Report: Youth Exchange CJB 2019 (1/2)

Historical memory and current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Authors: Mallol Codony Busqueta, Pau Cruz Trullàs, Ann Desola Rivera, Xavi Duch Latorre,  David Gómez Maurel, Alba Legide Pérez, Alba Llucià Lizandra, Duran Matamoros i Mestre, Laia Martinez Linares


Youth Exchange 2019
Pictures: Laia Martinez Linares


The 11th district of Barcelona that was created to help the city of Sarajevo during the siege, the process of historical memory that both territories are developing after conflicts or the fact that both Barcelona and Sarajevo were Olympic cities establish lots of points in common between the two territories that should be exploited with further human connections that allowed a constant interaction between Bosnian and Catalan youngsters to achieve common goals.

This is why this project started: as a tool to establish a network between young people from both territories to build projects around the ways that historical memory is treated both in Bosnia and in Catalonia. It is a collaboration between the Consell de Joventut de Barcelona, the University of Barcelona and the Young Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR).

The Barcelona Youth Council (Consell de la Joventut de Barcelona-CJB) is a platform of youth associations that represents the organised youth of Barcelona since 1980. We network to promote youth active participation and also create a critical discourse regarding issues that affect youngsters.

The Bosnia and Herzegovina workgroup was founded by eight youngsters from Barcelona that wanted to accomplish two goals: first, maintain the relation between Sarajevo and Barcelona that was created during the war; and, second, create awareness about this topic among the youngsters in Barcelona (and everyone’s is interested). The lines of action of the workgroup are public spaces, historical memory, and nationalisms.

As a workgroup, we visited BiH four times. The first time, in December 2016, to meet with YIHR; and two other times in September 2017 and 2018. Also, we organize activities in Barcelona including the screening of documentaries, conferences, and photo exhibitions, among others.

In Spain, the historical memory hasn’t been a priority for any of the Spanish governments. There is a division of public opinion about what and how to do around the historical memory. Some locals associations and regional governments (mostly descendants of the repressed) tried to put some light into historical memory facing the indifference of the central government.

Our expectations for this trip were awareness, understanding what happened in our countries, and how they have faced it; teambuilding, consolidating relationships between our associations (YiHR, BiH, CJB); learning, through the exchange of experiences and opinions; and have fun, enjoy the time we spent together.

Day 1

September 9th

The first day of our trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina started with almost the whole group (Laia was already In Sarajevo) gathering at the airport ready to take two flights that would lead us to the Balkan country. It took us 5 hours to arrive in Bosnia, which gave us enough time to get to know each other and to start with group cohesion.

When you are about to land to the Sarajevo International Airport there is one thing that catches your eye: the huge amount of mountains and nature that this country has. Also, once you have landed and you are out the airplane you feel the different weather that this country has in comparison to Barcelona, is it much more similar to those in the Pyrenees but with a unique taste. Entering Sarajevo showed us that those mountains were not something unrelated to the city, but it merges creating a mosaic of urban and green areas

Once we got out of the airport we had a bus already waiting for us which brought us to the hostel, where Laia joined us. After leaving our belongings there we headed to the YIHR headquarters. It was a short walk, but enough to start to understand how Sarajevo is a multicultural city in its architecture and people. Once in the headquarters we could start to get to know the Bosnian group and introduce ourselves. To do this we made a dynamic where we made pairs with a Bosnian partner, and then we explained who we were for 15 minutes and then with the whole group we had to introduce our partner by pretending to be him. Following this dynamic, we continued the cohesion in a bar having a few beers together. After that, we went to have dinner, which allowed us to get to know better what would be our comrades for the following six days while getting introduced to the Bosnian culture through its cuisine. This ended the first day.

Day 2

September 10th

On September 10 we woke up early to get prepared for a route through Sarajevo. The guided tour started at a very significant and ironic “Monument to the International Community by the grateful citizens of Sarajevo”: A memorial to the food aid delivered during the Siege of Sarajevo. Next, we went for a walk through the streets of Sarajevo, where the prints of previous wars can still be seen in the walls of many buildings.

During the morning, we saw emblematic places, such as the hotel where the journalists stayed during the conflict, which was considered a safe area; the statue of the father of Sarajevo, who condemned his son to death unintentionally after being deceived by Serb soldiers; or the most important mosque in the city. Sarajevo’s cultural mix was one of the things that most surprised us when we arrived, as we had the feeling that many different cultures, both social, and even gastronomic or architectural, live together in the city.

After a lunch break, we visited the 1984 Olympic bobsleigh and the guide explained the importance of the Olympics held in Sarajevo for the city, as well as the relationship and the link that unites Barcelona and Sarajevo since they became sister cities in 1992, when Sarajevo became district 11 of Barcelona.

At 5:30 p.m., we returned to the city, at the YIHR-BH headquarters, and the participants explained the history of our respective cities. Beyond learning about the war in Bosnia, the most interesting thing was to compare how historical memory had been managed in different countries.

The participants in Bosnia explained to us that in the history books of the schools don’t teach the war nor explain what happened. However, Sarajevo is full of signs and reminders of it: from the bullets, still present on the facades of the buildings, to the roses of Sarajevo, which are drawn red on the ground where projectiles fell during the war. On the other hand, they were very surprised when we told us that in Spain the tomb of the dictator Francisco Franco could still be visited and that it became a place of worship for fascists.

Day 3

September 11th

On September 11th the journey was focused on just one, but probably the most important thing related to the historical memory of the country.

We transferred in the early morning from Sarajevo to Potočari locality, where the monument of the Srebrenica victims murdered is constructed.

The place is located next to the UN building that used to be a ___ during the war. Nowadays, the Bosnian people left it untouchable, letting it be damaged by the time and showing itself just like a useless and empty building. As parallelism that can be established with the UN presence and action -or inaction- during the war days, if you see it as Bosnian people who were there. That’s how they call it: failure of the international community.

After visualisation of a Srebrenica genocide documentary, we were so lucky meeting one of the Mothers of Srebrenica. One of the women that lost in dramatic conditions men of their family and that, in many cases, they have not been found yet. In this case, she lost her father and her brother.

In her speech, she explained to us that the Srebrenica genocide took place because of the waiting for the international community to act and to push Mladic troops back away from the recently status given to Srebrenica: free/neutral zone.

Once said that the explanation she gave us is easy: as that location was a safe place from the war, many people moved there. Then, the international forces were neither strong nor committed enough to ensure the free zone and when Mladic troops arrived, they moved back, leaving thousands of civilians on their own luck together with the people who, hours later, would shoot all man and boys older than around years old or seeming so.

What we could extract from the conversation is that, to them, resilience is important. And it can be produced although they are forced to cross their daily life with the people who used to kill 25 years ago. But what is important the most is the strength that moves Mothers of Srebrenica is to be able to dignify as much deads as possible, to close this chapter of their lives knowing that it can be opened in any moment and that the story that it will tell is as much trustworthy as possible. To make historical justice, somehow.

Furthermore, we could realize that Bosniak (Muslim Bosnian citizens) people still feel a strong distrust to the international community although they strongly want to take part and be involved on the international area -especially in the EU- as they think the development that will help them to overcome the past and to establish bridges of dialogue with the Serbs in Bosnia will come necessarily from abroad.

In any case, they did not forget to mention all those victims dead in Srebrenica not just by a shot but also because of the infrahuman conditions many people were exposed to those days as there were not food, medicines, heating or any other basic need was guaranteed.

Following, we did farewell with one of the Mothers and another victim that explained to us about her history and went to the Cemetery. It takes less than five minutes to leave the Memorial Center and get to the Cemetery. Once you cross the road, it is hard not to feel impressed by the number of graves. All of them are identical. Meaning to me, the identical innocent status that shared all of them. Placed all around a central sculpture where all the names are written in an alphabetic-familiar order. So it is easy to detect relatives.

To conclude, it is important to underline valuable learning about the historical memory of today. It is the fact that our working group is integrated by a Serb member. And this is a stroke of luck because it is always a must to know not just one side of the story. In this case, he told us that it has not to be easy for many people to visit this memorial, as many people can easily feel like the guilty part of the story. It might be hard on the beginning, but it is important to learn to separate what history is and what we are and want to be. Knowing that this is the first step for reconciliation.

Finally, it is important to add that in a war, both sides are tended to commit war crimes. Bosniaks know that, too. But within the Srebrenica Memorial atmosphere, it is easy to reflect about the still unattended need of an apologize or, at least, an acknowledgment by whole the country.

Day 4

September 12th

This day started by getting to the foundation “Education Builds BiH” founded and headed by the former Yugoslavian general Jovan Divjak, who was responsible for the defense of the city of Sarajevo during the siege of the city between 1992 and 1995. He first lectured us about the job that he tries to do with his foundation together with a worker of the institution while already starting to talk about his experience during the war and his role as a high post of the Bosnian improvised military in Sarajevo. After he concluded with the more theoretical details with the help of a map and we had the chance to ask some questions. After finishing the coffee that he had offered us, we left the see of Education Builds BiH and we took a family picture of the group together with the general, although he did not leave us yet, as he accompanied us around the hill where we were to explain the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) on the ground.

Since we were on high ground over the city, he was able to point the hills all around Sarajevo that held Serbian positions twenty-five years ago. His inestimable personal knowledge of the years of the war served us to reinforce our strategic view of the Siege. The general also had a great sense of humor and told us a number of Bosnian jokes that tended to make all the Bosnian group laugh but something was undeniably lost in translation. All that talking led us to the Old Jewish Graveyard of Sarajevo, which was no man’s land during the siege, between the lines of the Bosnian army and the Serbo-Bosnian military who were besieging the city. The place itself was proof of religious coexistence in Bosnia for centuries and the lack of conservation works denoted a contemporary absence of Jews in the city and a policy of religious segregation being in place. After general Divjak finished telling personal stories and jokes, we set for the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Right after entering the museum, it’s easy to notice that something is not in place, and when our guide Elma Hasimbegovic started explaining to us about it, we rapidly understood why. The museum as an institution does not receive any federal funds from the government (and thus from any public institution), but unlike the National Museum that is next to the one in the matter, which rests unopened since five years ago, they decided to try and keep it opened. The museum had been founded by the communist regime right after the liberation of Yugoslavia and for decades was the museum of the partisans and the liberation war. In actuality, however, its exhibition relied on personal objects donated by particulars of the city that were used during the Siege in order to tell stories from regular people. This was embedded in the effort of the museum to make it of all the citizens, considering that it was not of the government.

After the visit, we headed to have lunch in the BBI Centre and then went to the Tunnel Museum to visit the remains of the only way in and out of the city during the Siege, which went under a UN airport remained open from the moment of its construction until the end of the war. The Tunnel Museum was small and hadn’t many attractive besides the segment of the tunnel that remains open to transit.

Besides, when the visit was over, the group agreed that it was heavily biased and lacked objectivity when addressing the war. After that, we headed to dinner and gathered for the reflection.

This day we talked about the roles and functions that museums may have when dealing with the past, how are they different or similar to other forms of remembrance and what educational functions can they have and under what circumstances. We all agreed that a museum can be easily misguiding, especially when dealing with such a complex topic as the war of Bosnia. An example of a misleading museum we agreed that it was the tunnel museum, while general opinion seemed to point out what we had seen in Srebrenica as a better example. We also stressed the importance of education and other forms of remembrance and history-building in addition to visiting places such as museums or monuments.

Day 5

September 13th

On September 13th, we woke up early and packed our baggage, and after some fast breakfast, we hopped on the bus and started our trip to Mostar. After some three hours of road, we arrived at the drier and hotter south of the country, the region of Hercegovina. When we walked off the bus, the sun was already hitting hard and it was hot. We met our guide and started the tour around the Old Town of Mostar, through the narrow streets of cobblestone built during the Ottoman period together with the first mosques and the iconic Old Bridge, rebuilt after the war. The center of Mostar is very touristic and the guide gave us some time to take pictures and wander around, after giving us some information about the origin of the city and its evolution under the Ottoman Empire.

When we left the Old Town, we also changed the topic of the tour to the last war, since we visited the riverbank that served as frontline between the Croat forces and the army of BiH during the war. There, the destruction is still visible to the bare and uneducated eye and exemplifies very well the division that the city suffers until the date.

Our guide, natural from Mostar, took us to the iconic statue of Bruce Lee before taking us to the Monument to the Partisans that stands as a symbol of what once was Yugoslavia and its architectural movements while serving as a grave and monument to all those who died fighting fascism during WWII, event that was used as the founding event of the country of southern Slavs. The monument also was decaying due to the lack of effort by any public entity to conserve it, as it stood as a monument to unity and fraternity in a divided city.

After finishing the visit to the city, we went to have lunch in the most beautiful place in a little town near the city. The halal restaurant where we ate hanged over the river spring that emerged from the nearby mountain. We had local fish for lunch and after some had the luck to visit the dervish monastery that remained in the town. Without hurrying, we went back to Mostar, where we went to the hostel where we were going to spend the night to do the reflection, which mainly focused on the explanation by our Bosnian counterparts of what meant to live in a divided city, with two parallel administrations and even two different water services. We had dinner in a very cozy local restaurant and then went to a musical bar in the middle of the Old Town, between little bridges and sitting in cobblestone, ending a very interesting day with some fun.

Day 6

September 14th

Good morning and Pocitelj

In the morning, we wake up in Mostar. As we slept there, we could sleep more hours and also have time to make an interesting stop before arriving at Stolac.  So we took the bus and go to Pocitelj, an old medieval town-museum that is pending approval as a UNESCO World Heritage Site next year. Once there, we could walk through its cobbled streets and climb to the abandoned fortress to see the views.

After the tourist stop, we continue our route to Stolac.

Stolac, the most divided-city

Before the war, Stolac was one of the prettiest towns in Yugoslavia. You could enjoy the Mediterranean climate and delight with the striking examples of Ottoman architecture, most of them destroyed during the war.

In 1993, the Bosniak population of Stolac was driven out by Bosnian Croat extremists. Thousands of them were rounded up and taken to concentration camps lead by Croats, while others run to other parts of Bosnia or abroad.

26 years after it, Stolac continues being a divided city fighting against their past. While the non-government groups are struggling to combat segregation, Bosniak and Croat authorities want to perpetuate the division of themselves “to keep the peace”. We saw one example of this when Mohamed told us about the scholarship. In Stolac there are two doors that divide the school building: the principal for Croats students and another one behind the building for Bosniaks. Inside, they study different points of view about the war and what happened during it. The NGO’s are working to mix the students and show them how they can work together, for example, creating and publishing the school newspaper. With this, they want to educate them respecting each culture, ethnicity, and religion, avoiding future conflicts. But it’s very difficult to achieve it in a place where you have massive segregation, discrimination and “apartheid”. Even there are also two separate medical centers in the town, one Croat and one Bosniak.

Stolac people still can’t live together, there is too much tension between their communities and they are afraid of each other. It doesn’t allow them to do their jobs or to plan their futures. That’s one of the reasons young people are leaving when they finish their studies and only plan to return when they want to retire. It seems there is no chance to create a future there, especially if you are Bosniak because they are greatly discriminated against. Under the government of the Croatian party, is most difficult for young Bosniaks to get a job. There are none of them employed in the public administrations or factories, they are all Croats.

Nowadays Stolac becomes a ghost town. There are no people walking through its streets where the marks of the war are visible everywhere. But what surprised us the most is the deep division between Bosniaks and Croats communities who live here, and how public authorities, who should promote peace, are doing nothing to encourage reconciliation.

The Old Mill

After knowing the hard reality of Stolac, we went to a restaurant near the river to try their famous grilled fresh fish and some traditional desserts. It was great not to eat meat again.  The restaurant is located in an old restored mill and is considered one of the best places to eat in Stolac, and now we already know why. The food and views are spectacular.

The Bone Hospital

After lunch, we return to Stolac to visit a place that witnessed some of the worst moments of the war: the Kostana Hospital, also known as Bone Hospital, a center specialized in treating bone diseases turned into a torture camp during the Bosnian War.

It’s ironic to think that the best place to heal bone problems became the place where they broke the most. As we said, during the war many Bosniaks from Stolac were imprisoned by Bosnian Croat forces. They ordered to Bosniaks to leave their homes and leave the keys in the doors. Then they separated women, child and old people from men who were rounded up and send to concentration camps. But before, some of them went to the Bone Hospital to be interrogated, tortured and mutilated.

Today it’s only a ruined building, but in this time it was a prison and a place where crimes against humanity were perpetrated. Those who survived were sent to Dreteelj, Gabela or Heliodrom later. All of them affirms that spending 2 or 3 nights in Kostana was worse than weeks in another concentration camp. The screams sounded in the hospital day and night, still, with music, nothing could silence them. The most difficult thing was to wait for their turn because everyone was beaten. They never knew when or by whom. It could be your neighbor, the baker, a school mate… It was terrible. Survivors will never forget the name of their aggressors and their faces. Faces they still see when they walk through Stolac. Because there has been no justice yet, and victims are forced to live with their aggressors each day. Most of them have lost hope, they know that they never will be condemned, so they decide to leave their city and try to start a new life.

Results and discussions

As we have seen, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a strongly split country. The division persists not only in the acting patterns, the way of thinking or the traditions that could be sociologically understandable but in almost every corner of their daily life. The political system is created above the war wounds: the three ethnicities are facilitated to remain in the power since the Dayton Agreement without any peace parameter established and that allowed them to fight for their own interests instead of the country ones.

This situation degenerated into a society divided on three, which even has three educational systems alien to each other in which everyone teaches their own history driving new societies into a permanent suspicion and division.

Contrasts seem to be a rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The public space tries to raise awareness about the multiculturality of the country and how important and enriching it is. Moreover, historical memory about the recent conflicts holds preeminence in that space. However, as much as it is present, it is also the separation of the ethnicities in all the country, physically but also on services like electricity or healthcare. It’s still flooded with the scratches of the war but also marked with self-imposed amnesia of the citizens about the conflict.

Despite the unfavorable situation, the youth of Bosnia and Herzegovina is willing to work all together to change the apparently blocked path of the country in order to build a better future, taught but not ruled by the mistakes of the past.

As it happened during the Siege of Sarajevo, with the creation of the District 11, the youths of both countries have met to work together and debate about the challenges of both of our societies that, in spite of the obvious differences, share a lot of similitudes. How do you build a split country after a war? How do you face the scratches of a turbulent and divided past, that part of the society lives on their own flesh while the youth have grown only with its memory? Which is the model of society we want to create and which role should have the international community or, moreover, the European Union? How do we face the increasing growth of excluding and radical nationalism all along the continent?

The common experience showed us that we, the participants, like our countries, had as many differences as similarities. We found no universal answers or magical recipes to all of our questions, but undoubtedly Sarajevo, its people, and all Bosnia and Herzegovina became an unbeatable place to give the best possible reflections and common proposals. Moreover, it has allowed us to recreate a link that has enriched both societies as it has enriched all the participants and made us grow as individuals and active citizens.




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