Peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina – intercultural dialogue in Brcko District
A greater focus on understanding and evaluating the work of various peacebuilding initiatives – such as those of Svitac in Brcko District, Bosnia-Herzegovina – can reinforce efforts to replicate and adapt them in different post-war contexts.
By Monica Reeves
To an outsider, grasping an objective and earnest understanding of the Balkans is a challenging prospect. The varying narratives and perspectives make it difficult to decipher a linear account of the war and developments since. The work of peacebuilding organisations in the region varies widely, especially in their approach to addressing the complex issues that have arisen from during the nineties. The manner in which the term ‘peacebuilding’ is employed is often both vague and abstract. It can be qualified, however, by examining what a peacebuilding organization does on a day-to-day basis and reflecting upon how its work seeks to achieve its objective of nurturing ‘peace’.
Broad terms such as ‘peace’ and ‘conflict’ are open to interpretation, and are understood differently depending on the individual or group in question. For those who believe that peace is more than just the absence of conflict, it bodes the question; what creates sustainable, functioning and tolerant societies in a post-war setting? Whilst high-level, international peace agreements – such as the Dayton Accords in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s case – may be the first step in creating stability, the elements of sustainability and tolerance undoubtedly need to originate from a local source, supported by the commitment of the community it works with.
Brcko District provides an interesting and unique context within Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). It holds a special status; operating on a self-governing basis and constituting the only officially recognised multi-ethnic community in BiH. This creates a completely different environment from the other units, such as the Republika Srpska (with its majority Serb population) and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (primarily comprised of Bosniaks and Croats). Whilts Brcko has a diverse demographic with greater institutional integration (e.g. mixed schools), it faces the challenge of bringing those people together as an ‘intercultural’ rather than just ‘multicultural’ society.
This is both a challenge and defining feature of Omladinska Organizacija ‘Svitac’ (Youth Organization ‘Svitac). Its aim is to provide a neutral space where youth from all backgrounds can work together in a creative environment. It facilitates daily workshops in arts, languages, music and sports, and regularly hosts events such as a future short film festival, intercultural evenings and dialogue events on issues such as anti-racism and anti-fascism. Svitac recently opened a research branch, with a first pilot study entitled, ‘A study of tolerance’, which aims to assess both the levels of tolerance of Svitac participants and to what extent Svitac plays a role in these attitudes towards cultural diversity.
At the core of Svitac’s work is the belief that an opportunity for creative and artistic expression in a neutral space can play a key role in deconstructing inter-group tensions. The potential value and significance of the arts within peacebuilding is a theme that has been widely acknowledged. It has a unique duality in its ability to bring people together, while equally opening a channel of expression for those who have experienced emotions such as trauma. This idea is highlighted by Michael Shank and Lisa Schirch in their article discussing strategic arts-based peacebuilding :
“Since the peacebuilding field requires tools that are as diverse and complicated as the human spirit, the arts emerge as a logical ally.”
Svitac displays various elements of neutrality by both having its working space as a local community centre and by adopting a non-partisan position. This concept of neutrality is common practice in both peacebuilding literature and practice, whether it be the geographical location of peace talks or the neutrality of mediators. Neutrality is a fundamental element of making all parties feel acknowledged equally with no perception of superiority/inferiority. Svitac, therefore, provides this both through its neutral space and its team of multi-ethnic local staff and international volunteers.
Perhaps as a result of this exposure to diversity, one attribute of Svitac participants is their almost nonchalant attitude to people from different backgrounds. Considering half of Svitac’s team is comprised of international volunteers (who stay from one month up to a year), regular Svitac participants are extremely used to, and seemingly comfortable with, people of all ages, countries and languages. The predominant demographic of the centre are youths between 3 and 30. Therefore, Svitac’s foremost act of peacebuilding is to bring young people of all nationalities and religions to one place; to share the same materials, work on the same projects and ultimately build intercultural relationships that exist inside and outside the centre. In the day-to-day interactions we have with Svitac participants, the complex issues that peacebuilding aims to address – such as segregation or prejudice – do not tend to arise. However, this does not change the impact of their work and, furthermore, seems the most appropriate and practical approach in this context.
It is critical to build solid contextual knowledge in order to develop a good understanding and measure of the relative successes of peacebuilding organisations. This includes appreciating that peacebuilding projects span many disciplines, address greatly differing contexts and, ultimately, that two organisations will rarely look the same. This acknowledgement is greatly important for the sustainability of organisations such as Svitac. As the world is increasingly faced with an ever-changing myriad of complex conflicts and crisis, it is imperative to find ways to adapt to differing circumstances, whilst measuring the hugely positive and changing impact that peacebuilding work has on the communities it works with. Additionally, if there is increased focus on understanding and evaluating the work of various peacebuilding initiatives and identifying effective trends in its practice, then efforts can be made to replicate and adapt them in different post-war contexts.
Even from within the sector, the scale of peace work and the concepts and issues involved can be difficult to comprehend. However, peacebuilding is as much the signing of an international peace treaty as it is sitting in a room of four-year-olds colouring in.
Monica Reeves completed her undergraduate degree in politics at the university of Glasgow, Scotland with an interest in conflict and peace studies. She has spent the past year working with Organisation Svitac in Bosnia and Herzegovina to learn about grass roots methods of peacebuilding. In September she will start a masters degree in global conflict and peace processes at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
- Michael Shank and Lisa Schirch. (2008). Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding. Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research. 33 (2)
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.
I think this is a very insightful article that underscores that truly transformative peacebuilding work can be found most clearly in the active, awake, deliberate and day-to-day choices made by local people. It is real example of how justice, equality, and peace are first and foremost lived experiences.
Congratulations to Svitac (and to their thoughtful volunteers like Monica) for their work and leadership – and for showing us that it is never to early to work with young people on issues of coexistence and conflict. Please keep colouring it in!