Friday, June 13, 2008

Which country am I in?

Yesterday I went to watch a soccer game between Croatia and Germany. I live on the east Bosniak) side of the city, where everything was completely quiet and normal, and crossed over the former front line to the west (Croat) side of the city, which had gone wild. People dressed in red and white checkered shirts (from pattern on the Croatian herald) were packing the cafes to watch the game together. Whenever Croatia scored a point, everyone chanted,"Auf Wiedersehen, Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland, Deutschland, Auf Wiedersehen!" ("Goodbye, Germany"). It's kind of a poignant thing-- people from the Balkans went to Germany as refugees during the war and before and after the war as "Gasterbeiters" (guest workers), and now these Bosnian Croats are enjoying having a kind of superiority (in sports if nothing else) over a powerful country like Germany. Although, in fact, Germany has also been a huge source of aid to this region-- the reconstruction of the room next to me now as I type, in the cultural center where I work, was financed by the German government.

At the same time-- we are not living in Croatia! We are living in Bosnia-Hercegovina. People in the cafe-bars were also singing songs about "Herceg-Bosna", the Croat para-state that was formed during the war. So many people died to keep Mostar as a part of Bosnia-Hercegovina so that it wouldn't become an ethnically clean Croatian para-state, and here are people celebrating that (basically genocidal) concept.

My friends were cheering "Hrvatska" (Croatia) and then I cheered "Bosnia-Hercegovina" and they also cheered at that, but then another girl immediately chimed in, "Herceg-Bosna!" A discussion followed about a mutual (Croat) friend, how a Bosniak in the old city asked him,"Don't you feel afraid to be here as a Croat?" (because the Croats destroyed the old city during the war) and how unfair it was for him to say that. When we walked back through the old city on our way home, my friends put on jackets to hide their Croatian soccer jerseys. It reminded me of my time working with kids in Belfast, when we went to a swimming pool in a Protestant part of town, the kids had to hide their Celtics jersey (the Celtics are a Catholic team in Glasgow, Scotland.)
Even the very name of the sport is politicized here-- in Bosnian, they use the word "fudbal" but in Croatian, it's "nogomet". Athletic competition has a beautiful simplicity to it, but it's not pure.(Cf. also: Protests in China over the upcoming Olympic Games and human rights abuses.)
If only they had been chanting, "Nationalism, Genocide, Hatred, Auf Wiedersehen"!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

When in (a) Roma (community)...

In addition to meeting Bosniak, Serbs and Croats in my daily life in Mostar, I've also had the opportunity to meet some people from a local Roma community. The Roma/Romany people are a distinct ethnic group (with their own language, which I've heard is related to Hindi) that can be found in most countries in Europe. They are also known in popular imagination as "gypsies", and in Ireland were once called "tinkers" and are now called "travelers". Their culture emphasizes family ties and traditional culture-- most marry as teenagers and their traditional music, played at weddings and other functions, is very popular here in the Balkans, in spite of the discrimination and prejudice that Roma people face. Because of difficulties in relating to those outside their culture, few attend school and thus most people from these communities turn either to "secondary materials processing" (ie, collecting re-usable trash like aluminum cans and selling it) or begging. Some of my friends from church have been visiting this particular Roma community for several years and this past fall they also started a "mobile school" to teach basic math and literacy skills to this group of kids. They are also starting a sponsorship program for sending selected youngsters to regular school. (You can read about their work with the kids at I go on Sundays with them to plays games and do crafts with the kids. This is a photo of me with two of the girls (plus a baby brother) squinting into the sun during a birthday party.