Sokolac: City of Peace

Amra Pandžo, Karuna Center’s Bosnia Country Director, wrote these reflections after a public film screening held as part of Project STaR (Social Transformation and Reconciliation). We recently began this project together with 4 organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with funding from USAID.

Project STaR uses a whole-of-community approach to reconciliation where opposing, wounded identities and narratives run deep. The team is currently opening youth club sites in divided communities; training young people to identify and counteract hate speech; and bringing religious leaders together to help communities address the ongoing effects of the Bosnian War.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), there seem to be two parallel worlds: the one that we see in the media, and another small, ordinary one that we find in peoples’ living rooms, on sofas with a bowl of bean soup. One BiH lives in the insane tense skirmishes of the decadent political elite of the region, and the other on Viber (finally for free) calling friends from elementary school who are from another ethnicity or nationality, talking among themselves as they wouldn’t be able to do with anyone else. As a person who constantly points to the cohesion that exists and which can be developed among BH citizens, I often find that “reality is something else.” I do not know who lives in reality, and I do not pretend to have the knowledge of some higher truth, but I am followed by incredible stories of good Bosnian citizens who do everything they know and can so as to not repeat the nineties. Perhaps they do not have the built-in political consciousness to give a voice to those who produce the least conflict; they are certainly pressured by their own hardships and do not know how to view the world in the long term, how to separate their own stress and fear from the decisions they make. However, in the small cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina live warm individuals who welcome the occasional stranger, who will eventually listen to their sincere question, “How is it at all possible that there was a war here?”

I arrived in Sokolac as the in-country director of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding for the STaR (Societal Transformation and Reconciliation) project, and I organized a film screening by Alen Ćosić, an employee of OSCE. The film is a documentary about three war commanders from the Maglaj area, from three different sides–the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Croatian Defence Council, and the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) Army– thus its title: “Maglaj – War and Peace.” It is a profound anti-war story in which three people testify truthfully about their own stories from war and, in the postwar period, sincerely decide to follow the path of peace, cooperation and forgiveness. No one who saw the film said that he felt there was something unfair, untrue, biased or offsetting about it. It is simply a profound anti-war message that reveals the senselessness of human suffering for territories, ethnicities, ideologies or anything else. It seems in some way that life had showed them that their ideals, however noble they may have been, were wrong. Instead, all that was left of the ordinary man after the cruel conflicts of war was a poor, wretched, traumatized, and deeply unhappy shell of a man because of what happened.

I was afraid to show the film in Sokolac, bringing with me many prejudices from the capital of BiH: I waited for the mostly-Serb residents of Sokolac to oppose all that I, a Bosniak woman, would say. However and to my pleasant surprise, I was welcomed by Sokolac – a city of peace.

The Sokolac Cultural Foundation and the Aurora Citizens Association led by Irena Šućur and associate Zoran Savčić organized this promotion with great professionalism and entrusted me with moderating this wonderful evening. 

After the film was finished and the lights turned back on, I stood timidly before the audience, remaining silent, waiting for the first comment. In addition to journalists and the citizens of Sokolac, sitting in the audience was the filmmaker, who I feared might leave with a broken heart because of the evening’s events. I looked across at my first associate Adela Softić, my husband (a former combatant in the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina), my seventeen-year-old son who came as a technical support, and my colleague and distinguished professor Linda Tropp, an American, who I thought would certainly fail to understand anything, if there would be any exchange of heavy words…

Before I could say anything, an elderly gentleman stood to speak:

“The most important thing in the world is freedom. It is so difficult for me to accept that we allowed the war of the nineties. My God, who did we war against? In the beginning, I went to three generals and begged that we keep the peace. It didn’t work. Later they arranged that I be an artilleryman over Sarajevo…I, with three girls at home…I could not, so I left for the “Seagull.” I could not wage war. This film is so good, it needs to be spotlighted in schools, shown to all young people, so that they may understand the nonsense of war and so it may never happen again.”

Immediately after he spoke, Father Milan, a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, came to the floor. He called for peace and love to all those present and spoke about the horrors of fratricidal wars. Every man is an angel with one wing, he said, and that if we want to fly, we must have the Other, and the other must be near us.
After him, a woman thanked the author for the objectivity of the film. Obviously excited, she said that the media should learn from him. She emphasized that hate speech was destructive and that it was necessary to put an end to the media that produces false portrayals of the “other side.” She was a Sarajevan woman who came to Sokolac during the war, but throughout the war she and her parents stayed in contact with their friends in Sarajevo.
All the comments and discussions which followed the film were peaceful, motivational and positive. The audience congratulated the filmmaker. A pleasant, informal conversation developed and in the end, I was only sorry that the whole event had not been recorded.
I wish my people in Maglaj could hear this,” the filmmaker said.
I wish the entire Federation of BiH could hear this. These were different voices than the ones we were so used to hearing. It is up to us to give strength space for these voices to be heard. Let our ears hear…Peace lives here, next to us. Let’s seize it with our hearts and not surrender easily to the voices of evil. Thank you Sokolac, city of peace. I can hardly wait until we meet again.

This text was translated from Bosnian, and you can read the Bosnian original here.

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Youth participants in a 2019 workshop in Sokolac led by Youth Initiative for Human Rights, as part of our jointly led reconciliation efforts through Project STaR.

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