komšiluk via kolač


The neighborly relations between ethno-national groups before the war in BiH were often characterized by sharing in one another’s religious celebrations. So for example, Muslims would attend Christmas Eve mass, Christians distributed Easter eggs to their Muslim friends, and of course, congratulating and visiting each other for coffee and cake (kolač) on holidays was unquestioned. One story goes that a Christian family might make an extra, halal cake for their Muslim neighbors who would likely visit.

I always loved that story, but yesterday I experienced it firsthand. In this case, when I visited A for bajram, she had baked a special cake for her gluten intolerant friend. She even claimed that ‘my flour’ worked better. I am the recipient of true komšiluk.


Remembering in Romanija


On a beautiful fall Saturday my dear friend A took me to visit her home-village in Romanija, a region just east of Sarajevo. Romanija is known for being very rural and very Serb (stronghold of Serb extremists in the war), but I also know it for being extremely beautiful. A’s father’s family is from there and she grew up in a village, Rijeća. She took me to visit what is left. The 50 minute trip by car wound around picturesque wooded hills full of tall pines (which men were logging) and brightly changing deciduous trees. At the central ‘hub’ village of Kaljina we first visited her school. While not destroyed by war, it sat in a very desolate state due to 20 years of non-use. On the outside wall of the school was some Serb nationalist graffiti. A told me where her classrooms were and how the nearby area (now farmed) had been divided into soccer fields and other play areas. She recalled how, in her last year of school (age 13/14), as the best student she had stood on the stage at the final ceremony to recite the Pioneers’ motto to all the students and their families (the Pioneers were Tito’s Yugoslav creation. He made this sort of club for children, including uniforms, songs and vows to respect their elders, cherish their country, etc.).

school in Kaljina

The village of Kaljina, once the central village for all those around, now only has a post office, while the municipal/legal office, store, trading post/market, etc. no longer exist. The mosque, destroyed in the war, is immaculately rebuilt and an Orthodox Church is being built currently. In typical form today, religious buildings often take precedence over homes and shops. In this once-busy village, we saw three people: an old woman who followed us to the school, watching, but not returning our greeting, an old man who looked at us curiously when we passed and one younger woman walking along the street.

young resident of Rijeća

After seeing her school in Kaljina, we drove to A’s home village of Rijeća, another two kilometers up the hill. Rijeća had been made up of two parts – the Muslim area of the Selimovićes (everyone with the last name Selimović) and the Serb area of Neškovićes. A told me that in her youth there had been 22 homes of Selimovićes where now I saw four or five – two, she said, are inhabited, while the others are likely weekend houses for families who now live elsewhere. A’s childhood house had been here, where she grew up until the age of 14 when she went to high school in Sarajevo and then spent her weekends and holidays in Rijeća. As her father worked in Sarajevo, they also had/have a flat in Sarajevo where she spent her weeks. In her last year of high school, the war began so she was away when her house and the entire Muslim part of the village was dynamited. Thankfully, her parents had left two days prior, so they were safe.

destroyed home

The Serb part of the village, just on the next hillock, where nothing had been destroyed in the war, looked to me fresh and orderly in comparison. On her family’s large property, where they had kept a few cows and some sheep, everything is now overgrown. You can hardly even see where the house stood – there is just a foundation, a little rubble and young trees growing out of the ruins. But she told me how it had been in her youth, where the gate from the fence ran to the door and the outdoor staircase leading to the upper floors, where the rooms had stood, where her bedroom was situated upstairs, facing the main street (now a grassy lane) along which the villagers would lead home their cows and sheep from the forest each evening and greet her. She pointed out where their garage had been and the place where they dried meat, where the plum and apple trees stood, now overgrown by bushes…

village road passing by A’s house

After this tour, we walked into the forest nearby so A could show me ‘her’ place from childhood play – a magical grove of fir trees. In the end, we found ourselves hunting for a certain type of mushroom amidst the pine needles. Although these ended up not being the delicacy Vrganj mushrooms, we nevertheless had great fun.

hunting (non-)Vrganj mushrooms

Returning to Sarajevo after our adventure in Romanija, we picked up A’s son and continued on to her family’s current weekend house in Federation territory. There we ate a sumptuous rostilj – meal of bar-b-qued meats – and sat around, relaxing and talking until late. With such an ending to our day, I could better see and understand A’s perspective of general gratitude that her family is simply alive, healthy and together, no matter what happened to her home. These material things can and have been replaced whereas human life cannot.

Bosnia in 2012 – one analysis


Below, an article from a journal called Balkan Insight considering Bosnia’s next year. Because it is ‘premium content’, I post it here for my readers (http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/year-of-mixed-fortunes-awaits-bosnia). Things in this country remain grim in most people’s minds. Corruption and unemployment are too high, investment too low, political stalemate too common. I am not a pessimist, but I can see all of these things at work. It is in this setting that our peace work finds its needs. We will not make it possible for a budget to be adopted or corruption to end. We do not even employ anyone (yet). However, hope that change can occur is equally if not more important in these grim circumstances and our peace work is a one-by-one endeavor to help each person find ways in her setting to bring transformation. I believe this is a message of solid hope for the future.

A Year of Mixed Fortunes Awaits BiH

From hopes of economic growth to re-booting stalled EU integration processes, it all depends on whether the country can at last form a state government.

by Elvira Jukic, BIRN

Sarajevo Forming a state government, adopting a state budget, implementing fiscal and public administration reforms and restarting the stalled EU accession process are at the top of Bosnia’s must-do agenda for 2012.

Other factors are the question of its continued international supervision, its economic stability and its security prospects.

Without progress on these issues, expected economic turbulence and a continued political stalemate could make 2012 a year of decidedly mixed fortunes.

The regional context is of several neighboring countries, including Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, either being part of or moving towards the European Union.

Bosnia and Herzegovina risks lagging behind, and it could find itself marginalized in trade and export arrangements with these countries as a result.

If a budget for 2012 is not adopted, which remained a distinct possibility at the end of 2011, the capacity of state-level institutions to function next year will be jeopardized.

Lack of a state government remains the biggest political impediment. Since October 2010 general elections the country’s six main political parties have failed to agree on the appointment of a state government, known as the Council of Ministers.

Spending cuts needed:

With a population expected to remain stable at around 4,600,000, the country’s GDP is expected to rise only slightly in 2012.

A real GDP growth rate of 5.7 per cent in 2008 dropped sharply in 2009 to -3.1 per cent and then rose to just above zero in 2010, at 0.8 per cent.  Per capita GDP remained around $6,600 in 2011.

Formation of a state government, adoption of a budget and cuts in spending on civil service salaries and welfare benefits could allow Bosnia to access further interim IMF funds. The last IMF standby arrangement was reached in 2009.

With around 50 per cent of GDP going on public spending and 47 per cent of the employed population in the service industry and the public sector, a budget deficit in 2010 of -4.4 per cent can only be corrected if spending on benefits and salaries is curtailed.

A marked shrinkage of the government workforce will be necessary, through cutting staff in entity and cantonal ministries that duplicate state government personnel posts. But this will only be feasible if the country has a central government.

Foreign Direct Investment in the manufacturing and tourism and the potential development of oil deposits, as well as access to pre-accession EU funding, also depend on the adoption of a state government.

External investment from Turkey, the Middle East, Austria and other EU countries in 2012 will provide some limited employment prospects, in retail, marketing and construction.

Outsourcing of manufacturing by EU-registered companies to Bosnia could also lead to growth in such areas as the forestry industry [for furniture] and food processing.

The media saw a world player arrive in its midst with the establishment in Sarajevo in 2011 of Al Jazeera TV Balkans.

Doomsayers predict a hard year ahead. Duljko Hasic, economic analyst of the State Foreign Trade Chamber, said 2011 was a lost year for the Bosnian economy and the consequences would continue to be felt in 2012.

“As Bosnia’s foreign debt grows, no new investments are coming. The key problem is that the state budget is not yet adopted,” Hasic told Balkan Insight.

He said 2012 could be a year of deeper recession if the country’s credit rating fell again. It was lowered once already on December 1, 2011, by Standard and Poor’s from B+ to B.

If that happens, “banks will have less capital to loan to citizens, and loans will become more expensive,” Hasic predicted.

Security and crime:

Security will continue to remain stable in 2012 if economic and political factors contribute to economic growth, if there is no further rise in unemployment, and if there is some foreign investment.

Organized crime will continue to be the main security issue, the country’s intelligence agency chief and state security minister warned in December 2011.

Alarmist international warnings of a return to armed conflict have yet to be born out by any physical and material evidence that such a danger exists.

Instead, the fight against corruption will remain key, particularly in Bosnia’s dealings with Brussels.

Corruption remains a constant factor in Bosnia ranking the country on 91-94th place in the Global Corruption Perception Index issued by the Transparency International.

Srdjan Blagovcanin, Bosnian director of Transparency International, said that since the implementation of anti-corruption reforms remains deadlocked, Bosnia’s progress in this area in 2012 is highly questionable. “First it is necessary to make the Anti-Corruption Agency functional,” he said.

The State Anti-corruption Agency was founded in 2009, following adoption of a new law pressed by the EU. But so far only a few directors and administrative stuff have been appointed.

Meanwhile continued affiliation with NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, PfP, will guarantee Bosnia’s broader international security.

The continued fall in the number of people under arms, from 419,000 in 1995 to about 10,000 today, is another positive trend.

Bosnia’s armed forces, now engaging successfully in several small-scale deployments abroad, continues to be an under-reported success story, international military officials say.

International supervision:

Another question remaining in 2012 is the continued presence in the country of Bosnia’s international overseer, the Office of the High Representative, OHR.

Valentin Inzko’s daily wars of words with the president of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, will remain a predictable mainstay in Bosnian politics.

The appointment in September 2011 of Peter Sorensen, a Danish diplomat with extensive regional experience,  as the new EU delegation head in Sarajevo could push forward the EU accession process.

Bosnia’s politicians remain an overall liability, Tanja Topic, a political analyst from Banja Luka, said.

She did not expect anything new in 2012 on this front, as the same political players had been in power for the past two decades and had yet to show signs of withdrawing from the stage.

Learning from the experts


This article was published in Bosnian language in the December 2011 Peace Newsletter (Mirovne Novosti), of the Network for Peacebuilding (Mreža za Izgradnju Mira) here in Bosnia-Herzegovina: http://www.mreza-mira.net/taxonomy/term/3.

I am one of the many foreigners to visit Bosnia-Herzegovina and get hooked. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of us have innocently visited this small and unassuming country in the last twenty years and found ourselves hopelessly drawn in. When people ask us what is it about Bosnia-Herzegovina that is so enticing, we find it very hard to provide a satisfactory answer. We may say it’s the people, the culture, the pace of life, the outlook, the history… but somehow none of these really capture what it is that encourage many of us to return again and again or simply to stay longer than planned. However, when a local asks that question, he or she usually understands the infatuated foreigner immediately. After all, despite the constantly-lamented ‘problems’ in this country, most of its people carry a deep love for this land and what is special here. I call this Bosnia’s ethos or its spirit, which includes the beautiful normalcy of the ethno-religious mix that can still be felt despite the segregation produced by ethnic cleansing during the war and the ethno-political competition of today. And in many ways, it was this Bosnian spirit that brought me to Bosnia-Herzegovina – to experience and enjoy it but also to begin a new project at the NGO Mali Koraci (Small Steps) on this theme.

Small Steps took me on as a volunteer co-worker in July 2011, facilitated via Brethren Volunteer Service (see below). My hope is that my experience as a peace researcher (currently I’m finishing my doctoral work at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium) and my observations of local-level faith-based peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina will complement the primarily peace activism emphasis of the organization. Along these lines, the project on the theme of Bosnian spirit uses peace research and activism, as well as advocacy to encourage this disappearing culture of Bosnian spirit. The research fosters deeper understanding and awareness of this historic and lived cultural resource of togetherness. It also includes advocacy on the basis of the research findings and through training community actors and young decision-makers who will spread the values of ‘life together’ or ‘active coexistence’ within the current transitional government and society of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The peace activism component is also realized through training in these civil values. It directly uncovers the paradox of simultaneous peace-enhancing and violent strains of Bosnian spirit while acknowledging, focusing on and building up the positive resources for peace.

Small Steps is committed to and promotes interethnic and interfaith peace and non-violence at all levels of society. Our main activities and goals include: development of interfaith dialogue and understanding, peacebuilding activities, promotion of non-violent action and theory, gender equality, and human rights projects. Founded in 2006, Small Steps has five volunteer staff and its activists have been present in civil society for years. Small Steps co-founded the faith-based network ‘Believers for Peace’ and its director was co-founder of the BH Council of NGOs. We are currently working with teachers of Islam in schools throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina to include nonviolent conflict transformation as a core part of religious education, using our Manual for the Teachers of Islamic Religion on the Peaceful Dimensions of Islam (edited by Amra Pandžo, available in English at amazon.com and in B/C/S from Mali Koraci).

teachers of Islam discussing peacebuilding curricula

Another recent project, funded by the International Committee on Missing Persons (ICMP), was the creation and implementation of a ‘universal model’ or a shared ceremony to remember and grieve together at the International Day of Missing Persons (30 August). Artistic elements were especially powerful for that event, such as two choirs (Serbian Orthodox and Muslim dressing in the respective colors of mourning, black and white) and writing messages to missing family members and friends on helium balloons that were then released together into the sky.

missing persons associations at the commemoration in Brčko, 30 August 2011

writing messages to the missing on balloons at the Day of Missing Persons

Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) places volunteers with organizations pursuing peace, justice, environmental, and social issues all over the world, although primarily in the USA. BVS is based in the US and sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, one of the three historic peace churches. BVS volunteers are not required to be members of the church, but agree to work under BVS on these issues and to ‘live simply’ on a small volunteer stipend. BVS has been sending volunteer service workers to Europe since the mid-1940s, and to the ex-Yugoslav countries since 1992. Since then it has been invited to send over 40 volunteers to organizations in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. These include human rights, peace, women’s, interfaith, and cultural organizations. Currently the other BVSer in Bosnia-Herzegovina is volunteering with the OKC Abrašević in Mostar.

As a BVS volunteer at Small Steps, I am initiating this cooperation. It is my goal not only to be of assistance to Small Steps but also to learn from the experts here in BiH how to be a peace practitioner and trainer. It pleases me to be a foreigner working with a local organization rather than an international/foreign one because I believe the world has a lot to learn from local, grounded methods and perspectives on conflict and nonviolent transformation to peace. This is evident in the Bosnian spirit project and the experience of those of us foreigners who get a feel for the rich culture and values present in this beautiful country.

on language learning: young or old? dijete ili dijeta?


From last week, I began my intensive language lessons with a private tutor. One-on-one each morning, Sandra and I sit  in her small flat and speak together  v  e  r  y    s  l  o  w l  y in Bosnian (or Serbian, or Croatian or Serbo-Croatian, or Montenegrin… whatever: for me its all the same, difficult thing). The best and the worst thing are this slow pace. Good: I can actually attempt to understand each word. Bad: it is extremely limiting for effective and efficient communication; as someone who values communication and relationships highly, this can be utterly frustrating.

In any case, I have noticed that language lessons make me feel both old – brain freeze – and young, like a child learning the most basic concepts.

I have one amusing story to share, along those lines. Perhaps even more amusing is the fact that I couldn’t communicate to Sandra how or why it was so amusing because of my poor speaking ability. Sandra and I were working on a page with a chart: I was to listen to a recording about the subject and fill in the missing information. The subject was ‘dijeta’ and the chart set out five types: modra [blue], zelena [green], žuta [yellow], ljubičasta [purple] and crvna [red] dijeta. For each type, there was a description of the characteristics of a person and her/his problems. I have to say the titles with colors confused me – I had no orientation and could not quickly find a reference point to something familiar. All I could think was… ok, we are talking about children – ‘dijeca’ – with various ‘colors’ – some sort of figurative speech? – and how they, these children with differently colored constitutions, should eat according to their characteristics and problems (like nervousness, pale skin, tendency to gain weight, etc.). It immediately reminded me of early medieval conceptions of health – you know, what we read in school, about the different humors… So I listened to the recording and did my best with the assignment to fill in foods each child with these characteristics and problems should and shouldn’t eat. Only at the very end, when Sandra was asking me how it is in America (a common follow-up topic for any exercise) with ‘dijeta’, did things become clear. I was completely at a loss to have this conversation because I couldn’t think of anything similar in the US to such children with differently colored constitutions. Finally, when I verbalized ‘dijete’ rather than ‘dijeta’, she corrected me with a very puzzled look on her face and the whole thing clicked in my mind: a-haaaaaaa – we are talking about diets, not children!

And then, class over. Ever since, I have laughing at my mistake.



Dan nestalih (Day of missing persons)


My arrival to work with Mali Koraci in July caught us in the middle of a project, funded by the ICMP, to find a universal model to commemorate the international day of missing persons (30 August). Immediately after the war’s end (mid 1990s), those who were still missing family members (their family members disappeared) formed associations to appeal to anyone who would listen (government, the international community, etc) to help them find their loved ones. The ICMP has been a major force behind the realization of this help, in its huge identification project of the remains exhumed from mass graves. The associations were, at the beginning very open to working together across ethnic lines, simply because they could be more visible and heard when they were larger. But politicians and political parties abused these associations, using them for their own national agendas – asserting victimization, etc. – such that cooperation between associations has broken down and these associations have themselves been fractured from inside along political lines. It is a sad story because of the misuse and also neglect of the actual concerns of these associations.

The International Day of Missing Persons is the 30th of August and last year, this day was commemorated by Croats (including Croats from Bosnia) in Vukovar in Croatia, by Serbs (including Serbs from Bosnia) in Belgrade, and by Bosniaks in Sarajevo. This is an illustration of the divisions existing here, even with the victims’ associations. The ICMP sponsored a project to find a universal model for commemorating this day that would be acceptable and meaningful for all three ethnic groups in this country – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats – and Mali Koraci (my organization) was one of the project implementors.


A series of roundtables (I arrived for the last one) brought a group of stakeholders discuss the contents of this model for a commemoration, including artistic elements. After a successful series of roundtables, the group decided to implement this model at this year’s Dan Nestalih (day of missing persons). They decided to hold the event in Brčko, the only city in Bosnia-Herzegovina with membership in both of the country’s two ‘entities’ (a Serbian republic, called Republika Srpska, and a Federation of Bosniaks and Croats) and a separate governing structure that successfully incorporates all three ethnic representations. As such, Brčko is the most neutral place in Bosnia-Herzegovina and was therefore a good choice for the ‘universal’ commemoration.

Brčko commemoration

participants from victims associations

The ceremony commemorating the International Day of Missing Persons began at 11, with a big stage in the center of Brčko. Perhaps 100-200 people came and went during the hour of the program. Besides locals, there were groups (victims/missing people associations) from Bugojno, Zvornik, Srebrenica, Hadžići, and Vogošća. Additionally, some TV reporters were there, covering the event. The weather was not excessively hot, but it was very helpful that free bottles of water and sandwiches were being distributed. There were a few speakers, including an actress who read the texts decided upon at the previous strategic roundtables (one by Krleža, another by a contemporary Bosnian). The video clip/advertisement for the day of missing persons (an artistic product of Mali Koraci’s project) was playing on a screen at the back of the stage.


A Serbian Orthodox choir (in black) and a Muslim choir in white each sang four songs during the program. These are the traditional colors for mourning in each religion (Christianity and Islam). After the speeches and singing, we brought out a large bunch of balloons and people were offered a helium balloon on which to write a message for their missing family/friends.

People seemed pleased with this means of expressing loss and hope. Finally, we let the balloons go together and they rose into the sky.