In the photo: Ivana (Croat, UWC Pearson College), Stefan (Serb, UWC Mostar), Benjamin (Bosniak, UWC Mostar)
In my first Global Politics class, my teacher introduced us to the idea of “The Other”. The term was coined by Ryszard Kapuściński who wanted to explain the interactions between Europeans and non-Europeans, and show how their hateful relations led to some of the biggest crimes against humanity. I’ve become intrigued by this philosophical and political idea and I wanted to explore examples of “otherness” I’ve encountered in my own life that are not necessarily limited to ‘Europeans versus everyone else’.
The thought that wouldn’t leave my mind was the mutual alienation, hatred, and fear between the countries of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Coming from the Republic of Croatia, one of the states which arose from this federal dictatorship, I’ve experienced what it means to be a twelve-year-old child crossing the Croatian-Serbian border for the first time and immediately experience a strange mixture of hostility, coldness, and fear of the other side. Even though they are incredibly similar culturally and traditionally, the sense of “I am on their land” was strangely predominant. Years have passed since that moment, and I am much more mature now; some of my close friends are Serbs, but I still sometimes (thankfully really rarely) get this revolting sentiment of “it is their fault for everything that happened and I despise them to the core”. I am greatly ashamed of this weakness of mine, but at the same time, I don’t know how to resist it. Thankfully, newer generations are not as loaded with emotions from the war as those who experienced it, but my story is a reflection of how intergenerational the mindset of “The Other” is and how hard it is to fend off this rooted behavior.
This strong sense of “us” versus “them”, known versus unknown, good versus bad, is the result of ethnic nationalism. This culminated after years of silencing the national identity in a federal dictatorship everyone knew was destined to fall from the very beginning. What independence brought to my country, as well as the other ones, was this profound pride of finally saying who you are and what your history is, without anyone denying it or silencing it. What should have emerged from the bloody war of the 90s was supposed to be an idealistic sense of patriotism that would be the catalyst for change in a newly formed country. And while this was the case for the first few enthusiastic years of finally having a sovereign state, this original idealistic patriotism took the wrong path and became known as Tuđman’s nationalism, traces of which are still visible today. But this is not unique to my country; it is found in every single state of former Yugoslavia. This fear and resentment have been hidden under the title of “patriotic feelings and pride” and because everyone retreated into their form of extreme nationalism, it started to limit our ability to make peace and progress with each other. If ethnic identity is at the cost of our ability to think collectively, and once and for all leave the past where it’s supposed to be and finally focus on the future, we are fucked.
The most memorable situation that made me aware of this reality is the 2017 United World College Short Course in Germany that I participated in. During the cultural sharing day, participants had a chance to present their homeland to others. The turn came to the Serbian students. At one point in the presentation, they said that the first genocide after World War 2 was targeted towards the Serbs, during the war in the 90s. I still remember how every single person from the countries of ex-Yugoslavia looked at each other with disbelief. What the Serbs were referring to was the 1995 military operation known as Operation Storm. This military operation freed the occupied territories of the Republic of Croatia under the supervision of rebel Serbs. The Storm was the key operation that led to the end of the Homeland War. This operation freed 10,400 square kilometers or 18.4 percent of the total area of Croatia and became the catalyst for the upcoming Croatian victory.
In Croatia, Operation Storm, also known as Operacija Oluja, is celebrated as a day of glory and it’s also called “Day of victory and Homeland gratitude ” (CRO. Dan pobjede i Domovinske zahvalnosti). How is it possible that the same event can be so differently interpreted to the point where one side considers it a day of glory and the other side sees it as genocide?
Coming home, I couldn’t wait to tell my dad what had happened because I wanted to see his reaction. What he told me was “They’ve been raised that way, Ivana. Whenever you mention war crimes they committed, they will always turn the story around and ask ‘But what about us? We’ve been hurt more.’”
Two years have passed since this event and only recently have I realized, I’ve been raised that way as well. When my friends told me their nation and families suffered a great loss, I did not want to listen to them. I did not want to listen to how my friend’s grandma had to leave the home she has been raised into and become a refugee. I did not want to listen to the excuse of “Serbs have no right to blame my country. They and their greed for territory were the ones who started everything”. I have become so emotionally desensitized by the suffering of what my country considers “the Other” that I did not want to recognize their grief and their pain.
During my first year at Pearson, I would often have these conversations with my Canadian roommate who was interested in the situation in the Balkans. “How is it that Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are considered three separate languages if all of you understand each other perfectly? I think it should all be the same”, my roommate would often say. Just the thought of sharing the same language as “my enemy” (Serbs) made me offended and furious. However, objectively speaking, we do understand each other perfectly. During Yugoslavia, the language was actually called Serbo-Croatian (or Croatian-Serbian if you will) and Bosnian language didn’t even exist. So why did I react so intensely, and why does the Balkan region still insist on having three separate languages? Short answer: we do not want to be associated with one another. When you state you share the same language as another nation, it suggests you have quite a lot of similarities, and this is in my opinion what the Balkans is still not ready to hear. Yes, anthropologically speaking, we are culturally extremely similar. Yes, we understand each other perfectly. However, none of this stopped us from killing each other.
The pain of the past is still too strong and it can be extremely hurtful when a foreigner starts “putting us all in the same box.” Of course, it’s not the foreigner’s fault, we brought this upon ourselves.
Reflecting on my mindset a year ago compared to now, I am amazed by how much I changed my perception of my “Other”. I understand the emotional charge behind my reaction, and I think I can now say I know where this desire for singularity comes from. However, this emotional charge was the reason behind apathy towards my perceived “Other”; the reason why I didn’t even flinch when my Serbian friend told me about her grandma who was exiled from her home, or whenever I would hear The Other’s side of story and brushed it off with “we had it worse”.
The sense of nationalism has evolved to the point where we take so much pride and glory in this idea of unity and identity when in reality no one knows what it really is. Over twenty years have passed and the Balkans are still not at the point of admitting “the enemy’s” pain. For god’s sake, the Balkans are still not at the point of stopping the internalization of the other side as “the enemy”. Reconciliation starts with empathy; as long as we continue with the mindset of “it’s their fault, they deserved it”, we will never get anywhere.
When trying to explain the situation in the Balkans to my foreign friends, I always like to tie it to the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar is known for its iconic Old Bridge which connects two sides of the town. However, what many don’t know is that this bridge connects the Muslim (Bosniak) and Catholic (Croat) sides of the town. During the war, the bridge had been destroyed and its destruction presented a fall of any leftover bonds we all had for each other. Gone. Shattered in dust and evil. This ancient bridge which for hundreds of years connected two sides so different yet so similar was diminished in a blink of an eye. Hatred that had been kept for years finally manifested itself in something so destructive, something so inhuman.
However, in the Balkan region where it’s considered normal for different nationalities to attend separate schools or to know which cafes are for “us” and which ones are for “them”, there is a strange anomaly from this norm. In the city of Mostar, the city which had become an epitome of ethnic conflict, a shining yellow building is standing upright. This building is the Mostar Gymnasium. Until the 2000s, it was a norm that “us” and “them” attend the school separately, entering through separate gates and never attending classes together. This was the case for most, if not all, of the schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Then, in 2006, after the failed attempt to do so in country’s capital Sarajevo, a United World College was founded in Mostar. Its base was none other than the Mostar Gymnasium. The school is located on the Catholic side, and the student residences are located all over the city, on both Muslim and Catholic sides. In the meantime, in 2004, the Old Bridge had been restored. For the first time since the war, “us” and “them” can finally cross the Old Bridge together to get to the other side. “Us” and “them” can finally attend the same school and enter it through the same gates together. For the first time since the war, “us” and “them” no longer exist.
When talking to one of my teachers who had taught the United World College in Mostar, he told me that out of all UWCs he had visited, Mostar proved to have the biggest UWC spirit and a desire for a change. When I asked him why does he think that is, he answered: “It’s because out of all of the UWCs, Mostar needs it the most”
The bridge and the school which were once a reflection of long-lasting hatred have now become symbols of peace. As Michael Ignatieff said, “Bosnia is proof that nothing, not even hatred, endures forever. It is happening, this glacial reconciliation, not with the Other, not with them, but simply with the fact that the past is the past, over and done with it. The war, the one that began in June 1914 and raged, only with intermissions, from then until 1995, is finally over.”