While some University of Mississippi students were snowed in during the January term in Oxford, one group of students was exploring the Balkans through a study abroad course, Peace and Conflict in the Balkans.
Offered through the Trent Lott Leadership Institute and open to all majors, the program was dedicated to studying tensions in the Balkan region following the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and learning how steps could be taken to create more peace in the area. Students visited museums and monuments in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Freshman international studies major Adam Maatallah and junior political science student Madeleine Dotson were two students on the trip. For Maatallah, going on the trip gave him the opportunity to learn more about a region not typically taught in standard American education.
“In high school, I took AP European History, but we never covered post-Soviet Eastern Europe or the Balkans. I’ve never had a modern perspective of the Balkans, and I wanted to understand what’s happening in the area and what the people are like because I had no idea what to expect,” Maatallah said.
According to both Dotson and Maatallah, one of the trip’s highlights was a day-long visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia’s largest national park known for its tufa lakes and waterfalls.
“We boated across the lake and hiked up a little of the mountains. The geography of Croatia was just breathtaking,” Maatallah said. “In Mississippi, I don’t think I’ve seen scenery as crisp and clean.”
Aside from the park’s natural scenery, Dotson explained one of the day’s most memorable events: visiting a small Serbian village within the park.
“We spent most of the day hiking, then we went to a Serbian village and heard about the experiences of the village’s women after the (Yugoslav) wars,” Dotson said. “They explained how they returned to the area even after being forced out and how they have been able to build a life and preserve their culture within Croatia.”
The students also stayed in the city of Split while in Croatia, which, aside from being an important historical Croatian cultural center, is also known for Diocletian’s Palace – a Roman palace built in the fourth century A.D. and inhabited by the former emperor Diocletian after he abdicated the throne.
“We got to visit the ruins of (Diocletian’s Palace) and see ancient Roman art and architecture, which I thought was amazing,” Maatallah said. “I never thought I would be able to see something like that in my life.”
While in Bosnia, the students visited a Sufi, or Islamic mysticism.
“The temple was on the side of a mountain and above one of the biggest rivers I’ve ever seen,” Maatallah said. “It was interesting getting to learn more about Muslim worship because I feel like there’s not a large Muslim community (in Mississippi) relative to other religions. The temple wasn’t ancient, but it was built a very long time ago, so I was interested in hearing how the temple has been cared for since then.”
According to Maatallah and Dotson, one of the most crucial parts of the trip was visiting the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial, a memorial dedicated to the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
“One part of what we learned about the Yugoslav Wars was that there was a genocide against Muslims. We were able to have a detailed explanation of what happened and how the community was impacted overall. It was a very eye opening experience,” Maatallah said. “We saw how the war and the genocide has still impacted Bosnian people and communities.”
Dotson explained the importance of learning about the wars in the Balkans as an American and having the ability to share people’s stories.
“I think overall it was important to get a better understanding of the Balkans and the Yugoslav Wars, particularly since the United States brokered a peace deal and still remains the primary party managing peacekeeping,” she said. “So now I have a better view on both what’s going well and also the ways that this American-brokered peace may have hurt in rebuilding the Balkans overall. We had lots of very difficult conversations about genocide. We were one of the few universities that got to see a new exhibit at the Srebrenica Memorial, and so now we’re able to carry those stories back to the United States.”