Alumna Returns to the Balkans for Post-Conflict Study

When Francesca Mardis (B.A., 2011) traveled to the Balkans in March 2010 as part of the Travel Study Program at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, she was profoundly affected by the vivid images and scars of civil war.

Fifteen years after a three-year conflict, bullet holes still punctured the walls of churches, apartments, and buildings at the University of Sarajevo where students routinely attended classes.

Now studying for a master's degree in history at American Public University, Mardis returned to the region this summer to attend the 2012 Summer School at the Center for Comparative Conflict Studies (CFCCS) in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

"When I first began to academically explore the Balkans, I immediately felt a profound connection to the people, culture, and history," said Mardis, who graduated from the college with a bachelor's degree in history and minors in international studies and Irish studies. "Each trip to Bosnia and Serbia reinforces my passion for their histories while providing a profound and deep-rooted understanding of the region."  

Mardis was one of nine students who traveled to Europe during spring break 2010 as part of the travel-study course Genocide in the 20th Century and Beyond. Led by Gary Gershman, J.D., Ph.D., associate professor at the college, the 12-day trip took students to Belgrade, Serbia; Krakow, Poland; and Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

From 1992 to 1995, fighting between the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians resulted in genocide committed by the Serbs against an estimated 8,000 people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in addition to thousands more deaths during the siege of Sarajevo.

During the summer course, Mardis explored the role of "social memory" in the post-conflict reconciliation process. She also looked at the role of memory and the commemoration of catastrophic events such as the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, which has been recognized as genocide.

"Specifically, we explored the way that societies collectively remember and commemorate or forget and silence historical events and the related dynamics of conflict and post-conflict," Mardis said.

"We explored the methods employed by entire communities to preserve and remember the past, or deny and obliterate it. We explored what events were commemorated, how they were commemorated, and why they were chosen. This is vital [in shaping] how people remember and how people perceive what happened."

The course in Belgrade "opened the door for a deeper understanding of Dr. Gershman's course, which was more of a macro study of genocide from a historical standpoint. The CFCCS approached the subject matter through the lens of social memory, exploring history with the nuanced detail of the individual and small village experience."

Gershman's course and the travel-study trip to the Balkans was the impetus for her graduate studies and future path, said Mardis, who plans to pursue careers in teaching and possibly foreign service.

"As is often the case with students that take this class or any travel-study class, their world expands," Gershman said. "Classes like this open doors to students, sometimes by igniting the desire to travel, sometimes by further academic work. In Francesca's case, both happened. It is exciting to see a student take a class about a topic they knew very little about and watch it blossom into work at the graduate level and a new appreciation and understanding of the world around them."

Mardis' summer trip to the Balkans was her third visit to the region and included stops in Sarajevo and Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia.

In March 2012, she returned to Sarajevo to re-interview members of the Mothers of Srebrenica, an organization representing families of the Srebrenica victims. In Belgrade, she interviewed an American ambassador to Serbia and the editor-in-chief at NIN Magazine, an influential publication in the region.