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October 04, 2011

YIHR educates youth about Bosnia’s war-torn past


The Sarajevo-based Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) is using social media strategies to tell the story of the three-year Bosnian war to those who were too young to remember it or not yet born before it ended in late 1995, says Nedim Jahic, a 22-year-old Bosnian.

“Yes, there are many positive things happening in Bosnia. But there is still such trauma here — so much trauma after all these years.” — Alma Masic
From his perspective — that of a YIHR volunteer who was a preschooler living in Sarajevo with his parents and older sister during the war — the country won’t heal until Bosnians from all backgrounds understand the prejudices associated with a lack of knowledge about people living in other parts of the same country and from different ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Nationally, Bosnia has three major ethnic divisions — Bosniaks, who are predominantly Muslim; Croats, who are predominantly Catholic Christians; and Serbs, who are predominantly Orthodox Christians. Historians describe the Bosnian war as a territorial dispute along political, ethnic, and religious lines — all of which had been intertwined for decades.[1]

YIHR attempts to unite people of different backgrounds by having them work together toward common goals, such as building or rehabilitating a community center, Jahic says. He has been involved in several YIHR projects in the past three years, including, “Srebrenica — Mapping Genocide.” It uses YouTube to share information about the Bosnian war and is the first of several online history projects for YIHR.

Since 2010, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has provided two grants to YIHR in Bosnia and Herzegovina through its Civil Society program, totaling $76,000. The grants provided administrative and program development support to strengthen civic participation by young people, including efforts to increase interactions among those from all sides of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. The Foundation supported YIHR prior to this when it was a branch office of YIHR in Belgrade, Serbia.

By learning from others and building two-way trust, Jahic says, it could be easier for Bosnian youth to talk about today’s human rights violations in their country. But it is not until after those discussions have taken place that his generation — and future ones — can start talking about past injustices and begin living together peacefully.

“If we don’t build trust between Serbs and Bosniaks, we won’t have anything real,” he said. “The changes would be fake.”

From left: Nedim Jahic, Maja Mićić and Alma Masic announcing Srebrenica - Mapping Genocide project.From left: Nedim Jahic, Maja Mićić and Alma Masic announcing Srebrenica - Mapping Genocide project.
Working with the mapping project team reminded Jahic of a university-sponsored peer educator program that he participated in with several other YIHR volunteers, he says. Through that experience, he connected with diverse young adults from several cities in the nation, including Mostar, Banja Luka and East Sarajevo. Discussion topics, such as human rights and anti-discrimination, provided opportunities to interact with residents from other ethnic groups.

Offering similar first-hand experiences is a fundamental element of YIHR’s work because it opens avenues for young people to be included in the nation’s ongoing transition to a post-conflict status, says Alma Masic, director of YIHR Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In 2003, YIHR was established by young people as a regional democracy-building organization, eventually having offices in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia — five countries that were part of former Yugoslavia. In addition to its support for YIHR-Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mott has provided five grants, totaling $455,000, to YIHR-Belgrade since 2005. Today, each office operates independently with its own staff and dozens of volunteers, though the offices still work cooperatively on regional issues.

The online mapping project is one of several for YIHR-Bosnia and Herzegovina. In June 2011, it was developed into an interactive Web site. Available in Bosnian languages and in English, the Web site contains 17 animated maps. It was designed to reach those unfamiliar with the war, says Masic, who was in her 20s in the mid-1990s and clearly remembers the war.

“Our primary target was youth throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Serbia, so we made it user friendly and easily accessible, particularly for young people,” she said.

With a few clicks, viewers can access hundreds of documents that describe events related to the July 1995 mass killing by Serbian forces of 8,000 Bosniaks, primarily men and boys, in Srebrenica — a town that had been declared a safe haven under United Nations protection. Many in the region call it “Europe’s worst massacre since World War II,” Masic says.
The mapping project was initially introduced as a Web site and DVD in Sarajevo and Belgrade in July 2010 to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Today’s interactive site outlines the causes and stages of genocide, which has triggered a lot of interest, says Masic, adding that the Web site’s content is now being re-marketed and promoted internationally to scholars and students.

“We are hoping universities and researchers use it as an educational tool,” Masic said. “Actually, we hope anybody interested in the broad topic of genocide can use Srebrenica as an example to learn from.”

The first day the mapping project was posted online, she said, it received so many hits it crashed. There were 4,000 downloads in the first hour alone. Of those, 46 were from Rwanda and 47 were from Japan, which Masic says shows there is global interest in addressing past atrocities.

Masic sees many promising signs that Bosnia’s youth want a less divided future. One example is YIHR’s first School of Civil Liberties and Activism, held in Sarajevo in August 2011. Its goal was to empower participants to be “change makers” in their own country.
Promoting antidiscrimination law in the city of Banja Luka, Bosnia and HerzegovinaPromoting antidiscrimination in the city of Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Consequently, 25 young activists — Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs — lived and learned together for three weeks, which provided opportunities to expose their stereotypes about people from different ethnic backgrounds.

The results gave Masic hope, yet she remains a realist because only 25 people were directly impacted by the program.

“Yes, there are many positive things happening in Bosnia. But there is still such trauma here — so much trauma after all these years,” she said.

Masic paused and then continued: “This is going to be a long process. We want our young people to know that there are other options out there; options other than to be a hater.”

She hopes two additional historical projects, which are currently being created by a consortium of organizations, will be as well received as the genocide project. Plans include developing an online museum for storing documents related to the city of Sarajevo and its role during the war, and erecting a war museum in Sarajevo.

According to Masic, there is one common reaction whenever genocide is discussed with young people: “Why do we need to know this? It’s in the past and we don’t need to look back.”

For her, there is only one appropriate response: “Even if you weren’t born at the time this happened, shouldn’t you be interested to learn what happened to people living in your country?”

She continues: “You are the future decisionmakers for this country. Wouldn’t you want to know about it so you could do everything in your power to make sure it never happens again?”

[1] Ethnic tensions had been deeply entrenched in the region, especially since the end of World War II when Yugoslavia was divided without regard for ethnic boundaries into six federated republics. They included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, a breakaway movement attempted to restore pre-World War II boundaries for the former Yugoslavia. During that period of rapid change, ethnic tensions started escalating in the region.