By Johannes Smettan
The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was a caesura in Europe’s post-war history. Almost 20 years after the Dayton Agreement, which regulates how people live together in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the battle between three entities can still be felt today in Sarajevo, Mostar and of course in Srebrenica. The three religions – Islam, Serbian-Orthodoxy and Catholicism – are the defining characteristics of the three entities that rule the country. But this overlooks a significant number of non-believers and adherents to other faiths, who are systematically disadvantaged.
Civil-society has only begun dealing with this problem. The census in the autumn of 2013 was supposed to be a first step in revealing unhealed wounds of war, at least statistically. Even though the population is not particularly large, the evaluation still has not been completed, much less published. Since the unstable structure of the Dayton Agreement is based on figures from the previous census in 1991, the new figures could make visible for the first time what the war cost and how many Muslims, Serbian Orthodox and Catholics (still) live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The new census results could shake up the allocation of political power, which is based on the old statistical breakdown; this could result in a new, serious test for the crisis-ridden country.
Ostali, the protest against political corruption
Yet "Ostali" may pose an even greater threat for the country’s political elites. Ostali means "others", and this category includes those who do not (want to) belong to any entity. Especially for youths and young adults who experienced the war as children, this category almost became a battle cry in the run-up to the 2013 census. It represents an antithesis to the unwieldy, clannish structures of the political castes that would still prefer to represent only the interests of "their" entities. Ostali also means disagreeing with the populist debates that emphasize differences and remain silent about shared interests.
For us, this unusual "Ostali" protest was the motivation to address the project "Ostali – giving others a voice." Together with youths from Germany and Bosnia and Herzegovina, we wanted to get to the bottom of discrimination in its numerous forms.
Together with the Bosnian youth media organization OnauBiH (Omladinska novinska asocijacija u Bosni i Hercegovini, in English roughly Youth News Association in Bosnia and Herzegovina), the Obala high school in Sarajevo and Radio F.R.E.I. in Erfurt, Arbeit und Leben Thuringia developed a seminar concept that provided participants with the opportunity to help determine the seminar’s focal areas before and during the exchange.
For example, we had asked civil-society organizations to get involved ahead of our first encounter in Sarajevo in October 2013. On the ground and after two days of getting to know each other and exploring the topic, the 20 participants themselves decided how and with whom they wanted to talk in greater depth about discrimination.
Not talking ABOUT the people affected, but WITH them
Using this approach, interviews were conducted with such partners as the president of the Jewish Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an LGBT organization (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans), a member of the press council of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired. All interviews included questions about how society deals with so-called minorities; about individual experiences with discrimination; and about specific kinds of support that those affected desire. The interviews were prepared, conducted and evaluated by the youths in bilingual tandem teams.
During the second encounter in Germany in the spring of 2014, participants grappled intensely with the situation of the "others" during the Nazi period. The youths visited the former concentration camp Buchenwald. But it was the visit to the memorial site Topf & Söhne and the ensuing discussion that left the biggest mark on the exchange. Topf & Söhne in Erfurt produced the ovens for the crematoria in the Nazi death camps, and it was here that the Bosnian participants in particular asked probing questions about individual responsibility, also with a view toward dealing with their own more recent history and individual responsibility.
Another focal area during the encounter in Germany was reporting on so-called marginalized groups and minorities. Here, participants spoke with journalists who try to give a voice to those who are not heard in "classical" media. Interviews were conducted with, among others, staff of the free radio station in Erfurt, but also with activists in a leftist film collective and the editor of a newspaper for homeless people.
Radio journalism as a methodological approach
The exchange was designed to be a radio project resulting in a joint, bilingual radio show. It was broadcast both in Germany and in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Radio projects are one way to discuss even delicate questions with young people. Often, difficult or very emotional topics are easier to discuss if the affected participants can take on the more neutral role of a journalist. In this way, a protected space emerges in which youths can ask questions without having to take a position themselves. Also, there are no "stupid" questions in journalism.
In addition, a radio show reaches many more interested ears. In other words, the learning experience goes beyond the participants themselves, reaching interested listeners.
An exchange with Bosnia and Herzegovina involves some exciting challenges for participants as well as for members of the team. The German youths do not remember anything personally from the time of the Bosnian War. This conflict does not really play a role at school and in everyday life. Yet for the youths from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the war is the most recent historical past and thus remains ever-present. Little is known about how the perpetrators are treated today in terms of criminal law and how victims are compensated. And above all hangs the brittle peace of the international community.
For German youths, in contrast, the Nazi era, World War II and its consequences by now tend to be more abstract historical events that are discussed morally and emotionally in the context of commemoration. In the exchange with Bosnia and Herzegovina, they experience youths who were born during or just after a war and whose parents and relatives are direct witnesses. So they can begin conversations with people who still feel the effects today of the combat operations and massacres of those years. This opens a broad arena for working on the topic of anti-discrimination. Though working directly with eyewitnesses of the Nazi period will become impossible, it is possible to enter into conversation with people today who have suffered or still suffer from the consequences of group-related hostility.
For members of the team, the situation of the three entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina proves challenging. They must respond with empathy to participants’ religious sentiments. At the same time, the German participants are confused by how unemotional some Bosnian youths seem when atrocities are described. Even though these crimes were certainly discussed in sessions where they could reflect, the team members must understand that a two-week exchange cannot replace possibly needed trauma therapy. If required, individual solutions should be sought out after the exchange is over, and in consultation with the Bosnian team members.
Educational work with a focus on anti-discrimination will continue to be very important in political youth work in coming years. Exchange across national and religious boundaries is still a preferred tool for sustainable success of the seminar.
Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular prove to be an interesting focus in this regard. Besides dealing with the past, exchange projects can also find many fruitful opportunities through dealing with the present. Examples include the Sejdic-Finci ruling of the European Court of Human Rights and the resulting consequences for Bosnian society, or the growing involvement of Arab states in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is plenty to talk about for years. And of course there is also the question of how many "Ostali" there really are in Bosnia and Herzegovina and what role they will play in the future. Our next encounter is planned for April 2015.