Twenty years after the war, which was the biggest in Europe after World War II, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s society is still deeply divided. During the last twenty years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been given to different NGO projects aiming to connect the members of the three constitutional nations, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, in order to raise the level of mutual tolerance and to build a society that will be based on real democratic principles.
Unfortunately, until today a true reconciliation process has not taken place, thereby supporting the culture of impunity and the existing divided memory. In this situation, some NGOs are still trying to create a space where the youth will overcome those systematic divisions being imposed from without, and where they will not feel discomfort in communicating and discovering those ‘others’.
“Meet your local heritage” is a project organized by the NGO Edukativo and is financed by the UNESCO agency in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s aim is to train and teach high school students from seven Central Bosnian municipalities about the common cultural heritage of their communities through innovative training, workshops, and various activities that will foster their awareness of their common past, which is expressed through their cultural-historical monuments, and which can serve as a bridge that connects them.
The project was undertaken in three phases: the initial phase in June 2015 consisted of four days of educational training. After that, the participants worked on creating lists and maps of the cultural heritage in their local community in weekend workshops during the summer. They organized site visits, created creative promotional activities with the help of new technologies and they independently created a campaign to bring cultural heritage closer to the citizens of the local community, all of which constituted the second project phase. Finally, in the third phase, the pupils organized a ‘Cultural Heritage Route,’ a one-day tour of cultural monuments in a few municipalities for their peers, citizens of their community, government and civil society representatives where they presented all their acquired knowledge and skills.
“The United Nations has been recommending and encouraging the inclusion and sensitization of young people to the necessity of preserving tangible and intangible heritage for many years now, because the practice has shown that those who adopt the right system of attitudes and values from a young age cherish and transmit their heritage throughout their life, which is one of the main objectives of this project too,” says the project coordinator.
When asking the project coordinator about the purpose of all these activities, she said, “This is not a reconciliation project, considering that almost all efforts to create a society without visible divisions all these past years have failed. The word ‘reconciliation’ is problematic among most Bosnian citizens. We don’t need reconciliation in its classical meaning, we have been living in peace for a long time now and multi-ethnic conflicts have been reduced to a minimum. What we need is a dialogue, which is being chronically neglected. We need mutual meetings somewhere halfway between ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, and that’s what distinguishes this project from other similar attempts. The focus is on learning and accepting the rich cultural heritage of our country, developing the feeling among young people that what we have inherited from the past belongs to all of us, no matter which ethnic group you belong to by birth. Cultural heritage can’t be liked and accepted selectively, even if they were taught in schools that “ours” is valuable or perhaps richer.”
During all of these activities the participants are given a space to come to these these facts by themselves, without being forced, without being told that through accepting this way of thinking their society is one step closer to reaching real reconciliation and reviving a dialogue. “By forcing people to reconcile through the organization of various reconciliation projects you only attain the opposite result, because they see it as an obligation, like something that is imposed and has never borne any fruit, and also never will.”
It seems what may not be immediately achievable inside classrooms certainly can be achieved outside through these kinds of projects, training, and a systematic exchange across communities. But does she think that this project can start a big change? “Honestly, I don’t think it will bring about significant change. Those kids will go back to their schools where they have almost no contact with peers studying in the other two school programs, because most of the schools are physically separated or they operate as ‘two schools under one roof.’ They will watch media that are promoting nationalistic political agendas or the monolithic viewpoints of dominant powers. They will continue to watch cultural heritage destruction on a daily basis as a result of neglect, since it has not been recognized as a crucial element in the processes of prevailing differences.”
Still, the whole project has already achieved visible positive results among participants and that is what matters in the end. Šeherzada and Stella for example, two girls of the same age coming from the same city didn’t have the chance to come into contact with each other even though they go to the same school. Well actually, school is in the same building but they attend different school programs (Bosnian and Croatian) that are operating in two shifts with different teachers, principals, and other school staff. Growing up they probably wouldn’t meet each other in school, but they also wouldn’t meet each other in the city since most of the other cultural institutions or even coffee bars are also separated. By discussing their local cultural heritage and by sharing their views on the whole situation in their city and country during our meetings it is easy to see them recognizing the absurdity of that system and developing new attitudes. Until its end, the project will raise many important questions about common history and common cultural heritage and hopefully will come up with many other positive stories like this.