Vahidin Omanovic started the Center for Peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina to help people confront the painful events of the 1992-1995 war and rebuild relationships severed by war. Melissa Engle
Confronting painful memories in post-war Bosnia
March 18, 2009
HRUSTOVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — The cemetery at the entrance to this picturesque village surrounded by distant mountains is a grim reminder of the cost of war.
The birth dates on the wooden grave markers and stone monuments vary but the year of death on every marker is the same – 1992.
The youngest victim of the massacres that took place in this village 12 kilometres south of the city of Sanki Most was only 2 weeks old and the eldest was 90 years old.
"These are my neighbours, my relatives, my cousins, my best friends – I know them all," says Vahidin Omanovic, a leader and organizer of peace-building activities supported by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
More than 200 villagers are buried in this graveyard. Wooden markers identify the recent burials of bodies that have been found in mass graves. The fate of more than 100 villagers is still unknown.
About 750 families lived in Hrustovo before the war. Only 300 families have returned to the village.
The most tragic aspect of the three-year conflict that divided the country along ethnic and religious lines is that it happened among neighbours and friends, says Omanovic.
When the war ended in 1995 about 110,000 people had been killed and close to 2 million people were driven from their homes. Many people have not returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Those who have are forced to confront the painful events of the war and rebuild relationships severed by war.
"We can't forget the war – we have to learn how to live with it," said Omanovic. "If we don't talk about our experiences, reconciliation can’t happen."
In 2004, Omanovic founded the Center for Peacebuilding, an organization supported by MCC that provides a variety of activities that bring about emotional healing, understanding and reconciliation.
One of the activities is week-long summer peace camps that provide opportunities for people of various religions and ethnicities to speak candidly with each other about the pain of their past and their hopes for the future.
After attending the camp for two consecutive years, participants are encouraged to undertake peace-building activities in their own communities. Fifty-six people have completed the two-year training and are now involved in peace-building activities in 15 communities.
Sharing her story and listening to the stories of others helped Ermina Boskovic develop a better understanding of herself and the conflict that divided Bosnians into three groups of people – Bosniaks (a term for a Bosnian of Muslim descent), Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs.
Boskovic, a Muslim woman married to a man from the Roma group, an ethnic group commonly referred to as gypsies, says she was keenly aware of prejudices toward her family but had not recognized her own prejudices until she participated in a peace camp.
"When a woman, an Orthodox Serb, got up to speak at the peace camp I said to myself, what is she doing here – what does she want," recalls Boskovic.
As she listened to the woman speak, she was surprised to learn that the woman had been married to a Catholic Croat and that she was a grieving widow and mother whose husband and two sons were killed during the war.
"She kept on asking, who took away my husband and my sons? I felt pressure in my chest – what is my right to judge someone just because they are Serbs or Orthodox? In this situation, she is a mother and I’m a mother too. What right do I have to judge her?"
People in Bosnia, she says, often refer to the war as "a Croat killed a Serb, a Serb killed a Bosniak or a Bosniak killed a Serb." As she listened to people from various religions and ethnicities share their stories, she realized that "human beings had killed human beings during the war."
A month after participating in this camp Boskovic started volunteering at the Center for Peacebuilding. Despite a busy schedule of being a mother and helping her husband operate a bicycle repair shop, she spends eight hours a week at the center.
She also spends one hour a week teaching a course developed by the Center for Peacebuilding that gives students in local schools the skills to communicate with each other in an open, trusting and receptive way.