Building the culture of peace in Bosnia: The Children of Stolac

A personal account examining the vital role education plays in encouraging peace in conflict and post-conflict environments

This year will be the 20-year anniversary of the end of the Bosnian War. And yet, two decades later, different ethnic groups remain separated socio-economically and politically in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In light of ongoing conflicts worldwide, it is important to understand why education and civil society programs can to prevent fragmentation and how they can reconcile communities and their historical cultural heritage.

The Centre André Malraux: strong voice on young people’s issues

Working on Bosnia’s cultural heritage and inter-communities’ cultural identity, the French Cultural Centre André Malraux is a Franco-Bosnian organization well known for its activities during the Yugoslavian war. Now considered a cornerstone in Bosnia’s post-conflict civil society, it is particularly involved in promoting education and art as a medium to engage in dialogue and help bring people together across the divide of the civil war.

At the crossroads: Stolac

‘Gardens of Stolac, Gardens of Europe’ is an annual festival on the topic of inter-ethnic community reconciliation through the urban reconstruction of Stolac, a little city in southern Bosnia. Every year, about 30 students and volunteers from Bosnia, Serbia and France work and collaborate on an artistic planning and landscaping project in the city. The main objective of this urban project is to erase ethnic lines through the (re)appropriation of common urban spaces, that were first overrun by the war and now by the vegetation.

Mi smo za mir. (We are for peace).

Through this vast rehabilitation project, the festival seeks to rescue Stolac’s cultural heritage. In addition to our experts helping local actors (adults and young people) to rebuild their city and restore its cultural property, we worked with children through educational workshops, screenings, board games, cultural tours, and cooking courses, to teach and create a better understanding of their cultural heritage, especially in areas beset by conflict. And while workers gradually rehabilitated parks and an old mill, the collection of paintings and drawings we accumulated in a month rehabilitated Stolac’ history, revealing a new Stolac through children’s eyes, one more peaceful and colorful.

Education and Cultural Heritage in Bosnia

In Bosnia, civil society activists struggle to legitimate their presence and resist the ethnic generalizations and erosion of trust that the war caused. In Stolac, the narratives about ‘outsiders’ or ‘Muslim-friendly’ were part of our main obstacles. Nevertheless, this discourse is not necessarily deliberate.

Containing, in one small space, unique cultural-artistic and aesthetic values, Stolac’s historic core is an example of a complex cultural-historical and natural environmental ensemble. It is an example of the organic link between human and natural architectures. But Stolac is also an example that Muslims and Croats from Stolac have much in common than Croats from Stolac do with Croats from Herzegovina. People originating from Stolac have a level of understanding and respect between themselves that outsiders and other Bosnian citizens lack. That has laid auspicious foundations for our activities. But the beauty of the location, as well as the harmonious cohabitation of its citizens has been damaged by the war. The fracture remains visible both on the walls and among children.

Children: the path to reconciliation

The 2012 edition of Stolac festival, the year I worked there, was particularly successful in terms of cultural identity, heritage and preservation. Children from all communities actively participated to our thought exercises and workshops. They showed a real desire for ethnic co-existence and rejected exclusive religious and ethnic rhetoric. While only 4 Muslim kids showed up during the first screening nights, they were more than 30 the last night.

Nowadays, the matter is clearly not the Croat or Muslim ethnic identities but the lack of education and concept of a shared national history. It is the inheritance of the ethnic fragmentation. Everyone goes to school but not at the same time: Muslims go in the morning, Croats in the afternoon.

Every year our main objective is to encourage those children to attend school at the same time. And because we believe that education is an active force in reconciliation and peace building, we will come back until it becomes recurrent to the schooling system.

This year, the Post-2015 Development Challenges in Conflict Zones conference will bring highly knowledgeable experts to talk about the importance of using education as a way to promote peace and development, particularly in conflict areas. For more information about our second panel ‘The Foundation of Development: Implementing the right to education in areas of armed conflict’ and for the biographies on our experts, please visit our webpage.

Helene Trehin

Logistics Team

Photos from the author’s time in Stolac. 

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