Starting dialogue on grassroots level
May 14, 1997.
Last weekend the first beginnings of Serbian-Albanian dialogue at a grassroots level were
achieved between citizens of Nis and Prishtina.
Serbian dialogue partners were members of the Nis-based Center for Non-Violent Conflict Resolution (NCNVCR). Albanian dialogue partners from Prishtina came from the Post Pessimists (PP) and two other NGO's. From the Prishtina side the dialogue project also included two Serbian members of the Open Youth Club (OYC) of the Open Society Foundation (OSF,formerly SOROS).
In the course of repeated contact with Balkan Peace Team Belgrade (BPT-B) and after hearing
about BPT-B's work and contacts in Prishtina, the NCNVCR had developed the idea of
launching a project on interethnic/intercultural issues with Albanians from Prishtina. Prishtina, the
capital of Kosov@, is actually quite close to Nis - a 3-hour busride away -, and there is a feeling
in the group about Kosov@ Albanians being their neighbours. So the group had decided to start
to develop contact with them.
In discussing the project with BPT-B it turned out that several members of the Nis CNVCR were apprehensive about reactions of their own community, if in the further course of the project "Albanians in greater number" visited the Center. BPT-B offered to hold a workshop on non-violent conflict resolution with Ueli Wildberger from the Swiss section of Peace Brigades International. PBI is a founding organisation of BPT, and Ueli is a member of the BPT coordinationg Committee. He has ample experience in holding workshops on NVCR and on sensibilisation in dealing with ethnic differences. Due to a CC meeting in Belgrade he happened to be in the area, and he was very interested to work with the Nis group. The Nis CNVCR invited a couple of members of SOS-hotline groups from Nis and Leskovac for the first part of the workshop, a more general instruction on conflicts , their "undercurrents", and how to deal with them. The second part was reserved for members of the Center only (for reasons of confidentiality) and was applied to the situation at hand : How to deal with an angry and agressive, nationalist neighbour. We decided to do role plays along these lines, and for a while the office became a very loud place, with an angry "neighbour" shouting at an "activist" in every room. The evaluation showed that each of the "activists" had a very similar experience: A loud and angry outburst is nothing very pleasant to be confronted with. But it can only last for a certain period of time, and with patience and unagressive behaviour it can be "endured". Eventually the "opponent" might even be willing to listen, after he or she has exhausted her-/himself. The "neighbours " in turn had become aware of all kinds of fears they were having, mainly from not knowing enough about the Center, its members, activities, and visitors. This gave the group some new ideas about how to deal with their community. All in all the workshop turned out to be very encouraging for the Nis CNVCR.
Internally evaluating the workshop and its results with Ueli Wildberger, BPT-B tried to map out a possible course of events, inherent problems, and adequate measures to take in case of difficulties.
Disussing further plans and strategies with the Nis group after the workshop, they approached
BPT-B to facilitate the contact, i.e. to select groups in Prishtina who would be open and ready for
dialogue, to contact them, arrange for meetings, and also to be present during the first steps.
BPT-B did a thorough survey of respective groups in Prishtina and their current situation, and
generally found a great willingness for dialogue in the abovementioned groups. Also the
OSF-coordinator responsible for the OYC was very helpful and came up with ideas for
maintaining the contacts. One of the Albanian groups asked for an inofficial meeting with utmost
discretion, as they were afraid of pressure from their own community.
In continuous contact with both sides BPT-B developed a programme which consisted of a visit to the OYC, an "official" visit to the Post Pessimists in their spacious office, and an "inofficial" meeting with members of the other groups in the flat which BPT-B occupies when in Prishtina. The delegation from Nis turned out to be rather small, as most of the members of the CNVCR are students, who after the long demonstrations decided to have classes every weekend in order not to lose an entire academic year. 3 women came, Nela Nikolic, Marica Igic, and Patty Cleveland, temporary coordinator of the CNVCR. Unfortunately Marica had hurt her leg on the way to the bus station in Nis, and after walking to the OYC it became so bad that she decided to go back to Nis later that evening.
On Saturday afternoon we met with Vlada Kvostic and Darian from the OYC. Vlada is preparing to facilitate the club's first mixed Serb-Albanian workshop, which will be about listening to different kinds of pop-music and then analyzing it. Vlada, a Serb, says he has several Albanian friends and invited us to meet with all of them next time. Darian is a graduate of the sociology department of Prishtina State University. He is preparing a Serbian and English language debating group in the club, which after a certain training period will have a match with the already existing Albanian debating group - in English. After presenting ourselves and the respective groups and projects, we discussed possibilities for joint activities. Sreten Ugricic, the OSF office coordinator responsible for the OYC, had offered the possibility of a visit for Prishtina OYC-members to the OYC in Nis, and he had suggested integrating the Nis CNVCR into this visit. This idea was generally well received, as it would be a good opportunity for more members of the Nis center to meet both Serbs and Albanians from Prishtina and possibly develop joint projects based on the links - and funds - of the two OYC's.
Later Bajram Bujupi, the club coordinator, joined us and explained about the health and ecology programmes within the Prishtina club. These also found a lot of attention from the Nis members, as they have already started an ecology project, collecting and recycling paper and glass from their neighbourhood.
After having put Marica on a bus home to Nis we met with 3 members of an Albanian youth
group in the BPT-B temporary flat for the joint project of cooking and eating spaghetti with two
different sauces, along with a salad. While cutting onions and garlic we informed each other about
our groups and activities, already mentioning the idea of the Prishtininans and other members of
their group visiting the Nis center for a weekend as a next step and do a joint hiking excursion
with them in the neighbouring mountains. Two of them actually had met a few members of the
Nis Center in an international project and looked forward to seeing them again. With wine and an
innumerable number of anecdotes from all participants the evening went well into the wee hours.
The next day we met them again in one of the cafes and specified plans.
The joint excursion is going to take place already in May, if funding for transport and food can be secured. For the night the guests from Prishtina would be accomodated in the Nis Center without any further costs.
On Nela's request BPT-B had arranged for Sunday morning to meet with a member of another Albanian NGO. They had met last summer on the Women in Black's international conference and had become friends. Now we got to see some of Prishtina's tourist sites, including a visit to one of her cousins, who still has a beautiful old Turkish style house on his premises. We had coffee with the family and a very friendly chat. Over lunch with our Prishtinian guide we discussed possibilities for more NGO's to be helped into existence in Prishtina, especially on women's rights as human rights and on ecological issues. We considered both areas to be appropriate for cooperation with Nis projects.
Sunday afternoon we payed a visit to the Post Pessimists in their office. Although it was Bajram, a Muslim family holiday, about 12 members of the older PP's were present with their coordinator. The meeting was graced by the open and lively atmoshere, which seems to be a hallmark of the PP's. It turned out that both the PP's and several members of the Nis Center have a great interest in cultural projects, and the idea of a joint photo exhibition was suggested and found a positive resonance. Members of the Nis group were also invited to take part in a PP meeting later this year in Bulgaria. The spacious office and the new Pentium computer of the PP's were duly marvelled at, and office addresses as well as individual addresses were exchanged.
By Sunday evening the guests took a bus back to Nis.
A lot of preparation was needed, and although BPT-B made a conscious
decision not to push any of the groups into a specific direction but to rather give support to what
arises on its own, we see that for various reasons, even with the best of intentions from the
dialogue partners, some kind of follow-up from our side will probably be needed for the next
rounds of contacts to really happen.
BPT-B's commitment to non-partisanship probably helped a lot with this first step into dialogue. In this way, BPT-B had come to know the different complexities on each side well and could pick groups and situations accordingly. And maybe even more important, BPT-B had been able to build up trust on both sides in the course of recent years. Although there was a real interest on both sides to meet, there was also some fear, and it seems to have been mainly on the basis of the trust in BPT-B's work that these first meetings really came to be.
Aside from a few political anecdotes, politics and the situation in Kosov@ were hardly touched on
during the meetings. Most of the talk was around the different groups, sharing about their present
or future activities and the problems and successes they were having with them. We think that this
less directly "political" beginning is a very good strategy because it will enable the participants to
build the kind of trusting relationship in which more controversial or difficult topics can be
discussed without endangering the relationship itself.
Luckily BPT-B is now able to make use of a flat when we are in in Prishtina, which allows us to receive guests and create an atmosphere of relaxed privacy when necessary. It was also important that the guests from Nis could stay overnight and had a place to sleep.
The Nis Center had also hoped to get some funding for operational costs for its office rooms etc.,
But Runa explained, that Norwegian Church Aid has a policy of only funding specific projects
and does not finance any operational or running costs.
For the follow-up and the next steps of dialogue BPT-B and the Nis Center, as so far it is our only partner on the Nis side, would like to know about more sponsors who are interested in supporting this kind of work in the stages to come.
If You are interested, please turn to:
Balkan Peace Team Belgrade
11 000 Belgrade
Tel./Fax: ++381-11-323 66 73
Centar za nenasilno razresavanje sukoba (Center for non-violent conlict resolution)
Bozidara Adjije 31 d, stan 1
18 000 Nis
Tel./Fax: ++381-18-334 116
e-mail: CAA_NIS@ ZAMIR-BG.ztn.apc.org