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The Balkans, Part 2 – Mostar 1997

January 25, 2016

You can read the first part of this story here. This is part of a personal narrative about my flailing attempts to get my first job as a humanitarian aid worker.

In the winter of 1996/7 Sarajevo was a getting back on its feet. The war was over, and people were starting to pick up the pieces. Markets were working, buses were running, and the international aid and security groups there were spending millions of dollars to try to kick start the economy and repair the damage of the previous five years. When I left the UK I was given the address of someone to look up in Sarajevo by a friend who was a Bosnian refugee in Britain. When I got there I fond that the building was no longer there, it was a pile of rubble. I don’t know what happened to those people, the school friends of the biologist and doctor couple of I met in York. Of course I’d seen the devastation on the TV, but this was the first time it viscerally connected with me that this was a human tragedy of massive scale.

I spent a few days in Sarajevo, trying to connect with people who worked in the aid business, but it felt like no one would give me the time of day. I couldn’t get meetings, and people would not return my phone calls. Of course, this was in the days before everyone had email and mobile phones.

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A destroyed school bus, presumably funded by the aid agency CARE.

So, on the advice of someone who did meet briefly with me I got on a bus to Mostar, a city in western Bosnia that had been one of the worst affected by the war. I rented a room, and started to work out how to connect with the couple of names I had been given to look up there.

Mostar had a much more relaxed pace. The old medieval city had suffered massive damage in the war, and the iconic Turkish bridge had not yet been rebuilt. My first stop was to an organization called ‘Mladi Most’ (Youth Bridge), a multi-ethnic youth center that took volunteers from overseas to work run youth programs aimed at diffusing conflict. I hung out at the center for a little while, but pretty early on I knew it wasn’t going to be where I fit in. The pot smoking hippy vibe was great, and the programs the group had run were well respected and certainly bold in the political environment, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.

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The wire suspension bridge strung across the site of the famous ‘old bridge’ for which Mostar gets its name.

I stayed a couple of weeks in Mostar, introducing myself to people, beginning to get to grips with the language, and finding my way around. I didn’t find anyone who was hiring, or any job that it felt like I could do well enough that it would help. I did meet a lot of very competent, dedicated Bosnians who working hard to get their country back on its feet, and who were very graceful in hosting me, and very polite about my rather crass and naive questions.

In the end, I left Bosnia more sure than ever that this was a career that I wanted, but more despondent than ever about how to get my first job.

If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my Kindle eBook, which contains much of the content from this site, thoughtfully formatted for off-line reading on a Kindle, iPad, laptop, or other e-reader. It’s $7.99, and honestly, what can you get for that these days? Get it here.

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