SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — It may seem like a strange backdrop for a conversation about peace.
The Vraca fortress on the outskirts of Sarajevo is crumbling, marked with graffiti and overtaken by weeds and litter. The building dates back to 1898 but was the site of executions and battles that claimed thousands of lives during the second World War and the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s.
Tamara Šmidling is the program coordinator of the Peace Academy Foundation (PAF) in Sarajevo. She sits on a bench near the ruins and talks about the history of her region.
“World War II was a war between people of different ethnic backgrounds,” she says. “We should have listened to the lessons of that time. Many people believe the conflicts in the 1990s were vengeance for that war.”
With funding from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), PAF is implementing “The Culture of Remembering.” The goal is to achieve a lasting peace not by denying or ignoring history — but by acknowledging and talking about it.
Šmidling says while most people in Bosnia and Herzegovina live peacefully alongside their neighbors, many still identify strongly with one of three groups — Bošniak, Serb or Croat. She says each group has its own horrific memories of past atrocities.
“We have a lot of discussion about our own victims, but when it comes to thinking about what one side has done to others, we don’t want to talk about it,” she says.
Šmidling says nationalist governments or other groups enable or promote ethnic divisions. She says the focus must shift to talking about what people have in common.
“So memorialization, or remembering, is really about telling the story from the point of view that everyone suffered, that everyone has victims,” she says.
Initially, the project will bring together people from three communities for educational workshops on how memories influence our view of the world and how sharing those stories can contribute to unity and peace.
Šmidling says those lessons are relevant even now, as burial sites from the 1990s war are still being discovered.
“Every victim has the right to be recognized, identified and named,” she says, “and to be buried appropriately.”
Eventually the goal is to research and publicize memorial sites to encourage open public discussion about the past.
The site of the Vraca fortress is one of those places of remembering. A wall in the adjoining Vraca Memorial Park lists the names of 11,000 people who died during World War II.
The park was declared a national monument in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2005, but the site has been virtually abandoned to the elements.
“You cannot just skip over these terrible things and say, ‘Okay from now on we are all brothers and sisters,’” Šmidling says. “We are striving to have a constructive way of remembering which doesn’t follow ethnic divisions and lines. This is our main challenge here.”