Where were you 20 years ago?

This is what we, at the Center for Peacebuilding, asked our supporters in our latest email.  Why?  Because 20 years ago, on April 6, the Siege of Sarajevo started with war in the rest of the country following soon after.  It was difficult to write this email for multiple reasons:  1. How do you write an email that is respectful of the lives lost while also being unique, original, and gets the attention of the read?  2. More importantly, as we chose to write about where each of us was 20 years ago, how do you write a piece about your friends’ lives in concentration camps, fleeing ethnic cleansing, and living in occupied and hostile territory without breaking down crying each time you open the word document?

Center for Peacebuilding's Team

Maybe that’s why this particular email took me much longer than usual to write.  I’d get out a paragraph and then close it down for an hour or two.  Now, I can’t and won’t make myself into the victim here because that’s simply untrue and unjust on so many levels – the real victims are the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  But jeez, writing about the people you love living out their childhood’s under fire, while I was getting a bike for Christmas and going to the beach in the summertime, that is something that really confuses your head and your heart.  It is humbling how incredibly privileged me and my community are – how we take things for granted – and how I need to take a breath every time I reach for the phone or keyboard or other communication device to complain about my “first world problems.”

My point though, is not to rant about white privilege, though I could probably do that all day, but to share the thoughts and sentiments we feel at Center for Peacebuilding (with a fundraising ask snuck in there as well).

April 6, 2012

Where did you live and how old were you 20 years ago? Most of us working at Center for Peacebuilding were only children, and everyone was under eighteen.  Audrey and Julia were both only six, and enjoying life in Southern France and New Jersey, USA respectively.  Anna-Lena was one year old, living with her parents and brother in Stuttgart, Germany.

But none of us choose where we are born, or in what political contexts. Being born in times of peace is a blessing.  

DinoMevludin, and Vahidin were also young.  But their childhood was different and less privileged because their first years of life were also the first, bloody years of their country’s independence.When the shots were fired that started the seige in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 6 April 1992 – twenty years ago today – everything changed.  Only a few weeks later the war spread to Northwestern Bosnia, including the cities of Sanski Most and Prijedor.  Mevludin was only eleven, but was still sent to a nearby concentration camp when his village near Prijedor was ethnically cleansed.  Dino was merely two, but instead of keeping his parents busy with toddler antics, he spent these years holed up in his occupied village without electricity, water, and with little food as his family planned an escape route to Germany.

Over the course of April 1992, the Serb Army advanced through BiH and when they reached Sanski Most late that month, seventeen year old Vahidin knew he had to leave to save his own life.  He and his mother fled their village Hrustovo, only kilometers from already-occupied Sanski Most, and spent three painful years in a refugee camp in Slovenia.Twenty years ago the war that took 100,000 livesdisplaced 2 million people, and left up to 50,000 women physically and mentally traumatized from systematic rapes commenced.  The lives of those residing in Bosnia and Herzegovina were inexorably and permanently changed, including those of our own Center for Peacebuilding staff and volunteers.

On this day when Sarajevo first saw war, and throughout the month when even two decades can’t halt traumatic memories from surfacing, Center for Peacebuilding’s work is more critical than ever.  While the country has rebuilt many of the buildings that were burned and bombed, our relationships with former neighbors remain broken.  We are taught in ethnically segregated schools, learn different histories, and live with the political rhetoric that tells us we are different people – enemies of one another.

In response to these daunting challenges, Center for Peacebuilding is working to rebuild relationships person-by-person and community-by-community.  The only way to move past our war is to acknowledge our history, our personal truths, and the humanity in each other, regardless of ethnicity.  Our Annual Peace Camp does just that; over the course of one week annually, we bring together youth from all ethnicities and regions in the country to develop leadership and conflict resolution skills, process past traumas, and make steps toward friendships with ethnicities they may never encountered before.

Even though problems still loom, organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina face funding shortages as foundations and international associations move on to more pressing hotspots.  Center for Peacebuilding is among those organizations needing support to continue our current programs while reaching more people in need.  This month, twenty years since the start of war, we are participating in a fundraising challenge sponsored by Global Giving – help us raise $4000 in 4 weeks for our Annual Peace Camp.  Your donation, whether it is one dollar or twenty euro, will make a difference in the lives of this year’s Peace Camp participants.

Thank you for joining us at the Center for Peacebuilding.  Whether you are from Bosnia and Herzegovina or abroad, or whether you grew up in peace or war, we need your support in the long journey toward peace.  All of you, all of us, count and together, we can build peace in our own lives, communities, and countries.

In Peace,

The Center for Peacebuilding/Centar za Izgradnju Mira Team
Vahidin Omanovic, Mevludin Rahmanovic, Julia Dowling, Anna-Lena Edelhoff,  Dino Hasanagic, Emina Jakupovic, and Audrey Petitot

PS. Spread the word!  Forward this email to anyone interested in peace, justice, and the Balkans.  The reality of life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, both good and bad, can only be revealed when more people know about what is going on.


Bosnian Independence…. for half of us?

For the half of us living in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of Bosnia’s split from Yugoslavia.  If you’re in another part of the country then it’s a different story.  Kind of crazy that half of the country claims we’re independent today and the other half says it was back in January.  ‘Tis why Bosnia is so complex, interesting, and frustrating all in the same day.  Here’s what we [ghost writer, Julia Dowling, thank you very much] think at the Center for Peacebuilding:

What Bosnian Independence Means to Me

Today, the 1st of March, half of Bosnia and Herzegovina is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence.  For the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the majority Bosniak and Croat entity within the country, businesses are closed, transportation on a holiday schedule, and citizens recognize the day the country declared its split from Yugoslavia in 1992.

For the other half of Bosnia and Herzegovina however, the Serb-majority Republika Srpska, it is business as usual.  Independence day for Republika Srpska is instead held January 9th, when the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina was proclaimed in 1992.

In many ways, today symbolizes the deep divide the peoples of Bosnia face despite a decade and a half between the cessation of war and the present.  The federal government barely functions and, because of years of barriers to ethnic cooperation, our citizens are growing farther apart from one another instead of growing together for a promising future.

The Center for Peacebuilding is working on reestablishing communication and building trust within divided communities.  Last Thursday, we took the first step in planning our newest project Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation in Community with a roundtable discussion between local community members.  This project will create a safe space in which individuals of every ethnic identity can share their personal war story as others support and bear witness to a truth different than their own.  Our grassroots story-telling will begin to heal the wounds of war that everyone living in Bosnia carries.  As one round-table attendee noted, “we must build a house from the foundation stone up.”  Person by person and story by story, the project will provide the mortar that binds the bricks together, the reconciliation that people of Bosnia desperately need.

This may be one of CIM’s most challenging projects – it will be the first initiative of its kind in the Balkans – but the deep need for local reconciliation calls us to continue despite skepticism and criticism coming from all sides.  As our project develops, we’ll be sure to post news and updates.  Thank you for your continued support and being peacebuilders in your own hearts and communities.

In Peace,
Vahidin Omanovic, Co-Director
Center for Peacebuilding/Centar za Izgradnju Mira

Bosnian Politics – Possibly Worse than American Politics?

I know, I know, it sounds impossible that anything could be worse than the absolute circus going on in Washington DC these days (you know I love you, DC, but get it together).  And sometimes I still think that there still is nothing worse than Congress and the schmucks running for the Republican nomination, especially with this birth control business.  But realistically we all know that there are many places far worse off than the US of A.  Bosnia is by no means in a position similar to Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe or other states in crisis.  But the crisis Bosnia had nearly 20 years ago continues to have major ramifications on life today.

Present Bosnian politics have essentially paralyzed the country and the political rhetoric is, many have claimed, not very different from that heard in the years and months leading up to the war in 1992.

Here's a map of pre-war Bosnia and post-war Bosnia.  You can see how ethnic groups have moved to stay within their own entity's borders.

Here's a map of pre-war Bosnia and post-war Bosnia. You can see how ethnic groups have moved to stay within their own entity's borders.

Here’s a quick primer on the post-war political history in Bosnia, which has contributed to the current state of political immobility: In the fall of 1995, the major warring parties in Bosnia (the Bosnian Serbs and Serbians, the Bosnian Muslims, and the Bosnian Croats and Croatians) were brought together by Richard Holbrooke in Dayton, Ohio for negotiations.  The result of the Dayton Accord was a divided Bosnia – two “entities” that would function completely separately except for the National Government which consisted of representatives from the 3 major ethnic groups.  Now Bosnia has the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Muslim and Croat entity) and the Republika Srpksa (the Serb entity).  The majority of Bosnia’s population now lives within the borders of their own ethnicity’s entity, meaning that Bosnia’s interethnic makeup during Yugoslavia has been transformed.  Before, villages with Serbs would sit next to Muslim towns, and vice versa.  Now most populated areas are majority Serb or majority Muslim or majority Croat (yes, there certainly are exceptions to this, but the overall tone of interethnic cooperation has been destroyed).

Ok, so what does that mean now?  It means that almost everything in political life comes down to ethnicity.  Whether or not Bosnia’s citizens want this, it is the reality.  Three of the four major political parties are ethnically based and consistently spew hateful rhetoric against the other parties.  The Muslim majority party, Party of Democratic Action (SDA), cannot ever agree with the Serb majority party (Serb Democratic Party – SDS), who rarely agrees with the Croat majority party, Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).  To be clear, I don’t blame the parties for certain conflicts; recently the Serb Party in Parliament called to abolish the National Court (which charges war crimes transferred from the Hague) because they believe it would be better to try such cases in entity courts.  Certainly, a terrible and unjust idea for all ethnic groups involved – how can we expect justice for victims and perpetrators if they are on trial in areas where they are often the hated minority?

But it goes without saying that the Federal Bosnian Government simply does not work.  The three ethnic majority parties plus one heavyweight multi-ethnic party (the SDP) have created a stalemate on nearly all national matters.  I mean, they were unable to form an official government (one with Ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs etc…) for FOURTEEN MONTHS.  That’s right.  Bosnia and Herzegovina operated without a fully-formed government for fourteen months before a breakthrough this December.

So critical national affairs are consistently stalled in Sarajevo, but does Bosnia’s politics affect people’s everyday life?  You bet.  

You better join a political party, and if it’s not the right party for your area, then you’re plum out of luck for things like work, housing, and other advantages that come with Bosnian nepotism and corruption.  My friends from all over Bosnia face problems because of politics:

A good friend of mine, X, doesn’t agree with ethnic politics, even though X lives in a town where their own ethnic majority is in power .  X is instead, a party member of the multi-ethnic SDP party.  Guess what?  Even though X is a kind, compassionate, and brilliant person who speaks multiple languages, X simply can’t find a job in town.  Sorry, you lose because you envision a multi-ethnic future for Bosnia!  X has a partner, V, who also faces issues – V is not a member of any political party and because of this, has been blackmailed at work, and has not been offered a long-term contract at their job…. every three months when the contract period is up there is the chance that V will be terminated unless V caves and joins the local ruling political party.*

So people who should be celebrated because they refuse to play into ethnic biases and a political system corrupt from top to bottom are instead left out of the whole process.  What does this mean for Bosnia’s future?  Where are the moderate, tolerant voices?  I honestly don’t know what the future holds for this beautiful country and its incredible residents, but the opportunities denied my friends make me incredibly angry and sad.  Political rhetoric is getting worse, and if the economy and employment situation doesn’t improve I don’t see a very peaceful future.  Uncertainty makes people afraid, and that can cause them to turn to those who act like they hold the answers – the answers in today’s Bosnia are all ethnic.  I don’t have any real insight or suggestions for fixing this, except that education in conflict resolution and tolerance must be taught on the grassroots level.  Let’s rebuild relationships so that people can say “you know, I have a Serb friend that is a really great person – maybe those politicians are wrong about all Serbs being evil….”  It can only start there.

*To ensure anonymity I have replaced names with letters.  In the current Bosnian political climate,  it very important to give as few details as possible lest someone happen upon this entry and my words cause even more problems for my friends.

Kozara National Park

Today, our CIM team decided to take advantage of the snow and low temperatures and travel a bit from Sanski Most into Kozara National Park.

Skis! Before we found out there were no ski boots...

The park, with small mountain peaks and lush evergreen forrests, was only about 40 minutes west of Sanski Most.  Here, Mevludin (one of CIM’s Co-Directors) said we could rent skis and snowboards and other equipment to take part in the fun.  Surprise of surprises though, they claimed they were out of ski boots!  At first we suspected that their response had only been to spite me (a foreigner, and an American one to add insult to injury!) but when one of the Bosnians went afterwards we found out this was the sad truth.

No worries though, because us peacebuilding hippies know how to be creative, resourceful, and fun….  We took our two sleds and a whole mess of plastic bags and used them to jet down the ski slope with alarming speed and absolutely no control over our course.  I was skeptical about the efficacy of plastic bags – my french friend Maxime handed me a yellow trash bag and all I could say was “I don’t know if this will work, Maxime.”  I got on and pushed a bit downhill and – it worked.  It worked REAL GOOD, if I can be colloquial about it.  All I can say is I started yelling “To radi!!!” (it works!) as Bosnian children trying to learn to ski lept out of my path.

It was a fun day with the group.  Kozara is stunning, especially in the snow.  After some hot drinks we walked a bit to see the monument Tito built to memorialize The Partisans who were killed in World War II.  It was a pretty imposing piece of work:

Partisan Monument

And what’s a Bosnian National Park without a tank?

Et, voila (can you see how living with a French roommate and working with three Frenchies is rubbing off on me?).  Bosnia’s natural beauty (and quirks that make you improvise and become more flexible the longer you are here) is why it was such a fabulous day.  Who could argue that this was not worth the trip?

Aerobik Klub Sanski Most

Tonight, some of the Center for Peacebuiding [local and international] volunteers and I went to an aerobics class.  All I can say was that it was amazing for so many reasons….

1. The Richard-Simmons type instructor (a man in sweatpants) leading a class full of women

2. The incredible agility and fitness of Bosnian women of all ages!  I swear, I have never seen a fat Bosnian woman.

3. The room in which it was held: the “body building center” with weight machines from 20 years ago and amazing, glossy posters of huge muscle men with manly, Bosnian names.

4. How it made me feel like I was in 1980s Yugoslavia.  Is it possible to have jugo-nostalgia without having lived there?  Because I think this class gave it to me.  We even had step blocks and did fun arm movements to music!  It made me feel like I could be an extra in this 1983 Eurovision entry from Yugoslavia:

Please take note that this song is called “Đuli” – very similar to the name Julia – which means that all the older women who’s prime of their lives included 1983 think it is adorable to sing me this tune.  Excellent.

4. Really though, the exercise was great.  It was a fun bonding experience with the other ladies volunteering and will keep me in shape despite the cold air and snow-covered ground that makes me want to curl up with some Bosnian mint tea.

I’ll definitely be there on Wednesday and I hope I can get a shirt like the one I saw tonight that proudly read “Aerobik Klub Sanski Most.”

Ovdje sam. Opet.

So I’m here, in Bosnia, again.  It was a bit of a journey to get here – New York to Amsterdam to Zagreb (via plane) and a 6 hour bus ride from Zagreb to Prijedor.  Crossing the Croatian-Bosnian border was buckets of fun because we had to get off the bus and stand in a line as border patrol checked our IDs in the frigid night air.  But I got here!  I took the one taxi at the Prijedor bus station (a city about 30 minutes from Sanski Most across the entity line in the Republika Srpska) because my friend and CIM’s director, Vahidin, was trapped in his village because of meters of snow!  That slightly scary taxi ride (think dark, snowy, winding roads in an old car without snow tires) came just in time.  Sure, there was snow on the ground in Bosnia when I arrived, but it wasn’t until the day after my arrival that Bosnia got hit hard – just look at these photos from Sarajevo!

I traveled from Amsterdam by plane to Zagreb, Croatia. Then took a bus down into Northwest Bosnia (through Banja Luka, highlighted on this map)

Driving through Bosnia’s villages, it felt like I was coming home but also starting a new journey all at the same time.  In the snow, everything seemed new and exciting and different.  I’ve never visited the country in the winter and it looked foreign and beautiful.  Maybe it was the severe jetlag from traveling through 4 countries in 24 hours, but I got that same fire in my belly that I had the first time I came to the Balkans.  It was exciting to feel both comfortable in the language and culture, but completely unsure of how my life in Bosnia will turn out in the coming weeks, months, and who knows, maybe years.

Sanski Most Kanton (municipality) is in red.

I want to write so much more about my life in Sanski Most right now.  My apartment is beautiful and very close to work.  I will be working with the most incredible peacebuiding organization I’ve ever known, with equally incredible and passionate international volunteers.  Bosnian life feels so familiar – the coffee, the removing of shoes at the door, the call to prayer five times a day.  But I know that really long blogs are hard to read so I’ll just have to stick to regular, shorter entries.  So you’ll just have to come back and see my photos of beautiful Sanski Most in the snow and all the other pieces of my life.   And I have to go study Bosnian language anyway!

Pozdrav iz Serce (Wishes from the heart)