By Colleen Keller Mishra
Samantha Owens is the Programming and External Relations Manager for The Post-Conflict Research Center (P-CRC) in Sarajevo, Bosnia. P-CRC works to restore a culture of peace and prevent violent conflict in the Western Balkans. They do this by creating, implementing and supporting unconventional and innovative approaches to peace education, post-conflict research, human rights and transitional justice.
Tell us about how you got connected with P-CRC?
From 2014 through 2016, I was working for Chicago-based ART WORKS Projects and we had gotten a MacArthur grant to do a four-part exhibition about transitional justice in different environments; the US, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo and BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina). As part of this curatorial process, we hosted representatives from each partner organization for a workshop in Chicago, where I met co-founder of P-CRC, Leslie Woodward in 2016.
Leslie and I hit it off and hung out after the workshop talking about what we were interested in, what we were working on, what we wanted to work on, and we really clicked professionally. ART WORKS was in a period of transition and I was figuring out what my next steps were going to be. I had always wanted to live in the Balkans as my mother is a first-generation American born to Croatian parents and my mother’s side of the family is all either Croatian immigrants or first generation. Leslie had someone leave the team recently, so it was sort of just kismet. That was in April 2016, I believe, and I finally made it to Sarajevo in December 2016.
What projects is P-CRC currently working on?
We are currently working on a photo-based exhibition about the Roma population in BiH, which I am really, really excited about. They are a very marginalized group, they were profoundly impacted by the war, but their stories are rarely told. So, our goal with that is to challenge the stereotypes about the Roma by giving them a platform to share their own stories. We are also introducing a digital component to our Ordinary Heroes project, using stories of interethnic wartime rescue to combat divisive, nationalist narratives online.
In addition to our new projects, we have several ongoing programs including; the Peacebuilding Program, Balkan Diskurs, and mentoring Balkan Diskurs’ youth correspondents. We also work with the ICTY’s Outreach office, who work with the United Nations to monitor conditions that could lead to genocide and mass atrocities in the region, and are also the organizers of the WARM Festival run by WARM Foundation. We have so many projects constantly running, I am in awe of my colleagues and our intern teams who do so much with very limited capacity.
Again, I would encourage anyone interested in learning about our work to visit our website. We recently re-designed it. You can see a good selection of our visual content, too.
Can you speak about conflict in Bosnia? (past and present)
have studied the region in undergrad, grad school, and been living here for a year and this is still a question I am trying to wrap my brain around. Let me preface this by saying that everything I am about to say/observe is my own views and not any sort of official stance by P-CRC. I just want to be clear about that since so many aspects of the conflict remain contentious. For a very, very brief history lesson, for those who weren’t around or don’t know about the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, I will just give a bit of background. Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic state held together by Josip Broz Tito from the end of WWII until his death in 1980.
After his death, national identities became stronger and in some cases, nationalism among the various ethnic groups and regions bubbled to the surface. Various regions began declaring independence--first, Slovenia, which is ethnically and linguistically perhaps the most “different.” Bosnia declared independence too; however, as it was/is the most ethnically mixed state, its independence was the, what’s the word, perhaps the most “controversial”? Serbia declared it part of greater Serbia, while Croatia also laid claim to parts of Western Bosnia. What this resulted in was the horrors of ethnic cleansing and genocide that most people associate the war with. Twenty years on, I would argue, it remains a frozen conflict in a lot of ways, as the Dayton Accords, which achieved immediate peace through segregation and institutional separation of the various ethnic groups, became the constitution. The peace is therefore very fragile, and, in its current form, not sustainable, as you cannot just keep people separated forever. That is not a durable solution. What we are seeing now, among the generation that is currently coming of age, is this internalized division that has been fostered not just through family and community narratives about the war, but also through this institutional segregation. There are certainly young people who are working to make BiH more unified, but it’s an uphill battle when the entire political system is designed to keep you separated.
In what ways does P-CRC engage with communities in peace-building?
Because there is so much bureaucracy in BiH--for instance, there are three presidents at a time, one from each ethnic group, who rotates "charge" every eight months--operating outside of formal structures is the most effective way to work. That’s one of the beauties of working through multimedia and the arts; you can set up an exhibition and it reaches people in a natural, organic way. We make sure all our exhibitions are as accessible as possible; typically, they are outdoor installations, set up in a heavily trafficked public space.
To reach young people, we have an extensive network of grassroots youth centers, youth programs, activists, and so on, across the country. We, again, work outside the formal school system so that we don’t get paralyzed by the red tape. We have found this to be an incredibly effective approach. We also do our best to offer young people opportunities that are mutually beneficial so it’s not just like “here, come to this training so we can tick the box that we did it.” We impart psycho-social skills, offer journalism and multimedia trainings, and, for some young people, offer compensation for articles they’ve written about their communities or specific issues in BiH for publication on Balkan Diskurs.
How did P-CRC come to exist?
I can’t put it any better than the "official" statement on our founding, which was put together by founders Velma Šarić and Leslie Woodward: “The story of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) began in Sarajevo in the summer of 2010. While living on opposite sides of the world, global technology supplied us with our [sic] some of our most powerful tools. Equipped with two Mac computers and Skype, we spent countless hours developing plans to create an organization dedicated to building peace a reality.
“In the beginning, we had minimal funding, no office and only a few part-time volunteers. Now, we have reached millions with our interventions and have received global recognition for our innovative approaches. Our journey has been both difficult and exciting and we are constantly faced with new challenges, roadblocks, and opportunities, but, in the end, we hope that our story can serve as an example that anything is possible if you follow your passion, believe in yourself, and work hard to achieve your dreams.”
What does your day-to-day look like in your role?
For anyone who has worked for a grassroots NGO, you know that you basically wear every hat. For me, I work on our grant applications, overall messaging, social media, article editing, project management, project design, and I help with management of our intern team. So, every day is different, which is something that I enjoy.
Also, we share our office building with a pensioners’ chess club so I spend some time each morning speaking to them in broken English/Bosnian combination, usually answering twenty questions about why I am not dating anyone, which is always pretty funny.
What is it like to live in Sarajevo?
Life here is lived at a much slower pace and on the weekends my life basically revolves around going from café to café, reading, meeting friends, drinking far too many coffees. It’s a funny combination because life feels much easier and laid back, the city is small, you are constantly running into people you know, you have your regular spots. But, in other ways, some of the minor day-to-day things are incredibly difficult. For instance, paying bills, picking up packages from the post office, doing any sort of paperwork, each one is a full-day process running from office to office. So, it’s a strange dichotomy in that way.
Actually, I think the city is very much a city of contrasts. There is a lot of beauty, coupled with a lot of pain, "Eastern" culture mixed with "Western" culture, laid back but very much alive. One thing I’ve really noticed is that you do feel every day that you are somewhere special, there’s something really captivating about the city. It also has a really strong sense of community that makes you feel really safe. It was so funny, moving from Chicago everyone was so worried about my safety, but I feel exponentially safer here than I do in the US.
Can you recommend a book or article related to your work?
Again, this question can get tricky as accounts of the war can be contentious; there are a lot of opinions about various scholars who have written works. I found The Balkans: A Short History by Mark Mazower to be really helpful in terms of an overview of regional history. Specifically about the war, the chapter in Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide about Bosnia is a good overview of international inaction while atrocities were being committed. I read a great article recently in The Economist about Bosnia’s collective sense of humor and its use in processing collective trauma. The film Grbavica is also great, and the photography of Ron Haviv is beautiful and heartbreaking.
Any additional thoughts?
I think, unfortunately, for a lot of people, Bosnia has basically become synonymous with “genocide.” While the 1992-1995 was certainly a watershed period in the nation’s history, there is so, so much more to Bosnia than just the traumas of war. I think commemoration is incredibly important, but I also think recognizing the beautiful parts of Bosnia and the resiliency of Bosnians is just as important. Reducing an entire country and a thousand years of history to three years of conflict can be easy to do—especially when those three years are full of horror and trauma and international headlines—but is, I think, unfair to the richness of the country. There’s history, there’s culture, there’s strength, there’s beauty that should also be recognized and associated with Bosnia.