Friday, June 1, 2007

Dalmatian towns and Mostar, Bosnia

After a restful first few days in Makarska, we started exploring the coast. First, we hiked up the Biokovo mountain that lies behind Makarska and visited some village towns. We got a chance to see the mountain culture up there and took note of the herbs, berries and flowers that grow everywhere. The smells we experienced while hiking were incredible. We sampled fresh berries right off the tree and tasted dried figs and herb tea.

The next days we went to Trogir, which is the most intact medieval town on the eastern Adriatic coast. The combination of old and new leads to some problems with sewage disposal and moisture in the buildings, which becomes trapped in the porous limestone. This could become a potential problem for infectious diseases and mold related health problems. The city itself is beautiful, and resembles Venice, since much of it was built by the Venetians when they had control of the city for 400 years in the middle ages. The next day we visited Solin and Split and toured the ancient ruins on the hilltop above Split, and then Diocletian's palace in the center of town. Diocletian was a Roman emperor who built his summer palace in Split. After he died, Solin, the town on the hilltop, fell to the Avars and the refugees built a new town inside the walls of the palace. They stored their trash and sewage (the porous limestone rocks that the foundation was built on seemed to serve as a sort of giant septic tank that filtered the water into the basement where it flowed back into the sea) in the basement, which actually led to it being the most perfectly preserved part of the palace. The villagers used stones from the palace to build the new homes, but did not take any from the basement because it was so filthy. Today the basement is an intact example of the architecture and engineering of the Roman time period. Some of the public health issues that would have been experienced during this time were sanitation, infectious disease (since the people were living so close together inside the palace), sewage disposal and clean water. One of the most interesting facts of the day was that the city of Split still gets 1/3 of its water from the ancient Roman aqueducts! These aqueducts were crucial to the people of this time period, and allowed the town to flourish.

The next day we visited Mostar and Stolac, both in Bosnia. The other graduate students and I were just children or young teenagers when the Bosnian conflict was happening, so we were excited to learn more about this war that occured in our lifetime. Mostar was an important city for this war, as it was the place where the Croat-Muslim alliance dissolved. Prior to 1993, the Muslims and Croats were united in fighting the Serbian troops, but that fell apart when the Croats destroyed the old bridge in the center of Mostar. The Croats claimed that this was a strategic maneuver, but the Muslims insisted that it was an attempt to erase their identity, which was one of the atrocities that arose out of this ethnic conflict (others included rape, torture, and ethnic cleansing). Mostar is also the site of a tragic massacre, when the Serbian troops invaded and killed 2,000 women and children, who were the only ones left since the men were all fighting in the war. The Croat-Muslim alliance was restored at the end of 1993 through the efforts of the Clinton administration, but tensions still exist between these two ethnic groups, even today. The city is segregated into Croat and Muslim sections. The students do not even attend school together anymore. Our tour guide told us that prior to the war, both groups existed in harmony, but since the war they have lived separately. The scars and stress from both the recent war and the struggle of living this kind of life are still apparent. 80% of the population of Mostar smokes according to our guide. This is a coping mechanism for the chronic stress that the population still endures. This stress also leads to other maladaptive behaviors, such as domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse and suicide. Our professor, Dr. Carol Cotton, told us that there are ways to reduce the stressors of situations like this, and they include rebuilding the city, not just in terms of buildings, monuments and religious centers, but also in terms of identity and belonging. The city is slowly but surely rebuilding from this war, and there are actually more mosques in existence now than there were before the war. This is an attempt to reclaim the identity that was stripped when the war was raging on. There are also programs available to help the survivors deal with stress. JICA, a philanthropic Japanese agency, gives €200 a month to survivors who still experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health treatment is also a part of this program. The only downside is that once a part of this program, individuals cannot work again, for they are permanently labeled as disabled. Another public health issue that we learned while in Bosnia are that the health insurance is not employee mandated like it is in Croatia, and emergency medicine is the only type of health care that is funded by the government. This means that those who are unemployed face many difficulties when it comes to obtaining medical care. We also briefly visited Stolac, another town still experiencing ethnic tensions, and talked to a local family and also toured the town's mosque.

These few days were incredibly eye-opening for me and my classmates. We learned about the daily lives, struggles, and health issues of people living in Roman times, the medieval period, and during the recent war. It was both exciting and humbling to step briefly into the worlds of these people, and learn what life was like for them. These were experiences that none of us will soon forget.

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