C • Practise and methodology

By Jan Oberg

August 2014

How it all began – conflict-mitigation on the ground as an experiment

Between 1986 and 1990, the foundation engaged in traditional peace research – projects, seminars, co-writing, and publishing reports and books. In short, mostly at tables, desk and in chairs.

Then we asked ourselves: Is this what we are going to do for the rest of our lives – or could we do like the specialists in medicine sometimes do: Move out of the research laboratory and meet some patients? In other words, what good is it if we are only theoreticians and our ideas, concepts and theories are never tested on the ground – in the real world?

Yugoslavia began to unravel in 1990 and the first killing took place in early 1991. At the time, the TFF Board happened to count members with a keen personal experience from Yugoslavia: Ulf Svensson, Hakan Wiberg, Jan Oberg and several Associates also had a close relation over years with that country and so had friend and co-author here, Johan Galtung.

So, we cointed the term conflict-mitigation – implying a modest approch of softening up the hard attitudes and deliberately not believing that we, as foreigners, would know what the solution to various conflicts would be. We were never ut to snatch the conflict from people – so we applied the  classical Diagnosis – Prognosis – Therapy methods from the science of medicine and actually sometimes called ourselves conflict doctors.

Diagnosis meant to define the conflict in very broad, inclusive terms and never see a conflict as an issue between two parties, one good and one bad. Such conflicts don’t exist. We did that through books reading and personal experience before going and through very many interviews in the conflict areas – again, we all sides, at all levels and sometimes repeatedly over time. We did well over 3000 formal interviews on all sides in all the conflicts in Yugoslavia.

Next Prognosiswhat will happen if – if the parties do that, if we introduce that idea – if the international so-called community acts in a particular way. Thus the many predictions in the texts of this blog. We consider precise predictions to be one indicator of good research. If you make a big analysis of yesterday and today and predicts what will happen tomorrow and none of it ever happens or the opposite happens – your Diagnosis/Analysis has not been particularly good. A doctor who makes the wrong diagnosis and prognosis will also recommend the wrong treatment and the patient’s situation will deteriorate rather than improve.

And finally – Therapy, or Treatment. That is, peace proposals, constructive ideas – and devising possible strategies as to how to realise them. Our first report, After Yugoslavia – What? – contained no less than 75 such proposals on how to avoid a larger war and how to create peace.


Facts and criticism but also peace proposals

That is the pro-peace commitment. On all the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, TFF has presented – well in time – proposals in the direction of the UN Charter norm that “peace shall be established by peaceful means.” Any fool can bomb and kill, it takes a bit more intelligence, empathy, knowledge and creativity to help solve conflicts and move towards peace. Pro-peace – and not just anti-war as so many peace movements are geared to.

It is indicative in this perspective that the first report we published was After Yugoslavia – What?  and that this blog is entitled: What Should Have Been Done Instead? 

It’s indeed a daring project to publish – unaltered – what you published 20+ years ago. We, the authors, are not ashamed of our predictions at the time. Certainly mot all were correct but our proposals would have brought the various parts of Yugoslavia more happiness and genuine peace than what we see today.

Likewise,  we are not afraid to present our critique – at the time – of self-appointed conflict-managers such as the US, NATO countries, and EU representatives and their ways of making peace.

So much for the intellectual methodology.


Practical methodology: How did we do it?

What about the practical methodology?

TFF’s teams took a plane to, say, Budapest, Ljubljana or Belgrade, rented a white – UN-look alike – car and drove into the various war zone, UN sectors, capitals or villages to speak with people. The first TFF mssion took place in September 1991. When approaching loal war zones, such as Karlovac outside Crotia’s caital Zagreb, we took off the number plates and filled an extra can of petrol, drove to the checkpoint and negotiated our ways with the stated identity of being a Swedish delegation and always in advance having secured a meeting with someone down the road over the phone from the hotel in the capital – to have a purpose, to convince the – not always sober people at checkpoints – to let us through.

It certainly wasn’t a risk-free undertaking. In some mission we wore flag jacket and helmets – the latter also useful to sit on in the car if there would be mines on the roads. There were cases where we were arrested – for instance, when going out of Kosovo into Serbia with publications by Kosovo-Albanians or signed copies of books by Dr. Rugova, the Kosovo-Albanian “President” – or when coming back from Serb-controlled Krajina driving toward Zagreb in the night and having a visa in your passport for the later visit to Belgrade, Serbia. Good opportunities to practise your negotiation skills!

Having arrived at the destination, we went to the office or house of the person or organisation we had set up an appointment with – or faked an appointment with and start our interview after a standard introduction – always based on solid background knowledge. Note-taking but seldom tape recorders. At the end we asked : Who else on you side do you think we should talk with next? And who on the other side(s) do you find useful, or interesting, for us to talk with. Back to the hotel, setting up new appointments. Chain-interviewing is an excellent method when combined with the interviews you know that you must have even before you leave your own country and go on mission. A mixture of good planning and time for improvising and taking in various people’s proposals.

TFF’s team had several advantages.

One was that we were neither politicians nor journalists; those we met had no particular interest in stating medialised positions or repeat their grammophone record statements at press conference to us. And they soon found out that we asked other types of questions and knew comparatively much about Yugoslavia in advance.

They also understood from our verbal and written intros that we were seriously committed to help them make peace and wanted to listen to all sides and to all they wanted to tell us. One more thing: We always came back, we gave them a copy of  our reports and we gave seminars to their constituencies if they wanted us to do so. And, third, we were totally open about where we had been and why – and whom we had talked with (if they asked) – never a single time telling a story. But we never stated what a named person somewhere else had said. Everyone we spoke with was guaranteed anonymity.

We never used professional interpreters – except when a high-level person insisted on using his or her own. Those who served in that role were university students or people in an NGO who spoke good English and thought it was a learning experience to work with our team. Many have asked whether we spoke the language, Serbo-Croatic and then all the variants of it as the war progressed; none of us did to the extent that we would have been able to conduct a precise conversation with the nuances required in sensitive situations such as war.

If you know you can trust a non-professional interpreter, we found it much better than working with professionals. One, you know you are not given the official standard story an interpreter has learned; two, you can discuss the content with the interpreter after the interview and get that person’s personal interpretation of what was said and perhaps not said as well as nuances in the use of certain words that have a context,  the local interpeter of course knowing his or her society and culture better than we foreigners. Three, the interviewer gets a little extra time to reflect and formulate the next question while the interpreter conveys  the translation both ways.

This has to do with the fact that you can’t build confidence if you tell stories; some may have been related to the security services and, for sure, we knew that our teams were monitored by various agencies, including international agencies. Like many others they could not really find out who we were, what TFF was or what our mission was about – simply because it did not fit into any of the existing categories (we were also not a roving peace movement and didn’t behave like one).

A normal day on mission would start about 7 in the morning, perhaps the first meeting at 8 and then go on for about 10-12 hours, i.e. 6-8 interviews a day, depending on how interesting and informative each interviewee would be and how long time to get from one interview to the next. At 19-20 the team would deserve a solid dinner and good wine – never a problem in Yugoslavia – and discuss what has been learned during the day (perhaps it would have split in two groups and now compare notes). It would also discuss what the next day’s “objects” should be asked in the light of today’s experience – and perhaps call someone new to be interviewed.

When the mission has accomplished its task, the team returns and the writing of a report begins with going through all notes, dividing the work that has to be done, co-writing and editing, printing and distributing – earlier printing on paper, now PDF, articles on homepage and through the social media, perhaps a press conference, being interviewed back home.

One very important part of TFF’s work has been to inform the public outside the conflict zone what has been experienced and thereby counter whatever biased, incomplete or factually wrong coverage can be found in mainstream media.

And, finally, planning the next mission, define its aims, bring the reports back to those who helped us understand things better – showing them our respect and gratitude.


Our gratitude

After all, we wouldn’t know much if it wasn’t for all that the thousands of people of Yugoslavia told us there, on the ground – in the world beyond the book knowledge and theories and biases we had with us.

We are simply very very grateful for what they all taught us – and not only about themselves and Yugoslavia but, indeed, about some of the most fundamental aspects of life as well as about violence, death and destruction. But, to our and probably your suprise, also about human solidarity, mainting your humanity and friendships and working for reconciliation – while “those up there” work to destroy it all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: