Inter-ethnic Dialogue in Bosnia

Louise Diamond

President and Founder of Peace-Tech

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: There was a moment in Bosnia where we were asked to go to Bosnia after the Dayton Accords were signed when I was at IMTD. It was the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that asked us to come and they said, "Look we are responsible for the democratization process. We know there has to be dialogue and we don't know how to run dialogue." We convened some of the first dialogue that happened after the war between the primarily three different ethnic groups. Of course there are more than three, because there is a whole group of people who are mixed and don't identify with one another. It was very tense because it was the first time in years that people had talked to someone from the other side in a friendly way and not at the end of a gun. There was a lot of feeling, passion and pain. There was a really archetypal moment. There was an older Bosniac, Muslim woman who kind of archetypically was every mother who had ever sent a son to war, every woman who had ever lost a husband to war. A kind of earth mother suffering, grieving, and saying, "What have you done to the men in my life?" There was also a young Serbian soldier who insisted upon us calling him an ex-soldier, because he said he had to fight, he didn't want to. He was at heart a poet, and he was very young and very slight. They started our three, four, or five day workshop quite at odds with each other. She was quite angry with him. All she saw when she saw him was a Serbian soldier. She knew what those fellows had done with her family and her people.

There was a certain moment in the workshop when we were doing some exercise where he refused to take part. He went off in the corner and he sat by himself and he came back and joined the group and said, "I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to recreate the war, talk about the war, instead I wanted to write a poem." So he read a poem, and I don't even remember what was in the poem but it was very heart felt about the pain of the war on all sides and so much suffering unnecessarily, and this melted this woman's heart. Something changed for her in that moment, and they became fast friends. They spent the rest of the workshop with their arms around each other. You would never see one without the other. We went back to Bosnia after three months and then again six months later, and we asked people who had been in that workshop, "What stands out for you, what do you remember?" 95% of them said that they would never forget that woman and that man, and the statement of reconciliation that had happened between them. It was personal for the two of them, but for every one else in the room and at a larger level it was totally symbolic of the archetype of the soldier who really didn't want to kill people and the mother who suffered, the victims of war. Women and children are primarily the victims in war, especially in Bosnia, and that they could touch each other's hearts... It was very beautiful.


Q: In the situation with the dialogue in Bosnia how do you begin to convince people to talk about these horrific things that have been happening to them over the past few years with the events so fresh, what is the incentive for them to come together and talk.

A: First of all I am not sure that you do convince people to come and talk about these horrific things. You invite them to come and talk about what ever you need to talk about. You structure the events in such a way that it is possible. For instance shortly after the war there were many people who were eager to rebuild the bridges and that has been my experience in any society, that there are always people who want to build peace locally. If you can find them or just put out the call that it is available they will show up. You start with the people who are ready and want to do it any way and they will let you know you take them down a path that they don't want to go.

We did a big project with youth in Bosnia, 18-28, and we thought it was a leadership program, we thought it was going to give them the opportunity to talk about the war. They were teenagers or young children during the war and guess what, they refused to talk about it in the sessions, in our workshops, they said no we don't want to talk about it, it is too raw, we have suffered enough, we don't want to relive it, we certainly don't want to relive it with those folks in the room. In one on one and in small groups, of course that is what they were talking about it. As they made friends, as they felt safe in their own way, on their own time they were initiating these conversations with others. It was really interesting to me at one point we had this first batch of folks come to US and took them on a wilderness canoe trip in the border waters in the Northern waters of Minnesota.

Here are these groups of Muslim Croat Serbs, young people stuck together in a canoe for three or four days camping out on these islands, with only the food they could carry with them, and they had to talk to each other, they had work together, you have to cooperate, you have to build a fire, cook the food, clean the dishes, set up the tents. They were thrown together in a way that required their cooperation. At one point I was sitting with my group, there were several different groups on different islands at different times, and I was sitting not directly in the group. I heard them start this conversation about the war and about what they experienced and I kind of came forward to see if I could facilitate or help in any way. They kind of looked at me but they started looking at me and talking in the Serb-Croatian language, in the local language. They made it very clear, "This is not about you lady. It is ours." I left, it was true, it is their work and it is their story.

Q: They were able to talk to about it without strangling each other or throwing each other over the canoe?

A: We didn't lose anybody. I don't know what they said and even if I had heard it I couldn't have understood it.