The theatre group challenging Bosnia’s ethnic divisions

I was imprisoned in Omarska concentration camp. There’s a growing danger it could happen again. That’s why I’m working with young people to help stop it.

People performing on stage

During the 1990s, I witnessed first-hand the horrific consequences of the rise of ethnic nationalism in my country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was born in Prijedor, one of the regions most severely affected during the Bosnian war and was among the thousands imprisoned in Omarska concentration camp. Since returning to the country in the years after the conflict, I’ve become keenly aware of the revival of scapegoating and demonisation of minorities; a political strategy that risks pushing young people into another conflict. Recognising this danger, I chose to dedicate myself to education, reconciliation and peace-building. In 2006, I started Most Mira, a charity which aims to bring together children and young people through creative and inclusive activities. By building bonds between people across ethnic divides in Prijedor, I hope we can prevent a repeat of the past suffering experienced in these very same communities.

Some of the young people Most Mira has worked with have never met person of a different ethnicity to them—even though they were born, raised and educated often within walking distance of each other. The state’s ethnically divisive policies have fostered a climate of fear and resentment, especially among young people. During and after the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, people were so badly conditioned that they felt safer staying segregated, and this caution has been transferred, intentionally or not, to the next generations.

Mary, who first got involved with Most Mira in 2015, recalls the animosity between different ethnic minorities in her childhood. “When I moved to Prijedor from my village I attended primary school, I was in sixth grade, with a Muslim girl. One day she gave everyone in the class a braided bracelet. She made them all herself. Another student, a fellow Serb, told me it was witchcraft. I then threw it away. Today I feel sorry that I have not kept it as it was a very nice gesture from her.”

When Mary first joined Most Mira, her family didn’t approve of her participation. Some disliked that she was spending time around people from different backgrounds, and others thought acting was a waste of time. They could not understand the importance of the space we provided for young people like Mary—the only space in the society where they felt welcomed and free. Three years later Mary told me her mother has started supporting her and accepted her wish to study acting in the near future.

Generation with no future in Bosnia? 

Mary is part of a generation of young Bosnians—regardless of their nationality or ethnicity—who have been ignored and neglected by the Bosnian political system. They feel unwanted in the country of their birth. They pursue their studies with no expectation or hope of landing any job, let alone one for which they study in school. The authorities, unwilling or unable to support young Bosnians in education or employment, would prefer they left the country altogether. This has been a trend for more than a decade. It’s become a new normal, a way to reduce a burgeoning unemployment figure. Images of young men queuing outside foreign embassies, hoping to get a visa to start working in construction in Slovenia, Germany or Austria, and young women hoping to get a job in a care home has become the norm in a country rich with many resources.

Most Mira has had the privilege of working with some of these intelligent young people whose talents are more needed in their own country than abroad. Their frustrations were best expressed earlier this year in a series of participatory video workshops which Most Mira ran in partnership with Elma Selman, an artist and psychologist who was born in Prijedor.

How does Most Mira work? 

“Most Mira is the opposite of school—our work in school kills creativity—we have to be the same and know everything and there are no excuses,” one participant told us. “If you give advice for something at school you are told no. A few teachers love new ways, but most of them don’t.”

Every year, Most Mira brings together a group of high school students and facilitators—often their teachers—to participate together in a series of creative workshops which teaches them the importance of teamwork, solidarity and cooperation. The process consists of a number of challenging tasks which they approach in a creative manner, from testing student’s ability to build something innovative from scratch to dealing with conflict resolution. The entire project lasts for about four months and it involves producing a play (a comedy) which explores many of the student’s everyday problems, particularly issues which are not often discussed or addressed in public. One play, entitled Moustaches, dealt with sexual violence or gender inequalities:

"Brkici" – "Moustaches" play:

Another, One Day of Unlucky Man, sums up frustrations associated with seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic barriers, nepotism and corruption Bosnian citizens face when they try to demand their basic rights from various official institutions.

The young participants—assisted by the facilitators and professional trainers—learn how to take the lead in all different aspects of the project: acting, improvisation, playing games. In sharp contrast to their classroom work where their teachers control every aspect of their education process, students own and drive the process in Most Mira workshops. One participant said the project provided a space where “you can speak your mind”. Another said, “there is no wrong” at Most Mira; all ideas are welcome, and all issues can be discussed. Sometimes this causes friction with new facilitators and the teachers, who initially seem confused by this seemingly reversed role play. However, they too come to appreciate the process and recognise the benefits it provides not only for the young participants but themselves and their teaching too.

“I think it’s a valuable experience to see different perspectives on how to work with children,” says Igor, a teacher and facilitator for Most Mira. “There is no hierarchy in the process and we are used to hierarchy—we are indoctrinated from kindergarten. Being open and giving the young people some space is important.”

Bosnia the Desert: a short film by a Bosnian youth theatre group:

This year’s project involved a new element: participatory video workshops led by Build Up facilitator Michaela Ledesma. The participants were divided into several groups and encouraged to select their own themes which they then used to produce short films. Within two weeks they learned about various filmmaking techniques and the different roles filmmaking crews perform in order to produce a successful project. In one film called Bosnia the Desert, one group painted a very bleak picture of the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This raw, yet brutally honest, video accurately sums up the current day-to-day reality faced by a  new generation. It depicts an ever-increasing number of young people leaving the country year-after-year, until this hemorrhage of human capital, a resource they warn the country does not possess in abundance, leaves no-one to take care of the country. They leave for Germany to clean toilets, to provide care for the aging German population. The lucky ones end up marrying a German; the unlucky ones remain stuck in this quagmire.

A group of people on a stage"Being open and giving the young people some space is important.” Image: Kemal Pervanic

The future 

This autumn, a biannual political circus will once again ignore the needs of young people. Every two years, over 150 political parties vie for power, the biggest among them campaign on promises of “protection” from the supposed threat represented by the other. This divisive rhetoric has been causing further rupture in an already war-damaged society. Young people have become the victims of such politics. The opportunities Most Mira offers them through our projects help them discover that they share the same talents and abilities that the best of us have. This work helps them understand that they too can make a valuable contribution to society.

Unfortunately, 10 years after the financial crash Bosnia and Herzegovina’s youth have continued to flee their impoverished homelands, leaving behind fractured communities in the firm grip of right-wing political elements that virtually face no democratic opposition. At a time like this the work of grassroots organisations play a vital role in the struggle against this negative trend that may ultimately put everyone’s security at risk.

About the author

Kemal Pervanic is a human rights activist, peacebuilder, filmmaker and writer. He is the author of The Killing Days: my journey through the Bosnian War, a first hand account of his time in two Serb-run concentration camps in 1992.