This week the cities and villages of Prijedor, Kozarac, Trnopolje, and Omarska won a few small victories in a time when optimism and hope are scarce.
These small, economically deprived towns are located in the Republic of Srpska in the north of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is in this place that 3,173 people were killed early in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia with more than 1,000 people still missing.
Twenty-one years later, the area remains a tense, crumbling relic of what used to be a prosperous industrial region of Yugoslavia. Now, unemployment is a stifling 43% with few opportunities for youth. Politics are divisive and often nationalistic. Since the violence ended, the villages in this region are mostly segregated with Serb, Croat, and Bosniak (Muslim) children attending different schools and being taught different histories of the recent conflict.
I first came to this place five years ago as part of a project to bring together the schools in the area for a week-long youth festival. In 2009, Most Mira held workshops in drama, music, art, circus skills, photography and dance with 375 children from four schools in a field in Kevljani - the same field in which the residents of Kevljani were rounded up in May 1992 before being taken to Omarska and other detention camps only five kilometers away. Most Mira has continued its work with young people through drama projects, video diaries, leadership training, and festivals.
This year when I arrived in Prijedor I was reminded by friends that expectations are so low in Bosnia that people often say 'At least we are not shooting at each other' and one feels this when you see the bullet holes that pepper the walls of many homes in Prijedor and Kozarac. Refik Hodzic, communications director at the International Center for Transitional Justice, believes that "The problem is with the children who don't have the shared memories that we lived together. They can't imagine that it would even be possible to live together."
And this is how the conflict continues to be engendered in the children of Bosnia through segregated and ideological schools - schools in which sectarian imagery is painted in murals on their walls and fresh nationalist graffiti remains in the boys' bathroom. Their history books tell of one side's war heroes and victims and perpetuate stereotypes of the 'other'. Although these children live within 15 kilometers of each other, they rarely interact.
But last Monday, 40 children from Prijedor, Kozarac, Trnopolje, and Omarska staged a performance of Shakespeare in the Omarska community center. The fantasy of the children's interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream did not end with the fairies or painted faces; it was magical to see the residents of Omarska applauding Bosniak, Serb, and Croat children sharing the same stage just one kilometer away from what in 1992 was the most infamous 'interrogation facility' in Bosnia.
This was the first victory this week for Prijedor and the other villages. The second victory was on Friday when several hundred people gathered in Prijedor's city center wearing white armbands. The protestors gathered to remember that twenty-one years before the Serb controlled government of Prijedor ordered all Muslim residents to wear white arm bands and to display white sheets in their windows. Last year, a similar protest was effectively prohibited by the Mayor of Prijedor with only one person defying the ban and standing alone in the city center.
This year people traveled from Sarajevo, Mostar, Banja Luka and even New York - Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks - to stand together in solidarity and hope for the future. They gathered chanting, "Enough segregation, enough discrimination of victims because of their ethnicity!"
In this place that has seen thousands of people displaced, these are small but important victories for people coming together. They stand in contrast to a nonexistent economy, declining educational system and stagnant local and national politics that are actively dividing people. Most concerning is that "the international community is allowing Bosnia to descend to the point which it is so tense that a spark could set it off again," said Refik Hodzic. "If we don't act now, we will be raising the next generation of soldiers."
In the face of this growing risk, these communities may be forced to rely on the few inter-ethnic relationships that these children have forged through art, theater, and protest. If not, the next Shakespeare performed in Omarska may be another tragedy.