Dark Tourism or Justice Education

Aida Omanovic wrote this article for the Italy Center. She kindly hosts the Italy Center students during our visit to Mostar (Bosnia-Herzegovina), which includes meetings with religious leaders and directors of various NGOs (click here to view a sample agenda of the Summer and Fall Italy Center Social Justice Tours to the Balkans). Omanovic has worked for numerous international relief organizations including the American Refugee Committee (ARC) and The International Refugee Services (IRS).  Currently, she is working with the Bosnian-Herzegovinian government in its preparations to meet the legal requirements in order to enter into the European Union.

Dark tourism or grief tourism involves traveling to sites associated with death and tragedy.  Certain settings, such as Auschwitz and Ground Zero, attract visitors seeking to understand man’s capacity for evil. My Mostar happens to be one such place included in the list of sites that represent human atrocities and genocide.

If you are a student who is seeking to understand human rights and social justice issues – welcome to the Balkans. As a native of Mostar with family ties that reach back to the 18th century, I lived my high school and college-aged years during the war, driving an ambulance without proper medical training, burying friends (27 in all) and refusing to leave.  Decades after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords that stopped the bullets, I remain in my Mostar, working for change in the place where I raised my daughter to stay rather than flee Bosnia.  I refuse to give up on the vision of a multi-ethnic city.  Nevertheless, we remain a divided city (Muslims and Catholics) with similarities to Belfast (Protestants and Catholics) and Jerusalem (Jews and Arabs). This is a brief introduction to Mostar– I would rather you visit to encounter first hand our remarkably rich history of art, music, literature, commerce and architecture and meet the strong survivors of the war.

We only have this one life and, whether you are interested in dark tourism or not, Bosnia needs to be on your list of places to see. There is no other place on Earth like the Balkans, where the people are friendly and the nature is remarkable. Although we have a great deal of beauty, we have also witnessed so much death and, as a result, we live life to its fullest.

I would be naive to imply that everything has been resolved in my country.  A silent war is still raging two decades after the US, the European Union and other groups have invested in finding a peaceful peace resolution.  Now, local politicians throw out terms, like reconciliation and human rights, which they have adopted from the various human rights conventions, laws and international pacts that were reached in order to improve the lives and conditions of the population.  These international agreements are full of language that express the importance of protecting people regardless of their skin color, language, religion beliefs. These words, however, tend to mean little, often nothing, to the ordinary person on the street in Mostar.

If you would like to know the true responsibility that one carries when participating in peace reconciliation processes or any sort of peace agreements between sides in conflict, you must visit the Balkans.  Only through human interactions can you understand what the consequences will be if negotiations lack certain parameters.  For example, the designers of the Dayton Peace Accords, which established the basis for the State Constitution, did not consult the Bosnian victims of the war, who could have provided important perspectives. For this reason, the international community is still trying to resolve the flawed agreement designed by non-Bosnians.

On the other hand, if you meet my Mostar neighbors, you can hear stories and witness how people in such a complex situation are co-habiting, acting and fighting for justice.  By coming to Bosnia, you will better understand social justice as these abstract concepts, which the international community previously defined, become tangible and visible and are not just ideas in a chapter of a textbook, but instead a reality.

In every sense of the meaning, I’ve invested 20 years in the rehabilitation of my country after the devastating 1992 – 1995 war. I devoted 15 years to the rebuilding of schools, hospitals and homes for refugees and returnees.  In recent years, I’ve tried to make my small contribution to the redevelopment of a civil society in Bosnia. I have to admit that the latter is a much more difficult and demanding job than the physical reconstruction of buildings and homes.

I’m just one person who has survived the war on the front line. Though the war is over, I continue to fight for the future because it is possible to make Bosnia better.  It is so easy to leave this country – the writers of the Dayton Accords left it in empty hands. It is not enough for war to end in the sense of shooting, bombing and killing –the war only ends when every person is respected as a human being.

I would like to end with an invitation for you to visit my Mostar and with a quotation by Bertrand Russell that best captures my sentiments about the war and peace, the past 20 years of my life and the next 20 to come:

After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it has generated Neros, Genghis Khans and Hitlers. This, however, I believe is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.”