Bosnia 101: A Personal Account of "Something Large"


by Diane Minor, Communications Director

As I set off on a leave of absence in Europe, a friend in Washington told me she was also going to co-lead a seminar on conflict resolution for women radio hosts from Bosnia. Days before the seminar began, I told NOW President Patricia Ireland I might regret it if I didn't attend. She strongly encouraged me to cover it for NOW's national newspaper.

At a party the night before I departed from Copenhagen, where I spent most of my leave, we played a game that culminated with the loser giving a speech out the window on a topic of our choice. The topic we chose for our host was Denmark's attempt to get the U.N. to condemn China for its human rights record. His slightly intoxicated speech went like this: "China and its human rights record. Don't know much about it. Denmark condemned it at the U.N. Didn't even know that. Denmark is a small country. China is big and won't even care. That's all I have to say."

When I got home that night, I mimicked that style to confess how little I knew about Bosnia: "It used to be part of Yugoslavia, which is a lovely country that hosted the Olympics at Sarajevo. Don't know why Bosnia was formed. Seemed like it was about the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union. They have had a bad war there and a lot of women were raped. The Serbs against the Croats. Some of the Serb leaders have been on trial for war crimes -- like mass genocide, mass graves -- at an international war crimes tribunal at The Hague. And that's all I know."

My friend in Copenhagen told me the conflict between the Serbs and the Croats dates back to World War II, when one sided with the Germans and the other with Russians. And the Croats, I guess, gained some territory that the Serbs have since waged the war to take back. There is also a religious dimension to the war, he said, with one of the groups being mostly Muslim and the other mostly Christian. I knew that because one of friends back Washington, D.C., is a Muslim woman who dreams of teaching massage and other skills to the Bosnian women who were raped.

The next morning my friend, who is English, added that a peace plan has been in place in Bosnia, know as the Dayton Accord, after the Ohio conference hosted by Vice President Gore. Oh yeah, I knew that, too. He also said, in terms of the topic of the conference I would attend, conflict resolution, that Cyrus Vance of the U.S. and the British Lord Owen now say, in retrospect, that they felt the previous attempts to reach a peace accord were a scam. They felt the Serbs were not negotiating but rather stalling while still waging war and gaining ground.

And on the way to the airport, my English friend offered one last bit of history. Tito, in the post World War II era, was a strong leader who kept the various factions together. When Tito died, the factions split. These Europeans, they really know their stuff. I think it's because they play soccer against each other.

So now that I was a little more prepared intellectually, I would have to run the travel gauntlet. I would have to take a plane to Milan, make a connection to Venice, then catch a bus to a train and finally take a bus or a taxi to some tiny town in Italy that I had never even heard of.

Though I arrived in scenic, coastal Duino without a hitch, I was tired and not in the mood to meet anyone new. I hid out in my hotel room and read a great National Geographic article with graphics that helped me again sort out who was who in the Bosnian conflict. I almost feel like I need that in my hand at all times, like a tourist map.

The next morning we gathered in a tiled classroom at the College of the Adriatico. We sat in chairs in a circle, about 20 of us, and I read tensions in the crossed arms, lack of smiles. By way of introduction our seminar co-leaders asked us to offer one reason why we had hope for Bosnia. I was the second person to speak and said I believe in the power of women, working with men of good hearts, to create change.

As others spoke and offered a mix of hope and despair, I felt more and more like a Pollyana. Zlata Pojskic, a redhead with 25 years in journalism, said she had gone to a conference for journalists in Copenhagen a year or so ago and her fellow women journalists there had promised to help, but no one followed up.

When Dudley Weeks, one of the seminar co-leaders, spoke later he said he also believes that women are a key to resolving conflicts worldwide. Thanks for giving me cover, Dudley, I thought. Later, as part of his first presentation to us on conflict resolution, he explained that one of the major causes of conflict is "role dominance," in which one person thinks that their title or position gives them the right to resolve conflicts when they may not have the skills to do so fairly. "Men do this in most places in the world," said Weeks, who has worked with political leaders the world over. "If you're born male, especially if you're male and white, you think you have a right to be in charge. It's one of the major reasons for conflicts in the world today. We have to deal with male dominance, which means that because of their role people think they have a right to power."

As our introductions wound down, my friend Betty Rogers offered a long monologue that moved me. In fact, somewhere in this first half hour of the seminar I was moved to tears and really felt like a soft touch. Rogers, an independent radio producer and media trainer who specializes in women's international human rights issues, had covered the 1993 Human Rights Conference in Vienna.

A U.N. exhibit on the history of war reported that at the beginning of the century only a fraction of those who died in wars were civilians, but now they are the vast majority, she said. "As we work this week and think about what healing needs to be done," Rogers said, "know that the work you are doing has great potential and also that it is all part of the phenomena happening to people of earth about the nature of war."

As we took a break, I began having my first personal interactions with "the Bosnians," as Weeks and Ken Clark called them. Clark manages the radio networks in Bosnia itself for Common Ground Productions, the radio and television division of the Washington-based group Search for Common Ground, and for a Bosnian non-governmental organization, Inter-Media Productions.

Valentina Knezavic was seated on my right, a woman in the her 20s with a bleached blonde bob haircut who told me she was going to be one of the four hosts for Radio Zena. A previous 1995 pilot project, Resolutions Radio, has been operating continuously since September 1996 on Bosnia's Free Elections Radio Network (FERN) and, in February of this year, organizers expanded it to include this new women's radio network.

To the left of Kenzavic sat Tina Jelin, also young and with long henna-colored hair, a law student who struck me as a bit more uncomfortable in her interactions than Knezavic. Of course we were speaking in English, without the help of one of our two able translators, and Kenzavic probably had a better command of it, thanks to MTV and an aunt who teaches English. Jelin did her part for international relations by offering me some chocolate. Establishing common interests, we had learned, was an important step in conflict resolution.

I used that principle in the afternoon, when I summoned all my courage to approach one of the women who struck me as the most fierce. Her name was Yasminka Susmel and she seemed to be older than most of the others, with dark, almost bouffant hair (I keep mentioning hair because it is how I distinguished people with unfamiliar, Eastern block-style names in my mind, also to help them come alive for you). I told Susmel that I realized when she introduced herself to the group that we were about the same age. I was born in late 1958 and she in 1959. She said loudly and, I thought, a little sarcastically to the seminar's co-leader, "Dudley, did you hear that? We have something in common. We were born the same year." Oh well, you can't say I didn't try.

That afternoon Weeks led a role-playing example of how to serve as a mediator between two parties in conflict. It taught me a few skills I will remember for a long time. The players were Denan Bacvic, our charming translator with sandy hair and a ready smile, who played an adult leader of a town who the group decided should go by the name Mobuto. He was in a make-believe conflict with Dajana Dzino, Clark's blonde, wise-beyond-her-years, 16-year-old assistant, who played a student the group decided should go by the name Zulu.

As Weeks went through the steps of trying to resolve the conflict between them, we first learned that one strategy is to try to get them on an equal basis in terms of their perceived power. So he met one-on-one first with the student, and spoke to the student first when they were gathered back together. Most striking, when the adult Mobuto lashed out at the student Zulu, calling her "lazy," Weeks did not try to intervene to protect her. He let her stand on the power of her own ideas, which were, in fact, quite strong. For example, she was the one who suggested a meeting between some of the various parties involved in the mythical conflict.

During the break, I had a pleasant personal interaction initiated by a Bosnian on a mission. Borka Rudic, a take-charge brunette who had worked as a war correspondent, came up with our other translator, Sanela Bajrambasic, a somewhat shy woman with long blondish brown hair, in tow. Rudic wanted to give me an irreverent real-life example of Bosnians already putting conflict resolution skills into practice, a little roughly, though.

Bosnia is still a mess, with roads that are torn up, railroads that don't run and phone lines that don't work. Leaders of rival factions refused to cooperate on a plan to set things right, Rudic said, until the threat of social discord -- protests, demonstrations and the like -- forced them to realize they might lose their own positions of power.

That is a good, if hard hitting, example of the conflict resolution skill Weeks calls "power with," as opposed to "power over." The people knew that they had power of their own, that they didn't have to remain victims of their leaders' bad decisions. They chose to use their power to make the leaders understand that they must work together on forward-looking projects of mutual benefit to two sides who still have plenty of anger about the past.

As the seminar went on, with numerous examples of how to bring conflict resolution skills to bear in a war-torn county, I found myself thinking "Yeah, but this would never work with my colleagues, my family, the way my boyfriend and I wrangle over environmental issues. It would never work on the abortion issue in the U.S." And I realized the Bosnians themselves must have had these kinds of doubts.

They expressed some of them in the form of questions. "You have been talking a lot about external conflicts between nations, what about when the main conflict is within an individual?" "What about when one party seems to be trying to provoke the other?" "What do you do with fear, when a person is afraid to speak out on their own behalf? When they have a realistic fear that the consequence may be death? Is there an appropriate role for anonymity?"

As some of these latter questions came up Day One, I had the opportunity to experience conflict resolution skills first hand. My agreement with the seminar organizers was that I would attend as an observer, to learn and to cover it for NOW. However, I am used to being a leader or participant in seminars.

So I chimed in on a discussion by offering some tips on my work as journalist and a public relations professional. I said I had found that people who request anonymity sometimes have other fears that you can resolve by talking with them. And I shared the example of how NOW's Ireland once wore a bullet-proof vest and hired a security guard in order to appear on a TV show with a priest who advocated killing abortion rights supporters as "justifiable homicide."

Weeks nodded approvingly, for he was sitting next to me as I spoke. Later, Clark said he was concerned that I was violating the terms of our agreement by participating. He didn't want me to feel ostracized, but he wanted the Bosnians to feel that this was their seminar, and he didn't want them to feel four Americans were dominating it. So he suggested a "doable," which is what Weeks calls a first, small step. I might try submitting any questions or comments to the three leaders in writing, and they would determine how to field them.

I did not like the idea of doing this "doable," and had some difficult feelings about it, but I understood their concern. I decided it would be an interesting experiment for me -- to really listen. I took copious notes, which amused a few people to the point where they teased me. And I relaxed, for once, and let events unfold. Ironically, I was invited by my first friend, Valentina Knezavic, to take a walk with the three Serbs among the group. Clark seemed startled by this and jokingly said, "Tell me what they said."

Valentina did most of talking. Accompanying us were Tina, still quiet, and two young men who had arrived a day late for the seminar. They made a big impression when they introduced themselves, though. Here were male Bosnian Serbs, those nasty fellows demonized in the international press. They were a study in contrasts.

Aleksandar Zivanovic spoke first, a tall thin guy with sandy hair, he had only been in radio eight months and this was his first trip "abroad." He spoke gently and said his hope for Bosnia stemmed from meetings like this one.

Then Miodrag Stanisic, a more stout and dark-haired fellow who had been an economist, gave what he self-deprecatingly referred to as a "mountaintop view." The group broke into spontaneous applause for the first and only time of the whole week.

But now they only had small talk to offer as we walked. It was Knezavic who had a lot on her mind. We went down a rocky hill to the sea, where we could see in the distance snow-capped mountains in Slovenia, a new country that was also part of the former Yugoslavia, yet broke away peacefully.

Valentina recalled the many times she and her mother had gone to seaside towns like this one, enjoying the beach, shopping, meals out and local wines. She rattled off the names of some 10 or 15 beach towns in the former Yugoslavia. And she offered the rueful reflection that Yugoslavia freedom fighters had saved this part of Italy during World War II. "Now it is very rich here," she said, as we walked past expensive cars and large homes in tiny Duino that are typical of industrial, northern Italy.

This close connection between the two countries, a surprise to me having grown up an isolated American, was reinforced as I joined my new friends on quick bus trips to the larger town near us, Monfalcone. Many Italians would converse with them in their own language.

The Bosnians were eager to shop in Monfalcone because so few stores have re-opened in the still bombed-out main city, Sarajevo. In fact, the sophisticated fashion sense of this group had immediately shattered my own silly stereotypes of stout peasant women wearing head wraps and long, dark skirts.

Somewhere I read that people in the former Yugoslavia came from a very materialistic, secular culture. However, in this group of hard-nosed journalists I heard quite a few people framing issues out of a deep, spiritual perspective.

Kleopatra Belinger Primorac, a fast-moving blonde with large, round eyeglasses and 10 years of journalism experience, had said in introducing herself to the group, "Deep down inside I hope and I pray to God that something large will happen. I know that old values can not come back to Bosnia, so I would like to see something new that will help all nations."

Rudic, the war correspondent, said during a mock-interview during which she was asked to identify the most important thing for others to know about her: "I am a journalist and a family person and I am tired. I have studied philosophy and I try to bring more of a sense of spirituality to everything I do. I try to find time for poetry and music. And I think this makes me a better journalist."

In another interview for a mock radio show dubbed "Live from the Heart," the soft-spoken Serb Zivanovic asked his guest, Dajana Dzino, about the first time she noticed differences between people. (The mock interview questions came from a U.S. anti-racism training model). Dzino -- who had introduced herself as the daughter of a "mixed" marriage between a Muslim and a Christian -- said her mother had friends who were from Africa and these men commented that Bosnia was the first place they had seen churches and mosques built right next to each other.

Liljana Zurovac, a soft-spoken woman with long, sandy brown hair and 20 years in journalism, said if Bosnia's religious leaders "speak of positive thinking and living together maybe that can help." As we chowed down catered lunches each day, I noticed that Zurovac was a vegetarian and she explained that it is because she is a Hare Krishna. During a brief walk together, she also told me that her most bittersweet life experience has been helping her son grow into a fine, 20-year-old man who is now living away from home for the first time.

The Bosnians also had personal stories of loss and trauma to share, so much so that Weeks cautioned against using our course time for that purpose. One seasoned journalist, Dinka Jelin, eventually told the group about how soldiers broke into her home, shouted obscenities in front of her children and took her husband off to a labor camp for 10 months. Rudic told me at breakfast our last morning together that she had interviewed a woman who was raped by a neighbor who was a soldier and that the woman did not want to live in Bosnia anymore.

I listened for women's stories like these and learned, for example, about concerns for the the country's many war widows and retired women workers. Even these striking gender differences seemed to be subsumed by the shared reality of war, post-war hardships and their courage in the face of it all.

Fierce Yasminka Susmel, during one of the mock radio interviews, was asked to name her heroes. She said she has many heroes, but they are not famous people. They are, as a song in Bosnia calls them, "heroes of the streets." Weeks said news reports are filled with stories of Bosnians killing one another, but he knows first-hand stories of Bosnian Serbs who risked their lives for Croats and vice versa.

"I'm one of the nasty Croats," joked J (who requested that we not use her name), a striking-looking teenager with dark hair and skin who arrived even later than the Serbs. J, fluent in English, says wrly that Bosnia is not so "exotic" to the international media anymore.

Yet upon my return to Denmark I saw an article in a newspaper for U.S. people in Europe that talked about J's country. It said the Croats were still unwilling to cooperate in re-settling Serbs who had fled their county during the murderous rampage called "ethnic cleansing."

On a half-hour BBC TV interview show I heard a Bosnian man, brought up in the U.S. but now a leader of Muslims in Bosnia, talk about how the Muslims presented all their war criminals for trial even though they are few in number and most of the war criminals are people who committed atrocities against Muslims.

And I learned from a German friend about the dramatic story of how one of the criminals was brought to trial. It was, in part, thanks to the testimony of a woman who had been raped by him and later ran into him at a shopping mall in Germany. He sneered menacingly at her, but she still had the courage to come forward. It is a stark reminder that all of us have not only a moral interest -- but some self-interest -- in ridding our global neighborhood of these war criminals.

For me, Bosnia will never again consist of confusing news reports about a bunch of small countries beleaguered by a big, bad war. It is a beautiful place filled with heroic, ordinary people who have within them the power to bring order out of chaos and success out of defeat.

For, in my mind's eye, I can still see our sweet, hip translator, Denan Bacvic, trying to bowl for the first time in swinging Duino's computerized bowling alley, with others cheering him on. Bacvic, who goes by "Jenno" among friends, was the first person to correspond with me by e-mail, from a new job in Sarajevo with a United Nations agency. The fact that he and the others persevere in Bosnia gives me hope.

And I imagine Yasminka Susmel, who I came to know as passionate and warm more than fierce, back in the saddle in the Resolutions Radio studio in Sarajevo. She has a natural gift for creating what she calls a "magic experience" on the air, a gift that Search for Common Ground says has drawn "a loyal, active audience." Now she and the other hosts have even stronger skills in both radio production and conflict resolution, too.

I believe "something large" can start that small.


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