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