By Hayat Aljowaily.
During October break, a few weeks ago, I headed to Eastern Europe for the first time. Not knowing much about the region, I did not know what to expect. I was excited to enter into a world that was unknown to me, something that I had not done in a long time. Thus, I knew this trip would be different, but I had never anticipated the actual change it caused within me.
For the first few days in Belgrade, the trip was just going as any trip would: lazily waking up at 11, having breakfast, sightseeing, lunch, sightseeing, more food, walking around, dinner, walking around, repeat. Sprinkle on top of that the constant stops after every three steps to take a couple pictures that potentially would end up on VSCO, Instagram and the like.
A couple of days later, we headed to Sarajevo to meet up with some other friends who had been road-tripping the Balkans. Again, my first interactions with the city where fully aesthetically based. I immediately fell in love with how it was engraved in the mountains, a mix of Ottoman and Austro-hungarian architecture, and always sunny. Little did I know that the connection I would later form with this city would be much more than that.
To my shame, or rather to the shame of both the French and American education systems, I had barely any knowledge about Yugoslavia, the Balkans War, or the genocide of 1995. Of course, I was not completely oblivious – I was aware that somewhere “far away”, there existed a state that somehow ended up dissolving after the Cold War, and that it was violent. That’s about it. Hence, when we decided to visit “Galerija 11/07/95”, I did not know what to expect. After spending a few hours watching films made during the Siege of Sarajevo, and looking at images and artworks made during the Genocide, I was shocked. I could not believe that such tragic events had occurred so recently, and that I had never been educated about them. More than anything, I was shocked that this could’ve happened… in 1995! Hadn’t the “international community” come together in 1945, and formed the United Nations, in an effort to prevent tragedies such as the Holocaust from happening ever again? Media was well-developed, and information could be diffused very quickly… and yet, people let this happen in front of their eyes?
Throughout the next couple days, we visited the Museum of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, and continued to garner knowledge of what had occurred in this very city, less than 25 years ago. By the end of the trip, I could not sleep at night. Frustration and helplessness took over me, and made the best of me.
Here at Sciences Po, most of us are instilled with this feeling of “I want to change the world”… for a reason or another, we decided to follow our hearts and study the social sciences, in an effort to, sometime in the near future, be able to make a difference on this planet: whether it be through joining an international organization, forming an NGO, holding office in governments, or contributing to the economic development and growth of our respective Mediterranean countries.
Being one of the latter, what I had learnt that week left me perplexed. What was the point of trying to do good, if there is nothing we can really do? I was stuck in a whirlwind of thoughts – knowing that whether I decided to pursue international law, or film… I could not be making real change. Yes, international lawyers condemn and imprison hundreds of war criminals. Yes, filmmakers, and artists more generally, make incredible films about such events, thus documenting history, forging collective memory, and raising awareness. But at the end of the day, the tragedy still happens. Was there any benefit in acting retroactively? Although I knew I would still at least try to make a change, I’d lost any hope.
Luckily, during the our last sleepless night at the Hostel, my friends sat me down and decided to reason with me. They reminded me that change happens by ripple effect. Yes, ultimately, no one can stop a war, or prevent a genocide. But, that in no way means no one can help, or that no one can make a change. They helped me realize that my idealistic view was more detrimental than anything: just because one cannot cause a tsunami, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try and create a ripple.
See, it’s all about balance: acknowledging that you cannot help thousands, but that helping one person is already big enough! The world we live in today is not free from any tragedies, from Syria and Yemen to Myanmar… and though we cannot, unfortunately, stop these things from happening, the smallest actions, from sharing a post, to spending a few hours a week volunteering at a camp in Ventimiglia to make a change.
In the movie “Twice Born”, by Sergio Castellitto – which I highly recommend – Diego, a young American photojournalist, ends up committing suicide after the Bosnian genocide out of frustration and helplessness at not being able to save all the people he was surrounded by from pain, and even death. At first, I understood his guilt: as a foreigner, he and his Italian wife could escape the tragedy at any time they liked… one flight, and he would be back at a fancy cocktail party, overlooking the Coliseum… whilst the ones he loved and cared for in Sarajevo were doomed to suffer in the war. However, what Diego had failed to realize, was that both through his photographs, that later were exhibited in a memorial of the war, and by saving the life of Aksa, and her unborn child, by helping her escape a rape camp, he had somehow contributed to countering just some of the evil that occurred.