Policy brief | Barcelona-Sarajevo. 30 YEARS OF COOPERATION

A History of Brotherhood and Struggle for Freedoms


The aim of this analysis is to understand and assess opportunities and recommend future lines of cooperation between two peoples. Actions in the region should be strengthened by addressing new issues, taking into account social and economic changes over the last 30 years of cooperation and solidarity between Catalonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), with emphasis on networking between actors.

Thirty years of collaboration and shared experience have generated a strong bond that has enabled the implementation of multiple actions, generating an approach to long-term cooperation that benefits both societies in the construction of freedoms, multi-ethnicity, tolerance, respect and the culture of peace through the involvement of diverse actors in both regions. In this document, the following recommendations for the future of cooperation between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Catalonia will be set out in a deliberate manner with examples:

  • Promote bilateral institutional cooperation agreements between Catalan and Bosnian authorities that cover actions undertaken by civil society.
  • Ensure the sustainability of the relationship, both financially and over time, and the implementation of actions that have a tangible impact in Bosnian society.
  • Address new issues, taking into account social and economic changes over the last 30 years of cooperation and solidarity between Catalonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Key issues identified: gender policies, social policies, cultural policies, sport as an inclusive activity, policies to promote the social, circular and green economy, and particularly policies linked to youth and the culture of peace.
  • Create a network of local partners to drive actions and projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with special attention to opportunities for establishing relationships with new actors at the European level.
  • Strengthen university links between the two regions.
  • Incorporate new content and projects to give continuity to initiatives related to education, culture and health, fostering the exchange of actions between regions.
  • Promote a space for bilateral exchange to give impetus to actions launched by civil society, entities and public administrative bodies of Catalonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Thirty years ago, Barcelona initiated a unique and vibrant relationship of cooperation, fraternity and love with Sarajevo. The relationship was forged when war broke out in BiH and during the four-year siege of Sarajevo that followed. It was extended to Catalonia as a whole, through the region’s organized civil society and with institutional support, and the flow of solidarity and cooperation between Catalonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina became a unique milestone for Catalan cooperation.

Sarajevo has always been a melting pot and a symbol of multiculturalism, tolerance, diversity and freedom. On the verge of falling under the control of fascist forces 30 years ago, today the city is more alive than ever. This is one of the many points of connection between Barcelona and Sarajevo, without which this special relationship could not have endured as long as it has. To put this cooperative relationship on a firm footing as we look to the future, it is essential to understand the social, economic and cultural changes that have taken place in both regions.

This analysis has been carried out with the help of key figures involved in cooperation between the two territories over the years. It is based on the application of a new paradigm for international cooperation and considers new issues and forms of cooperation – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda, for example – with the aim of laying the foundations for the continuation of this special relationship.


Tito was one of the main elements of cohesion in socialist Yugoslavia, and his death in 1980 set the country on a path to disintegration. The collective presidency that succeeded him became unworkable due to the intrigues and manoeuvring of the politically ambitious Slobodan Milosevic, who became the president of Serbia in 1989 and revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status the same year. The economic crisis into which Yugoslavia was plunged, aggravated by the political crisis and the fact that the capital, Belgrade, was threatening the federal structure of the state, led to the separation of the republics that Milosevic did not indirectly or directly control: first, Croatia and Slovenia in June 1991, then Macedonia in November of the same year, and finally Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 1992.

In response to the threat that increasingly active social opposition movements (strikes, creation of independent trade unions) posed to the Serbian ruling class and its privileges, Milosevic changed the ideological discourse in Serbia, shifting from socialism to a highly exclusionary nationalism while targeting traditional external enemies (Kosovo Albanians, Bosnian Muslims, Croats) and taking up a line of Serbian nationalist thought whose roots go back at least to the early 19th century. This line of political thought, which Milosevic adopted as his banner, advocates the existence of a Serbian state that incorporates all of the territories in which Serbs live or that are linked to Serbia by history, tradition, or religion. This central tenet of Serb nationalist ideology (and therefore of the official ideology adopted by Milosevic), combined with the fact that when Yugoslavia’s other constituent republics declared independence, a significant number of Serbs living in those territories were completely cut off from the Serb Republic, was the fuel which ignited the wars that broke out in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo successively between 1991 and 1999.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was the most ethnically plural republic of the Yugoslav federation. There were many regions where no single ethnic group accounted for more than 50% of the population; the most numerous were Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats, in that order.

In a context of political fragmentation based largely on ethnicity (Serb, Croat and Bosnian Muslim parties), the Bosnian government called a referendum on independence, which was largely boycotted by Serbs, but in which those who voted did so massively in favour of independence.

This result led to the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its subsequent recognition by the European Community on 6 April 1992.

From that point on, Serb political forces opposed to secession from Yugoslavia – under the leadership of Radovan Karadzic, and with the support of the Yugoslav Federal Army (i.e. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic) – took control of as much of the territory of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina as they could, especially regions where Serbs were a majority or made up a significant proportion of the population, and regions in which they had a strategic interest.

The war lasted almost four years. Depending on the source, it led to between 100,000 and 250,000 deaths and created between a million and 2.5 million displaced persons and refugees. Whatever the exact numbers, it was devastating. Heinous crimes were committed on all sides, but it was always the Bosnian Muslims, especially the civilian population, who suffered the most. The difference between the two sides is that the Serb political leaders of Bosnia and Serbia, and to a lesser extent the Croats of Croatia and Herzegovina, designed, encouraged, supported and ordered acts that the post-war International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has characterized as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide. This is the case with respect to the events that took place in Srebrenica.

International public opinion, and Catalan public opinion in particular, was shocked by revelations of the existence of concentration camps, the abominable practice of systematic rape of women (especially Bosnian Muslims), indiscriminate massacres of the civilian population, and ethnic cleansing. However, the international community, especially the European Community, played a very disappointing role. Despite the existence of a legitimate, internationally recognized government of Bosnia and Herzegovina that strived to maintain its multi-ethnic composition and legality to the extent and for as long as it could in the limited territory it controlled, international actors (the European Community, United States, United Nations and NATO) regarded as equals, and treated as such, all the parties in both the legitimate Bosnian government and the rebel forces (which were often paramilitary in character and used truly fascist methods on the ground). Finally, following the umpteenth massacre, this time by indiscriminate Serb shelling of a market in besieged Sarajevo on 28 August 1995, which killed 37 people, NATO began bombing Serb positions, increasing the pressure on the Serb leaders.

This action, combined with the general offensive launched by Croat and Bosnian troops in western Bosnia and territories in Croatia held by Serb rebels, forced the start of peace talks. The “peace” agreement signed in Dayton, USA at the end of 1995 effectively upheld the status quo; that is, the division of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina along ethnic lines, first between the Republika Srpska (Serb) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and second between a Croat and a Bosniak entity within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.



This research forms part of the project “Barcelona-Sarajevo: 25 Years of Cooperation – A History of Brotherhood and Struggle for Freedom”, which is launching a campaign that will focus primarily on the inspiring history that links the two cities and the presentation of contemporary Sarajevo. The campaign will use the language of film and music to provide citizens, especially publics traditionally distanced from the world of cooperation and development aid, with an insight into the reality of the city, creating spaces for education and reflection based on messages of tolerance, diversity and the struggle for freedoms that is central to the relationship between the two capitals.

Within the framework of the Barcelona-Sarajevo project, the research carried out is aimed at establishing guiding principles to promote and enhance cooperation between Catalonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina by engaging with political authorities and by opening doors and creating spaces for dialogue for new entities and new forms of international cooperation between peoples.

The research was carried out at two levels of analysis. The first focused on historical research and structural analysis; the second involved a participatory action that brought together key individuals, entities and administrative bodies involved in implementing Catalan cooperation actions in Bosnia and Herzegovina in different contexts. The second level of analysis is important because it gives voice to the actors involved (past and present) with the aim of addressing problems and identifying opportunities with the aim of establishing a new roadmap that will facilitate the continuation of the very special relationship between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Catalonia.

Recommendations based on the research are set out in relation to three levels of analysis. The first, from the perspective of Bosnia and Herzegovina, focuses on needs and opportunities that can be identified by the community itself. Giving a leading role to civil society, based on an understanding of how the context of cooperation has changed following the post-conflict recovery stage, entails the establishment of a network of partners that can act as catalysts and identify opportunities to carry out actions in the country. The second level of analysis focuses on Catalonia and aims to identify new lines of action with respect to which Catalan organizations have experience and expertise that can be applied to the Bosnian national agenda and to continue raising awareness in Catalonia. Finally, we offer an analysis that focuses on Europe with the aim of seeking partners at the EU level in order to strengthen the actions carried out and ensure that they are sustainable financially and over time, and that they reflect global cooperation agendas and new paradigms in this area.


In order to analyse the future of this relationship, we need to understand the context in which the solidarity relationship, which has lasted more than 30 years, began. Civil society self-organized, together with municipal and supra-municipal administrative bodies, with the initial goal of responding to a serious humanitarian and human rights crisis that was unfolding in the Balkans as a result of the war. The massive social response to the fallout of the war in the Balkans led to a tsunami of cooperation and twinning actions that we can situate within the framework of humanitarian or emergency aid. The main contributions of Catalan organizations and administrative bodies to Bosnia and Herzegovina focused on ensuring children’s education and health and providing vital products for the day-to-day life of the region’s inhabitants.

Responding to problems arising from an armed conflict was the priority for the actions, and when the conflict ended, they were transformed into a more stable and professional relationship of cooperation. The implementation of development and recovery actions and programmes constituted a second wave of cooperation between the regions. The collaboration of Catalan entities with Bosnian society focused mainly on the region’s urban, economic and social recovery and on addressing new issues such as peace-building and social harmony.

Over the course of more than 30 years of cooperation between peoples, the intensity of relations has gradually waned for various reasons. The clearest one is the easing of the conflict, associated with a decrease in the media impacts that once put pressure on civil society and institutions to respond. A second reason is the nature of the organizations involved, which depend on volunteers and are highly specialized in certain tasks which, once the conflict had ended, were assumed to one degree or another by institutions. Difficulties in securing financial resources, and in some cases a lack of generational change, also made the work of these organizations very difficult.

Despite this decline in relations, Catalan cooperation has continued in the region. International cooperation programmes and projects linked to new issues such as gender equality, prevention of violence against women, democratic memory and health promotion have been carried out thanks to the continued support of some funders and the determination of some organizations to continue delivering projects and programmes. These long-standing programmes and projects are the result of the ongoing work of specialized entities with a stable presence and counterparts in the region.


With the aim of recovering the spirit of 1992 and relaunching the relationship of solidarity and cooperation between the two territories, Medicus Mundi Mediterrània and the European Observatory on Memories of the University of Barcelona’s Solidarity Foundation have carried out an analysis, considering the main actors, to identify strengths and opportunities and rebuild a relationship between the two peoples that is stable and sustainable over time. Based on this analysis, we propose a change of paradigm in the relationship and a conceptual modernization within the framework of international cooperation.

The point of departure for the analysis is an understanding of the change of focus, both in the existing relationship between the peoples and with respect to new formats and priorities in the field of international cooperation. Cooperation between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Catalonia needs to focus on new segments of the population and new issues, with the aim of achieving tangible impacts on society and ensuring access to new sources of funding to carry out actions. Analysing existing problems with the involvement of local partners should be one line of action. It is also important to identify sectors in which local needs and the expertise of implementers converge. Framing actions and programmes within a broad framework, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, could become a strength in terms of broadening the field of action and gaining access to external funding, given that this framework is widely known and recognized by broad sectors in social and political spheres.

The first level of analysis therefore reflects the perspective of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Given that the main goal is to strengthen cooperation with the region, the best approach is to rely on input from civil society, entities and local administrative bodies. Understanding the reality and needs of the region from the inside is essential to implement programmes that are owned and not imposed, and which consequently generate mutual trust and are sustainable financially and over time.

Similarly, we need to examine actions that Bosnian society, entities and administrative bodies are already carrying out and consider supporting actions undertaken in Bosnia that could serve to raise awareness in Catalonia. Such actions include a wide range of cultural productions generated in the country, such as the Wake Up, Europe exhibition, produced by the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo.

To make the relationship sustainable, financially and over time, and implement actions that have tangible impacts on Bosnian society, it is essential to identify and rely on a network of local partners who can act as drivers, facilitators and front-line actors. Creating a bilateral network of this kind should be a priority in order to ensure continuous contact and presence in the territory. Analysis of needs and identification of challenges and opportunities at source will help ensure that Catalan organizations are able to identify and implement programmes and actions in a way that reflects the strengths and areas of expertise identified.

A central line of action to strengthen actions in the region should be to address new issues, taking into account the social and economic changes that have taken place over the last 30 years of cooperation and solidarity between Catalonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Local, regional, state and European agendas have been modified and are evolving in line with changing realities in the world. New key issues emerged from discussions that took place during the participatory analysis process carried out as part of our research. These issues will need to be worked on with local partners, implementers and funders. Some of the lines of action that emerged were gender policies (particularly in relation to prevention of gender-based violence and support for victims); policies aimed at ensuring equal rights for LGBTI+ people; policies related to democratic memory (from the perspective of community reconciliation and prevention of totalitarian extremism); social policies in relation to care for the most vulnerable people and groups, and in the field of health; cultural policies, where they serve to dynamize social activity through new technologies, new artistic languages, and sport as an inclusive activity; policies aimed at promoting the social, circular and green economy; and particularly policies linked to youth and the culture of peace.

In terms of new issues, it is worth highlighting actions along these lines carried out by Catalan entities, particularly Youth and Memory Activism, a project that focuses on young people, carried out by Associació Conèixer Història, Youth for Exchange and Understanding Cyprus, Youth Initiative for Human Rights (BiH), and the UB Solidarity Foundation. The Youth and Memory Activism project aims to give greater prominence to young people’s views on collective memory and memory policies by stimulating the exchange of knowledge and best practices in three European countries: Spain, Cyprus, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

One of the main objectives of the project is to empower young people to become actors in the construction of shared democratic imaginaries based on collective memory and encourage the expression of these imaginaries through new forms of creation. The project is co-funded by the EU’s Europe for Citizens programme.

The second level of analysis focuses on Catalonia, where we need to assess the work carried out and learn from the individuals, entities and initiatives that led and pioneered the implementation of actions on the ground. The synergy between the knowledge and expertise of programmes and projects carried out in the past needs to be applied to new initiatives, taking into account new forms of cooperation and the new reality in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As mentioned above, the relationship with local partners will be crucial. It will also be essential to generate meeting spaces and work networks in Catalonia that make it easier to bring in new entities, both public and private, considering new needs, agendas and realities that can enable actions to be carried out within a more concrete framework, such as gender policies, youth or culture, and new social economy approaches, with the involvement of entities and associations that with expertise related to these new conceptual frameworks.

The creation of a network to drive actions and projects to be carried out in the region could play a key role in effectively channelling initiatives. The goal would be to build a network capable of generating synergies, both with entities that already know and work in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the search for potential partners (especially ones with expertise related to the new issues mentioned above), including partners with no direct links to Catalan cooperation or to BiH. Opening up to new sectors, partners and entities could be key when it comes to addressing new issues within the framework of the relationship of solidarity between Catalonia and Bosnia in a bidirectional manner, with the possibility of organizing exchanges related to knowledge transfer and sustainable social business models, linked to the social, circular and green economy, and the goal of empowering specific sectors, women and young people in Bosnian territory.

One success story related to technical assistance, knowledge transfer, and collaborative work with a network of actors to take advantage of their expertise is the ongoing action (comprising a series of projects) that Medicus Mundi Mediterrània has been carrying out in Sarajevo since 2018 (funded by the Barcelona City Council and the Catalan Agency for Development Cooperation). This initiative, which promotes the rights of women in vulnerable situations (including the right to a life free of violence, the right to health, the right to the city, labour rights, etc.) is a clear example of an approach that stresses cooperation between the two societies. Medicus Mundi Mediterrània has channelled resources, expertise and technical assistance, weaving a network with Catalan institutions specializing in the field, such as the Barcelona City Councillor’s Office for Feminism and LGBTI Affairs, the member entities of the Barcelona Circuit Against Gender Violence, Hospital Clínic, and foundations such as INTRESS, among others, to support the efforts of civil society and governmental institutions in BiH in the creation and expansion of protection services for women in vulnerable situations. In Sarajevo, a network of actors – including civil society actors (FLD and others), the Government of the Canton of Sarajevo, the journalists’ association (BiH Novinari) and others – has been built and coordinated (or the efforts of existing platforms have been integrated), and the actors involved work together to maximize the impact of the resources and expertise channelled to BiH.

The approach used to tackle this issue could undoubtedly be applied in other areas, including culture, sport and others, where, with the involvement of specialized organizations and entities, modest investments could facilitate the achievement of structural changes in the way services in BiH operate.

One area to explore and focus renewed attention on is university links between the regions. Catalan universities were an active and important actor during the Balkan conflict and played a central role in the reaction of Catalan society. The reception of students and teaching staff from Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure the continuity of their careers and studies, cut short by the conflict, was one of the actions carried out by Catalan universities.

The change of paradigm we are proposing requires that we take a step forward and view university cooperation as a way for both sides to grow through skill-building and participation in shared research spaces.

In this regard, actions related to university cooperation with the region have been identified. The University of Girona, through its technology transfer office, has promoted the creation of knowledge and technology transfer offices with five universities in Balkan countries within the framework of the EU-funded KnowHub project, which aims to improve competitiveness, innovative capacity and entrepreneurship.

A second line of action, focusing on Catalonia, is to continue carrying out awareness-raising actions (both for the general public and in schools) that focus on the conflict in the Balkans in general and the relationship of solidarity and cooperation between Catalonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular. Growing interest in transformative education for global citizenship should be harnessed to introduce and give continuity to actions and activities carried out at schools in Catalonia. The emphasis should be on impactful narratives that highlight the need for cooperation between regions to achieve a more just and safer world for all, understanding military conflicts beyond the immediate suffering they produce, and understanding the difficulties involved in rebuilding lives and societies.

In the context of awareness-raising and transformative education for global citizenship, we would like to highlight the theatrical, photographic and documentary works produced by the Culture and Conflict Association. The project “Encara hi ha algú al bosc” (“There’s still someone in the forest”) uses different expressive languages to explore a taboo and complex aspect of military conflicts: sexual violence against women and girls, the impunity of perpetrators (who rarely face justice) and the terrible stigma victims face in their communities, which intensifies their loneliness and makes it harder for them to recover.

Awareness-raising actions in Catalonia focus on concrete, personal stories and use accessible language to present society with broader realities, an approach exemplified by the documentary “Maldita: A Love Song to Sarajevo”.

This documentary – produced by Medicus Mundi Mediterrània and Kanaki Films with the support of the Barcelona City Council, the Catalan Agency for Development Cooperation, and the Institute of Cinematography and Audiovisual Arts – revolves around the figure of Božo Vrećo, the most revolutionary Balkan artist, who takes an unrestrained approach to link past and present in the company of men and women of different origins and regions. The aim is to use art as a way to share the special and powerful love story between the cities of Barcelona and Sarajevo and show that it is still possible to work together on another level.

The final level of analysis concerns the European framework. Proposed actions involving cooperation between Catalonia and BiH need to be brought more in line with the European agenda for the region’s integration and development (as articulated in the relevant sectoral directives) in order to ensure their impact and sustainability. Within the framework of EU policies, it is possible to create common spaces and find partners across the continent who have previous experience in the region and in tackling specific

issues. From such partners, we can learn and adjust to needs related to the actions we wish to carry out. Access to European funding requires a high degree of professionalization on the part of the entities involved and synergies with public administrative bodies. A network of the kind described above could play a key role in securing European funding and attracting partners thanks to the support that the actors involved provide to each other.

From a global perspective, we would like to underscore the importance of the framework provided by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an international agenda and a possible driver for actions related to cooperation between peoples. The potential of the SDGs and the opportunities they present for the future of cooperation are already apparent. Moreover, they are widely known and recognized by a large majority of the actors directly involved in cooperation and by civil society in general. The SDGs present opportunities for implementing actions, programmes and projects related to new issues that fall within the thematic areas they cover, such as the circular, social and green economy, and this framework could help attract new actors and international funders.

In conclusion, we need to build on the work done over the years of cooperation with Bosnia and Herzegovina and reactivate the networks developed through key individuals in order to build a future with the country that is sustainable and can be expanded, both within the region and in other similar contexts. We urge public institutions and administrative bodies to continue contributing to the implementation of cooperation projects between regions and encourage entities that deal with the new issues identified to consider working with Bosnian counterparts.

A space for bilateral exchange should be created to act as a catalyst and driver of actions undertaken by civil society, entities and administrative bodies that contribute to building relationships of solidarity and cooperation between Catalonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This space should be established under an umbrella of institutional relations so that it becomes a key element for relaunching this historical relationship and to promote cohesion between Catalan and Bosnian entities and the respective administrative bodies.

As explained in this document, the change of paradigm in cooperation relations between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Catalonia is already evident in actions that should be recognized and used as a springboard to continue involving new actors that can make a contribution in other thematic areas, and to continue attracting funding from public institutions to support initiatives of this kind. The ultimate goal of all of these efforts is to continue building the historic relationship of cooperation between Catalonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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