Monday, December 10, 2007

One Nation, under God

“The West will be grateful to us some day

because we decided to defend Christian values and culture.”

--Radovan Karadzic *

Talking with friends the other day, I heard that in Zagreb there’s a giant advent wreath with lit candles around a public fountain. I commented that this kind of religious gesture, in a public setting (and not merely a corporate one, like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree) would be considered problematic in America. Not because it’s a fire hazard (my friends’ initial assumption), but because it privileges one group and set of beliefs over another. (Not that we don’t still have nativity scenes in front of city halls, but at least it’s controversial.)

With a friend, I stopped by the art class of an elementary school on the west (Croat) side of Mostar. The assignment of the week was the nativity scene; every student in the class had created a paper mosaic of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Other examples of student work hung on the walls—Jesus on the cross, Jesus’ head with thorns, another Jesus on the cross. There was also a framed photo of the pope on the wall. This is a public elementary school.

Across the street from the elementary school is an Ultras-affiliated sports bar. (The Zrinskji Ultras are the nationalist/fascist Croat football team in Mostar.) Graffiti on walls around the school include slogans like “Ultras 94”, a “U” with a cross over it, and a circle with a cross through it.

On the large hill behind the school is a big white cross, visible from all over the city, especially at night when it is lit up. It’s a great landmark, especially at night if you need to find your way home. It was also built, post-war, on the same spot where (ethnically Catholic) Croat forces bombed the (majority ethnically Muslim) east side of the city, resulting in devastating destruction, much of it still not repaired.

Mostar has religious freedom that people in China can only dream of. In contrast to evangelical “English teachers” in China, with their self-censored emails and tapped phones, I know half a dozen internationals that teach English classes but are officially here on missionary visas. Unlike the ghettoized international churches of Beijing and Shanghai, here locals and internationals worship together with complete freedom. In China last year, I couldn't even access blogspot.

“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you keep biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:13-15)

* Karadzic is one of the most wanted war criminals in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Personal interview, 1993. [Qtd. Jonathan Eastvold’s Princeton politics PhD dissertation, “God, the State and War: Towards a Containment Strategy for Religious Militancy” p. 91]

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Scenes from Mostar

Beautiful Mostar-- the river Neretva, mosques and churches, and its famous Stari Most ("old bridge"), destroyed in 1993 but now rebuilt.

Where I work

The Youth Cultural Center Abrasevic was on the "front line" during the war and sustained much damage... Youth worked to clear out the debris themselves and then the German embassy donated funds for a new roof. Last year the center held 148 events.

Over the river and up the hill

Walk up the hill to the red metal gate and come into the courtyard, where the kiwi vines grow...

Post for a picture by the front door.

Welcome to my humble abode!

Friday, November 2, 2007


Geneva consisted of three whirlwind days of jetlag, watching BBC documentaries on the fall of Yugoslavia and the conflict in Kosovo, and finalizing travel details. We did manage to squeeze in cheese fondue and drinking coffee by the lake, however.

Since coming to Mostar, I have: set up a bank account, bought a cell phone, gotten documents for my visa, gone to the visa office, found out I don't have all the documents I need, gone to cultural events organized by Abrasevic (two concerts and a film) and consumed copious amounts of very delicious espresso.

There is a logic to life here. If it rains, we don't go to the visa office. If we don't have the necessary documents, we get coffee and then go out for lunch. In the words of Enniskillen's own Oscar Wilde-- I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly put do the day after.

I have more to say about the town of Mostar and the characters I am meeting here... I'll write up those thoughts tomorrow. Or the day after.

*prekosutra is the Bosnian word for the day after tomorrow

Monday, October 15, 2007

In the beginning

I've just spent the last three weeks at the Brethren Volunteer Service orientation (unit #277) in Missouri! We lived on $2.25 a day for food, picked up trash in parks, discussed social justice issues and sang just about every pre-meal camp song that there is.

On October 22, I'm flying out for a three-day mini-orientation in Geneva. After that, I'll take the train to my new home for the next two years-- Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina! I'll be working at a youth cultural center called OKC Abrasevic as a program assistant. Basically, the organization exists to provide cultural outlets for youth-- film festivals, concerts, art workshops and more. These events are an opportunity for Bosnian Muslim, Croat and Serb youth to spend time together in a non-sectarian environment, as well as giving them something to do (the local unemployment rate is very high.) I can help by writing grants, editing project proposals and reports in English and hopefully coming up with some projects of my own. I have a lot to learn-- language, history, culture-- and I am so excited for the challenge. The center has a website:

Now I need to work on packing! hopefully this blog will be a good way to keep in touch with all of you over the next two years. Thanks for reading. :)