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 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.