The Voices of Youth

As part of Mali Koraci’s project “Encouraging Children to Accept Differences,” training young people to deal with interpersonal conflicts, we had the privilege to teach them how to put these skills for conflict transformation into practice. On Sunday, June 3rd, Father Radivoj Krulj, the Orthodox priest from Mostar and his wife Natasha, received us in the Vladičanski Dvor in Mostar where we met with the youth from Mostar. Thank you very much to Radivoj and Natasha for their hospitality and creating a safe area where we could learn from outstanding young people from all the ethnic groups in BiH.

This mixed group of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs had previously been educated on how to deal with people with whom we are in conflict by looking in the others’ eyes and calling them by name, speaking honestly about what bothers us, and asking for what we want or need in relationship or situation. They practiced these skills in simulated conflicts with each other. In this conversation we deliberately introduced several emotionally “hot” topics: ethno-nationalism and the impact of war on children and youth.

Here are some of their thoughts followed by our reflections:

“There are too many conversations about the war.”

“A mixed environment is a guarantee that you will not speak about the war and such things. If you have friends from different ethnic groups, you will avoid those subjects and speak about positive things. But if you are from the same [ethnic] group, people will immediately start to talk about your ethnic and religious group, about what others did to you in the war.”

“Remembering the war prevents growth and development. It should stay in the dark place of the heart and not be mentioned in everyday life.”

“I’m not guilty for Srebrenica. I wasn’t even born. That’s not my fault and stop acting like it is just because of my ethnicity. Fuck off!”

“We hate it when they say, ‘Don’t forget.’ Because when they say, ‘Don’t forget,’ they actually mean, ‘Don’t forgive.’”

Project take-aways:

So is it worth having conversations on conflict, war and forgiveness when youth are tired of them? Why not do something else?

We believe collaborative activities are an incredible opportunity for youth to forge a new future together, without forcing youth to endure additional conversations about the past. However, there seems to be a place for healthy conversations about the past in mixed groups, because, as the youth pointed out, conversations about ethno-nationalism and the war are not happening with people from different backgrounds.

Young people are open to talking about interpersonal, family, and even group conflict. So when we are able to talk about ethno-nationalism and the war in ways that don’t try to label the previous generation’s conflict as if it is their own, then they are ready to engage with issues of nationalism and war. In fact, the children and youth we work with readily make an equivalency between nationalism and war; for them, it’s all in the same bag.

These conversations give these youth a chance to share their frustrations and create a safe space in which they can say how they feel manipulated or are made to feel guilty.  Mixed conversations give them a chance to share their experiences with those from different backgrounds and from other ethnic groups, and the youth discover that they have a lot in common. For each of them, they feel similarly that there is too much pressure to stay in their own ethnic and religious community. As they are given the opportunity to hear each other, they are strengthened in their ability to resist nationalistic narratives. They are able to build friendships with people from other ethnic groups. Young people claim that adults often want to make them feel that “you will not pass well in life if you are not in your own ethnic group and if you do not attend religious education with only your own religious group.” By learning skills to deal with conflict and by building relationships with each other, these youth are empowered to return to their schools, families, and circles as peace activists. They are strengthened to “pass well” without being forced to live in a way they don’t want to live.