Good news from Western Slavonia, Croatia

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 37 – June 1998

Originally published here

“Most of what you hear from Croatia and the Balkans nowadays is negative. The good news is that it is possible to bring young Croats and Serbs together and help them develop an atmosphere of trust, tolerance and reconciliation. It gives us hope,” says Jan Oberg, head of TFF’s conflict-mitigation team, returning from the foundation’s 30th mission to what was once Yugoslavia.

Last month TFF conducted a series of reconciliation seminars in Eastern Slavonia with 120 Croat and Serb gymnasium students from Vukovar, Osijek and Vinkovci.

For most of them it was the first time they left “their” town and met “the other side.” Various techniques such as fish bowl, role play, groups discussions and brainstorming were used. The students got to know each other and exchanged views, made friends and sang songs. They cried when anyone who so wanted told about the hurt and pain and what he or she had experienced during the war; they did so with statements like “I experienced, in my family…” and not with statement like “you did this to us…”

They did a brainstorm and produced fascinating ideas and visions about a peaceful Croatia, Eastern Slavonia and Vukovar. They unanimously told us that many more ought to participate in seminars like this: parents, politicians, journalists as well as hardliners, war profiteers and people with little education, as some of them said.

“It took Croat and Serb students less than an hour to find out that they have a lot in common, in contrast to what they have been told by their government, the media and often their parents since 1991. Far the majority of those we worked with told us directly and indirectly that they share more with each other than with many among their own nationality,” Jan Oberg continues.

“We didn’t want this war, those in power have stolen a good part of our childhood. We cannot hate each other just because someone tells us to hate. We have to meet and shape our own opinions. Perhaps we cannot forget but we can learn to forgive; if we forget, it could happen again. The ‘others’ are human beings like us, and we’d like to meet them more frequently,” they told us repeatedly.

What the majority want is better schools and a much more modern, well-financed educational system; they want places to be together, employment opportunities, freedom to travel and work; sports and culture activities, rock concerts – the profits from which, they suggested, should go to the re-building of Vukovar. They felt that politicians were mostly playing their own games and not caring about the young generation after the war. Many want to stay in Eastern Slavonia or somewhere else in Croatia but do not feel that the opportunities are promising.

“Their vision of peace includes open borders, another type of police and military, if any. Some want to do newspapers and a radio station together and for all nationalities. Some want a peace and culture boat sailing down the Danube. Very strongly: they long to be normal youth and reach out to their Central European peers. What they see around them is the opposite of their visions and hopes. Many consider the newly independent state of Croatia quite backward and nationalistic still, they feel that they have little opportunity to develop their talents. It was surprising for us to see that quite a few, Croats and Serbs alike, would leave for other countries in Europe or for the United States if they got the chance.”

Some students were prevented from participating in TFF’s seminar by their parents. A minority wrote statements in their evaluation such as “we can never live together” or “the Serbs still don’t understand that Croatia is our country and they better leave” or “Croats are obsessed with nationalism.” Even if this was their honest view, these young people listened and talked with each other in a respectful and dignified manner.

“We must not forget that for many of them the war and their refugee life has been extremely painful and left deep scars. Many commented that it helped a lot to speak openly about it and to feel that somebody cared and listened. The fact that it went so well is extremely encouraging,” says Jan Oberg and continues:

“I can’t help wondering: Why did the UN, OSCE, and human rights organisations not do this systematically when they were here in the thousands? Why is it not done today to prevent new violent conflicts in the future? Do international organisations at all understand the potential for reconciliation and peace that young people represent – potentially the future leaders it war-torn societies? Why did neither Croatia nor the international community develop a post-UN peacebuilding strategy? Why is Eastern Slavonia forgotten in the media?

TFF and several local NGOs would like to do much more – but it is so difficult to find the small sums needed for this type of education. Croatia itself spends a lot of resources on the police and military and the luxurious life style in Zagreb contrasts, to say the least, with the conditions of the schools in Eastern Slavonia, Vukovar in particular. And the international community spends enormous sums on arming new states or imposing market economy. It would be helpful if some of them put people first,” says dr. Oberg.

We have had 7 missions in Eastern Slavonia during the 18 months and we can see the changes, also among ministerial representatives, principals and teachers. But these students – admittedly some of the best educated in the country – are much more ready and “peace competent” than the majority of politicians we have met. It is amazing that all this positive energy gets very little support from within Croatia as well as from the international community. So much needs to be done now. If the young citizens we met do become leaders in the future, there is hope. Will anybody nurse their aspirations and help them to stay and realise their potential in time?”

What did TFF do? How did it plan and implement this reconciliation process in cooperation with the Croatian government? Exactly what did the students say about the experience and about the future they wish to see? How did the students evaluate TFF’s seminars and teachers?

Read about it all in “Eastern Slavonia: TFF seminars with 120 Serb and Croat Gymnasium Students a Success. Report and Students’ Comments” – freely available, for your to print out.

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