Gymnasium Students a Success
TFF's conflict-mitigation progresses in Eastern Slavonia
Between March 22 and April 1, TFF brought Serb and Croat students together for the first time since the civil war of Autumn 1991. This is our report:
EASTERN SLAVONIA - GENERAL BACKGROUND
The mission of the UN in Eastern Slavonia, UNTAES, was the peaceful reintegration of the region of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium into the Republic of Croatia. Until January 15, 1998, UNTAES exercised authority over this region through a basic agreement of 12 November 1995 and through UN Security Council resolutions 1037 of 15 January 1996 and 1120 of 11 July 1997.
The follow-up consists of only a small group of UN Civil Police and Civil Affairs staff. OSCE has less than 200 personnel in place. There are also some European military monitors (ECMM, the white suited brigade) who continue to be in the region. All executive power has been handed over to the Croatian government; the international organisations only monitor.
According to the census of 1991, before the war 45 thousand people lived in Vukovar of whom 47% were Croat, 32% Serb and the rest were of other minorities; 35 thousand lived in Vinkovci, 80% Croat, 11% Serb; 105 thousand in Osijek, 70% Croat, 12% Serb.
At the end of the UN mission, about 80,000 Serbs lived in the region about a quarter of whom were DP's mainly from Western Slavonia. Very few Croats are now there although they have the right to return to their former home places. Croatian police has taken over duties from UN personnel during spring 1998. An exodus of Serbs was considered a likely consequence of the UN leaving the region, but it seems that they are departing on a more slow, regular basis - many to Serbia and some to Norway and Canada.
This spring many observers predict that the majority of the remaining Serbs who can will leave at the end of the school year - not only because of ongoing incidents and discrimination by bureaucracy but also because there are few economic incentives to stay for citizens in general - a major reason also why only few displaced Croats have come back to Eastern Slavonia.
Most Serbs have now taken out Croatian citizenship and have registered their cars with Croatian number plates. Serbs now in Croatia have no right to citizenship in Serbia that lies just East of the Danube, nor are they particularly welcome there as there are already 650 thousand Serb DP's living there mostly in poor conditions of housing and employment.
Six years after the war in Eastern Slavonia that ruptured Croat-Serb relations and destroyed lives, livelihoods, homes and left fertile fields mined with shoulder high weeds as they cannot be ploughed because of mines, the Croatian government announced a national programme of trust building with one woman in Zagreb to manage it all. At the same time the diarrhoea of hostile anti-Serb rhetoric pours out of the government controlled media and at meetings of the local trust building committees.
It is a sad fact that the so-called "international community" has had no coordinated strategy for the post-UNTAES period of peacebuilding, economic reconstruction and reconciliation. The area is also completely forgotten in the media. Few psychological wounds have been healed; although many young Croats and Serbs would want to stay, they see only few opportunities to make a living in the future. Others are just waiting, as they have little else to do.
The parents, teachers and pupils of several schools boycotted the Croat principals and on several occasions the pupils walked out of the schools in protest. Similar protests occurred over the failure to provide text books in Serbian using the cyrillic alphabet, and over Croat teachers insisting that Serb pupils should use the Croat language and Latin alphabet. [The Croat and Serb languages are almost identical: they are simply like two different dialects. Either could be written in the Latin or Cyrillic scripts: the Latin is best suited to Croatian and the Cyrillic to the Serbian].
Peacebuilding in the
There is also the integration of each sector, e.g. the school. In this region many schools lack teaching materials, teachers in various subjects, funds to repair the schools - not to speak about investment in modern equipment. There is still a considerable mistrust between Croat and Serb principals, teachers and pupils and working conditions leaves much to be desired particularly in Serb-majority schools. In general, the everyday situation is considerably better in both Vinkovci and Osijek, i.e. outside the war devastated region in which the UN had executive power.
LITTLE DEVELOPMENT TOWARD PEACEFUL INTEGRATION
It is our conclusion based on 7 missions since summer 1996 throughout Eastern Slavonia that policies directed toward the human dimensions of integration and trust-building must be characterised as far too little far too late. This applies to the activities of the international community as well as the policies of the Croatian government.
This is not the place to discuss whether this is due to lack of genuine good will, knowledge, resources or administrative capability. It's probably a combination of all these factors. It's just a sad fact for anyone to witness; it is a major reason why Croats are not returning in any large numbers at the time of writing (April 1998) and that Serbs are slowly but surely leaving the region for Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
It looks like the UN and the international community helped Croatia to integrate the region in terms of territory, legal and administrative routines and in terms of law and order and everybody thought that the integration and peaceful co-existence of people would then follow automatically. If so, this has already proven to be a false assumption with catastrophic consequences for thousands of ordinary citizens.
In spite of this, the UNTAES mission did achieve a lot within a short time span. It could have done more had the international community not bowed that easily to Croatia's request that UNTAES should leave in the middle of the process.
It is noteworthy that the Croatian government, on the initiative of President Dr. Franjo Tudjman and then UN Transitional Administrator, Jacques Klein, has set up a National Committee with local chapters for Re-Building of Trust. However, its organisation and budget seems to be tiny, its members handpicked in Zagreb and very few of them seem to be professionally knowledgeable about or trained in matters relevant to reconciliation, trust-building, peace education, conflict-resolution, etc.
THE PURPOSE OF TFF's MISSION
In this situation TFF has achieved a break-through in bringing 120 Serb and Croat final year students together for four day long seminars in which they found out face to face who their peers are on the other side are, what they share in common, in music , sport, friendships, and their hopes and doubts about their common future in Croatia. 'We are not guilty for the war', they said, 'just victims', who affirmed almost without exception that this coming together was transforming in awareness of each other, was enriching, exciting, fun. 'Why did you wait so long', they asked.
The overall purpose of TFF's exercise during this mission - its 30th to what was once Yugoslavia - was to enable gymnasium students in Eastern Slavonia to meet and listen to those from the other side of the conflict in order that they might in the future live peaceably with each other as citizens of Croatia. Although they live only a few miles apart, they had not met since 1991 because of the displacement and alienation produced by the war.
It came as one of more follow-ups to the Foundation's work for the UN Mission and teaching provided by its team members at a series of Council of Europe seminars held during autumn 1997 with principals and teachers. Each involved gymnasium had been visited and principals, head teachers and parents informed in advance about the purpose of the seminars.
TFF director Jan Oberg, Kerstin Schultz and Peter Jarman, as members of the Foundation's conflict mitigation team, assisted by a local and versatile Serb business woman from the village of Dalj, Bosiza "Becky" Klajic, facilitated four day-long seminars between four groups of about 14 Serb students from Vukovar, three groups of about 14 Croat students from gymnasiums 1 to 3 in Osijek and 14 Croat students from the economics gymnasium in Vinkovci. Prior to these meetings we prepared each group of students by three hour sessions with them primarily concerned with encouraging them to be in touch with their feelings and to use 'I' statements. Altogether 10 meetings were facilitated.
The evaluation made by the students at the end of each seminar was very positive about their value in helping to heal the violence of the conflict, and in enabling the students to have confidence that they could live alongside each other. One purpose highlighted by meetings held with the Vukovar students in October 1997 was the need to assure them that they could have confidence in seeking to enter higher education in the faculties of Osijek and Zagreb.
Planning and preparation
This work was substantially prepared through several visits made by JO and KS to Eastern Slavonia before October 1997 when PJ joined them in several more visits at the suggestion and support of the UN temporary administration in the region, UNTAES, and a further visit by JO and KS in January 1998. These visits and the one described in this report were financed by the Swedish International Development Agency, SIDA (of the Swedish government on the recommendation of its ambassador in Zagreb).
Since our last visit in December, JO had had a long conversation with the (outgoing) Minister of Education, Ms. Ljiljana Vokic, with the Ministry's regional officers and Vesna Skare-Ozbolt, the Chair of the National Commission for Re-establishment of Trust announced by the Croatian government on October 2 1997 ('the Republic of Croatia strives to promote a way of life in which forgiveness, tolerance, coexistence and equal rights of all its citizens are a foundation for progress and development'), with local representatives of the education ministry and principals of gymnasiums.
We began this mission by calling on the local Croat education ministry officials, Zdenka Buljan in Vinkovci and Ksenija Zbozil in Osijek. Zdenka Buljan met us dressed completely in black and for a time could only speak of the sudden death six weeks previously of her husband in his late 50's from injuries received during the war. They were due to return to Vukovar this Summer from whence they were displaced in the Autumn of 1991. Nevertheless she endorsed our exercise of trust building.
We also met the principals of the gymnasiums whose students took part in the seminars. One was most supportive even though many of his students were displaced persons, the Croat principal of the Vukovar gymnasium gradually warmed to the exercise and his introductory remarks to the seminars were sensitive and supportive; one Osijek Principal was sullen, indifferent and barely cooperative although the final year students were most supportive and encouraging. Another Osijek principal could not be contacted as he seemed to be seldom in his office but one of his pedagogues was helpful.
We ensured that parents gave permission for their daughters or sons to participate in the seminars which in a few cases was refused or withdrawn at the last moment as was the case with two girls in Vinkovci whose fathers had died during the war. We asked for final year students whose English enabled them to participate in those parts of the seminars that were conducted in English. (For the two or three students whose English was too weak for this, we used an interpreter or peer interpretation).
Two seminars were held in the Hotel Dunav in Vukovar, the Croat students coming from Vinkovci and Osijek by bus accompanied by PJ and an interpreter, and another of the TFF team driving a car immediately behind the bus. The other two seminars were held in the libraries of two of the gymnasiums in Osijek with students from Vukovar being bussed in with the same accompaniment. Police in Vukovar and Osijek were advised about the exercise - there were several police around the Vukovar hotel most of the time anyway. The seminars were opened by brief speeches from the principals involved. Otherwise there were no teachers present at the seminars.
PREPARING THE STUDENTS FOR THE ENCOUNTER
In preparing the students for their encounter with the other side, we encouraged them to get in touch with their feelings. In different pairs, they asked each other 'when recently did you feel really happy?', 'when did you feel angry?', 'when did you make someone else unhappy by what you said or did to them which you afterwards regretted?', and 'what did you do or say to another person that made them happy?' We encouraged them to respond by 'I' statements: 'I felt angry when .....', 'I felt happy when .....' For later in the inter- ethnic seminars we wanted them to use 'I' statements rather than 'you' statements: 'you started this trouble'.
Then in the preparatory single ethnic meetings, students were invited to express their feelings about meeting students from the other side for the first time. 'Curious', 'very curious', 'interested', 'a little scared', 'we can never live again together as we did before the war', 'I have no wish to be close friends with them', 'I'll listen to them if they will listen to me', 'I want to know what they experienced during the war'. In visits previously we also heard 'If they come here, we'll kill them', 'They started it', 'I hate them', but these voices were not heard during our later visit.
We met some displaced students quite severely traumatised, but most students seemed to be normal European teenagers except that for six years they had not met their peers who live just a few kilometres away, and who for that period had only received a one sided version of what had happened during the war.
A few students adamantly proclaimed that they were not going to be manipulated by the media or by politicians, nor even by their parents: they were going to find out for themselves.
THE AGENDA OF THE
Then PJ introduced a Buddhist brass bell/bowl from the foothills of the Himalayas that was invited to sound. At further sounds of this bell during each seminar, all participants were encouraged to be still and to be in touch with their true inner selves and with what they had heard from the others.
Students with certain common interests such as in sport, music, or poetry were invited to stand so that common interests could be reinforced. Identifying compass directions around objects on the floor standing for Vukovar and Osijek/Vinkovci, students and the TFF team were invited to stand where they grew up, and then where they were in June and in December 1991. This illustrated the clustering and displacement of participants during the war.
We then invited the host group to choose one of their guests and to interview each other to find out 'who are you?' We were relieved to observe how eagerly hosts moved their chairs so as to be close to one of their guests. Animated conversation ensured for a good quarter of an hour before we asked the entire group what they had found out about the others.
We then broke up into two smaller groups and used
fish-bowl techniques to explore more about what each thought
of the other, before we broke for an interval of drinks and
Dealing with remembrance and
The bell was placed in the middle of the circle - by now it was ethnically well mixed - and ground rules were described and reinforced: that only a person picking up and holding the bowl was permitted to speak, everybody else should listen attentively, that each person was to speak from out of their own experience and about their own feelings - using 'I' statements, and that we would use this time to share experiences of loss through bereavement, destruction of homes, and loss of childhood.
To set the tone PJ began by speaking about the death of his son and his son's girlfriend though a car accident caused by the inattentive driving of an old man. He mentioned the need for forgiveness, of the person rather than the deed. Addressing the pain and hurt of the past was a vital part of the meeting.
During each of these sessions there were quite long periods of silence, an experience that we found very moving for we felt that we all were upholding each other with the pain that each of us has borne in life. A pain which cannot be forgotten, a pain that may well elicit forgiveness, but a pain that must not engender a hate that can block and ruin the future. When someone spoke from out of that stillness about their pain and hurt, their feelings were truly appreciated as a cathartic act.
Reconciliation does not mean forgetting; it may well require repentance and forgiveness; it does mean that the hurt of the past must not ruin the future. We felt that the students really appreciated this.
We listened to some of the pain of what had happened to them during the war: being shelled; fathers killed, wounded, taken prisoner, tortured; other close relatives killed; homes destroyed, a child friend being killed by a hand grenade. For all of them, much of the joy of their childhood was stolen from them.
In each of these sessions there was a substantial silence and stillness, until someone was moved to speak, about the loss of dear ones, or of harrowing experiences, or of the loss of homes or of the joy of childhood. KS and JO sometimes spoke of the grief in their own lives. Several broke down in tears. PJ referred to the possible different ways in which black Africans and Europeans find, or do not find, ways of preventing the hurt of the past ruining the future. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, but a special way of remembering, we felt.
Some Croats were shocked to see for the first time the condition of Vukovar. Quite apart from hundreds of homes, enterprises and public buildings left as they were destroyed in 1991, without a brick being restored, there is little if any investment in job opportunities, and already half of the pre-war Serb community in Eastern Slavonia has left. One Serb student in taking the bowl to speak broke down as she spoke of yet another time when she would lose her close friends, a boy friend and a cousin, who were leaving for Serbia. The quality of life and leisure is so much better in Vinkovci and Osijek.
We recognised the need to surface from these heavy moments before lunch as the students would then be expected to spend two hours in which the hosts accompanied their guests around their town and got to know them better. We failed to do this on the first seminar and this adversely affected the potential of the lunch break relationships. Subsequently we had a round of what makes me feel good, or what I am good at, before breaking for lunch.
Moving from the past toward the future
After the lunch break we reassembled to share what had happened during the two hours break. Then the students paired off as they had in the morning with one serving as a listener to the hopes and expectations of the other about their personal development over the next two to five years, and what might prevent these hopes being realised. The listeners were invited to report back to the whole group, and to add their own expectations.
In two of the seminars Croat students said that they saw as little future for themselves within Croatia as the Serb students did. In general the groups recognised that the Serbs in Vukovar had greater problems about their future and that of their parents than did the Croats, but the problem of financing their further or higher education was common to both.
In one group the Croats were very cynical about the degree of corruption they perceived amongst their government's officials and in at least two seminars the Croats insisted that they were not going to be manipulated in their opinions either by their parents or by the government or its media. The Serbs seemed to be less critical about what was influencing them.
Then in each seminar in small groups a highly animated brain-storm was held about the future of Eastern Slavonia, what was felt to be its most desirable features.
This appeared to be a novel experience for them, to throw up ideas in an uncritical way, and to report back on what had come up. This worked well in most groups and in plenary we encouraged them to criticise and prioritise what had been suggested.
We were surprised that some Croat students felt as much despair of their future within Croatia as the Serbs. In one meeting ten of them insisted that there was corruption in higher education in Croatia: people bought they way into it and bought their qualifications. Nearly all said that they would find it hard to finance their higher education: they would probably have to earn some money through odd jobs. Some felt that after graduation they would have to find jobs elsewhere in Europe.
Lots of more or less "futuristic" proposals were made for the future of Vukovar and Eastern Slavonia, even Croatia. Here follow some with direct relevance for reconciliation and peacebuilding among the students:
Leave Vukovar in ruins, for us all to
SOME OBSERVATIONS AND FUTURE NEEDS
The exercise needs to be followed up. We were delighted to find two Serb students from Vukovar had taken the initiative of returning to Osijek by public bus to continue with their contacts with Croat students there - we met them in the Old Square by accident three days after they had previously participated in a seminar in Osijek.
This was but a small exercise in which deliberately we chose to work with students willing and keen to take part. We made no attempt to engage with hard-line students who hated the other side and did not want to meet them. During earlier missions we had met some individuals with very deep hurt, particularly at technical schools and lower-level educational institutions. We had decided that other NGOs with relevant expertise and longterm, continued engagement in the region should be encouraged to deal with the traumas and hate of this youth.
Nor did we work at all with parents or with teachers during this mission. During our numerous visits to schools throughout the sector and during the Council of Europe/UN seminars last autumn, we had met hundreds of teachers, listened to their problems and views and, in some cases, conducted small seminars with them in the teachers' room. Many of them had recommended us to focus our attention for a while at the pupils.
However we noticed a softening of attitudes over the six months in which we have been in contact with the gymnasium principals. When we first asked the principal of one of the Osijek gymnasiums in October if some of his students could meet Serb students, he said 'I don't want to have anything to do with Serbs', before slamming down his phone. (He was wounded when fighting during the civil war). Subsequently we were told several times that he was ill. However this March he drove with his students to Vukovar and addressed the Serb and Croat students there at the opening of one of the seminars and referred to the National Committee for Re-establishment of Trust and the need for tolerance.
The students of their own free will but with parents' condescension or support had the interest and courage to meet their peers on the other side of the separation between Croats and Serbs in Eastern Slavonia caused by the war. Once in the same room, they soon eagerly got to know each other. Only twice in four seven hour encounters was there any provocation, and this was quickly dispelled by strict observance of the ground rules of speaking only from personal experience and only when given permission by everyone to speak through holding the bowl.
'But it's easy for us to come together', they said. 'Now do it with out parents, our teachers, and the less intellectual of our peers'.
The seminr ended with each student filling in a detailed questionnaire about the seminar, indicating on a scale from 0 (unhelpful) to 5 (good and helpful) responses to a series of questions. We were relieved and encouraged to find the array of 5's appearing on these sheets, and the additional comments made on them.
In general students wanted more of this activity, were very grateful for the meetings, wanted to meet again on the other side and to have other joint activities. Suggestions were made about joint summer camps and contributing to each other's newspapers.
The exercise was amazingly successful in trust building.
Here follows a summary of all the students' evaluations and a few typical comments selected among hundreds written by the students:
- Did you learn something new today? - 3.8
- Did the seminar meet the expectations you had when you came? - 3.6
- Think of what you have learnt. How useful will it be for you in your everyday work in the future? - 3.7
- Did you feel that you could influence the work we did today and make your points, if you wanted - was it democratic? - 4.2
- How much did you sympathise with the message or content of what Kerstin, Peter and Jan said? - 4.6
- What do you think about Kerstin's, Peter's and Jan's pedagogical ability to make their points clearly understood? - 4.8
- How did you find the balance between your own work and Kerstin's, Peter's and Jan's instructions and viewpoints? - 4.2
- Please think of the day as a whole. How would you rate
it? - 4.3
- Is there one single thing you will remember?
I'm very happy to be part of this program and I think we could do it more often. I am really surprised how all this has come out, and I want to thank you for organising this meeting (Os).
It's been great today. Come visit us people from Osijek (Vu).
I'll remember every minute I spent with youth from Osijek, because this is my first meeting with them. I spent very nice time and I want to continue the friendship we built (Vu).
The thing I will remember because it is so useful is "brainstorm". It showed me something I wasn't so much aware of - that's how powerful I am in creating my own future, and that's something I have to have constantly on my mind (Os).
Everybody were very friendly and talkative, I didn't expect that kind of situation. Especially when we went out for a break, we were singing together...it was quite nice (Os).
It is much more difficult for them than for us (Os).
I know I am not the only one who was hurt in this stupid war (Vi).
I'll remembers that we started yelling at each other (Vi).
I will remember the tears of all the people who lost somebody and something. Also, some affirms, opinions from the other group, in some way they heard me. I keep in mind opinions that are similar to my opinions, too! (Vi).
Yes, they still don't understand they are in Croatia! (Vi).
I will remember the hate I felt from some persons. I did not expect it. But I will also remember some persons who were really great.
Talking with the bell in the hand. It was very dignified (Os).
Yes, I saw Vukovar for the first time in my life and I saw only ruins. That's what I will remember all of my life (Os).
I'll always remember the story about truth, the tree and its leaves. It's a really good idea. I also won't forget all those sad stories full of emotions that I've heard today (Os).
Yes, the first time I saw the group from Vukovar coming I thought: "God, they look like humans!" (Os).
I'll remember that we should forgive and not forget - 'cause if we forget, the mistake would be repeated (Os).
My new friend and beautiful girls (name given!) (Vu).
- Anything else you want to say? Please do!
This kind of things should absolutely be done more often with more and more people (Os).
I think when somebody ask me: Which is one of my nicer days this year? - I would probably say: among other, this one (Os).
The truth lies in history, but the history you must discover yourself. In my country, ideology writes the history (Os).
It would be nice if we could have another meeting, next in Vukovar. Or we could have a picnic together (Os).
Croats want to have a state which is independent (Os).
I think I will never ever have a bad dream or nightmares now (Vi).
I think we can't be truly friends because of our parents' past (Vi)
We will come back (Vi).
They still don't understand that they are in Croatia. We will come back no matter they are here or not (Vi) (2)
There were too many provocations. I liked your advanced work and how you do that job! (Vu)
I think nationality is not important, we are all human beings and we all had a bad experience and we have bad memories. But we are not guilty for it and I am absolutely against politics (Vu).
I was impressed with my new friends from Vinkovci who tried to show feelings. I did not show everything that I wanted and what I felt. I would like to share my feelings, again with all who wish to be a friend and be human (Vu).
Kerstin, Jan and Peter were good but they don't understand our situation (Vi). I understand that they want all best for us but they haven't been in this situation and lived with all that fear and disappointment. Between Serbs and Croats there would always be differences (Vi).
We will never be able to live together.
More seminars like this with older people (2).
Keep working, it will help us in the future (Os) (2).
You have a noble cause and you do your job very well. I hope you will be rewarded for it. But I think you should appeal to higher organisations and try to improve our education because the primitives are the guilty ones. Do not try to clean the mess only, try to prevent the mess - if you have the power. Our aim "human wealth" will be fatal for our human race (Os).
It is nice to know that someone cares (Os).
We must be friends so that next generations live in peace! (Vu).
You were so good!!!! (Vu).
Yugoslavia needed to be destroyed (Os).
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