Alternative Spring Break: Students Witness Life After Genocide in the Balkans

Song Gao

Inside a mosque in the war-scarred city of Sarajevo, student Konstantine Lagos learned something impossible to grasp in a classroom.

“We were coming from the lone synagogue in the city when we heard the call to prayer at the mosque, and we literally just followed on impulse…I felt like everything I ever heard or knew about the Islam religion and culture was just completely shattered,” said Lagos, one of nine students from the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences at Nova Southeastern University who traveled to Europe during spring break 2010 as part of the travel-study course: Genocide in the 20th Century and Beyond.

The 12-day trip, led by Gary Gershman, J.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the college’s Division of Humanities, took students to the historic cities of Belgrade, Serbia; Krakow, Poland; and Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the tell-tale signs of the civil war are widely visible. The conflict from 1992 to 1995 between the three main ethnic groups, the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, resulted in genocide committed by the Serbs against the Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“We were so curious,” said Lagos, a biology major, recalling how students approached the mosque with trepidation. “I couldn’t express the excitement as we entered…Every man around me looked just like me. Some had fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, or mohawks and skinny jeans. It was so surreal but then I had my epiphany. My ignorance was cleared when I realized something that I’ve known all along. Islam is a religion, a faith. It has nothing to do with race or skin color. Those 20 minutes of prayer became a manifestation of everything we learned in class. This was such an incredible eye-opening experience that I will never forget.”

Such experiences are the goal of the college’s Travel Study Program, which encourages students to engage, discover, and explore other countries and cultures. The program encompasses a wide range of international academic and cultural experiences, providing an opportunity to pursue in-depth topics relevant to students’ majors, study another culture, or learn another language. Lagos and three other travel-study students, Lauren Butler, Maxwell Hyman, and Calista Siobhan Ming, also were participants in the Undergraduate Honors Program.

For Gershman’s students, the study of genocide was deeply rooted in the trip abroad. In Sarajevo, the road that once led to the Olympic Village of the 1984 international games is now lined with cemeteries, filled with the graves of the war dead. In Belgrade, the class met with Serbs who criticized the United States because they felt they were unfairly criticized and blamed for the genocide in Bosnia.

In Poland, students visited Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where about a million Jews and at least a half a million others were murdered during World War II.

“To talk about genocide is one thing,” Gershman said. “But to stand in the middle of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the cold and snow, or to walk the streets of Sarajevo seeing the scars of the three-year siege, or to sit in a room with the women of Srebrenica and have them look you in the eye while they describe the last time they saw their sons before they were taken away from them by the Serbs and slaughtered…this creates a unique, impactful educational experience.

Indeed, the experience had a lifelong impact on the students.

Maxwell Hyman, a legal studies major, is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. His late grandfather lost 11 members of his family at the Auschwitz death camp.

“Walking from the train depot to the site of the gas chamber was very momentous,” Hyman said. “I was thinking about my family and how privileged I am to be alive. If my grandfather had died there, I wouldn’t be alive today. I keep seeing it in my mind. It was my own ‘march of the living.’”

One of the most pivotal events was the students’ meeting with the Women of Srebrenica, an organization based in Sarajevo that is dedicated to finding the thousands of bodies still missing from the massacre of men in the town of Srebrenica in July 1995. Some of the women wept as they told their stories.  

“One of the women said, ‘the greatest gift in the world is to be born, live, and die a human being,’” recalled biology major Calista Siobhan Ming, a freshman who took the course to explore the reasons behind genocide. “The reason for genocide is not something that is discussed a lot. I have talked to friends who were interested but had not bothered to read about it. I wanted to learn a lot more about this. And I learned so much from this trip.” 

Business major Freslaine Saint Louis said the experience made her feel like “we live in a bubble. We hear about [war and genocide], but to see the people and how they live really changed my mind set. There are people struggling with things that are so much bigger than what we experience.”

The shared experience forged a bond between the students whose diverse backgrounds were a touch point for learning from each other. The nine students come from Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox backgrounds. For each, the trip provided an acute awareness of the struggle for human rights in the Balkans, as well as the importance of exploration and engagement with other people and cultures around the world.

“Learning about the harsh realities of human nature and history forces you to open your eyes and question what you thought you knew about the world,” said Anam Ismail, a legal studies major who is Muslim. “Further, genocide truly encompasses many aspects of academics, namely psychology, history, and the law. I am currently taking a course in international law. On multiple occasions, I have quite passionately pointed out examples of genocide, which often leads to discussions regarding how genocide fits into international law and its various legal implications. In many ways, the trip has provided me with a canvas, and everything I learn from here on out will add to it.”

Ismail encouraged fellow classmates to enter the mosque in Sarajevo. She helped the women properly cover their heads. “I think I helped [dispel] the stereotypes. They could see what was going on firsthand, and I could answer their questions,” she said.

“If it wasn’t for Anam, I would not have gone into the mosque,” said Lauren Watkins, a junior majoring in communications studies. “Our group was completely diverse. We each brought something to the table. I learned as much from [fellow students] as I did from anything else on the trip,” said Watkins, who grew up as a Southern Baptist.

In Sarajevo, the students stayed at a Holiday Inn in the middle of the former “sniper alley,” called such because of the fighting there, Gershman said. Bullet holes were still visible in the walls at churches, apartment buildings, and at the University of Sarajevo, where student Francesca Mardi watched “students our age walking in and out of the buildings,” seemingly unaffected by the scars of violence.  

“It was weird,” Hyman said, recalling how students ate pizza next door to an open-air market that was once the target of a deadly bombing. “Here we are, eating pizza and having a good time” and knowing that others had died just a few feet away. 

“It is as if they want to keep it there, the evidence of war,” said Lauren Butler, a senior enrolled as a double-major in theatre and psychology. “It’s like a living monument.”

For Konstantine Lagos, a mother’s tears will always remind him of the trip. 

“One of the women of Srebrenica who had lost her son was pouring her heart out,” Lagos said. “She was trying to express her pain. You could see the pain in her eyes. When she looked at me, she said she wondered what her son would look like now.”