Shared narratives of the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s: An opportunity for reconciliation

Photo: Sanja Bistričić, used with permission via Balkan Diskurs.

This article by Anja Zulić was originally published on Balkan Diskurs, a project of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC). An edited version has been republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

After visiting sites of suffering, talking to victims and witnesses, and conducting research, more than one hundred young people from the countries of the former Yugoslavia presented their views on some the most controversial events in the region during the 1900s in Shared Narratives, a publication of the Croatian Youth Initiative for Human Rights. The aim of the project was to encourage constructive dialogue and mutual understanding about the basic facts of the past in order to build a better future.

Young people from countries scarred by war have been left at the mercy of the dominant nationalist discourses and war-mongering rhetoric which representatives of the political elite still mercilessly use as tools for manipulation almost three decades after the war. There are several non-governmental organizations in the countries of the former Yugoslavia that are dedicated to building peace by bringing young people together from across the region and encouraging them to share their experiences. One such organization is the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), a regional network with branches that operate independently in Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and Kosovo.

Branka Vierda from YIHR Croatia says that those in power fail to implement policies that would lift the burden of dealing with the past off the shoulders of the “post-war” generations.

Branka Vierda, Program Director of YIHR Croatia. Photo by Regional Academy for Democratic Development, used with permission via Balkan Diskurs.

“These young people inherited the absence of a stable, meaningful, and responsible agenda that understands and nurtures inter-ethnic, inter-national, and human cooperation and solidarity. Our ethnic and national identities are inscribed with meanings that rely on the revisionist policies that dominate the story of the 90s,” explained Vierda, noting that how we perceive ourselves and other members of our community has a large impact on how we treat others. 

Since its establishment in 2008, YIHR has been resisting the nationalist-revisionist policies of those in power by promoting judicially established facts and working to preserve the memories of the forgotten — or denied — civilian victims of the war. In order to provide the post-war generations with a safe space for their voices and different perspectives to be heard, a project was created which eventually resulted in the book Shared Narratives, published by YIHR Croatia (also available in English and Albanian).

Shared Narratives is based on the thinking and personal experience of Mario Mažić, the founder of YIHR. He gave young people the opportunity to write about their views of the war in a unique compilation of shared narratives about the most controversial regional events of the 1990s. The book combines the work of over 100 young activists from BiH, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro.

Young people are active and ready for dialogue

Vierda said that the most difficult part was dispelling the guilt that young people felt after visiting places of suffering for the crimes that were committed “in their name.” YIHR supported the participants itself, without psychologists experienced in professional approaches to these situations. “That was the main motive to keep going — the effort to empower young people to continue their lives without guilt, but to be aware of the responsibility they have to ensure such events are not repeated in the future. I think we succeeded in that,” Vierda stated.

The Shared Narratives project included visits to the places of suffering, interviews with victims and witnesses, and research. Photo from promotional event for the book by Sanja Bistričić, used with permission via Balkan Diskurs.

Those who worked on the book wrote about anti-war protests and the cultural scene during the 1990s, highlighting positive examples of individuals and organizations that worked to preserve peace and resisted the war. 

Vierda emphasized that all generations must confront the culture of nationalism and historical revisionism to the best of their ability, and that young people need to be aware of their social responsibility for building a better and more unified society.  

Dora Pavković, another contributor to the book, believes that together, they managed to open up a dialogue, put aside prejudices, and try to see and understand “the other side.” She explained:

We managed to transfer what we had achieved among ourselves to the macro level i.e. the final result, the book Shared Narratives. It clearly shows that there are different perceptions, many stories, or more narratives about the same event. In my opinion, this is exactly the goal: to understand that we have different views on the same events, and to try to understand each other and agree on some common minimum in order to turn towards the future.

Jasmina Đapo, originally from the Brčko District of Bosnia and Herzegovina, believes that politics still imposes narratives and manipulates young people, skillfully rehashing the themes of the 1990s war. “Young people are our future, so it’s very dangerous to spread intolerance.”

Jasmina Đapo, a lawyer from Brčko District of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: private archive, used with permission via Balkan Diskurs.

Jasmina explained that, at the invitation of Sir Geoffrey Nice, lead prosecutor in the case against Slobodan Milošević, young lawyers came to The Hague from all over the world to learn about the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and judicial processes, but also to encourage dialogue among young people from the region about the events of the war.

Projects like these would have a really positive outcome, as participants would gain a new perspective and develop new friendships with their peers of other nationalities. The problem is that applicants for these projects are always the same young people or those who were already open to dialogue, while it’s difficult to engage young people who really need to gain insight into these topics and who haven’t accepted the idea of unity and tolerance in our region yet.  

I was part of the generation that returned to Brčko from various sides after the war and the start of reconciliation and return to coexistence, and the revival of the idea of ethnic diversity. I remember how it went relatively quickly with us young people. We soon realized how similar we really are, friendships were formed, and all attempts to divide us usually came from politicians and older generations who directly participated and lived through the hardships of the war. 

She believes that it is important for young people to be able to form their own opinions independently, to be given a new and objective perspective on these topics, and also to hear the voices of others to encourage dialogue with one another. 

Vierda concurs, noting that if institutions would stop clinging to nationalist narratives, they could learn a lot from today’s post-war generation about inclusive dialogue, critical thinking, and the responsible interpretation of the past.

1 comment

  • Vlad Shu

    One deep proofreading away from perfect e.g. title says 1990, whereas the text states 1900 and etc. more. Looking very much forward to reading the revised version. :) Cheers!

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