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Snežana is a freelance trainer and facilitator, active in the European youth work field for the past 15 years. Her specialty is dealing with conflicts. She is triggered by injustice, but determined to embrace conflicts in order to bring about social change.
What’s better – preventing conflicts or producing something new from them?
Conflict is a necessary and natural phenomenon in society, and it has an important role as such. It’s connected with the development of society, and it is considered that without conflicting opinions or needs there wouldn’t be any significant progress. If we consider conflict a natural phenomenon then preventing it is out of the question. When some part of your body hurts, that means that there’s something wrong with it. When there’s a conflict, it means that something somewhere is not right, and that one (or more) conflicting sides have a need to react to something. When we talk about prevention, it’s prevention of violence. We should deal with conflicts, transform it into something that enables further functioning without leading to violence – be it physical or verbal.
Does that mean that conflict does not necessarily mean violence?
No, conflict starts much earlier, when the first frictions appear. Often times people aren’t sensitised to recognise it or they think it’s going to solve itself, and then it leads to violence. Then we talk of prevention – recognising the conflict early on, address what is not right and notice what need or problem it points towards.
How do these frictions manifest on a societal level?
You can notice it by jokes at the expense of certain groups or the context in which these groups appear in media, whenever they’re singled out for whatever reason. It sounds innocuous, but when you present someone as stupid, lazy or naive, it’s the beginning of something that can evolve into more serious problems. To be honest, I think jokes about Montenegrins or Bosnians are shared among people who do not realise the gravity of what they say. We started with whether or not a conflict should be prevented. Conflicts that happened and escalated into the worst bloodshed on the Balkans in recent history had signs that should’ve been noticed. All those twitches and attempts of different states to self-self define themselves went by unaddressed. I think it’s important to realize that these things mustn’t be neglected, that we have to pay attention to those cravings. That is the beauty of conflict, it points towards something that is wrong and needs to be recognized.
What did the people you worked with find hardest to get over?
I worked with representatives of cultural organisations, with the aim of dealing with inclusive policies in the area of their work. We in the youth sector are used to using methods that are a bit more provocative, and we wanted to hear about what they think inclusion is, what groups they worked with, what groups they have problems with, and see what surfaces. At first they were very civilised, only to come to the conclusion that Romans are not wanted and that Bosnians or Serbs aren’t welcome. Despite having started tolerant, soon there were comments like “I greet him with ‘Salam Aleikum’ but he doesn’t respond with ‘Aleikum Salam’”. Then we got to the homosexuals and everyone united “Those homosexuals, that doesn’t fly”. I think that, in a society that is deep in unprocessed hatred from past times, anyone can become a target for stereotypes and prejudice, as long as they’re different, as long as they don’t fit into some imagined mold. Here’s another example: When I was doing courses on human rights, in high schools in Vojvodina, the LGBT community was singled out. When we deconstructed these opinions, the young people weren’t sure where this was coming from. Once you deconstruct the prejudice, they remain without an answer as to where they got all that hatred. I don’t even think it’s hatred, rather a dissatisfaction channeled towards a group that is an easy target for hate.
Where do they get these opinions?
In Serbia, which is currently a state of bread and games, in order to mask problems such as unemployment, bad health care, lack of basic need satisfaction – they’re served a bait they can play with instead of thinking about their own misery. When we talk about young people, they’re definitely served these things. Take as an example a 16-year-old – they hear all sorts of things on the media, from their parents, who knows what they’re taught in school, but also they had no opportunity to meet a person from Croatia or Bosnia or anyone who’s different from them – but still they have a formed image about them. This is explained by “Contact theory” which states that prejudice is destroyed by bringing people to the same table and seeing the other, flesh and blood. It doesn’t always work, but I think it can work on the Balkans because we’re not that divided. I think young people are stuck in value systems that were built for them from various sources, without someone to question any of that. We don’t have a systematic approach towards building critical thinking. What’s served is accepted, it’s taken at face value.
What determines our reaction when we meet a person towards whom we have a prejudice?
It depends on how deep the prejudice is formed within us and how important it is for our value system. When I worked with Israelis and Palestinians one of the more traumatic moments was when an Israeli, after a week of programmes, sessions and discussions, said that she would vote for an even more radical right-wing. To preserve her value system she had to toughen up even more and go to an even greater extreme. I hope that it was just a temporary reaction and that, after some critical thinking and reflection, she went back at least to the starting position, if not further. It all depends on where the prejudice stands in regard to our value system.
How do we solve the effects of conflicts on the Balkan region?
There is no recipe. The same model of conflict – solving is not applicable everywhere. What could work, for starters, is to allow people to have feelings about that period and to talk about them. Serbia, as an aggressor and “loser” of the during the nineties, is put in a position in which it’s never allowed to be “the victim” (this doesn’t mean that Serbia is not promoting the identity of the victim, which can be very dangerous). One of the things that can be done is to provide support to talk about these things. They saw what war really is. They should be allowed to talk, allowed to feel. Allowed to be afraid. Who are we to judge these people? Everyone has a right to feel how they feel. At this moment that’s not allowed to some people, on a collective level. I think that, without this, Serbia will never be able to move forward.
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.