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The Bosnia Project: A sustained commitment to peace

In 1995, U.S. warplanes in alliance with NATO forces swept down upon Balkan targets in an effort to end extremists' nearly four-year ethnic-cleansing campaign against Bosnia-Herzegovina’s largely Bosnian Muslims in the heart of Europe. By that time, an estimated 97,000 Bosnians, many of them civilians, had been killed and more than two million had been forced from their homes.

In retrospect, the air strikes helped bring the conflicting parties to the bargaining table. The resulting Dayton Peace Accords, which marked the official end of the hostilities, was negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, and signed in Paris on Dec. 14, 1995, 20 years ago today.

The process did bring about an end of violence, but many tensions persist, challenging the establishment of a sustainable peace.

bosnia mapThe Bosnia Project
In 1999, the first group of William & Mary undergraduates entered Bosnia and Herzegovina. The trip, in one sense, was a simple response to war; its goal was to work with local instructors to help Bosniak, Serbian and Croatian children who remained traumatized come together through the learning of English and non-violent communication skills. The profound need the W&M students encountered and interest from local partners, including Larisa Kasumagic, now a professor at the University of Sarajevo who continues to collaborate with the project, along with the Bosnian NGO Creativus, compelled them to pledge a yearly return, leading to the formation of The Bosnia Project. Today the project continues as the longest-running student-led and student-funded international-service initiative at the university.

Amidst lingering tensions inherent in what faculty advisor Paula Pickering described as “a cycle of political dysfunction,” the students have taught more than 80 schoolchildren each summer. English lessons soon began incorporating production of English-language documentary and short videos as mechanisms for encouraging empowerment, cooperation and creativity among the children, encouragment that many view as lacking in Bosnia’s formal educational system. Later, components of active-citizenry were added.

Said Alexandra “Sasha” Quinn ‘18, who co-taught 8- and 9-year-old children last summer, “In essence, we taught friendliness, inclusiveness. We had group projects that involved serious discussions about bullying: How does it make you feel to be left out? How does that relate to prejudice?”

The goal of such activities was not to re-enforce a common identity, Quinn explained. Rather, it was to foster an acceptance of the diversity represented. “We show that you don’t have to hate them because they’re different, because they’re Serbian or Bosnian,” she said. “That is the way that the country must reconcile.”

Cycles of dysfunction
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic divisions are perpetuated among institutions of government. Schools are segregated, ostensibly to enable each group to teach its own history and language to its children, Pickering explained. The presidency is systematically rotated to ensure that each group has appropriate political representation. Such political accommodations perpetuate the idea of group identity as opposed to national unity, she said. A complication is the fact that much of the leadership and its supporters that were in place before the war remain in place, she added.

 “The government is seen as very closed and only rewarding self-interested politicians,” Pickering said. Youth, especially, feel excluded, leading them to think that they cannot have a positive impact on their society, she added.

Amanda Sikirica ’16, a summer 2015 participant, cautions that media reports exacerbate tensions by preying upon existing divisions.  “Often they want to stoke the fire,” she remarked. “That is their interest.”

Although some journalists posit religious differences -- in general, Bosniaks are Muslim, Croats are Roman Catholic and Serbs are Orthodox -- as a pending catalyst toward renewed conflict, Sikirica downplays that assertion. She believes each group is religious in a “Western, secular sense” that shuns zealotry.

“The war was not a crusade, as some would suggest, but it was a kind of narrative fight, with each group boasting that it was better, superior,” she said. “Until the leadership changes, the narrative war continues.”

Apart from divisions institutionally re-enforced, children in their homes are subjected to the distrust communicated within their families, many of whose members have first-hand memories of atrocities that were committed. For instance, in 1992, Serbian snipers indiscriminately shot helpless Bosnian civilians, including children, in the streets of Sarajevo, which helped begin a years-long siege of the capital. Then, in July 1995, Bosnian Serb extremists killed nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in an act the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia has judged as genocide.

Today, according to Quinn, mortar shells painted red in Sarajevo identify the spots where more than 15 people were killed. Given such history, she struggles to understand how reconciliation can prevail.

“I think the fact that the country hasn’t exploded yet is just a testament to how strong forgiveness is,” Quinn said. “Yes, the country is divided. Yes, they’ve had to set up different schools, different politics, but the fact that it’s still running, still functioning, that it’s still relatively peaceful, is a testament to the power of forgiveness.”

Making the difference
Quinn and Sikirica are satisfied that their contributions through the Bosnia Project can make a significant difference. Part of their optimism rests on the fact that the project is reaching children year after year.

“By doing the same type of projects as these kids grow re-enforces our message so it can make an impact as they go to high school and enter their adult lives,” Quinn said.

“Children absorb everything,” Sikirica added. “If they’re soaked in an environment in which patterns of divisiveness are emphasized, it’s hard for them to get beyond that.”

Although what she terms the “residual effects” will be present, she trusts that the young people will “have the opportunity to create their own experiences,” she said.

She offered one small example: “We had triplets in our class,” she said. “Because it was Ramadan, they were fasting every third day, or so. Another girl brought her sandwich over to me and sat down. She said she would have felt bad to sit next to her friends because her eating a sandwich near them might make them hungry.”

“That small gesture represented a lot,” Sikirica said. “It represented empathy without judgment. It represented hope for the future.”

Pickering added that working with local partners at the grass-roots level to help Bosnian youth develop inter-cultural communication skills, English-language skills and a sense of empowerment "is a key ingredient for moving from merely the absence of violence to a lasting peace that provides opportunities for all of Bosnia’s citizens.”

(William and Mary Funding for The Bosnia Project is provided by The Roy R. Charles Center for Academic Excellence, the Office for Community Engagement and the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations.)