Halfway Point, and Bosnia So Far

I’m writing this on my phone at a cafe in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (technically, just Herzegovina. They are distinct principalities that act as one country.) it’s relatively cool in the shade, but we’re facing another day of 90+ degree heat (which, considering that most of this week it was between 105 and 110, is actually welcome relief).

We’ve been in Mostar for a week now, and we had two more days to go before we move on to Livno, which is northwest of here and in the Bosnia section of BiH. Mostar is a charming town with much to see. The 2.5k walk from the orphanage where we stayed until yesterday included a huge Muslim cemetery, many buildings riddled with bullet and shell holes, a number of once beautiful stone buildings that were gutted during the war, and an Ottoman-style market that makes it clear we’re no longer in Western Europe. Across the Old Bridge (which stood for centuries before being bombed dring the war) and a bit further on, there’s a different scene: Catholic churches, the occasional Croatian flag, fewer signs of destruction, and a generally more western, privileged feel. Mostar is known for being a divided city, and it’s very visible.

We’ve spent this week working with two groups: the kids at the Egyptian Village (an orphanage once financed by Mubarak) and Sunce Mostar, an organization for physically or mentally disabled children and adults. It’s been a major change from our week in Croatia, where we ran three two-hour sessions per day at an orphanage and two homes for mentally disabled adults. In Croatia we worked with about 70 people per day; here, it’s more like 25.

The Egyptian Village is one of the strangest places I’ve been. Most of the kids are either home for the summer (something I don’t understand at all) or with relatives in Italy (again, no idea). The ones remaining range from ages 3 to 22 and are almost 100% unsupervised. We saw an occasional social worker during the day, but after living there 7 days, we still have no idea if there were any adults in charge and/or permanently present. It broke my heart to spend time with two brothers who are three and five and have zero parental figures. I held and cuddled with the three-year-old for about two hours total over the last two days, and he was clearly desperate for that kind of contact. He threw his little arms around my neck and snuggled into my chest like I’d always been his mom. Saying good-bye to them yesterday was terrible – who knows what will become of these children without structure and guidance. This is not a country in which there’s much potential for starting from scratch and making your own way.

We’ve worked with only six people (five adults and one adorable, inexhaustibly enthusiastic and cheerful little boy with malformed legs) from Sunce Mostar. We integrated them with the orphans, which was generally a success. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and although the kids misbehaved a good amount to us, they treated the Sunce folks perfectly well despite their obvious differences. We have finished working with the orphans but have one more session with Sunce tomorrow morning.

Outside of our sessions, the World at Play team and I have a total blast with each other. Our evenings always include games of some sort combined with the occasional cold beer, dance party, or Scrabble tournament. We’ve had significantly more down time here, so we’ve also gone out to dinner, walked around the old town, visited Medugorje (site of a Vatican-unconfirmed Virgin apparition), and swam in a lake surrounded by waterfalls. Bosnia has a lot to offer, and I hope tourism will increase and begin to boost the economy and recovery process.

I can’t believe we’re nearly halfway through the trip. Training in Wales and Austria seems forever ago, and I feel like I’ve known everyone my whole life. (Spending 24/7 with the same 8 people tends to do that.) I’m so grateful for this opportunity.

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