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By Emily Hendrick
Last summer, I volunteered to work for three weeks at a camp for kids in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina and a city ravaged by war from 1992 to 1996. The goal of the camp was to help kids who were traumatized by the Bosnian War reclaim part of their childhood. My time there was one of the most meaningful in my life.
After arriving at the Sarajevo Airport July 1, and while waiting for my ride to the camp in the afternoon, I wandered around the old town and checked out the little antique shops and arts and crafts. I got some Bosnian fast food called "burek," which is phyllo dough filled with spinach, cheese, and potatoes. Then I took a tram--Sarajevo's public transportation--out to the Tunnel Museum on the outskirts of the city. With its entrance located in someone's garden in a suburban area of Ilidza, the tunnel the museum commemorates was constructed in 1993 during the terrible Siege of Sarajevo. A half-mile long and less than five feet high, the tunnel ran all the way under the airport to what was then considered United Nations neutral territory. It both helped people escape and allowed them to bring food and other necessary items into the city, which was completely surrounded by Serbian forces. They say most Sarajevans living in the city during the war passed through the tunnel at some point. When I crouched down to walk through the part of the tunnel that still exists today, I imagined how hard it would be to leave my home without knowing what would be waiting on the other side.
The next day at the camp--which had two dorm rooms with bunk beds for about 30 kids, aged 9 to 14--the mood was different, filled with activity. We international volunteers got busy, sorting out storage lockers to see what arts and sports equipment we had and what we might need to acquire. The camp had a collection from previous years, and aside from the deflated balls, and incomplete decks of cards, it was pretty well stocked.
As the camper kids arrived, we showed them their dorms, had them make nametags, and joined together for our first meal. Among the younger kids was a 10-year-old girl named Milica. Milica spoke English quite well, and although the tiniest of the bunch, she was also the most outgoing. She disliked all the food that the caterers served, and told me so with a disgusted face and the exclamation, "I hate this, it's ugly!" She then dumped the rest of her meal on my plate. She ate the dessert, of course.
For part of our activities, I had brought along my bongos. They were a huge hit, so I arranged a drum circle with about 12 kids, big plastic water jugs, and a lot of shakers. It was quite the scene, if not all that rhythmic.... I let a couple of the boys hang onto my drumsticks for a while, and they wandered around hitting their water jugs as hard as they could. I figured if nothing else it was good aggression therapy.
A group of 14-year-old girls, who'd heard I knew some dance routines, asked me to teach them one for their upcoming camp talent show. I starting teaching them a hip-hop song, "Get Buck in Here." Everyone who spoke English was laughing at me. I did, however, learn how to say "too much booty for one man to handle" in Bosnian. In case you ever need to know, it's something like "Premnogo kundak po jedan muskarac baratati."
The next day was a great day because we held the all-camp Olympics from dawn until dusk. The campers were divided into four teams and given colored headbands to wear. We began the morning with an opening ceremony. At the pool, we held swimming relays, and I learned that one of the girls was an incredible swimmer who had a professional coach--she had her own little pink swim cap and goggles, and she was fast!
Friday, July 11, was a solemn day because it was the anniversary of Srebrenica, the largest genocide in Europe since World War II. We didn't make it a big deal, but the kids all knew that we couldn't play music that day, and instead of disco we watched the animated movie Cars on a projector outside in the warm night air. Have you ever seen a car speak in Bosnian?
After three weeks, it was time to leave. While we were waiting, we American volunteers put on the Journey song "Don't Stop Believing" and sang and danced around and made as much noise as possible. We couldn't just sit around because it was too sad. We didn't want to go.
After our departure from the camp, a few of us went into Sarajevo to tour the city and drive up to the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics. The top of the mountain was very much like a ghost town, not only because the ski village was deserted, but because so many buildings had been destroyed by the war. There was one large building that looked as if it had just melted, literally, with deformed metal and large gaping holes in its brick walls.
This short stint in my life opened my eyes to a region of the world I had never really known much about, and allowed me to communicate with a wonderful group of children who, despite having experienced major setbacks during the war, still had a sense of courage and yearning to have their childhood.
Emily Hendrick, 23, was born and raised on Jersey Street. Her 2008 trip to Bosnia was sponsored by the Global Children's Organization. A graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, she was recently accepted to the Peace Corps. Already proficient in Spanish and Portuguese, she is learning Croatian as a way to build bridges with other cultures.
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