Conflict Studies and Management Program Study Trip to Sarajevo

This spring, eleven first and second year students specializing in the Conflict Studies and Management Program (CSMP) went on an incredibly enriching and worthwhile study trip to Sarajevo and Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This trip was organized by Professor Dr. Solveig Richter, Junior Professor for International Conflict Management, and by Alida Vračić, the founder and director of the Sarajevo-based think tank Populari. The title of the Spring School trip was “Reconciliation in Post-Conflict Societies” with an emphasis on the reconciliation process in multi-ethnic environments.

Our trip involved meetings and roundtable discussions with the German Embassy, the Atlantic Initiative, Transparency International, the Office of the High Representative, the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (UN ITCY), Bosnian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as several other NGO’s and civil society organizations.

Bosnia consists of three entities; the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republika Srpska, and the Brčko District, which were established by the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 and are rather ethnically homogenous, being either majority Bosnian, Croat or Serb. The main objective of the study trip was to learn about the complex reconciliation process as well as the features of this process that are unique to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Additionally, we were able to take in the scenery and history of the siege of Sarajevo by walking around the city, touring the War Childhood Museum, and through a guided “Sarajevo Under Siege” tour.

What struck me most by the trip was the incredible ethnic and religious diversity in Sarajevo. Most of our meetings were either walking distance or a short taxi ride away from our accommodations, so we were able to thoroughly absorb our surrounds during our commute. Mosques, synagogues, Eastern Orthodox churches as well as Roman Catholic churches were all walking distance apart, and one could see people of different faiths and backgrounds interacting quite freely.

What also drew my eye was the damage from the siege that was still apparent in some places. As we learned during the trip, an incredible amount of money came to Sarajevo after the war in the form of international donations, much of which went to repairing and rebuilding what had been destroyed during the war. It is still possible to see evidence of the fighting in pock-marked walls and the famous Sarajevo Roses, small craters on the ground that have been painted red to mark where munitions had landed during the siege with deadly effect.

During our conversations with the organizations we met with, we developed more critical, nuanced perspectives of Bosnian history and politics. Of primary concern is the very divided political climate, essentially along ethnic lines, which causes bureaucratic gridlock and the perpetuation of the status quo. Politicians often raise the specter of renewed ethnic conflict by proclaiming themselves the sole protectors of their ethnicity from the other two ethnic groups.

Being in Bosnia for nearly a week, we tried to fully embrace the local culture. We tried the famous Chivapi dish and local beers, which helped give a full measure of authenticity to our study trip. We also partook in other Bosnian cuisine at local restaurants and street vendors.

Said my colleagues of the study trip:

“Overall, the experience of interviewing people who are working directly with the aftermath of the Bosnian conflict was great. All the meetings were highly interesting, but my favorite was when we discussed the relation between reconciliation and the psyche of victims and perpetrators. Understanding how to deal with the feelings and emotions of the people involved in a conflict is necessary to promote real reconciliation among the different actors.”

-Sandra Castro, second year CSMP student, Colombia

“The study trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the most insightful and unforgettable experiences. It was not only a chance to witness the reconciliation process of post-conflict Bosnia but also to communicate with people who witnessed war and war related trauma. One of the most important realizations I made during this trip was that study trips teach what books will not teach you. Also, how complex reconciliation is as compared to stopping a war. One of the things that hit me the hardest was the moment when I saw a school building in Travnik, half of which was in poor condition, while the other half was renovated and new. School children belonging to different ethnicities study in the same building but are separated by a fence, which contributes to producing a divided and less resilient future generation.”

-Rabiya Ammad, second year CSMP student, Pakistan

“I found the best part of the trip was speaking with a wide variety of actors, which allowed for us to learn from experts with on-the-ground knowledge and to hear differing perspectives and changing narratives.”

-Harry Birak, second year CSMP student, United States

For me personally, the study trip to Sarajevo was a great opportunity to delve a bit deeper into transitional justice issues, post-conflict reconciliation, making multi-ethnic societies function, as well as the historical narratives that exist in Bosnia today. It was also an interesting opportunity to closely observe real life examples of topics we have covered in the classroom being played out in reality. It was a great experience, and one that I am very glad to have taken part in.

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Caleb Larson is second-year Master of Public Policy student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy with a specialization in Conflict Studies and Management. He holds a BA in History from UCLA. His interests lie in EU-Russia/US-Russia relations and defense issues, NATO security, and European security studies.