Kelsey Bristow

Kelsey Bristow (Bosnian Women – BOSFAM): At the time of her fellowship, Kelsey was a rising senior at Georgetown University majoring in English and Justice and Peace Studies. Kelsey’s interest volunteering began at High School when she worked with at-risk children in Appalachia. Kelsey as one of two undergraduate students in the 2009 cohort of Peace Fellows and worked closely with her advisor at Georgetown University to turn her experience in Bosnia into a thesis paper.

Ah, this post has been building up for a while…

13 Jul

What I’m about to write is probably going to tick (tick, for the sake of anti-vulgarity) some people off, so I’m sorry if I offend anyone ahead of time.  Also, it’s probably going to be long and rambling – I will lighten things up with my next blog, I swear.  My inspiration, if you will, for this blog comes from a couple of sources.  First, I’ve been listening to and reading many essays from the radio program “This I Believe.”  The program originally aired in the 1950’s and returned for a four year run recently.  It features Americans—“extraordinary” and “ordinary”—stating what they believe.  The program is not a religious one and the beliefs people share range from believing in people, things, places, and of course “God.”  The whole, “This I Believe,” idea has really taken off and many teachers assign essays to their students with this theme.  The second “inspiration” comes from a comment McKenzie, a past AP/Bosfam fellow, made on one of my past blog entries.  To remind everyone, this is what she said:

“I was an intern in BOSFAM in summer 2005.  I am interested to see your     perspective on the quote from a serb general that the Dayton accords are just a pause between 2 wars.  I have to say, I thought it was a horrible thing to say, but as I have watched the country (and Serbia and Kosovo) I am not so sure it is not accurate.  There is still so much division there.

After attending the Srebrenica/Potocari memorial on Saturday, I feel I am ready to address that comment.

I am an indecisive person, but one thing I have just about always believed in was people.  Okay, it’s not as corny as it sounds.  This I believe: I believe in people’s potential to change.  I believe that all people, no matter how “evil” they may seem, are essentially good.  Between these two beliefs—that people can change and they (we) are all inherently good—made me optimistic to come to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Okay, call me naïve!!! I’m so used to it by now.  Call me doe-eyed and overly optimistic.  I’m really not.  For all the faith I have in people, I have been and seen other people be wronged many times over.  But when no one can really be sure of the existence of a “higher power,” why not have faith in some thing—some people—that are real, tangible things?  So, call me what you will.

These beliefs, however, have been challenged and figuratively, beat up and punched in the face many times since I’ve arrived to BiH.  The way they’ve been challenged is largely related to McKenzie’s comment.  Sometimes it feels like time has stood still here.  I’ve been told before the war, there was not nearly as much tension between Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs as there is now, 14 years after the war ended. And I hate to say it—I mean hate hate hate—but I have developed my own frustrations and biases against certain groups of people.  It’s not hard to dislike a group of people when they show little to no respect for the others.  All three ethnic groups are guilty of this lack of respect for each other.  In Mostar the Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) are so divided they are considering developing a two-mayor political system.  The citizens of the city are litereally divided at birth—Croats on one side and Bosniaks on the other.

But I have to say the worst and most sickening displays of complete lack of respect occurred over the weekend as Bosniaks commemorated the victims of the genocide at Srebrenica.  Each year on 11 July as Bosniaks gather to re-bury newly identified bodies, Serbs from towns on both sides of the River Drina (from Serbia and Republika Srpska) hold a regatta.  All throughout the area you can find Serbs celebrating… CELEBRATING.  Weddings, parties, boat races—you name it.  Okay, I know 11 July fell on a Saturday this year and hey, people tend to hold celebrations on the weekend.  But they do this EVERY YEAR.  Come on people, seriously?

And on 12 July every year, Serbs celebrate the fall of Srebrenica.  The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice have declared the events in and around Srebrenica a genocide.  GENOCIDE.  They are celebrating a GENOCIDE.  So, to address McKenzie’s comment, I unfortunately do believe that the Dayton Accords signify a pause between wars.  Dodik, the prime minister of Republika Srpska, uses war as a constant threat against the Federation of BiH.  One person has told me that Dodik is Milosevic, Karadic, and Mladic “wrapped into one person.” Those are not my words, for the record.  But that is the perception of many Bosniaks.  I, by NO means, am saying that the politicians from the Bosniak or Croat populations are any better or worse.  Each is obviously pushing his own agenda and it often gets in the way of moving the country forward.  I do not mean that “moving forward” is necessarily becoming more “Western;” but with, say, EU membership, comes a LOT of benefits to the country as a whole.  So, sure, moving towards a more cohesive, progressive country would probably be detrimental to Dodik, Silajdzic, etc’s personal egos and agendas.  But maybe, JUST MAYBE, one day politicians (I know they all pretty much suck—but they’re especially bad here—especially this summer) will really take the interest of “their people” into account and not their own glory as the country continues to fail.

So, I’ll finish with how my beliefs have changed.  This I believe: I believe in the kindness and adaptability of individuals.  I also now believe that a group of people holding the same negative and wrong (according to the rest of the world, save Serbia) attitude, may not ever change; or they’ll do it kicking and screaming and take years, if not generations to change.   When the Serbs in BiH recognize and respect the genocide that took place 14 years ago, then maybe I’ll believe these years of “resolution” and “reconstruction” have not been in vain.  And then maybe I’ll believe in the capability of groups of people to change, too.

PS – I am actually not “angry” (even though this is saved on my computer as “Angry Blog”), but extremely frustrated and sad at the situation here.

The graves of two brothers about to be filled.  Both were found this year.

A woman preparing to bury her relative.

Posted By Kelsey Bristow

Posted Jul 13th, 2009


  • Kelsey Bristow

    July 13, 2009


    another “PS” – I do not, by any means, believe that all the NGO’s and government programs aimed at either reconciliation or income generation for victims of war or any other similar program have been useless. I have witnessed successes. But if the country is falling back into war, it’s hard to see the point. Also, I don’t know that either the Federation or the RS could actually afford a war…

  • Kelly Parshall

    July 13, 2009


    It’s incomprehensible to me how groups of people seem to be bred to hate each other. Bosnia is just one example of this – look at the conflicts in the Congo or the Sudan or in Israel/Palestine. There should be hope with each new generation, but not if the children are instilled with the same prejudices as their parents.

    Not the most uplifting comment… Hi Kels, glad you’re still loving Bosnia!

  • Anne P

    July 14, 2009



    Thanks for sharing the complexities of the situation – although it sounds really tough, you explain it in a way that makes a lot of sense – even more sense than the newspapers! As someone who lives very far away, I appreciate that.

    Keep up faith in people — that is far from naive, and very wise.

    –Anne P.

  • Dave B

    July 14, 2009


    Kels – Thanks for your heartfelt perspective in your latest blog entry. You’re seeing first-hand an extreme example of prejudice among various groups based on different religious, ethnic, and political views. I certainly hope and pray this will not deteriorate into an even worse situation down the road.

    Although you cite an extreme example, no country today is totally immune from similar (perhaps less overt) instances of prejudicial behavior. If the world can’t be changed overnight, perhaps it will happen in time as we “treat others as we wish to be treated” one person at a time.

  • MacKenzie

    July 14, 2009


    I feel many of your emotions in this blog. The time I spend in BiH with BOSFAM was life changing and I remember it every day. Somehome my faith in people ws destroyed and reaffirmed all at the same time. The stories you hear are so amazing- from those that make your heart cry to those that challenge you views of humanity- that you wonder how this can all co-exist toegther.

  • Owen

    July 24, 2009


    The world’s a complex place but the anger that comes from frustration with injustice isn’t a bad guide through it.

  • Pat Bristow

    July 28, 2009


    Kelsey, Keep the faith. Here are some words of wisdom from Mother Teresa, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Be hopeful that things can change. We are proud of the work you are doing and awareness that you are bring to the situation in Bosnia. Love, Aunt Pat

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