Communal memory in Bosnia and Herzegovina has remained the main point of reference to local wars, and this still leads to separation and lack of contact among BiH’s youth. For many years BiH’s efforts at reconciliation have focused on the idea that when the people of BiH will have reconciled, things will get better. Young people have in some instances, as a result of their geographic location, grown up in spaces that are divided and so have their perceptions been shaped.
The present is crucial in this debate. Normally when we address reconciliation, we focus on the fact that dealing with the past will in turn bring a positive change in the future. The present is often not lacking but it is less enunciated. Right now Bosnian youth will be concerned with young people’s issues. As we speak, teenagers will begin to form their own opinions, to seek experiences, to think about identity, to read philosophy, to choose a favourite music genre, to enter groups or subgroups, to want to spread their wings. The problem is, without opportunties for them to explore, to make up their minds, or change their minds, their present will result in a missed chance to have a wealth of boxes to choose from, rather than being limited to the ones that have already been prescribed to them, some that are viewed by their own communities and society as incompatible with those of their neighbours.
What if however, instead of focusing on projects directly addressing reconciliation at the individual level, we put more efforts into giving young people chances and opportunities for them to become empowered, open minded individuals, able to make their own choices? What if instead of countering one narrative with another, we focused more on developing the critical thinking skills that are so often missing from school, the media, and local communities? What if we swaped funding for a pre-determined series of workshops in which they have to listen and taken in a completely different story than what they grew up with, and give them the chance to travel and seek to explore the stories of different people living in this country?
Peacebuilding work is a process that can help long term, but can we really achieve sustained impact with an individual approach, when the structures are working against this? If the school subjects enforce division, than more has to be done by civil society to promote the common history of co-existance as well. This cannot be done with one workshop, it requires creative solutions to introduce it parallel to the educational system and it should be done through channels that are accessed by youth on a regular basis, such as the wealth of digital platforms that are ‘ctitical’ to a young person’s social habits. All this while trying, to large extents, to change the very system that creates divisions, a monumental endeavour that currently has not only been lacking progress but going backwards too. It is hardly an achievement when you programme a 2 hour workshop, or a week-long workshop even, when young people have 12 or more years of education that says otherwise. When nationalistic politics will play on people’s trauma and fears to gain votes, with all the traumatic events people have suffered or listened to, it is empowerement and the ability to view matters from a different perspective that could help more than just another, perhaps even less plausible narative given that it’s new, unfamilair, and has no pattern or recurrance in the daily lives of young people.
Practical ways to encourage reconciliation have been researched and implemented throughout many conflict regions, each with their own dynamics and degrees of success. However, when it comes to young people, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thinking more about the present is key to helping shape more peaceful societies, and ultimately to deal with the past. We need to look more into what helps not just strictly and narrowly speaking: reconciliation; but how young people can become active, critical thinkers, how socialisation patterns are changing, the balance between one’s life and virtual life, as well as going back to a more basic concept: what is fun or what is cool for a young person to be engaged in? Our own experiences might tell us it is not a three hour lecture, or a kid’s game, but culture, travelling, parties (concerts, etc), sports, and many other activities that break away from the ‘traditional’ approaches of schooling someone, but which instead gives more freedom to express oneself and to make new discoveries in a less than ‘standard’ way. Therefore, it is merely an opinion, but I believe it is young people with their overall personal development, spanning many years and access to opportunities, that will change this situation, though their abilities, knowledge, characters, and strenght, much more than a couple hour workshop with the title ‘dealing with the past’, perhaps even including a one-off story of reconciliation. I am by no means a denier of the potential of storytelling, but I also believe that if this will help achieve sustained change, it will therefore require a pattern or recurring stories to counter divisions. On the other hand, can we truly make believe that whether one person has opened themselves to others, or taken the step to make contact, will in turn lead to a process of reconciliation?