Only 75 kilometers north of Sarajevo just off the one toll road in the region, the city of Zenica has a story to tell. All of its 17 schools were filled with refugees during the war here 20 years ago. The huge steel mill which employed up to 30,000 workers during the time of the former Yugoslavia now employs less than 1,500.
"We had a safe country and it was functioning well before the war and suddenly, overnight, nothing seemed to work anymore," Venira Alihođić, director of MCC partner organization SEZAM told me.
After the war Venira formed SEZAM to work with children traumatized by what they had experienced during the war. A flood of refugees, more than 50,000, fled here during the war. When it was over, the refugee camps were dismantled, but some of the refugees remained. Venira and longtime worker Emir Džiđić show me a book of children's drawings of the world of fear and grenades, of shelling and tanks, that these children still imagine surrounds them. .
For many years prior to the ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s, Bosniacs (mostly Muslim), Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and Bosnian Croats (Catholics) lived side by side in these neighborhoods, at least tolerating each other. Heightened nationalism bubbled to the surface with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the intervention of the U.S. and European Union, the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in 1996 and Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two entities: the Republic of Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Venira and Emir work with the teachers from all three ethnic groups. The schools are located along the entity lines that are invisible with no physical border, but very real nonetheless. These invisible lines prevent teachers from meeting and talking with each other. Venira and Emir's work helps bring these teachers together to communicate with each other.
"We have a problem accepting differences," Venira said. "Everything looks fine on the outside, and we don't have a war, but it’s all an allusion," she said.
SEZAM's work has evolved from working with traumatized children to training teachers to work with these children still bearing the signs of trauma, and to learn interpersonal communication and reconciliation skills. Venira and Emir believe their work with teachers has to happen person to person. “We want to stress our common humanity,” they tell me.
But the challenges in the community remain. "Today," said Venira, "Political parties determine everything including where you live, where you have a job and where you go to school." Venira said two-thirds of all the children say they want to be politicians when they grow up because they perceive that politicians control everything.
In the rural areas, Venira believes that nationalism, a reality defined by peoples' first and last names, is really about people wanting an identity. And about people being afraid of war and believing that any state that is not war is better than going back to what they experienced then.
"We had an opportunity for a better society before the war and we lost it," says Venira, "but today we still have an opportunity to rethink who we are, to help teachers regain a sense of responsibility and to empower them., to help them believe in their common humanity again."
It is this humanness that Venira and Emir say they also appreciate about partnering with MCC. "You are different than other partners," they tell us. "We have open lines of communication and sharing with you and we all can learn from that."
Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. and worked from the MCC office in Sarajevo for several months in early 2016. From Sarajevo, he also visited MCC's programs in Ukraine, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.