The Discover Bosnia program

By Simon Stiel

The 2000s witnessed several initiatives to educate schoolchildren about genocides. Holocaust Memorial Day has been commemorated since 2001 and the Rwandan genocide was included on the school curriculum. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Bosnia: a war that saw Europe experience again concentration camps, mass rape, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The public and the younger generation have experienced Bosnia through television: whether it’s been news about atrocities and the arrest of perpetrators like Ratko Mladic.  There have been films like http Two Hours From London, Warriors, Behind Enemy Lines, No Man’s Land and Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey scheduled for release during Christmas.

To complement books, television and films, visits to the sites of atrocities and incarceration have been organised by teachers. The study trips organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust to Auschwitz are well known.  One problem is that sites have had modern buildings built and have hence drastically changed the original site.

Such activities can impede understanding of what went on there. Another problem is how the site related to the genocidal campaign in other places.  Whether the trips give students a broad or a keyhole view of the country being visited is another quandary. One example is the March of the Living. Israel has had its high school students visit Poland since 1988 but those trips have been criticised for being parochial and failing to engage with the local population.

Neighbouring Slovenia and Croatia have utilised their natural beauty to attract tourists. Bosnia itself has done that with its Heart Shaped Land initiative. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, it is estimated that from 2006-15, travelling and tourism in Bosnia will have an annual growth of 5.2%. The capital Sarajevo hosted the Western Balkans Regional Tourism Event this September.

Trips to the country have also been organised by non-governmental organisations and Bosniak groups in Britain and the United States. An interesting initiative based in the UK is the Discover Bosnia programme. It began in 2010 with 13 students travelling to the country. It is organised by the Aegis Trust which organises similar trips to Rwanda.

An expanded itinerary is planned for the summer of 2012 with 10-20 students going on a 16 day journey which will include the capital Sarajevo. Bosnia’s diverse ethnic heritage can be experienced in the city centre where visitors can visit a synagogue, Serb Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals. Richard Newell, who is one of the organisers of the programme said: “Last summer, I saw a Hebrew choir sing on the steps of the Catholic cathedral. I’ve heard people say, ‘I didn’t know it was possible” for people from differing communities to live together.”

Dr Marko Attila Hoare is a Reader specialising in South-Eastern European history at Kingston University and is on the advisors board for Discover Bosnia.  During the conflict in 1995, he worked as a translator for the Workers Aid convoy to the town of Tuzla. “I think you need to go there to get a feel for the country and meet people who have survived the genocides and are from different communities,” Dr Hoare said. “You put a face on their suffering and get a feel for the real country rather than just reading about it. It’s really sort of demystifying the whole process.”

Learning about the Serb, Croat and Bosniak communities and their narratives of the war is a crucial aspect to avoid generalising ethnic groups into heroes and villains. Dr Hoare explained:

“Of course, there are differences within the communities. Meeting Serbs and Croats in Sarajevo for example will give you a different perspective from meeting Serbs and Croats in the former nationalist bedrock areas. You go to the Republika Srpska and talk to Serbs there, you get another perspective. Another advantage of these trips is that you get a feel for the nuances of the country.”

Understanding the nuances of the communities is one thing, but the students are confronted by a rejection of moral equivalence. Dr Hoare says:

“One pernicious myth is that the conflict was essentially a civil war, that the sides were basically equivalent. There was no principle at stake to be fought over; it was all just warring tribes. I would also say that another myth is that the international community was essentially benevolent, and that it wanted to intervene to stop the violence. I think the international community’s role in Bosnia was a negative one. It is important to stress that there was a planned programme of aggression and genocide organised by the government in Belgrade; a top down engineered process of mass killing.”

The conspicuous and bloody failure to deal with Bosnia will be an important lesson for the students. Discover Bosnia and other organisations are intended for students to become “politically engaged” and be upfront in campaigning for intervention from the British or any other government to stop genocide occurring in the world.

The students themselves come from many different countries like the United States and Finland. They are also encouraged to detect and fight racism within their own societies. Bosnia is evidence of what Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer said about genocide. There’s no competition about whether a particular genocide was worse than another. As Bauer said, a genocide is specific and universal.

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