Monday, December 30, 2013

Rising out of the ashes of the war

A beautiful Christmas Tree sits prettily to her left. She smiles, and in seconds, I feel myself smiling widely too. Her cheerfulness is contagious, and I’m left feeling that I know that she is definitely going to leave me inspired by the end of our conversation.

Kristina Seslija survived the war in Bosnia.

No matter what generation you belonged to, you will know enough and more about the horrors of Bosnian war as it unfolded, especially in suburb the city of Sarajevo where Kristina lived. Four years of war and many later, Kristina picked up pieces and resumed living not just for herself, but for the people around her, as she worked as a peace-builder to reconcile differences that allowed for the war to take place. What follows is her story, in her own words.

I lived through the entire four years of the war in Vojkovici, suburb of Sarajevo. In the years that followed, I found myself in a spot where I couldn’t talk about the war and everything that happened for as many as five or six years after. I couldn’t stop crying every time my mind went back to all that happened.

I am from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I had the chance to study in the United States of America. I learned through my many experiences in life that it is not just important to talk about one’s experiences, but to also listen, to listen unconditionally to the experiences of others. There is no one truth about war: there is no good, no bad. Everyone suffers equally. When there is war between two sides, it is foolish for people to think that one side is privileged or is enjoying a plush life. The fact is, both sides suffer, and suffer equally, as my story will tell you.

My story starts with 1992. I was a senior in High School, and all I could think of back then was the prom. I loved to dress up, I loved going out, and I was looking forward to the prom and the thought of who I would be going to prom with was something that I enjoyed toying with in my mind. But there was no prom: war started a month before prom. I lived all four years of the war in Sarajevo. It is very hard to really justifiably explain the horrors of war – but it is still so unbelievable even now, to me, how easily war changed our mind, and how much hate it had inculcated within everyone, me included. It was so easy to take sides, to hate and to be hateful – and I was one of those people who fell for that. The war was against the people on just the other side of the road – these people were my neighbours, they were familiar faces – but there is something about the mob mentality of the war that sort of gets you to fall in line with it. Most of my stories from the war are in line with the major narratives that the world has heard of, already – so I am going to talk about what it felt like to survive after war, and to pick up from where life left off.

The four years of war that I faced, as I said, was no different from the mass narrative that emerged. Every day, there was shelling. Every day, we heard of family members being killed, of someone or the other being raped or abducted. It was the same story every day, but a different face and a different name was put to it. We just looked forward to moving from one day to the next, to survive for the next day. And somehow, war makes you capable of surviving and making do with what you find. You invariably find something to eat, something to clean your body with – and you just try to stay alive. In those days, I remember, the dominant thought sometimes was that I would give anything, anything for a scoop of ice-cream or a slab of chocolate, or even a wad of chewing gum. It was terribly sad when three years later, life returned to normal and I found myself simply puzzled. We didn’t have electricity during the war, we didn’t have any of the things we take for granted in peacetime. So when it all came back, I found myself wondering what to do with all of these things. It was tough to live in a civilised world when all that you were surrounded with was war.

During the war, I did everything I could to survive and to make sure that my loved ones survive. I was 18 when the war started. I remember driving a bus filled with women and kids, including my mother and sister. All I remember doing was driving with a mission, a mission to take this bus load of people to some place that was safe. I didn’t know if I would ever see all of these people again, so my determination was to simply to reach safety.

I got married during the war, I was pregnant during the war and I delivered my first born during the war. When I was pregnant, I saw a little boy run to his father to hug him as he was going to war. I remember thinking to myself, wondering if my children would know or see their father – my husband. Thankfully, war didn’t take him away from us.

After the war, something made me want to go to the other side and check on the people on the other side of the fence, the side that “we” were at war with. I joined an NGO, which allowed anyone to hop on board. It didn’t matter what side you were on. While many people of my nationality would work for the people on our side, I decided to work to help the people of both sides. It was such a hard time. I would go out on the street that separated both sides of the war. If I encountered just one person or maybe two at the most, they would pitifully ask me if we had jobs to offer, means of livelihood to share with them. But if I encountered a group of people, they would call me a traitor as I was from the other side. They would know from my name that I was not of the same ethnicity as them. The people of my own nationality would also call me a traitor, telling me that I was working for the enemy. They would go to the police and bring them over to my place, to interrogate me and to have me subjected to examination for the reconciliation work that I was doing.

Many people asked me what changed within me. I had this hatred one day whilst the war unfolded – but did that go overnight, to change to become the face of my initiative to reconcile the differences? Well, I don’t quite know how to answer this question. I guess during the war, the mob-mentality element tends to make one fall prey to the atmosphere of hate that prevails. But after the war, what really interested me was to understand and empathise with the other side. It was very important to me to break down the stereotypes that we tended to build about the “other”, the very factor that drove us apart. When you break the stereotypes and go across to the other side, you see the similarities that actually bring us closer. You see that the other side is just like your own: every face has a name, every name has a story, every person hopes for a better future. You see that they are also hungry, sick and tired, they miss their family, and have even lost members of their family. Suffering was common, and our aspirations were common. And yet, we were fighting. We can help each other and grow together – why fight for something that we all aspire for in common? I won’t say that the change in me happened overnight.

Reconciliation efforts went on from all sides. At the higher levels, politicians and members of the municipality worked to reconcile differences. But the thing is, if the higher level can keep the grass root in ignorance by withholding information, it would be easy for them to manipulate the masses to their advantage, and that was what wound up happening. At the grass root level, efforts like mine met with a lot of opposition and name-calling. People called me a betrayer, a traitor and a person who was unfaithful to her own kind. The fact is, though, all I wanted was for a peaceful place for my children to grow up in.

With time, a lot of people began to see the logic behind the efforts. I currently work for Fondacija Mozaik, a PRO-FUTURE project that is backed by the USAID. Before that I worked on project leaded by the Mozaik Foundation on “Women’s empowerment”. The overall objective of the Program was to fight poverty and social exclusion by enabling and accelerating economic development of rural population through the creation of a market driven, business like model capable of long term sustainable growth.  

Today, when I look at the young generation, I am disheartened. Eighteen years after the war, I see that children are being raised with more hatred than there was during the war. And this hatred comes from the things they hear. They hear these stories of atrocities and they are more than willing to wage war. But the fact is, those who survived war will never want to pick up a weapon to kill. I worry for the future generation. It is important that they should know these stories, yes, but act on them with peace and reconciliation, not a willingness to wage war or fight more.

Reconciliation is very, very important. It is not that only I am doing this work – there are scores of organisations and individuals that are making it happen at many different levels. It is sad that we live in a world where even siblings don’t talk – divided by such mundane things as land or even ego. My idea of reconciliation is not to hug everyone and to just live in love and peace. It is a lot more than that. It is about talking about the things that are important. It is about talking, engaging and respecting each other and the differences we each exhibit. It is very important to be able to hear each other, and to respect each other. Let our differences be – let us agree to disagree, and let us respect each other enough to hold our own views about things. If we can really do that, true reconciliation is possible. 

Check out the Foundation Mozaik here.