Sarajevo is a beautiful place. Beneath the rolling green hills, peppered with the red roof houses, stands the eclectic architecture of the storied and multi-cultured city. The old town sits quietly in the valley with its coppersmiths' shops, cafes and ice cream stands, welcoming tourists with a quintessential languid, European charm. I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in July, 2018 as part of a School of Diplomacy study seminar program led by Dr. Borislava Manojlovic to learn about peace and reconciliation in a post conflict nation.
During my short time there, I witnessed the beauty the country had to offer as well as the legacy of war that it carries on its shoulder. The people there are kind, gracious and generous in their hospitality. Yet, underneath the mask of tranquility, lies division. The war that tore the country apart in the 90's left behind bitterness and animosity continues to hang over its three ethnic groups that make up the country’s population: the Bosniaks, the Serbs and the Croats. Time does not seem to have brought much healing.
Before our delegation departed the U.S., I was asked, "What interests you about Bosnia and Herzegovina? What do you hope to gain from your trip?" At the time, I couldn't articulate well that what I wanted to see were the people who had lived through the realities of the war, the people for whom the terrors were neither fairytales nor simply the history of some distant land. In my sheltered and privileged life, I couldn't understand war as more than an abstract concept. I wanted to learn about the Bosnian people’s experience and resilience. As I walked the streets alongside the locals who welcomed me into their shops and restaurants, I suddenly realized that the fields of international relations and conflict resolution are about people.
Throughout my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was the stories of individuals that made the biggest impact on me. I saw the war through the eyes of the local community by visiting what was called the Tunnel of Hope during the war. Now a museum, the Memorial Complex Tunnel D-B pays tribute to the passageway that was built by the Bosniak Army to allow for food, humanitarian aid and supplies to be transferred from the Sarajevo Airport into the city. Our tour guide recalled not having access to eggs and other foods during the war, adding that her brother, who had never seen a banana, first tried to eat one after the war with the skin still on. It seemed like a small detail beside the stories of violence, and yet the imagery stuck with me as a picture of the realities of war.
Two of our later meetings left me with unexpected takeaways. Velma, the founder and President of the Post-Conflict Research Center, an NGO that works to document stories of people during the war, stories of small actions that made a big difference, explained her hopes for storytelling as a vehicle to bridge divides. In my naivety, I thought, perhaps, the key to peace and reconciliation was right in front of me. "Unfortunately, it's not so easy to get people to listen to the stories of their enemies," confessed Velma. She continued, "We once tried to do a project that linked the stories of all three sides, side by side, and people were outraged. 'You can't tell the story of the Muslims, next to the story of the Serbs!'" Before hearing her experience, I expected Velma to say that storytelling helped all sides to see conflict from another perspective. And yet, while her storytelling held immense value, it had its limits in bringing people together.
In visiting the Genesis Project, an NGO working towards peace and unity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I heard the story of a school in a small town called Jajce. The regional government had made a decision to further divide the community along the ethnic lines that plagued it, and the Bosniak and Croat students were separated into different school buildings. But, the children rose up and fought against the segregation. After a year of protest, their efforts were met with victory.
In this story I learned that peace belongs to those who fight for it, and that the hope for peace can be found in unlikely places - small towns and school children.
As I departed for the U.S. and reflected on our seminar experience, I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps the responsibility for finding hope for peace, in places where it seems impossible, belongs to us all.
Categories: Nation and World