Sitting all together at one table, enjoying our drinks and talking about every day things is really a common situation for friends all over the world. But it is not such a usual situation when these friends are Serbians, Albanians, Macedonians and Bosnians. Even now, more than 10 years after the atrocious wars committed in the Balkans during the 90s, one can feel the hostility towards different nationalities, between Serbians and Albanians, Serbians and Bosnians, Serbian and Croatians, Albanians and Macedonians. ‘Take care, they are Albanians, they don’t like us’ or ‘Are you normal? Why would you like to go to Croatia, do you want to get killed? are phrases I heard many times in my surroundings. Even though one knows generally that people are different and that no two persons are the same, many of us fail to truly understand this and to respect the differences among people. In fact, stereotyping and making prejudices is so common that Albert Einstein said with a good reason ‘It is harder to crackprejudice than an atom.’
It seems as if people are intent on focusing on the differences as on something which divides and not something which can be a source of strength. ‘Othering’ is the way members of one social group distance themselves from, or assert themselves over another by construing the latter as being fundamentally different (the ‘Other’). It is a term that is associated with discourses of colonialism, and, in particular, with the work of Edward Said. In his influential book Orientalism, (1995: 332) Said wrote:
‘The development and maintenance of every culture requires the existence of another different and competing alter ego. The construction of identity… whether Orient or Occident, France or Britain… involves establishing opposites and otherness whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of their differences from us‘.
Consequently, people can regard ‘the other’ with hostility or even act openly aggressive towards them. One of the recent examples of aggression towards other nationalities can be found in the Balkans, in the wars which happened during the 90s in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Even though some may say that the wars are over and that they are a thing of the past, unfortunately the wounds still remain. The hostility towards other nationalities in the region is so prevalent and can be especially seen in the media who usually over-exaggerate negative happenings involving regional nationalities. As a result, there is still some fear present of travelling to the regional countries such as Bosnia and Croatiaamong the people, and a lot of prejudices and stereotypes about Macedonians, Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians and Albanians. So, as can be seen, the bloody wounds are so deep that their healing will take a longer time than just a period of about ten years. This healing process can also be termed the reconciliation process among the divided communities of the Balkans. Oxford Dictionary defines reconciliation as the restoration of friendly relations. For me, reconciliation is the ability, the chance to live together, without hostility and without any new conflicts in the Balkans.
This is precisely what the program Youth Reconciliation Ambassadors strives to achieve. It brings together 20 young leaders from the Balkan region who attend a 7-day-long program in Belgrade and have a chance to gain new knowledge in the fields of human rights, ethics, EU integration processes and history in the region from the renowned experts in the field. Youth Reconciliation Ambassadors enabled me to gain knowledge about the recent history in the Balkans, especially about the war in Bosnia, as I did not know that much about the war itself and about the reasons for its outbreak. In addition, I learned about the influence of media and history on the creation of the hostility climate in the region. DubravkaStojanovic, a professor at University of Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade talked to us about how history books represented during the past few decades their nations as the best, most courageous and rightful people, who suffered injustice from different nationalities in the region.
When I think back, I have to admit that I really was thinking hard about applying for the program. First of all, the topic of the program is really a sensitive one, which has to be approached with care. Secondly, taking into consideration the long-standing animosity between Albanians and Serbians, I was worried how the participants from Kosovo would look at me and stereotype. ‘She is Serbian, the ones who have caused us such suffering,’was the thought on my mind. Now, I have to admit, my fears were unnecessary and to be honest, I realized that I was the one doing the stereotyping because I thought in advance that they would be the ones to stereotype while in fact I was doing that. It brought it home to me that no matter how much we are free from prejudices and stereotypes, they are always there, but what one can do is try and be aware of their presence.
However, no matter how good programs are such as Youth Reconciliation Ambassadors, I strongly believe that for true reconciliation, there should cooperation at the governmental level. The governments of the countries in the Western Balkans need to realize the importance of cooperation and try to unite people instead of separating them even more. That is why the motto of the EU ,Divided in diversity’ is so important in my opinion as well as the EU integration of the remaining countries in the Western Balkan as it would boost the process of regional reconciliation and it would also immensely help the countries on several levels.
Still, we need programs like Youth Reconciliation Ambassadors because what really adds value to this program are the participants themselves who come from the conflicted region and who are the future leaders of their respective societies, people who should push their societies forward and change their societies for the better. Every single participant inspired me in a certain way and challenged me to become more involved and better in what I do. Therefore, I believe that we, as leaders in our societies, should make people aware that things will not get better by themselves without any effort on our side. Citizens should take their destiny in their own hands and try to improve the things they disapprove of in their societies. This is where the civil society sector can mostly help and bring about change. NGOs should empower young people and citizens in general in order to create a society where human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected.
However, some may ask, is that possible, will we ever reach reconciliation? Yes, I strongly believe so but reconciliation and peace cannot happen by themselves. I will quote Albert Einstein once again because his statement really represents my beliefs, ‘Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.’ At one point during a lecture, the organizers asked us to name war crimes committed against not our nationalities but other nationalities on our respective territories. I was really surprised when some participants could not name even one crime committed against other nationalities. I realized then that what was lacking was understanding that in every war there are victims on both sides, and that one cannot demonize just one side in a war because as the saying goes, you need two for a tango. Still, I hope that with time and increased cooperation among different nationalities, I will see a day when it will be a normal thing for young people to travel to neighbouring countries without fear and with an open heart.
Einstein, A. (1966). The Evolution of Physics:from early concepts to relativity and quanta. Simon and Schuster
Said, E. (1995). Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient, (revised edition). London: Penguin.