Studying Abroad in the Balkans

A Learning Experience to Remember

Studying Abroad in the Balkans

Youngseo (Laura) Park is a Mason Korea student majoring in conflict analysis and resolution, who participated in the first ever study abroad program organized by George Mason University Korea in the summer of 2019, led by Dr. Borislava Manojlovic and Dr. Roland Wilson.

This unique experience enabled Youngseo and eighteen of her fellow students to learn about conflict and peacebuilding in the three countries in the Balkans: Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. Each place revealed a different story and each story has provided a valuable insight not only into the rich culture and history of the region, but also its convoluted politics and challenges to peace. Students had an opportunity to meet local people, scholars, and practitioners as well as immerse themselves into the everyday experiences and natural beauty of the Balkans. Laura’s blog is a snippet of the larger and exciting experience of the region that constantly reinvents itself through the optimism and ingenuity of its people. We invite you on this learning journey and we hope you can join us for our next trip in the summer of 2020! (Borislava Manojlovic, PhD)

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* Youngseo (Laura) is the first person on the left in the second row

Laura’s account

We started the study abroad program in the Balkans with a short yet impactful question: Why is dealing with the past important? From the beginning to the end of the program led by Professor Borislava Manojlovic and Professor Roland Wilson, I was thinking about this question because the past seemed to be one of the key drivers of conflict in the Balkans. We learned that there was once a country called Yugoslavia where different ethnic groups peacefully coexisted until 1990, by which point the politically and economically weakened country plunged into dissolution and fierce war. We also learned about President Tito who was the Yugoslav leader from 1945 to 1980, and I was quite impressed by his idea of ‘unity and brotherhood.’ Actually, it was quite amazing how he was able to bring all the Yugoslav nations together by using such a simple concept which showed the power of ideology and narrative. It was pretty clear that the narrative about the contentious past played a significant role in shaping identities of different ethnic groups. In the beginning, I thought that by bringing to the fore the common narrative, Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and Croats, could possibly find a solution for their differences—but I was wrong. Each group espoused its own story of the past as part of its identity, which made a joint narrative almost impossible. Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats have struggled to distinguish their identities from each other while putting aside their similarities. This is a prime case of the so-called ‘narcissism of minor difference.’ The struggle to be different from one’s neighbor has become one of the key drivers of the protracted conflict which eventually erupted in 1991.

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Although the struggle for difference persisted, it was good to hear that an alternative narrative existed too. The Post-Conflict Research Center in Sarajevo has been collecting counter narratives from people of different backgrounds who opposed the war and have helped and rescued their neighbors of different ethnicities. Such stories can introduce new dynamics and a better understanding of others by showcasing that co-existence is possible despite differences. I think that the Post-Conflict Research Center’s project on ‘Ordinary heroes’ contributed to the right to know and the idea of the common future by revealing the stories of people who worked for peace and defied conflict on all sides.

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Apart from learning about the contentious past, one of the major topics of our program was peacebuilding strategies in post-conflict societies. ‘Education’ was highlighted as one of the key peacebuilding strategies in the discussions we had with local scholars and practitioners. It was surprising to learn that education could pose a problem in a lecture by Professor Nemanja Dzuverovic from the University of Belgrade, Serbia. He talked about the divided education system in the Balkans called ‘two schools under one roof.’ Under this system, different ethnic groups share a school building but attend separate classes. This shows that the ethnic groups in the Balkans have stayed divided and that different ethnic groups have different views about the past.

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The discussion on education as a tool for peacebuilding continued as we became acquainted with the work of the Nansen Dialogue Center in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The Center mainly focuses on one of the best tools for constructive conflict resolution known as ‘dialogue.’ As Gandhi pointed out, ‘We need to engage in conversation with our enemies to fully understand them and to seek resolution of a conflict together.’ Engaging in dialogue with an unknown and daunting enemy is not easy, but it can be a start of a new kind of relationship. The Nansen Dialogue Center has been promoting dialogue as an educational strategy among students, parents, and teachers of different ethnicities. The goal of such dialogue is to encourage future generations to communicate and interact with one another in and outside the classroom so that they can develop a better understanding of each other.

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After the discussion at the Nansen Dialogue Center, I realized that the young people have not been able to sufficiently interact with their peers of different ethnicities and seek change because they did not know how to start such engagement. The Center has been providing a safe space for intercommunal dialogue and the education that was lacking in schools. I hope that there will be more schools in the future where students of different ethnicities can study together.

Another interesting discussion about peacebuilding was led by a former Otpor member, Milan Raskovic, from the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), who talked about non-violent and constructive methods to generate positive change. The states formed after the dissolution of Yugoslavia have been undergoing the difficult process of democratization for the past 25 years and it has been the role of the civil society and social movements to help the citizens voice their concerns through protest and activism. Since the Balkan nations have suffered wars and physical violence, the work of local non-violent activists seemed extraordinary. When it comes to non-violent movements, I used to think that one of their greatest shortcomings was that they take longer to generate change. However, change generated through non-violent means could actually lead to more lasting peace.

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Mostar in Western Herzegovina was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Its UNESCO protected bridge stands proudly over the winding turquois Neretva River, and it seemed unmoved by the people flocking from all sides. We had a great workshop with students from a local university in the Proni Youth Club in Mostar and we discussed stereotypes. During the course of our conversation, I could see how people develop negative stereotypes about relevant others–people they live with. Stereotypes about ‘others’ have certainly been causing and sustaining the protracted conflict between the three major ethnic groups in Bosnia. But how do we behave when faced with stereotypes? Based on my personal experiences, the best strategy has been to ask questions and to be open to learning. Education should be about promoting the power of critical thinking and openness to inquiry.

In conclusion, the program in the Balkans was a very unique and memorable experience. As a student who is currently majoring in conflict analysis and resolution, the trip to the Balkans was especially meaningful because I could directly experience, feel, and most importantly, learn about the conflict, the history, and the ongoing peacebuilding efforts.

It would have been quite difficult to fully understand how nations involved in wars deal with the continuing negative effects of the past only through textbooks and the Internet. When I saw half-destroyed buildings with bullet holes in the walls, I understood, for the first time, the seriousness of the conflict. The saying goes, “Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced. Even a proverb is no proverb to you until your life has illustrated it.”

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The experiences we had were very helpful because conflict can only be fully understood when it is experienced on a personal level. My perspective completely changed after experiencing a conflict region firsthand. I wish we had more time to experience every nook and corner of the impressive region, but nevertheless, we managed to see three great countries in two weeks.

The study abroad program in the Balkans inspired me to focus more on the North-South Korean conflict. Understanding the shared past and the positions of the parties should precede determining peacebuilding strategies. One of the best ways to do this is to visit other post-conflict societies and gather lessons learned that can be applied to the Korean context. The study abroad program provided me with a pathway to becoming a conflict resolution practitioner and I will always cherish this unique experience