2015 marks the 20th anniversary of a shadowed past.
From 1992 to 1995, the former Yugoslav Republic witnessed perhaps the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II. An estimated 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian conflict in but three years, displacing over 2.2 million people, leaving countless others broken to pick up the pieces.
Despite the tragedy, the Balkans is also home to some of the world's most ethnically diverse populations in the world. A kaleidoscope of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats, few around the world are aware that this same country is also uniquely made up of 4 million constituent peoples.
This Spring, I journeyed to the Balkan states to sift the silence in search of shared story.
My visit was in part to honor the 20th anniversary of the Bosnian war. It was also a way to actively participate in the importance of memory, finding a space for collective healing. I also wanted to find ways to move past simply memories of war and find ways together to celebrate people and place.
Walking the streets of Sarajevo, I gazed into the distance as I passed a collage of faces, old and young, somber and active and wondered about the memories held within. I passed stories and places I had only read about in books and imagined leaving feetprints along the cobbled paths.
Our global community is capable of such great heights; constructing safe frameworks where we might find the hope necessary to rebuild together. Time has an honest way of revitalizing our memories. It informs our teaching, while shaping a future inextricably linked. Here in Sarajevo, halfway around the world, I witnessed ordinary people with extraordinary spirits working in tandem to rebuild a community, one step at a time.
On July 11, 1995, just two decades prior, a designated United Nations safe zone was raided, and over just three days, the lives of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were shattered by the hands of Bosnian armed forces.
This year, tens of thousands gathered on July 11, 2015, to memorialize loved ones.
One young man I spoke to during my visit had the courage to share his story.
In violent outbreaks during the war, Ajdin had lost both his parents. With only the slips for shoes on his feet and the clothes on his back, he found himself utterly alone. In a country once full of possibility that he called home, he was confronted by fragments, a place now torn apart .
In spite of circumstance, Ajdin, like many others affected by senseless acts of hatred, chose strength and resilience of spirit, and endured by embarking on a better life.
When I met this young man who might as well have been my peer, I couldn't help but notice the truth in his smile and his simultaneous trace of pain. Ajdin exemplifies a unique generation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He represents both survivor returning visitor within the confines of his own country. He is but one of many young people who has witnessed tragedy and yet found ways and reasons to persevere.
After the war, Ajdin chose to leave Bosnia like many of his peers in search of work abroad and has since spent time both in Canada and the US. He began working in construction only to find satisfaction in working with his hands and since then has never stopped building.
His dream is to create a construction business of his own so that one day he too may return home.
It is hard to imagine the meaning of loss in a place that has witnessed tragedy on such a magnitude of scale.
When I asked Ajdin how the past has influenced his outlook on life, he looked up at me and said, "I have chosen to live a simply life."
I came to learn Ajdin's definition of a simple life simply means prioritizing the things that matter most.
"What's important?" he asked, "To live each day as if it might be the last. Because it just might."
This time, I looked away and started pacing, carefully listening.
"You never know what's going to happen tomorrow, " he said, "So live each day."