Storytelling as a Peace Project

Kevljani mosque
Fallen minaret at the Kevljani mosque

By Aisha Turner

I’ve finally made it back to Germany from Kevljani, and am missing the village that I called home for a week. As I settle back in to my normal life, my mind is weighed down by personal narratives. In many ways it’s the power of narrative that has made it so difficult to do this blog post until now. Every night of the program I would find myself talking and trying to absorb other people’s words instead of writing my own: talking to Karina about her work with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and to Janine about her faith in the transformative capacity of yoga, or to Berina about art in Sarajevo.

It’s the power of people’s personal narratives—the stories that make up who they are and how they enter the world—that shaped what could have been a purely academic exercise through the Project on Peacebuilding into a space of connection.

Bearing Witness

That personal connections were the focal point of my experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever attended a workshop-based retreat such as HiA. But I think the emphasis on narrative became pertinent in our space not just from a personal perspective, but a programmatic one as well, where the sharing of narratives emerged a crucial element for peace.

On Sunday we met with Elmina Kulašić of Cinema for Peace. Cinema for Peace is an international organization based in Berlin with a branch in Sarajevo. Elmina helped to film interviews from people forced to flee Bosnia under the cloud of war. The project is a collection of oral histories that will be used at the memorial site at Srebrenica. The participants were found largely through word of mouth and asked to share their stories of life before the war, stories of loss and returning home, and hopes for future generations. In fact, Elmina would frame the conversation by saying “talk to me as though I were your great-grandchild. What would you want them to know?”

The stories and Elmina’s act of listening and recording them provided a chance for the survivors of the war to be heard. Cinema for Peace also provided the participants with a copy of their recorded interviews, which Elmina said gave them a sense of control and ownership over their narratives. Most, she said, would never go back to listen to their recordings. But it was important for them to talk and know that someone was listening—for their voices and their experiences to not disappear amid the international focus on the Dayton accords and ICTY trials.

Mass grave in Kevljani
Mass grave in Kevljani, Bosnia

Being Heard

We also encountered the importance of narrative every day in the house where the program was based. We stayed with Kemal Pervanic, the founder of Most Mira. Kemal has his own moving personal account of the attack on his village and his time spent in concentrations camps. And he has the generosity of spirit to share this with people through his work as a human rights activist. On the first day Kemal took us on a walking tour to show us the visible markers of a village trying to recover: the wreckage of traditional houses and the sleek modern ones erected in their place; the fallen minaret of the mosque near his home, resting in the graveyard of the new mosque; and the site of a the mass grave, where too many stories were buried in the hopes that the world would forget.

On the second night of the program we watched “Pretty Village”—a documentary about Kevljani. The documentary follows Kemal’s story during and after the war, as well as a half dozen or so other members of the village.

Stories seem to create a space for the commemoration that our academic discussions and recitation of facts can’t. Elmina said she thought oral histories were an equally or more important part of the transitional justice process as the criminal courts. Without a telling of oral histories, the focus on community is lost. Whether it’s taking part in an oral history project, or talking to a documentary crew, or marching for a memorial to honor a town’s lost children, people need to feel that their pain is acknowledged, that their memories are safe, and that their stories are heard.

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