Young, Bosnian, and searching for a future

This generation is still coming to terms with a war that interrupted their childhoods for nearly four years

At 18, Amar Prasovic thought he could change the world – or at least help get his war-torn country back on its feet. Elected to a four-year term on the Sarajevo City Council in 1998 while still in high school, he had hopes of making a difference in Bosnia's efforts to build a new future.

A year later, Mr. Prasovic decided he was wrong. Disillusioned with politics, he quit the city council with three years left in his term. "I don't like to lie," he explains. "To be in politics you have to lie. You have to make promises that you can't keep."

The youthful former city councilor, now studying history at the local university, isn't the only young adult not sitting down at the political table in Bosnia these days. As Bosnia's leaders and the international community that has overseen day-to-day life here since the end of the war in 1995 contemplate the country's future, they are belatedly realizing that young people – the one group most often associated with a nation's future – are distinctly absent from the conversation.

"One thing we have not done very well," admits one Western official, "is to convey to young people what their stake is in [the future of] this country."

Concern over the involvement of youth in shaping Bosnia's future has been gaining a sense of urgency here recently. The country faces elections, expected to be held in October, which observers worry may open the door to renewal of the kind of nationalist sentiments that fueled the war, which ended in 1995 after killing more than 200,000 people. In addition, the international community has begun openly discussing a timetable for withdrawing from Bosnia within the next few years.

On one hand, say observers, the complex thicket of elected bodies that govern Bosnia from the local to the national level – some 14 parliamentary bodies in all – have done little, if anything, to encourage youth involvement or even to establish youth commissions or offices that directly address the concerns of young people. In fact, almost every youth program in the country – from entrepreneurial competitions to after-school centers – has been started by foreign donors or international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

"Youth are the future here, that seems obvious," says Urdur Gunnarsdottir, spokeswoman for the Bosnia office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which helps monitor elections and promotes democratic values. "But if you look at what's been done to encourage them, you see very little. There's a big problem with the Bosnian political authorities not letting these kids through."

With an eye to upcoming elections, OSCE launched an ongoing program last fall that brought the country's top-ranking politicians into direct contact with young people through MTV-style question-and-answer sessions.

At the first gathering last November, young people met with Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnia's foreign minister and head of the Social Democratic Party, which leads the current moderate coalition government. He came right out and told his youthful audience that if they wanted political power, they were going to have to take it themselves, because his political party wasn't going to help them do it – although he said later that his remarks were intended to provoke young people into action.

"The message from the government is too negative," says Jan Zlatan Kulenovic, the 19-year-old program manager of the Youth Information Agency, a Bosnian NGO funded by the Soros Foundation. "The general message is OK, youth should [be involved]. But they're not creating the environment for that to happen.

Political action, however, appears to be far from the minds of most Bosnian youth. According to a wide-ranging report on attitudes of young people between the ages of 14 and 30, 82 percent of those surveyed said they are never politically active. Although their age group makes up a quarter of the country's population, only 8 percent belong to a political party – and only 1 percent believes that young people can influence politics. In addition, the report, which was conducted by the United Nations Development Program and was released in September, 2000, found that 62 percent of young people said they would leave the country to live elsewhere if given the opportunity.

Western humanitarian workers repeatedly comment on what is perceived as widespread apathy among young Bosnians, who either seem reluctant to make change happen or feel inadequate to do so.

English teacher Steve Johnston says that when his students complained about pollution in the river that runs through the heart of Sarajevo, he told them to do something about it. "They said, 'We can't," recalls Mr. Johnston, who is from England. "They said, 'But maybe you could organize it and we could help.' "

Observers here say the reluctance isn't due simply to the government's lack of interest in them or their needs. They say that Bosnia has yet to fully emerge from the socialist mindset that reigned in this country when it was ruled by Marshal Tito as part of the former Yugoslavia – a mindset, enforced by a still-existing bureaucracy that discouraged individual enterprise and creativity.

But interviews with a few dozen young people here indicate far deeper emotions at work as well. This generation is still coming to terms with a war that interrupted their childhoods for nearly four years – marking their growing-up years with memories of snipers, shellings, and 10,000 civilian deaths in Sarajevo alone.

Many of these young people – especially in Sarajevo, with its long history of multicultural tolerance and intermarriage – remain angry with adults, particularly politicians, whom they blame for starting a senseless war. For many of these young people, the years since the war's end have been a time to simply reestablish a sense of normalcy in their daily lives and with their friends.

"For us, it's all about merak, which is a very common Bosnian word," says 18-year-old Adela Hrlovic, a recent high school graduate who lived through the war in Sarajevo and who plans to go to the University of Zagreb in Croatia this fall. "Merak means joy, but it's more than that. It's huge joy. It's like when you're in a cafe with your friends, and you love them and they love you. It's the best time of the day," she explains.

For other young Bosnians, coming to terms with the war means dealing with the damage it inflicted on them personally. Bosnia has eight men's wheelchair basketball teams, manned almost entirely by players wounded as teenage civilians or young soldiers during the war. They receive little assistance from the government and are forced to negotiate life in a country with almost no handicapped access.

But for players like Samir Fazlic, 31, a member of the 3K Sarajevo team, playing basketball has been a path toward renewal. "Playing [basketball tournaments] in foreign countries helped us move on," says Mr. Fazlic, who was wounded in the final days of the war. "We saw it's possible to live a normal life. Everyone who spent the war here bears some consequences of the war. I have this.

"What happened, happened," he says with a shrug. "My friends are here. I love this place."

Still, other young people say they want to leave their country – although travel abroad is almost impossible for Bosnians because of strict visa requirements placed on them by almost every country in the world. But faced with unemployment that hovers at around 40 percent, and living in a country still struggling with the bitterness of a war marked by ethnic cleansing and widespread destruction, some young people dream of a better future elsewhere.

"I want to leave," says Danko Kukic, an architecture student who spent the war as a refugee, moving to several different countries. "I don't want to raise a son or a daughter here and try to show them things that don't exist anymore. I don't want to raise them with nostalgia."

Among some young people who do want to stay in Bosnia, there is a tangible sense of taking hold of the recent past and making their own commentary on it.

When Danis Tanovic, 31, returned to Sarajevo in early April, with an Oscar for his film about the war, "No Man's Land," young people turned out in throngs to cheer him and to celebrate a victory which many saw as proof that a young person had something valuable to say.

On April 6, which marked the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war, young people again put their own signature on the past, holding a standing-room-only midnight fashion show in which runway models sported items of clothing worn or used by famous Bosnians during the war, including a sleeping bag which belonged to Mr. Tanovic.

And in recent months, more than 5,000 people have gone to see another film made by local directors, three young men who created a documentary using home-video footage of the 1,325-day siege of their city by Serb forces called "Do You Remember Sarajevo?"

For Sead Kresevljakovic, 29, one of the film's creators, the war yielded surprising lessons. Although some war correspondents and diplomats have explained the barbarism of the war as proof that evil exists in man and can erupt at any time, Mr. Kresevljakovic came away with a different perspective. Living through the siege, he says, and experiencing extraordinary acts of human caring and compassion, taught him that good exists.

"I got proof that even in such an evil situation, goodness exists. It was like a sign from God, that there is a universal goodness," says Kresevljakovic, a devout Muslim. "If I talk about the future now, I know that no matter what happens, I know that goodness will exist."

There are also signs that other young Bosnians are rallying to a different view of their country and their role in it. Seven months ago, a group of some two dozen Sarajevo teenagers and 20-somethings joined together to form a chapter of Rotoract, the youth branch of the Rotary Club. So far, they have initiated two projects, one aimed at raising environmental awareness and the other at equipping two playrooms for children with special needs. "If we don't take a step forward, nothing is going to change," says 20-year-old Nadja Jaganjac, who joined Rotoract two months ago.

Even former councilman Amar Prasovic hasn't given up on his country. He now works with a Norwegian NGO that promotes conflict resolution through seminars and conferences held around the country.

"I can promote dialogue," says Prasovic. "I can promote peace."

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