Civil Society in Post-Conflict Bosnia

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By Edward Lawrence

I spent a week with the Most Mira project in Kevljania small village in northern Bosnia. I grew up watching the conflict on the television and in the news, but I was too young to understand the politics behind the hatred, divisions, and murder. Despite being over 20 years since the official end of the conflict, it was surprising to see that many divisions still survive. The war, although not an active conflict, lives on in so many lives. Communities are still divided. Wounds are deep. An underlying sense of mistrust and difference permeates the air within the rural communities.

Surprisingly, this was highlighted on my first day with Most Mira in Banja Luka. Waiting at the bus station for other arrivals, one of the Most Mira participants, a Bosnian, was approached by a man who asked: “Are you one of ours?” (meaning are you Serb). Later in the week, a local shouted “fuck your grandparents” at an event marking 25 years since Trnopolje (a concentration camp within the local school) that was later revealed to the outside world.

Most striking was the lack of memorials or acknowledgement for the atrocities that occurred. At the former concentration camps in Trnopolje and Omarska, there are no memorials for the victims of the atrocities that occurred here because the local government does not allow it. There are no signs, no information, and no acknowledgement. At Omarska, authorities erected a physical mound of land and dirt to conceal the still operational mine (the site of the former concentration camp) from view on the nearby road. Can this really be called peace?

It was clear from my time in Kevljani, Kozarac, and Prijedor that international actors are simply not reaching local populations, or are doing so in a very limited capacity. There’s a difference between peacekeeping and peacebuilding—the latter being neglected by the international community. What I saw was civil society rebuilding the shattered bridges of a divided and misguided society.

The Project on Peacebuilding also conducted a community survey about local perceptions of peacebuilding, which provided an interesting opportunity to speak with local residents. When asked about the actions of the international community and international actors, most responded that they felt it had been “okay.” When asked to elaborate, respondents were often unable to say what they felt the international community had done recently and many spoke of peace agreements and the end to fighting at a national level. At a local level, they were unaware of international organizations and actors. On the other hand, many had heard about the work of local civil society groups that address local issues. We know from this week’s project that local groups are building bridges through alternative means like art and theatre for local children or for communities to come together over food and other activities. Initiatives at the grassroots level help the local community to heal. It’s not only about national or international political solutions, but local community engagement regardless of identity, ethnicity, or perceived difference. It’s about mutual understanding.

“Change can only come from the people themselves,” Kemal Pervanic, Kevljani resident, concentration camp survivor, and founder of Most Mira.

There was a clear feeling that the international community parachuted into Bosnia and competed to focus on peacebuilding—often obstructed by government politics (the politics of identity and division), national issues, and their own objectives. But peacebuilding often did not reach rural and local populations—or were unsuccessful. Some things look optimistic: local civil society is taking part in some peacebuilding; local initiatives run by local people with local understanding addressing local issues. It is this peacebuilding—education, tolerance, understanding and embracing of difference, but also shared culture—that will change society in these areas. Local organizations are not outsiders. They have the intimate knowledge, experience, and understanding of the local community. The international community must embrace and endorse such initiatives in Bosnia. They must embrace creative ideas, new approaches, and tailored ideas for peacebuilding rather than the “one glove fits all” approach. Peacekeeping is only a temporary stalemate solution and now is the time for peacebuilding. When neighbor turns on neighbor, the international community must address the conflict at only the local and national level. The physical conflict may have ended, but the deep wounds of division are yet to heal.

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