Peacebuilding Training for War Veterans: How to Cool Down the “Cold War”

History sometimes seems so simple, the deeper we delve into the past, the more banal it seems (“banal” here does not necessarily mean benign, as Hannah Arendt has shown), and many events elicit from us salvoes of laughter amidst a ubiquitous lack of understanding. Nothing causes us so much wonder, with concealed laughter, as what historians call casus belli – an event or act that provoked or was used to justify going into war.

How can we today, a millennium after the fact, understand that common and legitimate casus belli were, for example, the altercation among some nobles at an aristocratic party, the various whims of utterly insane kings, the divinations of mages that promised certain victory… But, there is one problem with history. The closer it is to us, the more general history is also our personal history, the more we tend to have incomparably more understanding for our closer predecessors or contemporaries, their decisions are that much more understandable and justified that we tend to see them as our own. Of course, the most effective remedy are Heraclitus’ magic words Panta rhei – everything flows. In a thousand years, new generations of kids will find our reasons to go into war hard to understand and may even find them a bit laughable.

 

What happened to us?

Among those who don’t want to wait a thousand years to start understanding what happened to us are war veterans, members of once warring sides in BiH, Croatia and Serbia. Peacebuilding training for war veterans from the former Yugoslavia is one way to overcome the darkness of incomprehension and, if nothing else, for a start, shed light on our own positions within that dark chamber known as the 1990s so that we may stop bumping into each other and try to find a way out together.

This year’s CNA training for war veterans, our 13th, held at Mount Jahorina from 5 to 8 July, brought together 17 former members of the Army of RBiH (ARBiH), the Croat Defence Council (HVO), the Army of Republika Srspka (VRS), the National Defence of the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia (NO APZB), the Croatian Army (HV), the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) and the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ). The training team was made up of members of CNA, Amer Delić, Nenad Vukosavljević, Nedžad Horozović and Nedžad Novalić, supported by Adnan Hasanbegović. Peacebuilding trainings have been and continue to be the core of CNA’s work, a long-standing source of vital resources for our work on peacebuilding, providing everything from mutual inspiration and empowerment to associates and new ideas. This training for war veterans was particularly important in that regard for a number of reasons.

In the first place, peacebuilding training provides an exceptional opportunity for first contacts between former enemies, it is a safe space to open dialogue in order to try to understand one’s own and the position of others. Training is an opportunity to meet all those important needs that post-war societies fail to provide: an opportunity to talk with them without avoiding difficult topics, to explain ourselves, to try to understand others, to see in them people with whom we want to and can work to build a better future.

 

Steps Forward

Also, this was our first training for war veterans in four years. In the meantime, we had made significant progress and were successful in our cooperation with war veterans for the purpose of peacebuilding. We started including more representatives of local communities and religious leaders in our visits by war veterans to sites of atrocities, and we have garnered stronger media support. The presence at official commemorations of a mixed group of veterans has proven to be an extraordinary intervention in the culture of memory. It is now often seen as a significant step towards reconciliation, and the calls of war veterans to mark sites of atrocities have finally been heeded in one local community, so that in 2017 the so-called “13th kilometre” in Zavidovići was marked as a site of atrocity.

Since 2014, we have met with a large number of war veterans who joined our group of veterans prepared to work towards building a better society for themselves and their children. Some of them were our hosts at visits or commemorations, cooperation with them has borne out new ideas, and our continuous desire is to expand the group of war veterans working on peacebuilding, find a way in for communities that we have not yet visited and deepen cooperation where we have made the initial steps. Training is an opportunity for this deepening and planning next steps.

The Luck of Being Born Later

If registers of veterans maintained by institutions in BiH, Croatia and Serbia are to be trusted, more than a million people participated as soldiers in the wars of the 1990s. It is, therefore, hard to imagine any family in this region that isn’t a veteran family, that did not have a member participate in the war(s). For me and my generation, for the children of war veterans, for those who had the luck, as Helmut Kohl would put it, to be born later and not have to participate in the wars of the 1990s, the training is an opportunity to narrow the vast intergenerational gap, to talk about what is loudly silenced. The war is loudly silenced, we do not talk about what it is like to lose your left hand and be counted as lucky that they saved your right (But I’ve always been left-handed), we don’t talk about the fears and losses brought by war, about how war changes you forever…

Where peace is understood as a continuation of war sans weapons, we will find war wherever we look. We wage war at football matches, with pupils in schoolrooms, with monuments, religious sermons, the TV news. In this cold war that can easily be heated up, the experience of war veterans—who left the best years of their lives or parts of their bodies in the trenches, the dugouts and lookouts—can be sobering and transformative.

The photo gallery from the training can be viewed  HERE