Reaching Across Painful Ethnic Divides in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Though the Bosnian War ended almost 25 years ago, its unhealed wounds continue to define ethnic divides in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. Even though there is not an imminent threat of return to mass violence, Bosnians who lived through the conflict are telling us that the atmosphere today feels similar to the prelude to war in the early 1990s.

We lead our current project, Societal Transformation and Reconciliation (STaR), together with the Bosnian organizations Center for Peacebuilding, Youth Initiative for Human Rights, PRONI Center for Youth Development, and Mali Koraci – Small Steps. STaR strengthens the ability of youth to work across ethnic divides and spearhead initiatives for social healing in their communities.

Though this Bosnian generation never experienced the war themselves, they are deeply affected by it. Many Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats grow up attending segregated schools, learning different narratives about what took place.

“Young people do not need to reconcile, they need to be the bearers of reconciliation.”

– STaR youth participant at the MESS international theater festival

One participant in a CIM/STaR peace camp helps another prepare to enter a mosque, as part of their peace caravan’s interfaith tour of different houses of worship. The youth were moved by the experience, even though some faced backlash on social media for attending each other’s religious services. Photo credit: Center for Peacebuilding (CIM)

Over the past year, the STaR team has directly engaged more than 650 youth in leadership development initiatives, focused on 10 locations spanning both political entities of the ethnically divided nation.  (Check out the photos below of a few projects youth have now led in their schools and communities!)

Earlier this month, two deeply moving aspects of the project came together, when we screened the film Maglaj: Rat i Mir (Maglaj: War and Peace) for participants in the youth peace camp that Center for Peacebuilding organized earlier this month—the second peace camp under the STaR program. The diverse high school- and college-aged group bonded with each other across their differences, and transformed their way of thinking about those from “other” groups.

“In the beginning, it was significant how someone’s name was [because names identify people by ethnicity]. 

However, as time went on, and how we went through some of these workshops, and as we got to know each other later, it was important who the person was. Everything disappeared which was between us at the beginning: we worked for a common goal.”

~ Peace camp & peace caravan participant from Bijeljina

At the film screening, current peace campers were joined by the peace campers from earlier this year—who have been leading reconciliation projects in their home communities based on what they learned. After the peace camp, each cohort travels throughout the divided nation in a “peace caravan,” then works in teams to lead projects of their own. 

Maglaj: War and Peace tells the story of three commanders—Serb, Bosniak, and Croat, all from the town of Maglaj—who knew each other before war came to their community, fought each other during the war, and have since devoted themselves to working for sustainable peace together.

The commanders, in our discussion, talked about what they faced when they were about the peace campers’ age: One day, they were living their normal lives. The next, all communications were cut off, another army was coming toward them, and they were told to pick up a gun and defend their own homes and families. The youth could imagine how it all could happen to them—an important realization to prevent it from happening again.

Three former commanders in the Bosnian War, Serb, Bosniak, and Croat—subjects of the film Maglaj: War and Peace—have joined us for discussions after screenings throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At one point in our discussion, Marko Zelić—who fought with the Croatian Defense Council during the war—exclaimed, “Serbs are just people!”

Immediately, a peace camper rushed across the circle and gave him a hug—leaving the former commander and others in the group speechless and deeply moved.

For us, it is particularly meaningful to be working in Bosnia and Herzegovina again, since our earliest work took place there in the mid-1990s. Last week, Paula Green (Karuna Center’s founder and senior peacebuilding advisor) partnered with Vahidin Omanovic (co-founder of the Center for Peacebuilding in Bosnia) to facilitate advanced dialogue facilitation workshops for the staff and volunteers of the STaR project consortium. Vahidin first became involved in peacebuilding as a participant in Karuna Center workshops facilitated by Paula over 20 years ago. Now, it is a privilege to work together with Vahidin and the rest of the STaR team to lift up the next generation of peacebuilders.

We can’t wait to see what activities this group of peace campers lead in their communities—and we are looking forward to the next year of work in the STaR project team!

A peace camp graduate held a workshop attended by 15 high school students from the area of Stolac and Mostar. In a break from the norm, they skipped introductions and immediately started the first exercise. Everyone was provided with blindfolds, and divided into 3 groups, where  facilitators read prepared questions to encourage deep (but voluntary) discussion without revealing names, nationality, or religion. 

In the debrief afterward, participants marveled at the chance to get to know each other without the markers of ethnicity—name, residence, religion—that became a foremost feature of introductions after the Bosnian War.

Peace camp participants from Doboj, Banja Luka and Sarajevo contributed to a two-day workshop for 16 youth in the community of Sokolac (in the Republika Srpska) called “Why not peace?” Through a variety of activities—including a “debate vs. dialogue” activity we often use at Karuna Center—youth learned practical skills and developed ideas to guide their own projects. Photo: Center for Peacebuilding (CIM)

Youth in Velika Kladuša organized a two-day activity called “Ways of peace and friendship” in collaboration with the team in Bijeljina. They organized an exchange of participants between the two municipalities to address the problem of isolation and ethnic segregation in their communities. Photo: Center for Peacebuilding (CIM)

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