GYC Village

blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff

In separateness, a quiet anger grows

Srebrenica survivor Zumra Sehemerovic comforts GYC delegate, Amela, who was moved to tears by her story.

Srebrenica survivor Zumra Sehemerovic comforts GYC delegate, Amela, who was moved to tears by Zumra’s story.

By Yumna Mohamed

I come from an angry country. Like many of my fellow South Africans, this anger surprised me when it started to surface in the past five years and it was a reality check that informed my understanding of other post-conflict countries.

Before I came to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I tried to imagine what the people would be like. Though I had no doubt they would be warm and sincere, I expected a dark cloud of anger looming over many heads. This is because I knew that the Dayton Accords accomplished the same thing the “rainbow nation” narrative did for South Africa after the end of apartheid – though both were important steps to prevent further bloodshed in the respective countries, they only instilled a precarious peace inside a burgeoning problem.

If you were to ask a black South African what the country is like today, I am almost certain that they would say we are still at war. These were also the very words of survivor Zumra Sehemerovic when we met in Srebrenica. For her, this is because there is still revisionism of what really happened, thus denying her the acknowledgement she needs to mourn and move on. Similarly, aversion to white guilt has also led to a lot of denialism leaving black South Africans fighting once again for acknowledgement. Over twenty years, South Africans went from relief in having a peaceful transition, to great expectations for a prosperous future, to disenchantment in the absence of real change and finally an implicit resentment has become outright rage in the form of renewed racial tension.

One of the reasons for this tension is the extenuating economic circumstances in which South Africa finds itself. Like BiH, South Africa is facing massive unemployment, youth disillusionment and a stagnating economy.

It became apparent to me that the interests of South Africa and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s governments are identical. They prefer separation. The countries’ current issues are distracted by seething differences between people and the governments use this to cover up their own failures. And so the cracks deepen.

South Africa’s saving grace is that it finds itself on a continent with some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, while BiH is on a continent in crisis. Furthermore, while South Africa also struggles with bureaucracy and corruption, entrepreneurship and enterprise is encouraged by the private and banking sectors, which are investing a lot in small and medium businesses. I met some small business owners in Sarajevo who lamented how difficult it is for a business to survive in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is partly because government is so dependent on foreign aid that they’d prefer to hinder anything that promotes economic empowerment, a criticism echoed in our meeting with the United States Embassy in Sarajevo.

But in this is an opportunity for the Bosnian diaspora to play a very critical role, by bringing in expertise they have learned abroad and investing in local enterprise.

2015 GYC Bosnia Delegates meeting with CIM Co-Founder, Vahidin Omanovic, at a memorial in his village

2015 GYC Bosnia Delegates meeting with CIM Co-Founder, Vahidin Omanovic, at a memorial in his village

Another tangible solution is the small-scale dialogue we saw at the Centre for Peacebuilding (CIM) in Sanski Most. We learned from an identity workshop with the imams who founded this incredible organization that people start to look for differences when they feel their own survival is under threat. This is why communities divide into black or white, Serb, Croat or Bosniak: it is a defense mechanism against a system that is threatening peoples’ very survival with economic exclusion. And the justification for this finds itself in old resentments and the absence of real closure.

However, both founders described meeting “one Serb” who admitted that what happened was wrong and apologized for their failure to help, instead of being defensive and attempting to rewrite the past. These small gestures did so much more to erase collective guilt and the generalization that all Serbs are criminals. The majority of black South Africans have yet to meet their “one white South African” – though there are surely many – who could change their perspective. These are small but very significant steps and it really is our only hope.

yumnaYumna Mohamed (GYC Bosnia Delegate 2015) is a journalist and aspiring writer and stand-up comedian based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Coming from a country that is still undergoing post-apartheid transition with cracks in the “Rainbow Nation” beginning to show, indicates to her that a lot more needs to be done to accomplish true reconciliation. Yumna participated in the GYC program to see how reconciliation is being handled in another part of the world. She is also very much interested in the role literature and the arts can play in post-conflict transformation.

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