Usually when the Balkans are mentioned, not many good things come to the mind of people from the West. A region which through years has been torn apart by wars and conflicts and still continues to go through a very painful transitional process. The atmosphere right now is apparently still delicate and is often aggravated by different nationalistic groups which tend to affect the politics on state level. So, what should Balkan countries, ex-Yugoslav countries in particular, do in order to foster better relationships between each other? And more importantly, how can young people create a movement for change which will in the end result in reconciliation?
I was born in Kosovo and lived here most of my life. It was not easy to live through the war and see everyone being scared; witness your school being transformed into a military base, which would later be used to torture jailed people of the very same nationality as mine. It felt weird to go back to that school after the war! Later on I found out that many other schools were used for similar purposes. But a new day had come, and we had to look forward. However, looking forward doesn’t mean that we forgot what had happened; instead, we started working to create a country where everyone could live in peace, no matter their nationality.
For me as a student, my first experience abroad was, as expected, very diverse and at some points even shocking. Being an exchange student in the United States for over a year has taught me many things. The United States is a great example of how the idea of a “melting pot” works. Of course it is not a utopian society, but it is still something that countries of Western Balkans should start to implement. Citizens living in any country, regardless of their ethnicity, should be treated equally and with due respect – something which, to my concern, we lack in our countries, Kosovo and Serbia. Moreover, minorities are often considered as enemies, or second-class citizens that don’t deserve equal treatment and that they don’t belong to the same society as the majority. Reasons for such discriminations can be different.
Lack of proper and prompt justice, as well as lack of compensations, only aggravates the whole situation, making the reconciliation process more difficult. As a result, many of the victims try to engage in different nationalistic or political groups that ideologically feed their hunger for “revenge”. Another reason why the reconciliation process is going so slowly is that we still use old history books that constantly claim the other side as the absolute responsible party for the crimes that have taken place. Very often history books contain information which may not necessarily be true or relevant to the situation, just in order to create an even stronger propaganda against the other side. According to Professor Dubravka Stojanovic (Lecturer at the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Philosophy), some history books about the past of particular countries of ex-Yugoslavia, have been manipulated to win the sympathy in the country they are published.
However, having in mind the resources now available to young people, it is much easier to educate them in order not to have those old history books perceptions about other nations. Attending the (Your) Reconciliation Ambassadors Conference in Belgrade gave me the opportunity to see Serbia from another perspective. From the perspective of young people, who, even though raised in a very politically radical environment, shared the same dreams as me: the dream of prosperity, international integration, proper education and higher social standard. Therefore, I believe that young people should be used as vehicle which will bring change to the region. Academic exchanges, joint trainings and conferences, even though not very common, should be encouraged as much as possible, so that people from both sides, Kosovar and Serbian are pushed to contribute to the efforts to create a better society for everyone. Just as the European Union was founded after some of the bloodiest wars in history, the Western Balkans can use the same strategy to create an atmosphere for future cooperation and economic connections and finally close the chapter of 20th century.
Very often, when an inter-ethnic incident happens, people have the tendency to claim that it was “caused by some hooligans and that it doesn’t represent the majority”. But then, what did people do in order to prevent that? Or at least, if the incident doesn’t represent them, did they try afterwards to help those attacked? It is essential for people to be reminded that they have the power, and that their acting, or the lack of it, can make a big difference. The right moment may never come, until we create it, and sometimes failing to act for other people’s rights may lead to having none act for yours, just as Martin Niemoller puts it:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The problem at hand is not merely political. There are many social issues and barriers that we should overcome in order to understand each other better. Not forgetting is essential for the history not to repeat itself, but we should not let our history become our future and keep living with the dreams of the past.