.

The Balkans is also relevant to ongoing international crises, due to its geographical location if for no other reason. Refugees from nearby conflicts (such as Kurds and Palestinians) and mercenaries training to fight in some of those conflicts (such as recruits of the Islamic State and al-Qaida) pass through the Balkans.

At the same time, a generation of people my age—a number of them born from rape in war camps—is struggling to be defined by something other than their country’s war, many of them moving away and causing a “brain drain” in the region.
People living in the Balkans are not the only ones recovering from the conflict; Americans are also affected by the action our country took there. Anyone who has lost someone important to them in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone who is harmed by, concerned about, or merely interested in the atrocities taking place in Syria, must realize that our brief encounter with the Balkans has an impact on the U.S. government’s decision to get involved in such conflicts.

After suffering through different variations and snippets of what I said above, people finally ask me what I expect to learn from my semester in the Balkans. I find myself giving a slightly different answer every time: overlooked details in recent history, current developments in peacekeeping and political violence, the potential role this region has in international conflict, or methods and mistakes my own country made there. Because it’s all of those.

 

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The area outlined in red is the Balkans; this semester I’m visiting the countries outlined in blue.

 

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Until the 1990’s, Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo belonged to The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.