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Choosing Peace Together

By Goran Bubalo

Goran Bubalo from Bosnia and Herzegovina describes an effort to empower people to heal the scars of war.

War victims turned peacebuilders

War in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) ended almost 20 years ago, but without resolution, without true peace. Three parties waging war fought for almost four years without winners, where everybody lost something or everything. It cost 100,000 lives, 60 percent of the population was displaced, around 200,000 people experienced various kinds of imprisonment, and up to 50,000 women were raped. Today, we can't agree if it was aggression, civil war or something else, and we struggle to find a way toward a shared future.

Ethnic divisions are once again placing BiH precariously on the edge of renewed violent conflict. Underlying these divisions is an array of intense grievances held by the large numbers of people who continue to experience the negative effects of the previous ethnic conflict. These grievances shape the views of ethnic relations in BiH, and because many hold other ethnic groups responsible for their experiences, they are opposed to reconciliation. Furthermore, the generation directly affected by the war is passing on its grievances and prejudices to its children, fueling radicalism and lodging intractable ethnic divisions deeper into BiH society.

The project "Choosing Peace Together" was implemented by Catholic Relief Services in partnership with the Caritas of the Bishops' Conference of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the period from January 2010 to April 2014. By working with members of victims associations, the project aimed to reach a group of people already self-identified as being more strongly affected by the war than the general population, and who have not managed to find closure on their own. A particular focus was placed on youth because the second generation often feels the weight of responsibility for the suffering of their parents and may for this reason be even more opposed to reconciliation efforts.

Through our activities, we focused on supporting those who suffered the most, including war-camp prisoners, families of missing people, women victims of the war, people with post-traumatic stress disorder and civilian war victims.

At initial gatherings aimed at bringing individuals from different groups together, people refused to mix and sat drinking coffee at separate tables. And this is easy to understand. How do you make peace with war in mind; how do you reconcile with enemies before doing so with yourself? Imagine returning to your town after losing half of your family, having survived life in a concentration camp, only to see people who committed crimes walking free on the streets, meeting them daily and not being able to deal with it.

Eventually, however, people began to realize that they share something profound in common: they are all victims of war and are struggling with similar problems, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Through the stories of trauma, they came to realize that at a certain level they are the same: they have experienced trauma; they are all victims; they have the same problems; and it is necessary to create a positive climate in which to solve their problems. They realized that they can be much more effective in addressing their problems if they join together, and that they can help each other regardless of where they are from. Through the project, they began to realize: This is our task; we have to reach out to one another.

Through seminars and group sessions, participants came to see each other as individuals and realized how, as individuals, each of them had the ability to influence the group positively: "Ever since I began participating in these workshops, my life has changed. I began to function and I am no longer this Smurf, hating everyone. Now, I am much closer to extending a reconciliatory hand than I was when I first joined."

Once they were enabled to see each other as "people," not merely as "others," the challenge became how to send this message to society at large, how to connect them with ordinary people and help make peace.

We organized public speaking events where participants were able to share their experiences of the horrors of war but, most importantly, of what they are doing today to build peace. They have spoken to various audiences--students, government officials, other war victims, ordinary citizens. Prior to listening to the stories of these war victims, many of these people were not willing to lend an ear to the sufferings of other ethnic groups.

Although survivors spoke in three similar but different languages--Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian--they all spoke with one voice. Above all, they spoke a language of hope, trust, power and compassion--a language of the heart and soul. They spoke in a voice of people who have gone through suffering, but who carry the message of truth and peace, a message for future generations. This is the voice of peace.

And it worked. Through 100 speaking events, they reached tens of thousands of people throughout the country, encouraging reflection and opening up new fields of dialogue. When you forgive, you will not change the past, but you will change the future. And a better future is all we have to hope and work for.

Goran Bubalo, survivor of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and activist at the Network for Building Peace ( www.mreza-mira.net), served as project director of the "Choosing Peace Together" project. He was also involved in the production of My Story, a documentary about war victims. Visit www.moja-prica.org/film.html.
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