Young Bosnians use art, activism to address past, try to change the country’s future

BANJA LUKA, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA—A carnival atmosphere dominated Banja Luka’s BASOC Center. Two dozen teens from the northwest Bosnian town of Prijedor buzzed around the courtyard, laughing and singing along with the ex-Yugo rock pouring out of speakers and over the old stone walls.

Students perform “Brkovi” (“Mustaches”) at the BASOC Center in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Photo by Stephanie Sugars.

Mejra, an 18-year-old student, bit carefully into a local meat pastry, called burek, so as not to smudge her drawn-on moustache, and then set to work reassembling set pieces alongside the others: an Instagram border, an enormous gold picture frame, signs that read “the war came” and “the war passed – thank god.” The students were preparing for the final performance of their original play in the summer of 2017 as part of the Most Mira program, which translates to “Bridge of Peace.”

Their performance was part of a multi-year program that last performed in December 2018, designed to bring young Bosnians together to face the divides—generational, ethnic, gender—that have persisted in their society since the end of the conflict that tore Yugoslavia into seven countries.

In the summer of 1992, as the Bosnian war was beginning, Prijedor and the surrounding villages were under the control of Bosnian Serbs in the newly declared Republika Srpska. Over several months, an estimated 50,000 Bosniaks—Bosnian Muslims—were expelled from their homes. An additional 25,000 people (women, children and elders among them) were taken to the concentration camps of Omarska, Karaterm and Trnopolje outside of town. Most Mira founder and program director Kemal Pervanić was one of them. There, many were tortured or raped, and more than 3,000 were killed in a massacre unmatched in scale until Srebrenica in 1995. Today, Prijedor has the highest percentage of returnees of any town in Bosnia, and issues of memory and identity remain at the fore.

The theater troupe each year includes Bosniak and Serb high school students. The summer 2017 troupe performed their original tale of four generations of a Bosnian family in Prijedor, Mostar and Jablanica. By the time their final performance in Banja Luka came around, they were confident and relaxed with one another. A girl walked past 17-year-old Luka, tossing a bundle at him with a laugh and a quick joke in Bosnian. Turning to me with a raised eyebrow and a crooked smile, he unfolded the mini skirt and explained, “They want me to wear this.”

Pervanić said that, beyond grappling with generational divides and shifting values, the play was also about gender performance and familial expectations. The purpose of having the participants write their own play, he had told me, was to encourage them to “talk about one or more issues which are important to these young people and which are important or relevant today in this community.” Previous programs had dealt with censorship and corruption; the most recent performance, which took place in December 2018, was called “Here and There” and revolved around borders: sites that remain tense across the region. The play—whose single performance filled the 360-seat theater in Prijedor over capacity—involved apples sold at two different prices (diaspora and local), an interfaith wedding and a border funeral.

Luka, a 17-year-old member of the troupe, shaves his legs in his role as a young bicyclist misunderstood by his family. Photo by Stephanie Sugars.

Regardless of the explicit focus of each play, Pervanić said, the teens confront and grapple with their trauma: both transgenerational, passed to them by family members who lived through the war, and situational, from living in what Pervanić identified as “negative peace.” In such a peace, he said, citizens have freedoms “from”—from murder, from torture, from rape, from abuse—but lack freedoms “to”—to get a comprehensive education, to find housing and to vote in representative elections. Through confronting these issues in a creative and supportive space, Pervanić said he hopes they will take the skills and confidence they learn through the program to “live the shared values they discover during the process.”

The young actors took to the stage as an audience of teens in jeans and Chuck Taylors, along with a few families, settled on the random assemblage of chairs, couches and makeshift benches pushed into approximations of rows. A couple of young children laughed as they chased each other around the yard; a dog barked. I sneaked a glance back at Pervanić as he stood leaning against the wall of Center and saw his eyes gleaming. I remembered him saying two weeks prior, “Sometimes it feels like they’re my own children.” And that day, they were.

Like a parent, Pervanić has aspirations for the young people who participate in his programs: he hopes for “them to stay here, to become leaders—future leaders—and to change this community for the better.” To this end, he said he’s subtly and not-so-subtly bringing politics into Most Mira’s projects, pushing the young adults to think critically about societal issues and how they’ve come to understand their own roles and identities. True, there exist tensions and challenges, Pervanić said, “But, there’s so much potential here for good things precisely because things are so bad.”

Bosnia’s millennials have lived their entire lives amid rampant corruption, divisive nationalism, weak institutions and economic stagnation. For many, it has become intolerable. The promise of the protests sparked in Tuzla in the spring of 2014—when protesters across the Federation took to the streets, lit some government buildings on fire and called for sweeping anti-corruption and political reform—failed to grow into meaningful political or societal change. Most politicians retained their positions, no revisions to the constitution were proposed, let alone implemented, and youth unemployment remained high: over 60% in 2014 and 2015. While youth unemployment has declined to around 46%, few see it as a sign of real improvement. If anything, conditions in the country have worsened, and young people have decided to leave at levels that some classify as an exodus.

The Bosnian state collects no emigration data, so no firm numbers exist. Some estimates have held that 80,000 people between the ages of 18 and 35 left in 2015 and 2016. Bosnian Member of Parliament Senad Šepić told me that many left in 2016 alone. At a press conference in December, Bosniak member of the tripartite presidency Bakir Izetbegović, said, “Youth and families emigrating is the gravest and most dangerous problem Bosnia will have to tackle,” and that “only persistent work can slow and stop the trend.”

Some, like Goran Zorić, a friend of Pervanić who runs the Kvart Youth Center in Prijedor, believe that the programs that civil society has conducted to date are insufficient to address the issues that drive many young people to emigrate: the failure of the government to address their financial and personal insecurity, instead using nationalist concerns as a smokescreen to do nothing. It’s not enough, he said, just to bring young people together and hope they “will realize that all this nationalism is bullshit.”

“We need to speak about [it] in a more political way, about the taboo things, things that are not always easy to hear and to handle,” Zorić added. Things like ethnicity and civic identity, active citizenship and the crimes committed by all parties during the war.

The 2017 troupe of student performs pose for one last “portrait” at the end of their final performance in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Photo by Stephanie Sugars.

It is these issues that Pervanić hopes the students participating in his programs will examine when writing their scripts, be it directly or indirectly. But the expectations, particularly of institutional donors, are too often unrealistic, he says. Donors want the nonprofits they support “to tell them after three months, six months, a year, that you’ve changed the world,” Pervanić said. “But, it doesn’t work like that.” In his estimation, it will take at least 15 years—nearly a generation—to see the impact of their work. He said that Most Mira is lucky to have primarily private donors in the United Kingdom and an institutional donor who understands “that it takes time to change things.”

Some shifts in value and initiative can be seen in parts of the country, and not every millennial is looking for the best way to emigrate. When I asked Adna Sokolović, an energetic and passionate 19-year-old who finished high school in June 2017, if she was from Sarajevo, she said with a smile, “Born and raised and not planning to leave.”

Rather than internalizing the stagnation and unemployment that have enveloped Bosnia, Adna said she sees the present turmoil as an opportunity to fight for things that are “essential,” for “basic human rights.” In Bosnia, she said, “People aren’t living, they’re just surviving.” And even though she recognized that volunteering and organizing for students’ rights across Bosnia is difficult and exhausting, she approaches it with exuberance.

Under her leadership from 2016 to 2017, the Association of High School Students in Bosnia-Herzegovina supported a coalition of students in the small town of Jajce who opposed the creation of a new school that would divide Bosniak students and their Croat classmates into segregated programs. Their efforts have delayed, if not prevented, the opening of such a school, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe presented the students with a prestigious award in 2018 for their efforts. However, the OSCE did little to support the students’ efforts at the time, Adna said.

While the OSCE works throughout the country on a mandate of building sustainable democratic institutions, strengthening good governance, promoting human rights principles and supporting the development of inclusive society, it did not help with organizing or promoting the protest alongside the students. Rather than lamenting the OSCE’s lack of engagement, however, Adna said its aloofness was probably a good thing. Because of it, more students were “fueled up” and determined that, “since you’re not going to help us, we have to fight the law ourselves.”

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to clarify that Most Mira organizers did not seek to politicize the work but understood that the project had inherent political potential, and to clarify the organization’s relationship with its donors.