Meet Natalie, who ponders the links between language, history, and memory in an introspective piece about her family.
I grew up learning English and Serbo-Croatian: while my father spoke to me in English, my mother showered me with lullabies and stories in her native tongue. She wanted to ensure that whenever I visited my family in Bosnia, I would be able to establish intimacy that only sharing a language can provide.
I visit Bosnia almost every summer. For a little over two months, I spend time with my mother’s family in Brcko, a small town bordering Croatia. Summers in Bosnia were a safe haven from the constant travel I experienced as the daughter of a military family. When visiting, I wouldn’t have to worry about unfamiliar faces or establishing new friendships. Here, I was truly at home. Yet as I grew older, my friends at school would ask me more and more questions about Bosnia. With each question, I realized that I didn’t know enough about the country I considered my own.
Ever since I was little, I had been vaguely aware of the country’s very recent history. I remember walking hand in hand with my grandparents, observing the scars left behind by grenades and shellings. Every July, my family would gather in front of our television in the living room to watch the live memorial service for the Srebrenica massacre. Hundreds of newly identified bodies would be buried as a grim reminder of more than 8,000 killed less than two decades ago. Despite the glaring evidence of war and hardship, I waited until my freshman year of high school to ask my own relatives about the genocide.
The next time I visited, I asked my grandparents to tell me their accounts of the war. They told me stories of enduring months spent hiding in the basement of their apartment without enough food, electricity, or water. The story that captivated me the most, however, was the one of their marriage. In a war where one religion persecuted another, my grandparents overcame many difficulties.
My grandmother is Muslim while my grandfather is an Orthodox Serb. Once, my grandmother boarded a bus to visit her sister in the neighboring town. Before she left the city, a group of Serbs who had stolen UN vehicles pulled over her bus. The Serbs boarded and asked for everyone’s identification cards. Those who had Muslim last names were immediately taken off the bus and driven to a concentration camp. Had my grandmother not been married to a Serb, she would have been on her way to the concentration camp with the others. Knowing that my grandmother could have been raped, tortured, starved, or worked to death terrifies me.
That year, I returned home with a personal understanding of the traumas of genocide, but lacked a historical foundation. I found myself immersed in books related to genocide or peace and conflict studies. Through books such as Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell, I learned more about the war torn countries of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. Discovering more about the history and culture of another country, including my own, was beyond eye-opening.
Being able to realize that you have the power and the resources to learn about another country is important when establishing cultural connections. Through the Student Language Exchange, I hope to promote the importance of learning non-Western languages and cultures to the students of my generation.
Natalie will be attending McGill University in Montreal this fall. She drinks excessive amounts of coffee, loves to read, and looks forward to interning with the Student Language Exchange.