Fellows Study Bosnian Genocide

Pius X educators study Bosnian Genocide through Fund for Teachers summer fellowship
Neighboorhood Extra, Lincoln, Nebraska
December 04, 2012 4:33 pm • Article Submitted

This past summer, two Pius X teachers had the extraordinary hands-on opportunity to explore the historic and social impact of the Bosnian Genocide of the 1990s, thanks to a fellowship they received from Fund for Teachers. Through this grant, World Geography teacher Shiela Sievert and English teacher Sandra Sullivan travelled to Croatia and Bosnia to witness firsthand how the Balkan people have dealt with the aftermath of a modern genocide.

“Our objective was to immerse ourselves in learning about the Bosnian Genocide and the residual ramifications of that conflict,” Sievert explains. “In doing so, our objective was to build a sense of compassion and empathy in our student body as we have students at Pius X whose families experienced the atrocities of the Bosnian conflict.”

Sandra Sullivan and Shiela Sievert, pictured by the fortress turret in Old Town Dubrovik, Crotia.

Sullivan’s inspiration for the fellowship proposal stemmed from her observation that while most young people are taught about the holocaust of WWII, many students are unaware of the events and historical significance of modern Bosnia. “Most of our student body lacks knowledge and a sense of gravity regarding the history, the changing geography, and the human conflict present in this region of the world,” Sullivan explains. “The challenge is that it is difficult for one to fathom how such atrocities could happen less than 50 years and less than 500 miles from the holocaust during WWII.”

Sievert and Sullivan traveled to Bosnia and Croatia during this past June, beginning with a flight into Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Upon arrival, they walked across the tarmac of the site where NATO had attempted to keep the airport open during the conflict so as to receive aid for the people who were under siege by the Serbs for almost four years. In Sarajevo, they toured an Eastern Orthodox Church, a Catholic Cathedral, a Muslim mosque, and a Jewish Synagogue. These varied places of worship represent the people of Sarajevo who come from many different religious backgrounds but yet had lived in peace for many years until the Serbs surrounded them in their attempt to create a Greater Serbia after the fall of communism.

The 12-day trip included visits to significant landmarks and historical sites that told the story of the events that took place in the region. “We visited the very spot where Arch Duke Ferdinand was assassinated along with his wife Sophie and toured the museum that housed relics from the event,” Sievert notes. “While in Sarajevo, we took a tour called ‘Times of Misfortune’ in which we were transported around Sarajevo to see the sights of how people survived during the longest siege of a city in modern history.”

Sullivan explains that during the four years of conflict, the residents of Sarajevo took their lives into their own hands to venture out for food, water, and fuel. Their tour included the site of a tunnel the citizens dug under the airport to transport food to the starving Sarajevians. They also witnessed how this city — which was the site of the 1984 Olympics — was reduced to using the Olympic Stadium as a graveyard to bury the bodies of the dead who perished daily from sniper fire and mortar shells.

“While in Sarajevo, we took a day trip to a site where more than 11,000 Muslims were murdered in just one day as NATO peacekeeping forces retreated from the Serbs,” Seivert recalls. “Our tour guide, Hassan, was actually there the day of the massacre and escaped to the surrounding hills where he walked in terror for five days without provisions to find a safe zone. To hear this firsthand account was chilling and to see the memorial and thousands of marked graves in which bodies and parts of bodies had been recovered from mass graves was sobering,” she adds.

Among the more uplifting parts of the tour was a visit to a high school in Sarajevo, where they were welcomed warmly by both the faculty and students. “It was an enlightening day as we shared and compared our educational systems,” Sullivan says. “The students were so delightful, and we believe they understand how fortunate they were to be in such a beautiful school. Only 20 years earlier, many of their older relatives had to continue their education in the safe basements of apartment buildings where the teachers would come to them periodically to instruct them as it was not safe for the students to venture outside.”

Sievert and Sullivan also visited Mostar, an ancient center of trade where many people of different ethnicities gathered. The most celebrated landmark in Mostar was an ancient bridge which is an architectural wonder and was unfortunately damaged during the war. From there, they traveled on to Medugorje; a small town in which the Blessed Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to young teenage visionaries as a warning to the people of Yugoslavia about the impending war and genocide. As a result of these apparitions, what was once a tiny town is now a bustling city filled with thousands of pilgrims who flock from all over the world visit this sight daily.

Their first stop in Croatia was in Dubrovnik which was an ancient walled city, where they experienced “old world” Croatian culture and marveled at the beauty of the Aegean Sea. “Our hotel resembled an old fortress and we were told to lock ourselves in for the night,” Sievert recalls.

Sievert and Sullivan’s educational tour concluded with a trip to Split, Croatia, which was turned into a city of refugees during the Balkan War. Today, it is a thriving port city which is indicated by the many foreign cruise ships which stop in the harbor for the tourist. Split is also an ancient city which housed the palace for Diocletian, one of the Caesars of the Roman Empire. “It was amazing to walk the streets of this city some of them literally thousands of years old,” Sullivan notes. “We stepped back in time for three days and then were brought back to the present as we boarded a plane for America.”

The educators say that their trip to the Balkans has made an immense, lasting impact on each of them, both personally and professionally. “Throughout our trip drivers, tour guides, waiters, store clerks, and hotel owners practically spewed their personal stories,” Sievert explains. “This is a region where pain still resides and distrust among cultural groups lingers as well. People seemed to welcome the interest in the region, the stories, and they were benevolent and gracious hosts in every venue.”

Both teachers have expressed immense gratitude to the Fund for Teachers for giving them opportunity to understand the history and present culture of the Balkans, and to develop an appreciation for the people of the region. Importantly, they will be using their experiences to directly impact their students. For example, Sievert has always covered the Balkan region in her World Geography class, however, there is only a page and a half dedicated to this very complex region in her textbook.

“I’ve always had questions as to how genocide could occur only 500 miles away and only 50 years after the Holocaust,” Sievert explains. “The fellowship cleared up some of the questions that I had had regarding the people of this region. Now, I will be more equipped to teach my students with much more accuracy how and why ‘civilized’ people can act in such uncivilized ways in today’s modern world.”

Sievert also has instituted a Genocide Project as part of her curriculum where her students research one of ten genocides from the twentieth century and present either a speech, digital story or make a memorial dedicated to the people who lost their lives during the particular genocide they are researching. “These are important lessons to teach our students so that these atrocities of history may never be repeated,” she adds.

Sullivan is employing the travel experience in several ways within her classroom as well. Since both teachers familiarized themselves with the history of the region and developed empathy for the survivors of the Balkan region, she is introducing a new piece of literature that brings those themes home in her curriculum. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a moving story of the plight of Sarajevians during the siege of 1992-1996. The new unit of literature will contain the historical background of the Balkans during the Homeland Conflict, and first-hand accounts and visuals that the teachers collected from the region. The visit to the assassination point of Arch Duke Ferdinand will provide material for the World War I novel presently taught in Modern Literature. In composition, her students will have the opportunity to exchange letters with the students of Gimnazija Dobrinja High School in Sarajevo since she made connections with a Teacher of the English language in this school.

The mission of the Houston, Texas based Fund for Teachers is to enrich the personal and professional growth of teachers by recognizing and supporting them as they identify and pursue opportunities around the globe that will have the greatest impact on their practice, the academic lives of their students and on their school communities. For more information on how to apply, visit www.fundforteachers.org. Applications for the summer of 2013 fellowships grants are due on January 31, 2013.

This article originally appeared online, here.