Last week we held the Project on Peacebuilding in Prijedor, Bosnia—a city of about 100,000 in the north of the country. One question we were often asked leading up to the project was “Why Prijedor?” Why host the project in a city five hours away from the capital? Actually, why be based in a village (Kevljani) 30 minutes away from there, off a dirt road and in the middle of a field? Why miss out on all the interesting projects and art going on in other parts of the country? Why not collaborate with the major NGOs doing work in Bosnia who are all headquartered in Sarajevo?
The first and most obvious reason for me is that I first came to Prijedor with the NGO Most Mira in 2009 to run photography workshops during the youth festival and kept coming back. The reason to hold the Project on Peacebuilding was for three more strategic reasons.
Prijedor is an important place because of what happened there and what issues persist. In spring 1992, the city was taken over by Bosnian Serb nationalists and systematically rounded up the Bosniaks in the community and taken to camps. Between 1992-1995, some 3,000 people went missing and most are assumed dead. Many mass graves are located in the Prijedor region, including two in the small village of Kevljani where we are based. Prijedor is also home to more indicted war criminals than any other region of the world. Although memorials exist in Prijedor for Bosnian Serbs who died during the conflict, local authorities will not allow a memorial to be built for 102 children who died during the violence in 1992.
Despite the crimes committed here and the continued tension, people outside of the region do not know about the tragedies that occurred in Prijedor. Most internationals have heard of Srebrenica, the bridge in Mostar, or the siege of Sarajevo but few know about the detention camps in Omarska, Trnopolje, or Keraterm. Few know that Trnopolje was once an elementary school, then for three months a detention center, and is now again a school. We located Project on Peacebuilding in Prijedor to focus specifically on these local issues that are often overlooked by considering the wider region and conflict.
The second reason it is important programs be based in more rural locations is to increase participation of young people from these regions and expose outsiders to new or different issues. Last year, one of our Bosnian participants who lives in Sarajevo said her family were worried about her going to the project because they heard such bad things about Prijedor. She said that she was scared when she first arrived at the Prijedor train station but after the project she had happy memories from this place.
Because most peacebuilding projects are based in the capital, small workshops often do not have the budget to arrange for participants from more rural or disparate areas. Individuals also do not have the time to travel six hours to Sarajevo for a few days project. All these factors bias who participates in peacebuilding projects in Bosnia and privileges Sarajevo (and thus the Federation) over other cities. When there are projects in other regions, they often overlook the rural villages and small community centers where some of the hardest work on reconciliation is being done.
I hope that by placing the Project on Peacebuilding in Prijedor, we force participants from the capital and elsewhere out of their comfort zone and raise awareness about what peacebuilding looks like in rural villages and hostile political environments.
The final reason to locate the project in Prijedor is to invest our time and resources in a place that needs more. We spent some of our days in the local Hotel Prijedor, at a local hiking lodge, and in local restaurants in order to spend our small budget locally. Bosnia’s economy continues to limp along with an unemployment rate of over 30 percent. We heard presentations during the project about Prijedor’s particular struggles and young people’s difficulty finding jobs. The recent floods will take an economic toll as well with many business closing and people losing their livelihood.
The Project on Peacebuilding was not meant to talk abstractly about topics in a far way place; we wanted to confront the issues in one locality and talk to the people in front of us. To do that, we needed to be on the ground in Prijedor and in the Republika Srpska working one-on-one with activists who make peacebuilding part of their everyday lives.
The activists in Prijedor are the definition of human rights activists. They make peacebuilding happen in a hostile political environment, with few resources, and little institutional support. These are people who make change happen. When we continue to prioritize projects in capitals and bigger cities, we miss out on how change happens in the hard places. Peacebuilding is necessary precisely where it is not convenient and where there are not a lot of NGOs, but in the hard places where activists are persistent and dedicated to everyday peacebuilding.
That is why we go to Prijedor—to see peacebuilding work done like nowhere else.