By Janine White
Sharing. Connection. Respect. Communication. Triangle.
These were some of the responses from project participants when asked to describe “peacebuilding.” This multi-layered term can have many different meanings, particularly in the Bosnian context, so we kicked off our program on Sunday June 1st with a lively discussion about how the group members understand this word.
Anna chose “violence” as her word to describe the importance of understanding the antithesis of peace in order to create the conditions for it to occur. Kemal added that peace is fragile and that attitudes must be cultivated from birth in order to support it. Tanja talked about how unemployment and lack of opportunities for youth in Bosnia and Herzegovina can help to perpetuate hatred towards others who may be blamed for these current challenges.
Stories of Peacebuilding in BiH
Throughout the conversation, group members also talked about what peacebuilding looks like at different levels. Individuals need to come to terms with their own personal and family histories in order to heal and move forward. If possible, someone needs to own up to their crime so that the survivor can offer forgiveness.
Participants offered various examples of peacebuilding at work at the community level. Economic interactions provide opportunities for members of different ethnic groups to engage with one another, as do multi-ethnic classrooms. Lejla talked about her experience in school in Sanski Most where Serb, Bosniak, and Croat youth do not have any major issues with one another. The annual White Armband Day demonstration on May 31 involved a diverse group coming together for the common cause of acknowledging the crimes committed against Prijedor’s Muslim population during the war. Berina referenced how members of the organization Žene u crnom (Women in Black) from Belgrade go to Srebrenica every year for the July 11 commemoration to acknowledge the genocide. She talked about how art can be used to highlight these stories of the shift over the past 20 years away from violence. Peacebuilding is occurring in various ways at the local level in BiH, and sharing examples of this can further help to reinforce peace.
At the national level, however, politicians promote divisions between groups. Laila mentioned the challenge of agreeing on history, as a collective narrative on the conflict does not yet exist. Aisha discussed how the government in Rwanda has imposed a national narrative in the effort to promote stability. The danger there is that people may not feel that their experiences are represented in this story, which may seek to suppress traumatic memories. Tito did this in Yugoslavia, enabling hatred and fear to lie dormant and then be easily revived by the powerful, violent forces who began the war in the early 90s. A shared narrative cannot be forced from above; it must be discussed and debated among individuals, families, communities and at the national level.
Nick also asked the group to consider the role that international actors play in both keeping and building peace. Asger responded that internationals can help stop the fighting but they must work with locals if there is any hope for this partnership to help build sustainable, lasting peace.
Where do we go from here?
Through this program we learned about the tragic events that occurred in 1992 in Prijedor and its surrounding villages, including Kevljani, where we stayed during the project. By taking part in the White Armband Day demonstration and listening to Kemal’s story of surviving concentration camps, we sought to acknowledge the past. We then infused that knowledge into our discussions with experts and activists addressing current human rights issues to debate ways of moving forward.
It seems that acknowledging the past can not only provide a context to understand current issues, but this process can also inspire action to build a more peaceful future. This effort seems to be a main focus for the local activists who spoke with our group. Their activities led me to reflect on the power of local-level civic engagement in contributing to peacebuilding. Can this activism provide young people, who were children during the war or born afterwards, with a necessary opportunity to address the individual and collective traumas and crimes that their families, communities, and country may have experienced or committed? In addition to learning about the significant challenges in building peace at the national level, we also heard from Elmina Kulašić about the difficulty of speaking about the war among family members. I wonder if community activism can encourage young people to ask questions at home to better understand family trauma, and if it can also put pressure on politicians to acknowledge crimes at the national level. Young people seem to play a vital role in promoting peacebuilding – both through their efforts to come to terms with the past and to engage people in working towards a shared future.