The path to reconciliation is a multifaceted, multi-layered, inter-active process with no specific time limit. It is not an absolute nor restorative but forward looking one, building new, stronger relationships reaching into the future. This wide-ranging project masterminded by the Bosnian Youth and Communication Center and other civil society organisations reflects this admirably.

The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia were all wars fought by new and emerging independent European states in the Balkans. It is thus highly pertinent that civil society organisations from these new independent south-east European states should jointly work on this project. Their experiences are similar, their earlier history is largely mutual and hence they have wisdom and knowledge to share in a rational manner and with a pooling of resources. This familiarity can be shared with their Turkish colleagues who likewise will have different and comparative input to bring to the project. Theirs is an on-going conflict and hence arguably a more intense and exacting one to work with.

A reconciliation process in its complexity needs to have a clear aim. It needs to be understood, it needs to be explained as the word in itself is difficult to understand and throws up different meanings in different languages, it requires flexibility and perhaps most importantly it has to be sustainable. Only last week in a conversation I had with a member of the Kosovo authorities, I was told they were spending too much time on these issues; we cannot keep giving them this time. I would not entirely agree with that but it was an acknowledgement that the responsibility should be passed on to others and a confirmation that the approach is a multi-perspective one. We know that as a bottom-up as well as top-down process it is more likely to be sustainable. Sustainability is key but not always easy to achieve as the steps taken on the so-called reconciliation path have to become well-rooted in people’s consciousness over an extended timeframe. Some activities will have to be repeatedly implemented over a period of time e.g. youth exchanges. Polish-German youth exchanges started in 1991, even earlier with the German Democratic Republic, and the Polish-German Textbook Commission was established in 1972. They both still continue today.

Reconciliation is a process of healing for individuals and self-analysis and acceptance for others. The individual is so diverse there can be no one-measure-fits-all. Reconciliation in itself is a large step and achievement and along the path to it other steps have to be taken first, such as greater mutual understanding, an ability to co-exist as neighbours, an ability to see the other as a reflection of ourselves. For both survivor/sufferer and perpetrator, it is about the need to reconsider themselves and the community, even rethinking their own identities. Moreover, the process should help the individual victim not to see the perpetrator’s identity as being stereotyped in all his or her kind. Achieving this would be a real success in many cases even if “reconciliation” on a more one-to-one basis is unattainable.

When considering the role of civil society in the reconciliation process we need to remember that civil society is not just CSOs but also other established and often age-old institutions and organisations, e.g. churches, scout movements, business organisations, trade unions, centres of learning. It was some of these organisations which were included in the Peace Committees in South Africa after the end of apartheid there. They all brought different skills and experiences, representing both the peace protagonists and their foes. These Committees played a key, often not fully acknowledged role, in the smooth transition from the racist system of apartheid South Africa.

Grass roots organisations are key to reconciliation as they tend to be more direct in work and interaction with victims in places of specific tragedies and trauma from previous conflicts. This grassroots and bottom-up work can use traditional and other tools e.g. through art or poetry. They often work in a more immediate environment. The Fambul Tok meetings and process in Sierra Leone are an example of age-old traditions being used to resolve contemporary civil-war legacies. They have valuable experience to bring to the process.

The specific role of grassroots organisations was acknowledged by the EU in about 2010 when itself realized it had neglected this level of civil society and started to provide dedicated funding for it. And now of course the EU is carefully watching the reconciliation processes in both EU candidate and aspiring states.

Whilst understanding that the reconciliation process is a multifarious we need to appreciate that delivering on it requires careful assessment and also a realization that despite best intentions it is not always fully achievable. As I have already said the process reaches out to a great diversity of characters, many of whom will be evolving in relation to their past experiences. This is another reason why the process can be slow and has to be multi-stranded and continually interrogated, to be able to forge the best results possible.

Reconciliation may be the end goal but it will not be easy to assess whether it has been achieved, in particular on a community level. This needs to carefully considered when planning processes. There may be no perfect end but if there is peace without reconciliation, consensual agreements, mutual understanding to avoid destructive narrative and rhetoric, those themselves are admirable achievements to be built on.

This project being submitted by the Youth Communication Centre of Bosnia and Herzogovina and other civil society organisations demonstrates new and evolving thinking and input. It describes itself as rebranding the process and by the range of activities it will strive to carry out, it demonstrates well its awareness of the complexity of the process.

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Dr Joanna Hanson gained her PhD in Polish history from the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies in 1978. She  held a research fellowship at the LSE International Studies Research Division doing research on Polish-Jewish relations. In 1987 she joined the BBC Monitoring Service working on Central European and Balkan reporting during years of the collapse of communism and transition. In 1995 she joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a Research Analyst. Since 2013 she is concentrating her efforts on research on and activism in civil society in the southern Balkans and researching Anglo-Polish relations during the Solidarity period.

This text was written as a part of Divided Past – Joint Future project and it does not represent nor reflects attitudes and viewpoints of the European Union, its institutions and bodies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the text lies entirely with the author. 

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