The hard work of getting along

Muslim and Serb teachers sit down together to confront the divisive legacy of war

In a small Bosnian town on the Adriatic coast, elementary-school teachers sit in a circle exchanging stories. In most countries this would not be particularly remarkable, but in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 6-1/2 years after the end of a brutal war of ethnic cleansing, what they are doing is both controversial and unprecedented. It is also hard work.

During a break, Vahidin Dhanovic, a Bosnian Muslim who teaches religion, and Milka Marinkovic, a Bosnian Serb teacher, slump wearily over coffee together. Despite the bitter divide between their peoples in this country, they are cautiously becoming friends. "I used to really hate Serbs," says Mr. Dhanovic, who at 26 is one of the youngest participants. "I didn't want to meet them or talk to them. These seminars made me face my problems for the first time."

The two are among 24 teachers from two cities in northwestern Bosnia attending Project DiaCom, a seminar organized by the Massachusetts-based Karuna Center. The idea is simple enough. Paula Green, the American psychologist and peace activist who founded the center, invited educators from the Bosnian Muslim town of Sanski Most and the Bosnian Serb city of Prijedor to sit in a circle and tell each other what happened during the civil war nine years ago.

Theory vs. practice

In theory, the two sides should bond over shared emotions, heal the deep psychological wounds of war, and learn skills to teach their communities to do the same. The scenic location of Neum, Bosnia-Herzegovina's only real coastal town, frees participants somewhat from the stressful context of their two hometowns, though bullet holes are still visible in the highway railings here.

In practice, though, while the rebuilding process is working, it is grueling nonetheless.

Confronting a painful history

There is a lot of painful history to work through. In 1992 and 1993, 58,000 Muslims were expelled from Prijedor, an industrial city with a mixed prewar population of 100,000. Most of the men were interned in Serb-run concentration camps in the city, and thousands were murdered. In return, the Bosnian army took control of Sanski Most, a slightly smaller town 20 miles away, forcing the Serb population there to flee to Prijedor.

After the Dayton Peace Accords ended the war in November 1995, the exiled Muslims of Prijedor gathered in Sanski Most in hopes of returning to their homes. Today, most of them are still waiting and hoping, as are Serb refugees in Prijedor.

For many, DiaCom, which stands for dialogue and communication, is a rare chance to meet people from the other side and to try to rebuild relationships severed by the war.

"For Serbs and Muslims to meet and be friends is a radical act in this society," says Demaris Wehr, Green's associate. "These teachers lived and worked together before the war, but they were forced to be enemies by ethnic cleansing."

Mr. Dhanovic was 16 in 1992 when he was expelled from his village just outside Prijedor. Three hundred people in his village were massacred by Serb paramilitaries, including 36 members of his family. "They were unarmed women and kids, but that didn't matter. They killed them anyway," he says, his boyish face clouded with emotion. "I ended up in a horrible refugee camp in Slovenia. I was so full of anger and hatred. I counted every second of every day until I could go back."

He spent four years, four months, and four days in the crowded camp. After the war, he joined other refugees in Sanski Most, only to learn that the majority of his school friends from Prijedor had been killed.

But there was no time to deal with the problems of the past. There was a shortage of schoolteachers, and all over Bosnia, classrooms were overcrowded and full of shell-shocked children. Dhanovic began teaching English and religion at a local elementary school.

'I didn't want to go'

Soon, the principal of the school ordered him to attend a DiaCom seminar.

"I didn't want to go, because I had been to other so-called peace-building workshops put on by international organizations, and I was fed up," he says. "The internationals always told us to forget what happened here, but Paula Green said we can't pretend everything is fine, or else tomorrow we will have another bloody war. That was the first time I heard any outsider say that, and I was hooked. I was lucky I met her, because she changed my life completely."

Across the table, Ms. Marinkovic's face is haggard. She has heard plenty of harrowing stories from her Muslim colleagues over the past few days, and she is angry at the Serb authorities who pumped nationalist propaganda into her town and hid the truth of the war from the Serb population.

"I need to know the truth about what happened," she says. "The secrets about war crimes are a burden we are all carrying."

For the Serbs of Prijedor, the war was a long and terrifying ordeal. The city, swelled by tens of thousands of refugees, had no electricity and was desperately short of food.

Today, teachers are among the few people with jobs in the city, and even they haven't been paid in three months.

"When I first came to the seminars, I was still in shock," Marinkovic says. "I knew I wanted to somehow rebuild relationships with my colleagues on the other side. Only later did I realize I needed to work on reconciliation with my own emotions in order to do that."

Project DiaCom, which emphasizes personal healing within a theoretical curriculum of non-violent conflict resolution, began four years ago, when a group of Muslim women in Sanski Most asked Ms. Green to help them make contact with Serb women in Prijedor.

"There were still tanks in the road between the two cities," Green says. "We decided to work with teachers because teachers have a lot of power to transmit values in the community.

"If teachers have values that express tolerance, it will be much easier for returning refugees to enroll their children in the schools," she continues. "If teachers maintain hatred, Bosnia doesn't stand a chance."

Almost 400 educators from Sanski Most and Prijedor have attended DiaCom workshops since 1998. Dhanovic is among 10 long-time participants who are now training to lead their own workshops on the DiaCom model.

"Our goal is to saturate the entire school system," Green says. She has also received a request from educators in Sri Lanka for help in creating a similar project in that country.

"I haven't seen any other program like [DiaCom]," says Paul Roeders, team leader of the European Commission education reform project in Sarajevo. "It is very effective, but more programs like it are needed. The schools here are still segregated and the curriculum is divided."

Polarized classrooms

Since the war, school curricula have become heavily polarized and steeped in religion. Pictures of Eastern Orthodox saints now hang in most Serb classrooms, where teachers give history lessons on the oppression of Serbs by Muslim Turks. Muslim classes usually open with an Arabic religious greeting and have their own version of historical abuses from the Serb side.

"The legacy of the war has made it very difficult to make schools a place of openness and joy," says Milka Paden, who is a Serb refugee working as a school counselor in Prijedor.

"It is particularly hard for minority students, but I introduced the workshop style in some classes, and it helped," she continues. "It is surprising what a difference it can make just to have the children sit in a circle, where they are all equal."

Seeing both sides

The effects of the DiaCom seminars are already being felt in Prijedor and Sanski Most. Ferida Kurtovic, a Muslim teacher, says she did away with the Arabic religious greeting in her classroom and has her students celebrate both Muslim and Christian holidays.

"This is a start, but it isn't enough," she says. "If we are to be one country, we will need a unified curriculum for history and language, and that is a lot easier said than done."

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