36th Basic Training in Peacebuilding

The 36th Basic Training in Peacebuilding was held in Ulcinj, Montenegro, from 14 to 24 October 2016. It has been three years since our last Basic Training. In 2014 and 2015, we organised Training for Trainers in Peacebuilding, as well as peace education programmes resulting from the ToT – workshops with secondary school pupils, peacebuilding training for students from BiH, as well as peacebuilding training for citizens of Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. We point out this “hiatus” as an important factor because the changes that happened in the meantime in our social contexts significantly influenced the way we approached the selected topics, as well as our work dynamic, as will be explained in more detail below.

ot2016_ulcinj044-copy159 people applied for the training. We received 80 applications from Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed by Serbia (39), Macedonia (17), Croatia (12), Kosovo (7) and Montenegro (4). Upon completion of the selection process, we had a considerable number of cancellations. This created difficulties at the beginning, given that there was a predominance of female applicants for the training compared to the number of male applicants (103:56). Since one of the basic preconditions for quality of the training is equal gender, age and regional representation, we tried to strike this balance. In addition to applications that we discarded in the selection process (because they lacked content, clear motivation or intention to work on topics listed in the call for applications), very few male applicants agreed to be on the waiting list (or the date until which they had agreed to be on the waiting list had already passed), which prevented us from achieving the desired gender balance. We do not wish to make assumptions about the large number of cancellations. The final group was made up of 20 persons, 14 women and 6 men – journalists, teachers, members of political parties, war veterans, government employees, LGBT activists, as well as those who came to the training on account of strong personal motivation. We were very fortunate to have such as diverse age range among our participants (the average age was 36.4, with actual ages ranging from 21 to 61). Our concern that the lack of gender balance would hinder our work did not turn out to be true. And the diversity of previous knowledge and life experience fostered a very intense inter-generational exchange, which is an important element for dealing with the past and peacebuilding, and at the very beginning of the training, there was exchange of diverse perspectives on issues regarding daily life as well as issues of social relations.

When planning the training, our intention was, among other things, to encourage discussion about increased animosities and distrust among the Western Balkan countries, and to raise awareness about such tendencies through encounters and contacts, examinations of the narrative and “image of the enemy”, and by encouraging cross-border cooperation. Namely, the situation in our societies and their mutual relations and continuing tensions have been getting worse in the past few years, which is something that also became evident within our training group. Already in the early stage of the training, there was a noticeable tendency to avoid ethnically or nationally sensitive topics for fear of creating conflict. Instead, we discussed topics where most of the group felt relatively secure, such as social attitudes towards marginalised groups and sexual minorities. Although this is not the case with our societies as a whole, many from the group had already attended various forms of training in human rights and awareness raising on these issues. Individualism as a social value, the human rights discourse whereby there are organisations or individuals with authority to deal with these issues, and the consequent need to seek “accurate” (politically correct and professional) responses to social issues, initially made it difficult to bring to light the social responsibility we all have as individuals for the state of our societies. There were instances where the need for a leader was articulated, someone who would seek solutions and have the qualifications to take on responsibilities. ot2016_ulcinj210However, this is precisely why this peace education programme is called a training, because it provides and opportunity to practice – others at the training serve as a social mirror that allows us to view ourselves from a different angle, to figuratively walk in someone else’s shoes, to re-examine and encourage others to do so as well, and to take on the role of leaders ourselves (without waiting for someone else to do something), and finally, by changing ourselves, our own attitudes and responses, to change the society we live in. This is why we devoted a considerable chunk of time to understanding conflict, both at the personal and the social level, and to examining identity in general and national identity in particular. This put in place a good basis to then tackle dealing with the past, thoroughly and meaningfully, to communicate to each other what it is that we view as being unjust, what we can do to convey to others how we feel or try to change the circumstances that resulted in various atrocities that were committed in our name, or in the name of an ethnic group that we perceive or that has been imposed as the enemy. To become aware of the potentials that dominant social interpretations of our recent and remote national history may have for maintaining old and creating new violence in the future, but also to come together and think about the directions of constructive dealing with the past.

This set-up increased motivation to work on these issues and to place them in concrete social contexts, which was facilitated on this occasion by the workshop on memorialisation and culture of memory. The concrete examples of monuments, memorial sites, marked and unmarked sites of suffering gave us an opportunity to see what it is that we remember as a society and what it is that we keep quiet, who do we address these memories to and how and what sort of message we convey. Along these lines, we formulated a need to seek different ways of resolving contentious issues from the past, that our disagreements need not lead to war, but that we need to create a space for other perspectives and different ways of seeing the events from the past. That we do not need to determine the final truth, but that our truths can exist simultaneously without necessarily encroaching on each other. We arrived at this conclusion through an examination of the concept of reconciliation, its content, preconditions and ways to achieve it. The group approached these tasks with due seriousness and we spent the entire training working hard, so our satisfaction with the results, both among the group and the team of trainers, grew accordingly. This also helped us bring to light among the group the level of trust needed to approach these topics constructively. A significant number of participants identified working on social taboos about the past and dealing with the past as the part of the training that engaged them the most, given that apart from a group examination, it also opened a space to express personal opinions on these topics, critique existing models of dealing with the painful past, deep self-reflection and openness to comments from others.

ot2016_ulcinj054The team was made up of Adnan Hasanbegović, Davorka Turk and Nedžad Horozović from CNA, as well as our long time friend and colleague Albulena Karaga from the Megjashi Children’s Embassy in Skopje. It soon became clear that a quality reflection on issues of identity in such a mixed group, and with national identities tied to personal and social conflicts, would require the particular atmosphere created by our mutual complementary actions, both within the training team and within the group. And, indeed, every attempt to impose one’s own national perspective without any apparent effort to speak about it critically was confronted in the group by introducing other perspectives and views of the given problem. The initial reluctance of the participants to tackle issues that provoke in them an emotional reaction, gradually turned into increased readiness to engage in self-reflection, as well as constructive criticism. Albulena’s presence on the team enabled us to avoid a situation where we would mostly deal with the situation in the Dayton triangle (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia), and allowed us to devote equal attention to Macedonian-Albanian relations, situating them within the wider context of the region. This created the preconditions to discuss ethnic relations within our societies by comparing similarities and differences found in the different models and the nature of these relationships (what they are based on, what is the relationship between opposing identities, what is the nature of national narratives keeping us at opposed positions), and to try to determine current social trends, such as the normalisation of nationalism as a dominant social model. Although we were aware that using Macedonian as another working language in the group could present difficulties, the abovementioned advantages of this way of working helped us overcome these. The group reacted exceptionally well to this circumstances, for many of us this was the first opportunity to hear Macedonian (again) and remember how much we have in common, all of which further increased synergies within the group. The product of our joint work is also a mini Macedonian-BCS dictionary of basic terminology that we added to during the training.ot2016_ulcinj173

Apart from the difficulties in selecting participants described above, half the group and half the training team came down with a stomach flue, which could have been disastrous. However, it seems that luck was on our side throughout the training, so the flue hit us during the one free day we had. Fortunately, everyone’s health soon improved and there was no need to seek medical care. On the contrary, the enthusiasm and desire to continue working helped the recovery process. Just before the end of the training, we were very sad that a participant had to leave us because of a death in the family. We missed her spirit and contributions and are sorry we were not able to be of more help. The considerable time we spent together, in the workshops and during our free time, genuinely and deeply connected this group of participants. I hope that they will cherish this treasure for a long time to come. As a group, they demonstrated a readiness to take responsibility for the work. As the training progressed, they increasingly used it as an opportunity to stop avoiding potential conflicts, but to approach them constructively instead, as an opportunity to re-examine their own attitudes, understand different perspectives and engage in dialogue with different opinions. This is considerably more than we can see in our societies, and even among activists. It should be noted that, given our impression that most of the group did not see themselves as bearers of
social change, we hope this training will serve as encouragement and inspiration for further social engagement. The experience of participating in this training and their engagement with it can provide guidance, and more importantly, a healthy, value-based foundation for peace work however they choose to “articulate” it in the future.

View the photo gallery here.