By: Dominic Sanfilippo – Staff Writer
If you asked Jon Puricelli six months ago where he would spend this year’s Fourth of July, he might have told you he’d be watching fireworks in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Perhaps, he’d be sitting on a porch on Kiefaber. He probably wouldn’t have told you he’d be dancing at an underground concert in a vacant subway station in Belgrade, Serbia, amidst punk rockers, political activists and young Eastern Europeans enjoying the summer twilight.
Life, however, had different plans.
Puricelli, a senior political science major with minors in economics and human rights studies, spent six weeks traveling throughout the Balkans. Armed with only a few bags and an open mind, he arrived in Kosovo June 28.
There, he studied post-war conflict resolution, peacekeeping and the region’s traumatic history in the shadow of the twenty year anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian War in 1995.
“I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I knew a decent bit about the history, the countries, the wars,” Puricelli said. “I never could have expected how eye-opening the experience would be.”
Along with a diverse cohort of other students from around the world—including an aspiring United Nations Green Beret and a West Point cadet—Puricelli studied at the American University in Kosovo, which was established in 2002 during regional reconstruction efforts.
For the first few weeks of the trip, Puricelli traveled throughout the region with local guides and other students. Their bus stopped in Tirana, Albania; Budva, Montenegro and Sarajevo, the city where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, allegedly triggering World War I.
The tour ended in Srebrenica, Bosnia, another city with a tumultuous past.
In 1993, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 819, which marked Srebrenica as a “safe area” during the chaos of the Bosnian War. For months, the city had been isolated and besieged by various units of the Bosnian Serb army.
In March 1993, ABC News famously showed thousands of Bosniak Muslims, weary and battered by tactics described by a former Serbian soldier to The New York Times in May 2014 as “like cat and mouse”—on the verge of starvation and collapse.
In July 1995, United Nations peacekeepers failed to stop the Bosnian Serbs from storming the city, separating the sexes and systematically slaughtering over 8,000 people—many, but not all, men and boys—over the course of several days.
Srebrenica once again made the headlines this past summer due to a Russian veto of a UN resolution that would have, according The New York Times, finally called the city’s infamous 1995 massacre an official act of genocide.
As Puricelli attempted to describe the feeling of walking through the beautiful Serbian landscape where such horrific crimes had taken place only twenty years prior, his voice darkened.
“It’s all on videotape because it was the ‘90s—the whole world can see what was happening,” he observed. “We went and stood in the place where [the Bosniak Muslims] were corralled…it was brutal. They’re still burying people because they’re still finding body parts.”
The human cost of the brutality of the Bosnian war was lopsided. According to the 2012 “Bosnian Book of the Dead,” released by the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo, 82 percent of the roughly 43,000 documented civilians killed were Bosniak Muslims.
“Standing there, listening to the stories of men whose entire families had been killed…it’s rough. It’s rough,” Puricelli said.
“Standing there, listening to the stories of men whose entire families had been killed…it’s rough. It’s rough.”
After the whirlwind trek around the region, Puricelli settled back into Kosovo to study two courses: peacekeeping and conflict resolution, and developmental economics. Both modules were led by experts and professionals in either field who had been immersed in crises and conflicts for decades.
“Learning in a diverse classroom environment—with Americans, other Westerners and students from Kosovo whose families had lived some of the stories we talked about—was powerful,” Puricelli said. “We got to the heart of matters. Our mentors wanted us to learn to solve problems and to learn from others who had really, really different life experiences from our own.”
Outside of his study schedule, Puricelli and the other students managed to have a few adventures– including the concert in the abandoned subway stations of Belgrade on the Fourth of July.
“We walked in, and it was like something out of a movie. Old Ramones records playing from a boom box in the corner, people dancing, dim lights,” Puricelli said with a laugh. “We were obviously missing home a bit, and when we walked in, we felt like we stood out as Americans.”
Their fears evaporated quickly, though, as they met scores of strangers in the subway keen to swap stories and life journeys. Despite worries about anti-American bias, their perceived differences couldn’t stand in the way of understanding, summer nights and dancing.
“I didn’t expect people to be so welcoming and kindhearted…people generally let us know that government officials and politicians who wage wars and division can’t stop relationships.”
As Puricelli re-enters the Dayton community this semester, he hopes to be part of the larger conversation around history, memory, tribute and trauma as the Nov. 21 anniversary of the Peace Accords draws near.
Throughout the fall, the university, the city and the country will meditate on the atrocities of the war and the fragile peace found in Dayton as a way to bring its lessons about community, human rights and healing into the present era.
The city of Dayton will host a four-day commemoration of the peace agreement, according to the Dayton Daily News. Events include a series of policy discussion and a black-tie gala.
“Jon’s experience…was designed to engage our students with key issues that connect our region to a broader global community in ways that allow them to apply classroom learning to real life experiences,” said David Darrow, Ph.D., the director of the University of Dayton Honors Program.
When asked if there was one lesson or thought he wanted to leave with the UD community, Puricelli sat in silence for a few minutes before finally speaking.
“It’s so easy to say that the rest of the world’s problems don’t have to cross onto our shores…[to ask] why should we have to deal with it?” Puricelli mused.
“But—but think of all the amazing individuals who can and will do extraordinary things, with a little help and support. We are all tied together, across countries and oceans. When we step in and stand with others’ problems, we stop other problems from emerging. So many people can help, can learn, can join the larger causes of the world. Why not us? Why not you?”
For international coverage on violence in the region, click here. All photos courtesy of Jon Puricelli.