In Banja Luka we were expected for a meeting with students of history. Thanks to two employees of the History Department of the University’s Philosophical Faculty in Banja Luka this meeting became possible. The goal of the meeting was relatively unspecified – an exchange about topics which concern students here and there was one option. Another option was an exchange of thoughts about the topic of our excursion: How the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina is dealt with today, in particular here in the capital of the Republika Srpska.
We are once again on the hot, sticky bus, coming from Kozarac, Omarska and Trnopolje, going to the capital of the Republika Srpska, to Banja Luka. Here we want to meet a group of history students in order to simply talk to Bosnian students of our age and, thus, to not only observe the country through the windows of the bus.
From what we know these students have been looking forward to our meeting for weeks now. They are probably wondering – as already many others have before – why a group of 25 German students is coming to Bosnia and Herzegovina of all things.
Nevertheless, we cannot really prepare ourselves for this meeting. We are still thinking of Omarska and Satko and everything we have heard and seen in the course of the last days and hours. What did he say after we told him that we were going to Banja Luka – him who was always trying to tell us about every perspective: “Ah, Banja Luka. They’ll tell you that there was no war in Banja Luka, that everything was just fine. But Muslims have been deported, and religious buildings have been destroyed. “
The drive was not very long. In the hot afternoon sun we arrived on campus, which first seemed to be more like a parking lot in front of a decayed building. The picture changed quickly though, as soon as we turned around the corner. There were students going in and out of a big, simple, but friendly-looking building. Soon we realised that this building complex must have once been part of a former barracks.
For me everything still seemed very unreal. It all happened so fast. Just a couple of minutes ago, we were at the cemetery, now we are in the middle of young folks on the campus. We go up the stairs, up to the highest floor. At least here it is chilly and quiet.
In front of the lecture room I pause and take a look at what the others are taking a picture of. There are two big maps on the wall showing the expansion of the Serbian Empire. One during the 15th century and the other one around 1373. A time when medieval Serbia had reached its greatest expansion.
Objectively analyzed it might not even be so special to have those maps in a faculty of history. But, after what we had experienced that morning, and with the background information we had gained, after everything we had already seen in this torn country, it did shock me profoundly, that those maps of the Serbian Empire should be on display in a university in the middle of Bosnia, in the year 2010.
We should probably mention in advance that the discussion with the students of the history department studying general history, who had been selected for the meeting as they had already studied 20th century history, was officially not restricted to any topics. However, the head of the university did emphasized, that they would rather welcome an open exchange.
I had hardly entered the room when I encountered the next surprise. Against each wall there are two rows of desks, of which the side to the window was almost entirely taken by the Bosnian students (with a majority of male students, which is interesting in terms of social dynamics). We (almost only female students) did not really have a choice but to sit down in an unintentionally confrontational manner opposite the Bosnian group.
We sit opposite each other as if we were in some sort of psychological experiment or an interrogation and wonder how an “open exchange” should come about in this atmosphere. To begin with, only one tutor talks; she asks Professor Brunnbauer and Heike what it actually is we study. Our focus is on the history of Southeastern Europe they say. Which history? Mostly early modern and modern history. We hear that if you do not know about Southeastern Europe during the Middle-Ages, you cannot understand what happened here in the past 20 years. Bam.
And again, there are the fronts. Then the tutor from Banja Luka asks us students to talk a bit about us, why we are here, what we hope to learn from this journey, what impressions of Bosnia we have. Nobody says anything. Fearing the silence I raise my hand. Suddenly I become nervous. The words just come out of my mouth without getting permission from my head. Somehow the other side eventually receives the message how surprised we are at how civilized and calm everything is here.
The reaction is as prompt as it is deafening. Especially the tutor seems to feel offended. Maybe it was a mistake, but maybe it also helped to loosen up the atmosphere - at least that is what I am trying to convince myself of. What I hope also made it to the other side was that we simply did not have any idea of this country before our journey despite all our thorough preparation. And that in the end we were surprised in a very very positive way. People who say they do not have any prejudices are just as foolish as people who stick to their prejudices. Everyone calms down again fast; the harmless conversation between the diplomatic professors continues. But how is this discussion to be continued for another 2 hours?
Then there comes the rescue. A German student suggests to change from the confrontational seat order into small groups so we can have more informal discussions. At first I feel surprised, and then relieved, the decision is quickly taken. We start to move desks and chairs. 5 minutes later we sit down in our new groups and stare at each other curiously.
Although the students now talk more because they are not dependent on the professor translating for them, the situation remains awkward. Somehow the discussions are artificial; I am so focused on not talking about the war in Bosnia that I constantly hit the nail in the head, very undiplomatically and clumsily. I ask them if they think of themselves as Bosnians. “Yes, of course. And do they feel as a part of Bosnia, Serbia or the Republika Srpska? They are Bosnian Serbs and are definitely more part of the Republika Srpska than of Bosnia.
I try to draw parallels between post-war Germany and Bosnia in order to show empathy and not to seem arrogant; and also to give myself the permission for being here and asking these kinds of questions. I think I want to talk about the difficult situation, the victims and the perpetrators, coming to terms. I think it is also difficult for me to not talk about it in a more direct way because we just came from Omarska. I want to talk about what we saw and heard, everything wants to come out, I want to tell them everything, ask them why, what they think about it, if they hear about it, what they learn about it…
In addition to this it seems that the language poses quite a barrier after all. Not everyone is up to an active use of English.
Clumsily, as if I had never tried out small talk, I try to chat with three male students who I joined at their table. I try to talk to them about something normal, about not so important things. Football, music. Shoot, what else could we talk about? At least I am not the only one who has difficulties talking about everyday stuff. The only one with good English at our table joins the conversation. (What kind of music do you listen to? Reggae…) and means to say: You all come here and have precast ideas. You categorize us; reduce us to Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. But we are not only this. Our identity consists of more than that. Maybe we like the same music, maybe we play in the same football team. I nod enthusiastically and could not be more ashamed of myself at the same time. Later he tells us, that he too is a refugee. Of course he is not against other ethnic groups, his mom herself is even Croatian, he is originally from Mostar. He himself is Serb though, he does not really care about the others.
During the talks more and more students get up. Especially the Serbian students try to animate us to go outside so we can have a coffee, a beer. I do not have a lot of time to be surprised and to think about whether we are allowed to do this. I do not want to be left behind. In the hallway the groups mix yet again. I lose my old group and get the impression that new students have joined us. And really, I did not even realize that when we first arrived, there is a nice little café surrounded by greenery in front of the building. Finally, the atmosphere becomes natural, just like among students. Well, more or less.
At the same time two of our students separate from the group. Only a long time after the meeting I understood why they must have felt very uncomfortable during this afternoon.
Snapshots. A couple of small groups sit at the tables outside, a big one in the middle of the restaurant. We are the only guests. People laugh, talk, discuss, argue, question, inform, analyze, and lecture. Everyone is focused on the conversation. Only later we realise how different our talks and the people we talked to were.
So, what do you want to know? Ask. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?
There were some who directly started to tell us about the war, about Serbia, about the occurrences of the 90s and what we should know about it. It was almost scary how prompt they talked about it: “By the way, I asked my grandma about what war she thinks was worse. The new one or the Second World War and she replied, definitely the Second World War.”
Where have we been, what have we seen so far? Have we already been to Srebrenica? No… What we think happened there? We look at each other. Well, … But sometimes the answer was not even waited for. They will tell you how many people died there. But it is not possible that 8,000 people died there. We ought to take a look at the village, once we are there. It is so small, that a maximum of 5,000 people could have lived there. If at all. In such a short period of time this would not even be possible. What can you reply to that?
Most of the time, official numbers and figures of victims are met with distrust. The students suggest to us to take a look at a place close to Srebrenica once we are there. That is where the Serbs were victims! We believe that.
Generally, some students emphasise, how they see themselves more in the role of victims than in the role of perpetrators and that some occurrences are unnecessarily exaggerated by the other side. Srebrenica didn’t happen as reported. The term “genocide” is used in a wrong way in this context since not enough people were killed. Furthermore, many people died in fights with Serbs and were not, as so often reported, shot and buried in mass graves. In addition to that we were referred to the term “genocide” in the “Duden” where we could see that what had happened in Srebrenica had definitely not been genocide.
What we think of when we hear about Serbia? About the Serbs I have met so far, I answer. Unsatisfactory. Most people would probably think of Slobodan Milošević, admits one German student. That is so typical. Serbia is so much more than that, more than a scapegoat, more than the perpetrator. We know that, honestly. We were victims as well. Yes. Proudly they show us the portrait of Nikola Tesla, which strictly watches us from above our heads. Tell us about the Bosnian football team and that Serbia will win against Germany in the World Cup.
Another student surreptitiously but proudly showed one of our students his beret from the Serbian army. He served there for 3 months, in Belgrade, doing some kind of volunteer service, 2005, and yes, he is proud of it. Yet another one impressed us with his detailed knowledge of German history, knew “Freude schöner Götterfunken” by heart, and spontaneously held a lecture about the battle of Königgrätz.
To learn about the history of other countries and to study other epochs seems to suggest itself more than to deal with one’s own history….
Probably the most controversial conversation chases away another student of our group. Two of the Bosnian-Serb students think that the separation of Serbs and Bosniaks would be the best solution for everybody in BiH. Personally, they are not against Bosniaks, but for them to live together simply is not possible.
Questioned as to the future of their country someone says that the RS should become independent. Another one wants the RS to join Serbia. We want to know if they see this as a chance for their future. In any case, they say, without war this cannot be solved. The difficult thing about Bosnia is the perspectives for jobs and the future. There are none. Comparable to Germany after the First World War. And after that, there also was another war. Every 30 to 40 years there will be war again here anyway. Looking at the former barracks, the two say that they love the military and war.
Some other conversations focused more on Kosovo. One talks about how he gets goose bumps when he talks about Kosovo and his heroes of 1389. Kosovo. For us not such an important topic at this moment, and yet the fact that he gets goose bumps is a sign for an enthusiasm for history and a way of looking back into the far away past that one can find in all of Yugoslavia and not only among history students! This traditional way of thinking has been celebrated and politicised successfully for decades.
In another conversation one German and two Serbian students reveal how different the system of studying is here compared to Germany. Often, when we ask whether certain connections and processes could not be interpreted a bit differently, we only get an answer similar to „No, that’s not true. It happened this way…“
We hear that some are also against Serbia and Bosnia joining the NATO, as this organisation was responsible for the bombing of Belgrade during the war in Kosovo.
Others did not really want to talk about „politics“ and only started saying something about the war and their views after a while, when we explained to them that some of us were writing their thesis about these topics. Everyone tells us that they also have Bosnian and Croatian friends and that for them it does not really matter. One student says that he has so many Muslim friends that on New Year’s Eve, when he invited them, he even cooked halal. I have to stop myself from asking why all these problems then?
One group compares themselves and the Republika Srpska to Bavaria in Germany. They ask us if we Bavarians really feel like Germans, as they know that Bavaria has always been special. Unofficially, the Republika Srpska sees itself as being independent of Bosnia-Herzegovina, just as Bavaria in Germany. Surely, we must feel Bavarian first, and only then German.
Eventually, we even hear that Serbs allowed Muslims to live in their country and that the war could therefore be interpreted as a recapture of their own territory.
However, there are also more quiet, more conciliatory voices, which do not want to share the general opinion. They notice many mistakes also on the Serbian side, when you open your eyes, as they say. The war was senseless and unnecessary. Whoever wants war, even in a country where so many people are tired of it, has never been part of a war, does not know what he is talking about, one student tells me. His father was in the Serbian Army, he says. Once a year, he came home, for Christmas. A Christmas gift? He took the cartridges out of his rifle, gave them to his boy and said, here, play with them. He also did not have a nice childhood, even though he is Serb, he says.
Others again actually do not talk about the war. More about everyday life of students, they have a good time, and they laugh. Going out, drinking beer, concerts, music, football, mountain bikes, simply hobbies.
We talk about the everyday life of students and university politics. I can hardly believe that they have to pay tuition fees at universities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. How can they afford it? Somehow you will always get money, tells us a student, calmly smiling. You bet on foreign football clubs. Of course, the results are being manipulated, of course you sometimes know the result beforehand. Someone knows someone, who knows someone, who said… Corruption, he says, is everywhere anyway.
At some point we have to leave. But not without making plans for the evening. And will you really come? Yes, of course, absolutely. Every hour we are informed and reminded by SMS about where and when we will meet.
We all need a break at the hotel. It feels as if the day was as long as a week. Today we were in hell and believed that we had already recognized the devil, but then we heard that there was no hell and the devil was someone else.
We talk to our tutors about the possibility of another war in the near future in Bosnia-Herzegovina, about education, about coming to terms with the past, about a change of perspectives, perceptions of history, hope and narrow-mindedness.
Then the cabs arrive: „To the square, what’s the name again, Boska or something like that, please.”
Absolutely everybody came; they are already there waiting for us. They have brought self-made rakija for us, and they are truly excited to see us and want to show us their city while there is still some daylight. First, we go to some kind of old city wall, or more or less the remains of it. It dates back to the Ottoman Empire. Actually, the site had already been closed. But for our guests from Germany we will open it again. It is lovely here, you can imagine very well how young people sit on the grass in the summer, go to open-air concerts and have a barbecue.
Then we go back to the city. Slowly, we begin to separate into groups. A small group stays persistent and tells us the history of every single house, until we cannot listen anymore and simply want a pivo.
This day was truly marked by extremes and contrasts. First, we are in Omarska, then we hear these partly surprising and shocking comments on the one hand. And on the other hand we learn, already in the afternoon but especially in the evening, of the generous hospitality, the open-mindedness and curiosity to get to know us better. We talk a lot, and a lot more about the present, the future, drink to peace and friendship, by the way, are you on facebook?
We are introduced to their friends. Here, these are the Germans! They apologize for everything, for the state of the toilets, that we had to wait for our beer for two minutes longer, we almost feel as if we were state guests. We meet with honest interest, some cannot learn enough about Germany, they do not want to let us go, they wish we stayed the whole week in Banja Luka. They want us to join them in the disco.
Of course, we do not want to miss this opportunity. Such a Bosnian disco is a special experience. We enjoy listening to the Turkish music, although we did not know nor understand a single song. Oh, wait, not Turkish? Sorry! Serbian? Yes? They could not really agree on the origin of the music. When it was time to say goodbye they told us how happy they were about our visit and that they felt honoured by it.
During the night we meet a Croat who speaks perfect German. Just like many other people here, too many people, when you think of the reason why they speak it. He has also just met the other guys, laughs with them but asks us under his breath not to tell them that he is a Croat. There it is again, the reality. At the end of the day I begin to understand why two of our students did not want to share their real names with the Serbian students. Although – I do not think I really understood.
Maybe the city did not experience weapons, tanks, camps and battalions. Nevertheless, one sees the scars of war when only opening a telephone book. Once a multi-ethnic model city, today, Banja Luka is almost purely Serbian. Many Muslims were displaced and deported. Many Serbian refugees from other parts of the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Herzegovina settled or had to settle down there. Only one Bosniak student studies at the history faculty.
We came with prejudices, they said. Which is certainly true. But they would show us the other side, the opposite. Have they really done so? Partly, they have confirmed our prejudices. But also the opposite is true. Did we not think about how they see themselves before we met them – as Bosnians or Serbs? What kind of difference does that make? Well, yes, it does make a difference. The difference is in the interpretation of one’s own history, in whom you tend to call “victim” and whom “perpetrator”. And yet, before the war, many did not even know which ethnic group their best friend belonged to. Do we not even confirm and strengthen the existing borders within society by our categorizations?
As most of the students we met were very nice and interested young people, we want to emphasize that by these memories posted here, we do not want to give a false impression of them and neither do we want them to look as if they were just not that “enlightened”. We definitely do not want to report only one perspective concerning that afternoon and the experience in Banja Luka as well as in the whole country. We certainly still have to place our reactions in a greater context.
First of all, as mentioned before, probably due to our visit to Kozarac during the morning, we paid more attention to extreme tendencies of some students; also we were probably more shocked by some statements. This would probably have been different if we had not been to Omarska before the meeting. Most probably it was also because of the experience of that morning that we were a little bit prejudiced towards the “Serbian” students waiting for us in the capital of the (evil?) Republika Srpska.
Furthermore, these memories presented here are individual memories, which are the subjective opinions of individual students. These subjective opinions also diverged within the group, as we were hopefully able to show. After all, our memories are also distorted by the mask of selective perception. In addition to this we have also gained only a tiny first insight and definitely do not want to generalise our impressions and pretend they stand for all Bosnian Serbs.
But why is it then that this meeting has left marks on us, surprised us, scared us? Why did we perceive some of the views as one-sided?
We believe, that the educational system as well as the general socialisation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is still strongly influenced by the war experience. Influenced by the withholding of information, political instrumentalisation and manipulation, influenced by a view of history which we perceived as one-sided and find difficult to understand.
Already before entering the classroom, we realised how important and seminal the history of the Middle Ages is for these students. Only 15 years after Dayton, the educational system surely is not helping to foster multi-perspectivity or “objectivity”. Also it shows how the current politics of the Republika Srpska still influence the population with regard to their perception of history and general self-perception.
On the other hand apart from schools, universities, homes and the media there is a lack of possibilities to broaden one’s horizon and to change perspectives. There is not enough money, and sometimes also not enough willingness, to travel to the Federation. Really going abroad remains a dream for many young people, many of whom do not even have a passport.
Other than that, however, we do not want to excuse the nationalistic tendencies which we also encountered on that afternoon with this problematic educational and social background. But for the most part we can say that we met very open-minded, helpful and keen students. They are not bad people and neither do they carry some kind of “nationalistic gene”. With some students it comes inevitably to my mind that they, too, would have probably been shocked by what we heard that afternoon, if they had been born in Germany.
And yes, some of the things we heard were shocking – in particular after what we had seen in the morning. While listening, for many of us thoughts came to mind like “brainwash”, “manipulation” or “if you listen to the same stories over and over again – at home, at school or in the media – provided that they even speak about the most recent history – how can they know it better?”
This might be an arrogant thing to say, as we also do not have a monopoly on the truth. How would we have reacted, if we had been a school class, let’s say in 1960, and a foreign delegation had come to preach about new points of view concerning German history?
However, we are pretty sure that some of the opinions we heard here in Banja Luka, will not help to deal with the history and to learn from it in order to not let happen again what took place in the 1990s. But that would be our modest hope. After all, the students we met are the people who will shape the culture, politics, and perception of history as well as the culture of memory in their country in about 10 to 20 years. But in which way?