Bridging the Ethnic Divide
Duration: 9 – 15 July 2021
The youth exchange in Berane gathered 55 participants from 10 countries as a synthesis of previously completed work during the project. Young participants were actively contributing to the programe of the youth exchange, including the preparation on group dynamic activities and the educational modules during the youth exchange.
Aware of the fact that young people today represent the most vulnerable group exposed to extremism and radicalization, but also have the greatest potential to fight against these phenomena and prevent them, through interactive presentations, group work, and discussions, we dealt with topics such as Kosovo, intercultural dialogue, hate speech and tolerance. Participants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo, Cyprus, Germany, Montenegro, England, Romania, and Slovenia actively participated in educational workshops but also fun activities, all to create a strong platform for anti-extremism of young people, work to improve the competence of peer educators and youth workers in the Western Balkans, in the European Union and beyond, and most importantly – educating young people about recognizing and combating extremism. By actively participating in daily workshops, open conversations, presentations, as well as concerts, outdoor workshops, intercultural evenings, and team-building activities, young people showed great interest in further education, training, and later sharing acquired knowledge and competencies with people from their environment.
This seven-day gathering also showed that the issue of Kosovo and the wars in the Balkans remains a very sensitive topic that needs to be approached in a particularly careful way. The youth exchange aimed to, by giving space for the opinion of each participant present to be heard and valued, lay the foundations for further mutual conversations among young people, which lead to even better understanding, greater tolerance, respect, and involvement of young people in solving these problems.
Our first activity, organized in smaller mixed groups, was “Ideal state”. After the division into groups, the participants had the task to design an ideal state and present what it means to them. They had the opportunity to express themselves on the name of the state, anthem, flag, language, politics, equality, money, religion, education, and to explain the views on which they agreed. This initial activity had a great impact on breaking the ice and getting our participants to know each other, discussing different views, and agreeing on a common decision.
The second day of the project started by paying respect to the victims of Srebrenica and their families (11th July) with a minute of silence, and further with a short speech from an expert on the topic from Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of the attendees participated in honoring the victims.
The activity Discrimination & Stereotypes started lightheartedly with every country presenting stereotypical jokes about their nation, pointing out the alluded stereotype and writing it down on a blackboard, followed by group discussion and commentaries.
After few rounds, the jokes and examples of stereotypes escalated into a bit controversial ones and the first opportunity for open discussion was created, which perfectly corresponded with the aim of the workshop. The goal of the activity was to open such a discussion about the biggest stereotypes every country/nation has attached to itself and to have a word about when is too far to joke about particular things.
The team from Kosovo said that their impression is that often things said as these kinds of jokes (including stereotypes about Albania and Kosovo)are only a way to spread hatred disguised as jokes. They also stated that they don't feel comfortable mentioning some of the commonly hinted stereotypes. This activity sparked a lot of discussion and participants expressed different opinions about whether the mentioned jokes were offensive or not, is it controversial to use it, and under which conditions, and unfolded the further conversation about the true intentions of mentioned jokes and what they truly represent when mentioned and referenced.
Although our planned activity – “Finding and photo archiving nationalist graffiti” didn't go as planned due to weather problems, and intense rain in Berane, the topic was commonly commented on during the free time and city touring. Participants were curious to learn about common practices in Berane, where citizens often paint over nationalist commentaries, draw over or simply cover them. They were interested in learning more about the meaning behind the ones that we found and their historical aspect. We made sure to never support or promote such behavior and used it only for educational purposes, also to draw attention and make them understand the current tensions in Balkan. We also managed to finish the second part of the workshop – graffiti drawing. Participants bonded through group work, sharing messages such as “with love against nationalist extremism” and powerful wall art. The activity was crucial for developing and creating an environment where all of the participants can express freely their thoughts, emotions, and ideas through art. The activity happened to be one of the most successful ones since everyone worked either in diverse groups or all together as a big team, discussing ideas and making them happen.
We visited the Football Association of Montenegro – Northern Region and had the opportunity to hear about the situation in Berane and Montenegro when it comes to racism, the involvement of women, and the involvement of people of other nationalities. Our participants heard that the Football Association of Montenegro is open and inclusive for all athletes regardless of gender, skin color, nationality, and religion. Participants had the opportunity to ask questions and continue to be informed about the activities they perform and the attitudes that this organization promotes.
During the basketball tournament, the conflict occurred at the start of the match between the group from Kosovo and the locally formed group in Berane. Before the starting whistle of the match, one of the local players asked the girl in Kosovo team: Where are you from? She said: “Kosovo”, and then he continued: “Is Serbia!”.
The organizers of the tournament heard the conversation and demanded the local team to be disqualified, as the example to all other individuals and groups. After minutes of huge verbal conflict and physical threats to the organizers, only the player that was involved in the conflict was disqualified. Such intervention served the purpose to make the whole group aware about crossing the limits. For some, it seems as an unnecessary conflict, but the principle of zero tolerance to racism was implemented there. The other players from the team, as well as the person that told the line, later apologized to the girl, which she didn’t accept. Both the girl and another participant from Kosovo were visibly upset with everything that was happening. The group of participants was stressed after this event and the special session was implemented after to discuss the happenings and allow the emotions to be expressed and managed properly. During the session participant from Serbian team quietly left the room due to a rush of emotion and the topic being too sensitive for her.
During the next workshop participants were split into mixed groups, and given the assignment to come up with a solution that will solve national conflicts. They were asked to give their opinion on few topics and to include it in their solution (rule of law, human rights, acceptance, freedom of movement, democracy, active citizenship, equality..).
The second part of it – the presentation, was held in nature, after the lecture about extremism and nationalism in media. The first 3 groups shared their opinions, beliefs and solutions together. The 4th group consisted of only one person presenting the topic, and when asked why they are not presenting together, the answer was that they didn’t prepare the presentation due to lack of time. But as soon as the activity came to an end, one of the members of the 4th group approached one of the organizer and told her that the workshop couldn’t be done because members of national teams of Serbia on the one side, and Kosovo and Albania on the other side didn’t want to work together. When asked about the situation national teams denied it.
By far the most important workshop indeed was this one, separated into two sessions with a small break between them. Participants had the opportunity to share with everyone their experiences with nationalism, life stories, and deepest emotions. We have gained a better insight into the conflicts between Kosovo and Albania on the one hand and Serbia on the other. Also, participants from Cyprus brought us closer to their existing problem with Turkey on the territory of their country, explaining it thoroughly Participants from Montenegro described their feelings about the current events in their country, the controversial law on the Serbian Orthodox Church, and both the national and religious problems they are currently struggling with within their borders. Participants from Slovenia, Macedonia, and Germany also shared their stories. Part of the team from Serbia stated that the topic is still too painful and that they are still not ready to talk about it. Participants from Albania and Kosovo shared their side of the story, presenting their post-war experience with nationalism.
Participants from Kosovo, members of the Roma population, drew attention to the often forgotten crimes committed against the Roma population in Yugoslavia and expressed their opinion that frequent talks about it would significantly contribute to anti-gypsyism. The session was very touching and emotional, and there were a lot of tears, hugs, apologies, new revelations, and confessions. Participants from Kosovo expressed a pleasant surprise with the Serbian team and said that “they would like all people of Serbian nationality to be like them”. Although not everyone on the Serbian team was willing to talk about their experiences, the speaker who spoke tried to explain his point of view and expressed sadness because people usually think of Serbs as the complete opposite of what he is.
We also mentioned the frequent conflicts that are still happening on the territory of Yugoslavia and discussed the root of the problem. Some of the conclusions were that conflicts like this were certainly contributed by interethnic and interreligious tensions and intolerance that are still expressed years after the war. We all agreed that a complex constellation of ethnic and political relations at the same time creates fear, and on the other hand thickening of the intragroup favoritism and prejudice against others, and different, subjective perception of social and political reality.
As we all know the Balkans is a very complex social context that can be a breeding ground for various types of extremism, primarily ethnic and religious. In support of this is the, already mentioned, past war, which was based on an ethnic and religious factor that left behind prejudice, intolerance, political conflicts, occasional incidents, and confrontations. The recent war and the past of the countries of former Yugoslavia have also favored young people growing up in divided societies, influenced by nationalist ideas.
During the workshop about nationalism and extremism in media, we hosted the director of Radio Berane and a longtime journalist, who prepared a detailed lecture on nationalism and extremism in the media for young people. It was extremely interesting for young people, who know little about the situation in Montenegro, to get closer to the situation in terms of media freedom, nationalism, extremism, professional journalism, and in general the engagement and position of journalists in Montenegro. He also covered topics such as using nationalist headlines for sparking further hatred and conflicts, power of media in case of creating a collective opinion about certain subjects and impact they have on young, as well as media literacy and importance of correct reporting.
During the preparation for the flash mob, participants were divided into smaller groups and asked to present their ideas on how to enforce our strong message and make it meaningful. After the presentations finished, together we decided to combine a few of the best ones into one big idea which resulted in creating a peace sign with our bodies, as well as activity with writing messages where they could choose to either write something they think was the message of the project, to express their opinion about nationalist extremism through a powerful message to the audience or simply to write something impactful.
Since this was the last day and everyone loosened up a bit, the tensions were put to a minimum. After spending an entire day together in nature we even witnessed participant from Albania and participant from Serbia taking pictures together with both of the flags and hand symbols that are usually considered offensive for the other side, as a symbol of ultimate peace. Although the described action was perceived as lighthearted at the moment, in the aftermath we learned that both Albanian team and team from Kosovo did not agree with the photos that were taken by the participants from Serbia and Albania and felt offended by such an action, because of the hand symbol that Serbian participant used. (Explanation: The Serbian participant used the “Three fingers salute” and participant from Albania used the “Double Eagle” hand gesture.)
This project was particularly hard for mediators to handle due to seemingly never-ending conflicts between nations that participants represented, and tensions that could be felt during some of the workshops where wars, history, and territorial affiliation were mentioned.