Friday, February 17, 2012


"In wide open fields, 
I'll spread my arms and pretend I'm flying.
In wide open fields
the world seems so far away.
I will run to find 
the field where I'm
the only one;
And there in wide open fields I'll lay".

Lyrics always sound a little banal without a melody to back it up, but that’s part of a song that I've scribbled down today, having driven past some open fields on my way to work. I gazed at those rolling hills in the distance, wishing I could be in wellies today instead of my office garb. 

The office is quiet now, most people have gone home defeated by the sheer volume of work that needs to be done in time for the audit on Monday. I remain here, listening to old mp3s on my computer, revisiting songs that I used to cling to when I travelled solo across continents. I have a travel playlist, and each song encapsulates a memory so distinct, I can almost smell the city sidewalks. 

I looked at the Leeds post again today, my fingers tapping on the table sub-consciously, like an apprehensive metronome. I thought about what led me here, and why I left Birmingham. I thought about why I gave up London, and the hypothetical four cars that my father says is within my grasp. Often, after a busy day like this, I do become introspective because I think it is important to remind myself of who I am. There are a great many things I have yet to learn, but I would like to think that I know what centres me, and that I hold fast to it. 

I did much soul searching when I worked in Bosnia, and in as much as that time away was difficult (and insular, for the most part) – it was a time when I heard myself loud and clear. I have never been able to write about it, and in fact this would be the first time that those personal memories will be translated into words. I wrote so many chapters in my mind, whilst I was there; but the act of translating the everyday into the two dimensional felt like I was trivialising the experience somehow. The intensity of suffering and tears that I dealt with each day overwhelmed my ability to fit the daily into words. My journal barely saw a few entries, but my mind wrote whole books. 

It's strange, thinking back now. I don't know why I asked Paul for a sabbatical, or why I applied to work with the War Crimes prosecutions team.  I just felt it was something I needed to do. As fate would have it, I was offered a position and before I knew it, I was on my way to Sarajevo. The backpacker in me opted to get there by local means, which entailed a sleepless night travelling on busses and the back of a truck. I eventually ended up in a train station staring blankly at run down trains that only ran twice a day to Sarajevo city. I remember my pre-journey research indicating that the overnight train would have a sleeper compartment and my sinking heart when I realized that the actual train didn’t. I spent a full 10 hours with one leg wrapped over my rucksack and one hand holding onto my sling bag which had my passport and travel documents. I remember the cruelly timed border crossings and being thrown out of the carriage at 4am, somewhere in between obscure townships. I can still hear the tobacco stained voice of the inspector barking "Hnmmn, ghojdhdic" and leaving me standing in the cold whilst he fingered my passport with a scowl.

I remember staying in a settlement area that had nothing around it except makeshift graveyards, anywhere that there was space. I remember having to leave the room 4 times, the first time I took a statement from a girl my age, who told me how many times she had been raped and tortured. She was barely 12 when they shot her mother in front of her. Barely 12 when four inhuman soldiers held her down and tore her innocence from her soul. 

I remember the heavy stench of cigarettes as one man told me in lucid detail how his 3 daughters were massacred in front of him. He then looked down, tied his shoelace and began talking about how he liked to grow tomatoes. He was one of the many walking dead that I shared time with, and like others, was trying to reconstruct something tangible from a nightmare. The stench of cigarettes still makes me think of his face, and his dead daughters - all of whom I saw pictures of and whose bodies are in a mass grave somewhere in Banja Luka. 

There is a song that is playing at the moment that brings me straight back to my room in Dobrinja:

I used to think it was a beautiful, if somewhat haunting tune and it always reminded me of dusk. Until I lived in Bosnia. It took on a whole new meaning then. I used to open the door to my damp, dark apartment after a grueling day, and cry. There was a balcony that fronted the living room, but I was warned not to go outside or stand on it as snipers were still at large and I lived only a couple of miles from the Serbian border. For comfort, I used to warm up a large towel and wrap it around myself, trying to replicate human warmth, and then cradle myself to sleep. 

The only thing I had in that room was a rusty bed and a small side table that had the initials “L.N” on it. I used to think it was a sign, because it looked like my name. It was as if I was meant to be there, and I found that comforting. Every day, I looked into the faces of tired people with sad eyes, carrying so much pain. So much loss. Every day, I wondered how I was going to make it through. I guess I did not realise it then, but I became stronger with each encounter and with each scarred hand that was placed into mine as a sign of trust and solidarity. As the days rolled into weeks, I found something of myself in the wreckage around me. I found that I had an ability to remain passionately compassionate, and that ultimately, I deeply cared for hurting people. 

I came back to England grateful that I was not going back to a corporate office. Although the things I saw and did cannot compare to the injustices I take on now, I think I am still fueled by my humanistic passions. This is what drives me. I chose the unceremonious and grubby path of pro bono work knowing full well that jobs like these are few and far between, and not high paying. Unlike the corporate sector which spews out positions promising a world of money, I want to hold fast to who I am. 

I believe in doing something I am passionate about. Sitting in an office dealing with more paper then people IS NOT my passion. But yes, it will grant me a big house and four cars.

Coming away from it all, I guess when I become introspective, I remind myself that there is merit in holding fast. I yearn for the simple life where I can help people. That is what I love. I don’t think I can be happy in a job that did not have that aspect. Job aside, I want to live in a house that has love. And animals. And children. And music. And laughter. And the smell of baking. I would like to look outside and see trees. I think that sums me up. 

There is no rhyme or reason to this; I guess I just needed an outlet. Sometimes the memories come flooding back and I don't know what to do with them, except to be true to myself and continue doing what I believe in.

I have a note that I treasure, in a hastily scribbled hand of broken English. If it was anyone else's writing, the sentences would look inane and stupid. But as it is, they are perfect to cry over because it was given to me by Jura, a 12 year old girl with hazel eyes, who looked at me, took my hand and told me to hold fast.

Friday, February 12, 2010

For you

Sleep in the circle of my arms, and I will push back the shadows that crowd your face.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Slovenian rain

I have been travelling so much of late, I don't even know what day it is. 

I have found myself in Slovenia, where the streets are tired and sleepy and the townsfolk are engulfed in rain. Its been raining here for 2 days and so I have managed to stay in (mostly) and catch up on much needed sleep. I have also had many many expressos and my journal has been much scribbled into. I have been travelling through Croatia to meet some UN contacts, some of which have proved useful, and some of whom have been disappointing. Largely disappointing as I realise that no organisation is immune from corruption, from the lower levels to the upper echelons. Whatever happened to personal integrity? Hnmnmn. Really makes me think about the politics of aid. Money being poured in, and not being channelled out properly only spells problems.

I have made a few friends along the way, namely K who's particular brand of humour makes me laugh: dry and crisp. (Exactly how I like my martinis, coincidentally). 
I am waiting for the sun to come out and play - today is my day off and I am wanting to take my camera out for a bit of a joyride. In my free time, when I'm not being all serious and wanting to save the world (one has to have big dreams) I like to take black and white photos - of people mostly... random scenes from everyday life, women hanging out laundry, children playing, portraits etc. 
The rain is finally stopping as I type this and I am going to grab my camera and venture out whilst I have the chance. Nonetheless, it doesn't matter if it does rain again. Slovenia is beautiful even through the pitter patter of rainfall.
Ljubljana town centre, with Presnov Trg and the Franciscan church in the background

Monday, April 27, 2009

Umbrella town

Llubljana has been overtaken by umbrellas.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Caffe Dino

This photo strikes a chord with me.
I guess because if captures such stark emptiness. She never flinched, just kept staring into the distance, her back to a wall riddled with bullet holes, gazing into nothing.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


It feels like I've been absorbed into this world like some sort of alien vacuum. Emails from people back home - just random things like Sam telling me that his dad is in mourning because their chicken died, or my colleague saying "Forget the constitutionalised discrimination over there and the trials, I've just realised that someone has stolen a Twirl from my drawer. And you think you've got it tough!" - pulls me back to sanity. Its so helpful just to hear about normal things. It's surreal being here and contact from the "familiar" redresses much of the craziness.

I'm missing tea. Majorly missing tea. Coffee here is served black and sweet, with a Turkish Delight, which I dont eat. I'm thinking... keep the Turkish Delight, I'll swap you for a Tetley's teabag? But no, they stare blankly at me. PG Tips?? Silence. Urm... Tesco's value brand teabags? ANYTHING? No. I am shoved a Turkish Delight and the waiter walks away.....

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The tangible and the not so

It's hard being here right now, in the thick if it. Hard to switch off. 

Computers (that work and which are not crazily slow) are few and far between. 

I have an aching left trapezoid from the 80 litre rucksack and additional camera equipment  Ive been lugging around. More so, I have an aching heart from the stories left by the people I've met, which I am also carrying around.

(My bombed out flat in Dobrinje)

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The low down

The political and ethnic tension here is stifling. From what I've seen so far in Bosnia, one group's villain is another group's hero. The country is divided into a republic run by Bosnia's Christian Orthodox Serbs and a federation between Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats. Any efforts to mend the post war situation must be intimately linked to the democratic context in which each ethnic group operates, and against the backdrop of nationalist party politics. The ongoing prosecutions for war crimes is not actually helping the national cohesion of Bosnia-Herzegovina, although it's going some way towards providing transparency and accountability, which can only be a positive thing. 

There is alot of political tension here because Serbian nationalists are continuing to spout their same-old propaganda, telling Serbs that the failed attempt to "create" a Greater Serbia is partly responsible for their current suffering. I find this hugely reminiscent of the political situation in Malaysia (the major difference being that the Malaysian race riots in 1969 was a 4 week killing spree, as opposed to a 3 year reign of terror, culminating in genocide.) That, and of course discrimination is constitutionalised in Malaysia, whereas it is imposed in Bosnia. 

Oppression of the now-minority Bosniak and Bosnian Croat populations throughout Republika Srpska continues today through restrictions on freedom of movement, evictions and expulsions, arbitrary arrest and detention, ethnically motivated harassment and direct physical attack, denial of employment, humanitarian assistance, medical care, and social insurance; discrimination in access to education and restrictions on religious freedom etc. 

That aside, the War Crimes Chamber of the State Court has been working intensively on processing war crime indictees. This is its fourth year of charging war crime indictees, and the State Court of BiH has pronounced more indictments than ever before, including 17 first-instance and six second-instance ones. (I have been reading statements of the guilt admissions agreements, if you're interested I can send anyone a link to online copies - but I reckon none of you are as geeky as I am!) I think the outstanding problem now is the continuing lack of an agreement between countries in the region on the extradition of indictees. The State Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina filed several indictments, confirmed by the Court, against persons charged with war crimes residing in neighbouring countries and who have dual citizenships. Unfortunately, they remain out of reach. Nonetheless, progress is being made albeit slow. The State Court has confirmed 25 indictments against 29 persons, which is good considering the circumstances. 

I am learning much here, especially seeing how institutional fragmentation has cemented ethnic division. There is a physical separation of communities here, and I am reminded so much of how things are in Malaysia. 

Bosnia's institutional fragmentation makes the overcoming of ethnic prejudice and lingering post-war animosities far harder to achieve. I may seriously think about further studies in ethnically-based reintegration projects and go into politics in Malaysia - but there I go again, getting ahead of myself! 

Anyway, I am typing on the world's slowest computer which is attached to the world's most decrepit keyboard so I will leave you here. Apologies to anyone reading this if you have found it an information overload. I bloody love politics, and I am a geek for analysis. It makes for a bad combo when reporting back!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

10 hours later

Gooo-ooood morning, world.

I nipped that from Good Morning Vietnam, when the ever enthusiastic Robin Williams woke the navy with a shout of life, despite the fact that they were in what I would describe as 'barracks of despair'. I'm not currently writing from a trench, but I thought it a fitting remark to make - to begin this epic journey. 

Firstly, I should just say that I don’t have great access to the internet at present (plus it takes about 37 years to load a page) but I’m hoping to find better access soon. 

Getting here was not as straightforward as I anticipated, but that is mostly due to sleep deprivation. Trains only run twice a day to Sarajevo and I managed to catch the overnight service. I anticipated that it would be a 13 hour journey but it actually only took 10 hours. I seemed to be the only female on the train, and the only foreigner. Needless to say, I didn't quite blend in and was stared at the entire time.

I am currently staying in Dobrinja and will be carefully commuting to Sarajevo city to the main court offices there. I say "carefully" as this is a town right next to the Serb Republic and Federation border. There is nothing much here apart from makeshift graveyards, which are pretty much everywhere that there is space. Where there aren't graves, I have been warned (by almost everyone! - do I look like a foreigner... yes, I suppose I do) that I MUST NOT walk on anywhere that looks suspicious as there are thousands of unexploded mines in the area. I'm thinking....hmnmnnm. Okay.....tell me again how I'm to know if something "looks suspicious"? A bump in the road? A crack in the curb? Discoloured grass?? What? 

Most buildings are either covered in bullet holes or are partly burned. Cant upload any pictures as the internet connection nearly died when I tried to upload a picture. I am hoping to move to Dobrinjske by the end of the week though, and internet access should be better there. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Moving on

Deep in conversation. I stood on the other side of the street watching the exchange between them. Occasional frowns, occasional laughter. They have lived through so much, I cannot begin to imagine the sum total that they have experienced between themselves. I people watch a lot here, and wonder about the fabric of everyone's stories, each one with tales of so much sorrow.  Yet, they still have coffee and cigarettes and sit, laughing. I guess one has to. It's the only way to move on.
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