Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Meet the Bosnian Youth Trying to Hold Their Country Together

Postwar Bosnia remains deeply divided. These young people are trying to change that.

By , an independent reporter based between Italy and the Middle East.
People are seen walking on the streets of Sarajevo
People are seen walking on the streets of Sarajevo
People are seen walking on the streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on July 2, 2021. Denis Zuberi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina—Inside a classroom in a refurbished building in Bascarsija, the old heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, Sarajevo, a small group of young people were having an animated discussion while a moderator wrote a few key words—“peace,” “tolerance,” “ethnicities”—on a white board.

They were taking part in a peacebuilding and media literacy training this past April, organized by Youth for Peace, an association created in 2013 by young people for young people, whose main mission is to rethink the peace process in the Balkans.

The workshop’s aim is to improve youth participation in politics and encourage active citizenship at both the local and national levels. The young people involved ranged from the ages of 15 to 30—an influential group for a country where the voting age, as well as the minimum age for political candidacy in Parliament, is 18.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina—Inside a classroom in a refurbished building in Bascarsija, the old heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, Sarajevo, a small group of young people were having an animated discussion while a moderator wrote a few key words—“peace,” “tolerance,” “ethnicities”—on a white board.

They were taking part in a peacebuilding and media literacy training this past April, organized by Youth for Peace, an association created in 2013 by young people for young people, whose main mission is to rethink the peace process in the Balkans.

The workshop’s aim is to improve youth participation in politics and encourage active citizenship at both the local and national levels. The young people involved ranged from the ages of 15 to 30—an influential group for a country where the voting age, as well as the minimum age for political candidacy in Parliament, is 18.

Participants came from all parts of the country and represented Bosnia’s diverse ethnic and religious composition. Mersiha, a 17-year-old Muslim from Zenica, sat near 22-year-old Mateo, a Catholic Croat from Trebinje, and Gorana, a Serb master’s degree student from eastern Sarajevo. Their last names are being withheld to protect their privacy.

“The fear of the other has a paralyzing effect on our communities and our past, that is severely burdened by violence,” said Samira Fatma Barucija, one of the group’s founders. “It’s particularly meaningful to organize these sort of encounters these days, as the region undergoes another wave of instability.”

Bosnian politics and society remain deeply divided today as a result of the unhealed wounds of the interethnic conflict that erupted in 1992 between the Orthodox Serbs, the Catholic Croats, and the Muslim Bosniaks shortly after the fall of Yugoslavia.

After the war, no structured, nationwide reconciliation process was ever implemented, which only contributed to creating divisions amid ethnic groups. In post-conflict Bosnia, ethno-religious identity heavily affects people’s lives. It is reflected in the political structure of the country: The 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the war set up the country’s political institutions to operate in a multilayered consociational arrangement intended to share power among the country’s three main ethnic groups.

The most important aspect of this structure is the division of the country into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, covering 51 percent of the country, and Republika Srpska, accounting for the remaining 49 percent. Bosnia’s presidency rotates among three directly elected members representing the three main ethnicities of the country, with federation voters choosing the Bosniak and Croat representatives and Republika Srpska voters electing the Serb representative.

This structure became necessary because of the changes in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ethnic makeup. After the 1990s conflict, the majority of people from all three communities chose not to return to their homes, which gave life to more homogeneous cities and societies.

Today, students are also separated into different classes according to their ethnicity and follow different curricula, which contributes to a lack of contact that goes beyond education and sows the seeds for long-lasting divisions in other spheres, such as neighborhoods and sports clubs.

As a result, postwar generations are growing up with fewer opportunities to interact with other groups than previous generations, and they find themselves in divided political landscapes and with less knowledge of each other’s cultural characteristics than their parents had. A 2009 study found that only 2 percent of Christian students in Bosnia understood what the two major Islamic religious Eid holidays are, while only 32 percent of Muslim students knew the religious significance of Easter for Christians.

Fed up with their parents’ unresolved hostilities, younger generations are trying to fill the institutional gaps and create grassroots initiatives aimed at organizing encounters that facilitate understanding between segregated communities.

“But after decades of efforts, we are starting to feel that our work almost meant nothing,” said Kerima Sljivo, a 24-year-old participant of the workshop in Sarajevo and a master’s student of religion and peace studies at the University of Sarajevo.

This year, Bosnia commemorates the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the war—yet the country is more unstable than ever since the 1990s. As Western powers’ influence and interest in the country have declined over the past decade, domestic tensions have increased. Over the past year, Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite presidency, has sought to strengthen Republika Srpska’s institutions and ramped up nationalist rhetoric, raising fears of a formal secession. Serb leaders have also continued to deny the genocide that took place in Srebrenica in 1995.

“If we add the war in Ukraine, the [global] financial crisis, and an aggressive political discourse, we have a cocktail for a clock ticking situation,” said Nikola Kandic, a jurist and youth worker active in peacebuilding in Bosnia. He believes that, with the European Union’s and United States’ presence in the Balkans at an all-time low, the upcoming October elections are shaping up to be very contentious.

“In the past 27 years, we have not lived in true peace, we’ve been living in the absence of war,” Kandic said. During that time, Bosnia has suffered from heavy brain drain, poor economic development, and rising political corruption. “It seems more relevant than ever to be part of these young, diverse communities, to not lose hope,” he said.

That’s why the role of youth organizations promoting interfaith dialogue is vital to the future of Bosnia and fostering reconciliation, said Pavle Mijovic, vice dean of theology at the University of Sarajevo.

Youth for Peace’s Barucija observed over her decadelong experience as a peace activist in the region that young people witness a lot of hesitancy and distrust in social interactions among people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. They’ve started to worry, for instance, that it’s inappropriate to mingle with people from other groups, mainly due to family influences that reinforce stereotypes and prejudice.

But there’s a whole other portion of youngsters willing to overcome those challenges. That’s why her association organizes monthly workshops and trainings aimed at putting in practice peacebuilding skills with peers from different Bosnian ethnic groups, including minority groups such as Jewish and Roma communities.

She believes these activities will shape conscious future leaders and encourages participants to take part in local politics. “A lot of the competences young people gain during our activities can and should be used in engaging with their communities on the local level where our political engagement starts,” Barucija said. “What we are trying to make clear is the necessity for everyone to take active political participation in their communities and use all the skills and competencies they gained through formal and non-formal education.”

Kandic, who recently became involved in Youth for Peace as a volunteer, believes that peacebuilding initiatives represent a more constructive way of dealing with the grievances and anger of his parents’ generation. But he also acknowledges how challenging it can be to measure how many people have been reached by these initiatives.

Since peacebuilding is not a systemic solution—and is only discussed with fellow activists rather than in schools and with parents—it’s still difficult to talk about the real effects of this process.

But it may be the only hope to maintain peace in the country. Mijovic believes that grassroots youth organizations have so far made a positive impact on society, mainly because they cope with human needs, which are often neglected in the context of fragile states. “The new Bosnian generations could be a much-needed breeze of fresh air for the airless mainstream politics,” he said.

“Despite what the news says, youth should keep taking advantage of the many informal engagement opportunities,” said Nadezda Mojsilovic, an interfaith youth worker at the Ivan Pavao II Youth Center in Sarajevo. “With active participation young people do not just invest in themselves, but also in the future of our society.”

As a Bosnian Serb and daughter of an Orthodox priest, when she began working for a Catholic youth organization, she was confronted with prejudice from her family and friends. “But it didn’t influence me. I knew I was doing the right thing and contributing to building a better society in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Since 2016, Mojsilovic has been the interfaith dialogue manager of the Ivan Pavao II Youth Center, and she launched a project called “Let’s step forward together” that has involved more than 5,000 young people from different parts of the country—including communities outside the capital that often have fewer opportunities to engage in interfaith encounters—through lectures, summer camps, sports competitions, and school workshops, with the aim of learning about different religious traditions to fight against stigma and discrimination and realize the importance of reconciliation.

The Ivan Pavao II Youth Center gives people like Sljivo, who also took part in the Youth for Peace workshop, opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise. Sljivo rarely mingled with other groups as she grew up in a Muslim household and attended a madrassa, a Quranic school, before getting a bachelor’s degree in Islamic studies. “I participate because I think it’s necessary to foster a stronger dialogue among our communities while doing normal, fun activities that any young people like to do,” she said. “I think it makes encounters more effective.”

“I feel that here my ethnicity is not even taken into account,” Suncica Djukanovic, a 23-year-old Serb student of security and peace studies, said with a smile. “That’s why I’ll keep coming here, I consider this a safe place,” she added, noting that Serbs can’t always find spaces to be accepted in the Muslim-majority Sarajevo, which was under siege from Serb forces for about four years in the 1990s.

Mijovic said it’s easy to dismiss these projects as mere youthful idealism often unable to evolve into concrete engagement and stand up against far more powerful political entities. “Their impact is often limited, mainly because great initial ideas fail to be incorporated into broader social processes and to generate policy change,” he said.

However, the potential of such small steps should not be underestimated, as they have awakened a feeling of responsibility in younger generations, particularly as new elections are coming up. This positive disruption is, in fact, happening, even though it is often not seen as newsworthy or politically relevant. Already, more young people, mostly women, are running and getting elected on the local and federal level, and despite the high rates of unemployment pushing youth to emigrate, those who stay are slowly becoming more involved in political life.

“Interfaith dialogue and the building of a better society is a long-term process,” said Mojsilovic as she organized another youth workshop for the summer. “While such projects may be small steps for someone, I am sure they are of huge importance for our future.”

Stefania D’Ignoti is an independent reporter based between Italy and the Middle East. She covers conflict and migration, and her work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Guardian, Time, the Economist and Al Jazeera English. Twitter: @stef_dgn

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