Pathways towards a culture of peace with Velma Šarić and Tatjana Milovanović

Velma Šarić & Tatjana Milovanović (private archive)

The Post-Conflict Research Center is a non-governmental peacebuilding organisation and research centre based in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Researcher Maarten Van Alstein went in search of a breath of fresh air in a dialogue on peace with Velma Šarić and Tatjana Milovanović, Founder and Program Director at the research centre where the work towards a culture of peace and conflict prevention in the Western Balkans takes a central place.

Could you tell us more about your organisation and how you got involved?

Velma Šarić: Being a teenager at the time, I was deeply affected by the war. That is probably the only reason why I ended up in the field of peacebuilding. As a country, we are still dealing with a lot of division. There is not, for example, one shared historical narrative about the war – there are three different narratives. Between 25,000 and 50,000 women were sexually abused or raped during the war. Sarajevo experienced the longest siege in modern history. More than 1,600 children were killed in Sarajevo alone. We are still dealing with the consequences of genocide in Srebrenica. Transitional justice and post-conflict reconstruction are going slowly. We are a country in the heart of Europe, but we still have the phenomenon of segregation in our education, with the system of „two schools under one roof“. Kids physically go into the same building but are taught completely different curriculums. In that context, we are trying to find innovative approaches to engage young people in peacebuilding conversations. One of these methods is Balkan Diskurs, a pan-ethnic youth platform where we provide a free space for young people to make their voices heard.

Tatjana Milovanović: We use multimedia and the creative arts, but we also focus on research and monitoring the peacebuilding field in the region. The primary target audience of many of our programmes is young people, but we also do a lot of work with survivors and victims of the Bosnian war and genocide. Our goal is to empower them to tell their stories and help them in their everyday life and their fight for their rights, while also documenting their stories of survival.

In a post-conflict society, after the experience of sexual violence and genocide, memories are very painful and bitter. On your website you say you are dedicated to fostering a culture of peace. What does that mean for you?

Tatjana Milovanović: In our work with young people we ask them what peace means to them. It is such a big term. At the same time, it has a very practical side. In Yugoslavia people lived together peacefully. Ordinary people did not expect the war to happen. Then after the war they were pushed into this very westernised way of thinking, involving big terms such as “democracy” and “civil society”, “peacebuilding” and “transitional justice”. Many people thought of peace in the sense of the ending of actual fighting. What we now try to do is make young people think about peace in a positive sense as well, as both individual and communal. The first dimension is very subjective. It is a sense of feeling safe in your own community, feeling the safety of your identity in your community. At the same time, we welcome the diversity of this country. That is our vision: to see diversity as something to celebrate, while on an individual level it is important to feel safe and warm in your own community.

Velma Šarić: From a historical point of view, and keeping in mind that the Dayton peace accord actually is the Bosnian constitution, the war did not stop because of an agreement between people, but because of a military intervention and a lot of international diplomacy. In a country divided into ten cantons and political districts with 186 ministries, we try to remind people of the necessity of cherishing peace. Many young people don’t have the experience of a sense of belonging to the country. They don’t feel that politicians care about their future, their education, their well-being. So cultivating a culture of peace involves reminding young people that peace is more than merely not having a war – that it is also about celebrating the diversities we have in a country with different ethnic and religious groups. We always need to talk about and cultivate this culture of peace because it is extremely necessary. Especially now with the war in Ukraine and what we are witnessing in Europe, Bosnia and the Balkans should be a constant reminder of the kinds of consequences war entails.

We do not know when the war in Ukraine will end, but what, in your view, can we learn from Bosnia and Herzegovina in terms of how a post-conflict society can build a culture of peace?

Tatjana Milovanović: I think Ukraine and people in the region might also learn from our experiences now, while the war is still raging. We have already had several conversations with Ukrainian activists, especially women leaders, about this. We first talked about the importance of documentation. In Bosnia that proved to be incredibly valuable for later judicial processes and war crime trials. For example, it is important to think now about how we will be able in the future to prove the identities of missing people. The International Commission on Missing Persons was established because of the war in Bosnia, and there is a lot of technical and practical expertise that unfortunately now can be implemented in Ukraine. When it comes to the peace agreement and the post-conflict period, a lot of people in Bosnia feel that the Dayton accord was a forced agreement that left a lot of unfinished business. The real work actually starts after a peace agreement is signed. Because our country did not have enough support to help people, there are still many people in Bosnia suffering from the consequences of war, especially women survivors of sexual violence and rape. I think that only a couple of thousand of them actually spoke about their experiences. I think that collectively, as a society, we have failed to give them proper reparations, proper psychosocial support and proper mental health support, which are all incredibly necessary. Also, many people who lived through the siege of Sarajevo did not receive support after the war. Even 30 years later, a great number of people are still affected by their war-time experiences. Obviously, through transgenerational trauma, their children are also affected.

After any conflict or war the building of peace is such a long-term process. It takes decades to really heal. There is no coming out of it in one or two years’ time. In fact there is not really any way of coming out of it. Society will constantly have to deal and re-deal with the violent past. That is definitely a lesson we learned.

Velma Šarić: I want to mention something that the international community is already doing right at this moment, and that is understanding that what Ukraine needs now is military help. We are happy to see that they are not struggling with embargos on weapons like we had to do. Another important issue is that of local ownership. It is important that the international community listens to local people and local civil society organisations.

In terms of processed of reconciliation, in Bosnia we learned that we lost the years immediately following the peace agreement. People were tired from the war, and this had an impact on their willingness to actually build peace. It taught us a very important lesson: the first steps to build a culture of peace need to be monitored closely and evaluated in a sustained manner. We skipped that period, unfortunately. We moved too quickly towards European integration and NATO processes. That still causes a lot of problems in terms of dealing with the past and transitional justice.

What can the international community and a region like Flanders do to assist in these efforts?

Velma Šarić: As to concrete ways a region like Flanders can assist, I strongly believe in enhancing the accountability of local governments and trying to lead them towards European values and processes of democracy and human rights. Projects that increase attention towards the rights of minorities – such as the Roma and Jewish communities, and people in mixed marriages – are also important. We also need to invest in building up economic capabilities and in social projects that bring people together. If people can provide for their families and give their children opportunities, there is a common ground where agreement can be found.

This article was published in the report “Dialogue in a Times of Uncertainty” of the Flemish Institute for Peace 2022.

Maarten Van Alstein studied History, Law and International Politics. In 2009 he obtained a PhD at the University of Antwerp on Belgian diplomacy and the origins of the Cold War. Since 2010 Maarten has been working as a researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute. Within the institute’s programme on ‘Peace & violence in society’, Maarten conducts research on peace education, dealing with controversy and polarisation in class, politics of memory and the remembrance of war.

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Winner of the Intercultural Achievement Recognition Award by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs

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