Trying to build peace in Bosnia

by Eric Ginsburg

When the Bosnian war ended in 1995, Elvira Jasarevic and her family were among the estimated 2.2 million people displaced by the conflict, leaving for Liberty before settling in Greensboro.

Jasarevic, who was 8 when she left Bosnia, is headed to med school at PCOM-Georgia in the fall, but first, she is returning to her homeland. Her parents still talk about better days, but people in Bosnia, she said, hardly acknowledge their recent history and the tens of thousands who were wiped out in the war. And that’s why she’s going back.

With three of her peers at UNC-Chapel Hill — Sarah Mohamed from Egypt, Amna Baloch of Pakistan and Morgan Smallwood from the US — Jasarevic designed a summer camp for 10 to 13-year old kids to build understanding and create a foundation for a future peace. The team, which had done interfaith work together, received a $10,000 Davis Peace Project grant to create the Zenica Peace Alliance and its two-week summer camp.

Nestled in the geographic center of Bosnia, Zenica is already home to Cinematographico, the nonprofit Jasarevic’s group will partner with to facilitate the camp in late June with 25 kids and 10 volunteers. The kids, who will come from different backgrounds, will all participate for free and will volunteer together once a month for the following year to fortify the relationships fostered at camp.

Bringing Bosnians together is no easy task — the last 20 years of history isn’t taught in schools because nobody can agree on it, and students attend “separate but equal” schools, live in different areas and fake unification, Jasarevic said. The European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance recently ranked Bosnia as one of its highest concerns, the lack of legal rights for the Roma people could keep them out of the European Union and parents are starting to give their children less ethnically identifiable names to protect them from discrimination, Jasarevic said.

Even in Greensboro, the divisions between Bosnians is palpable; while Jasarevic has made plenty of friends from different religious backgrounds, the Bosnians she associates with are Muslim like her. It’s not surprising, considering how recently the tensions flared in violent conflict and the lack of healing in Bosnia itself, which is exactly what Jasarevic hopes to affect.

She sees a number of commonalities with US history, which is no surprise considering our legacy of slavery and racial discrimination and a frequent unwillingness to face it head on. Listening to Jasarevic describe how people live separately and attend different schools, parallels to Jim Crow and continued segregation quickly come to mind.

The team will travel to the relatively small country across the Adriatic Sea from Italy and go through a week of orientation, training counselors from Bosnia and setting everything up. During the camp youth will visit different religious sites, which would normally be taboo, and other parts of the program will aim to fill the kids with curiosity and a desire to cooperate through understanding and friendship.

“How do you get over something if you can’t discuss it and face the truth?” Jasarevic asked, adding that people were suffering from amnesia but that youth would be more open to listening and learning about each other. As the group finalizes plans for the camp, they are also trying to raise more money to be able to provide free lunches to the kids, employing local women to prepare it.

After the camp ends, Jasarevic will come back to the states and continue her academic pursuits, but if things go well she hopes this will just be the first of many years for the program.

There is little doubt that she will remain active in creating interfaith discussion and actively working towards social transformation — her participation in the Muslim Student Association at UNCG and efforts around the camp demonstrate that. The bigger question is how the kids in the program will be impacted by the experience, and how it will influence them to alter Bosnia’s future.