"If we are to have peace we must begin with the children"
The aim of the project is to provide local youth with the opportunity and skills to contact young people from other areas of Former Yugoslavia as well as individuals from other countries around the world. By establishing open lines of communication in a neutral forum (i.e. e-mail), it was hoped that discussion would replace stereotypes and common interests would replace surface differences. If children communicate with youth from other areas of the Former Yugoslavia, they can transcend their ethnic, religious, gender related or socio-economic differences and begin the process of healing. By initiating open conferences on Music, Sports and Games, it was anticipated that youth would discover these common interests in a non- threatening way. The students discuss these themes with other students on-line and via this medium find others, regardless of their background, who share similar interests. For example, one of our students has been regularly corresponding with a student in Tuzla over the Music Conference as they both perform in bands. As evidenced by this incident, the conferences perform the function of a neutral playing field or meeting place where the children are able to disregard stereotypes and ethnic preconceptions.
By encouraging and adhering to on-line netiquette as well as providing private communication lines students feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings in a constructive way without fear of consequences. Despite initial discussions regarding the importance of on-line etiquette, the Sub-project facilitators encountered some problems during the past few months. One student in the email classes breached the "netiquette" by sending offensive comments into a variety of conferences. This appeared to many outsiders as a negative signal of the Project's progress. However, after a meeting with the child, the email facilitators, a teacher and the Headmaster of the school, the opportunity was taken to introduce the importance of non violent and positive communication to all of the children. Directly following the incident, the facilitators organized a series of workshops on conflict resolution and non violent communication in all of the email groups.
The project's vision has been expanded recently to include youth from refugee centers. E-mail serves to break up the monotony of refugee camp life as well as provide an opportunity for the refugee youth to meet students from other areas of the country. And as it does for young people in Pakrac, this project introduces a sense of normalization to the children of the camps by showing that there is a life going on outside. The E-Mail Project is also organizing workshops to bring youth from the refugee camps to Pakrac. Pakrac students will be primarily responsible for teaching the fundamentals of e-mail to a core group of young people from the refugee centers who will then return to the refugee centers and hold their own seminars for the other children.
In addition to the social healing aspects of e-mail, the practical side of e-mail is very important as well. The training in computer skills and the English language (as most of the outside contacts are written in English) are useful for these children as they become older and wish to seek employment either in the Former Yugoslavia or abroad. Writing letters and exchanging thoughts over e-mail introduces these skills in an enjoyable way. The contacts that these youth can make over e-mail, especially the refugees, some of whom will resettle in other countries, are helpful in alleviating the difficulties of traveling outside the Former Yugoslavia.
As we have already received proposals from other schools in the area, it is our hope to eventually equip 10 schools, link them to BBS Pakrac and provide training for their students. Our aim to spread e-mail as an alternative form of non-violent communication within and between communities is well on its way to realization. It is our experience that by establishing contacts with people of different ethnic origins, it is possible to promote tolerance and diminish ethnic prejudices.
In the last six months, one of our main goals was achieved. The administration of the Youth Club has been completely taken over by the youth themselves under the supervision of a local teacher from the Pakrac Secondary School. The young people are now in charge of planning all events (some of which are still sponsored by the Project), but perhaps more importantly, the teenagers have claimed responsibility for the maintenance of the club as well as its security. During these critical formative years, it is vital for teenagers in any setting (but especially in a post-war region) to claim space as their own, over which they can exercise control.
The core group of 25 secondary school students organize and plan all the activities listed below:
7 open hours for table tennis, listening to music and socializing
7 young women's group meetings
7 video nights
7 celebration of carnival
7 week-end parties
7 celebration of the last day of school
7 occasional workshops
Besides the core group of 25 students, over the last six months the number of beneficiaries has increased significantly. 35 more students are regularly using the Youth Club as a place for socializing, and occasionally up to 100 people attend special gatherings. In addition, we find that the appearance at the Youth Club of young people who are not regularly attending school is encouraging because they are usually inaccessible due to their invisibility in the community.
Transferring the responsibility of the Club over to the youth has proved to be a complete success with no negative side effects. Despite the large parties and the increased use of the club, no unfortunate incidents have taken place and the Club has never been cleaner. With this responsibility has come an increased sense of self reliance and self confidence among the youth and we feel this will accomplish great strides in rebuilding the psyches of these young people. The positive social effects of the Youth Club are apparent now after two years of implementation. This is evidenced in part by the formation of a spontaneous peer group by some of the adolescents that regularly visit the club. We continue to encourage the local teenagers in the positive usage of the Club on their own. However, we are careful not to push them into plans and activities for which they are not ready.
The concept of music lessons as a Sub-project was formed six months ago by Zlatko Skenderovic, a native speaker and accomplished tamborica player. He has already begun to hold a group lesson involving 6 individuals. This group lesson is split between individual lessons and joining already established collective sessions with a folk ensemble. Zlatko Skenderovic is presently working on expanding the network of lessons into the Primary School. Though the headmaster in extremely interested, the school lacks sufficient funding or enough instruments. We initially had the enthusiastic verbal support of the UNOV, however during the recent changes in their office, we can no longer count on this support. We are still contacting various musical organizations for instrument donations and plan to have accumulated enough to begin lessons in the school in September. We also plan to hold lessons on the Serbian side and have already begun the planning of this parallel endeavor.
Currently the facilitation of this group is done by women from the Center for Women War Victims and the local woman mentioned above. This is especially important as the group is conducted in the local language to establish a comfortable forum for these young women. The group has now become self-sustaining, needing only external support from the Volunteer Project Pakrac.
The future aims for this group are to begin to train these young women to become co-facilitators and to initiate other groups on their own in Pakrac. We hope to increase the possibility for young women in the area to participate and benefit from such a support group. Eventually, it is hoped that these groups from Pakrac will join the broadening chain of young women's groups in the Former Yugoslavia and abroad.
The project started in 1995, first on the Serbian side of Pakrac and during this year it has expanded to the Croatian side, first in Lipik and then in Pakrac. Over last six months we have run 5 groups. The first group from Serbian side has continued to meet and work consistently and has participated in all the photo-documentary work of other events involving youth or children. This aspect of the Group is extremely encouraging as the acceptance of these children from the Serbian side in the school and during events has been purely positive. This fact has helped their parents to slowly feel more confident regarding their children's safety on the Croatian side of Pakrac. The other four Groups consist of children from the Croatian community. The Photo Group is instrumental for all of the children as it provides them with new skills and encourages their creativity.
An additional positive aspect of the Sub-project is the ease with which the finished products of the children can be communicated to the outside world. By illustrating Pakrac through the eyes of its children, a powerful commentary on life in a post war zone is created. To date, two small story books of photographs have been made and exchanged with children from France.
Unfortunately, one of the Group members (15 years old) committed suicide in March. He was in our group for only one month, during which time the facilitators did not observe anything strange or self destructive in his behavior. Responding to the tragedy, the Group came together to grieve. Our facilitators provided safe space for the children in which they were able to mourn his death together. During this time, the children searched through all of the negatives and selected all of those that their friend had taken to develop and create a photo memorial to him.
The Photo Group overall photo exhibition was organized during UN designated Family Day (on the 15th of May). It was a smashing success, providing an opprtunity for the community to see the visible and poetic results of their children's work. The exhibition was later moved to the Primary School, and it seems that we opened the season of photo exhibitions. Directly after our presentation, the Secondary School Photo Group (unconnected with our project) had its own seven day exhibition on the streets of Pakrac and even the police station had its own photo exhibit (14 days after ours).
As the interest in our Photo Group continues to be overwhelming, we plan to continue expanding the program. We still believe that our goal of reconciliation can be encouraged through work with the younger generation in Pakrac and the surrounding areas. Though it may be gradual and not always smooth, progress must be encouraged slowly as evidenced by the following example. When we attempted to integrate the two Groups for a day, the Croatian children refused to walk and take pictures together with the Serbian Group. Although in this instance integration was not possible, we will continue to periodically suggest such activities to the children in the hopes that eventually the children will choose at their own pace to reintegrate.
After a short time this Sub-project involved short term volunteers (STV's) in some visits. This strategy fulfilled the dual goal of bringing the families in contact with different people, as well as providing an opportunity for the STV's to be in closer contact with people in the community. The possibility for locals to retell their experiences to new people was very important at this time, due to the high level of personal psychological trauma in the community. This opportunity was more important than continuity of volunteers or language fluency. We are also organizing the involvement of local youth in the Sub-project as we hope to facilitate the creation of stronger links within the communities and hopefully initiate cross-ethnic visits.
From its inception, the idea of Community Visits was not to provide the services of the Croatian Social Service. It was rather to fill the cracks left in their work by bringing help to those in the greatest need. Over a period of time, as normalization progressed in the Pakrac region, the main goal has broadened towards more in-depth work on reconciliation. We are working towards this end by offering support to individuals and families in the hope of eventually building bridges of communication over which we can introduce alternative ideas and methods of conflict resolution.
The Community Visits Program is designed to alleviate much of the loneliness and isolation of many elderly individuals and families in the area, to provide basic medical advice, home repairs, as well as to introduce them to new ideas and differences. The ethnic breakdown of the beneficiaries is approximately 50% Serbian and 50% Croatian at this time. The majority of the beneficiaries are elderly without regular contact with relatives or friends, while 20% are younger people with children (many are young mothers who need basic prenatal and postnatal training). Our estimation of the number of families regularly visited is 20 (once in a fortnight) and 15 other families (visited less frequently). Cumulatively the Project has visited 63 families since its inception. The visits are presently conducted by our Community Visit Program Director, Zdenka Grlica, but our short term and long term volunteers also participate on a regular basis.
It is helpful to all of our Community Visit Program goals that we now have Zdenka Grlica as our Program Director. As she is a local Serbian woman with ties in the community, she is instrumental in influencing attitudes and gently challenging nationalist attitudes and hatreds. It is this intimate contact for the Croatian people that helps in their view that not all Serbians are the enemy and it also reinforces her credibility that she does not exclusively visit Serbian individuals. And, because of her ties to the Serbian community and the work she does within that sphere, her words and ideas regarding the Croatians have gained credibility.
In addition to her extensive interpersonal skills, Zdenka Grlica is a trained nurse. Though this is not the emphasis of our program, this allows her to offer medical support to the beneficiaries of the Community Visits Program. In some cases this medical care is too expensive or too difficult to receive here in Pakrac. In many cases it is very basic advice that reassures the anxieties of the beneficiaries and in others it is very important training for young mothers who would otherwise not have useful information on how to effectively care for their infants.
The Sub-project's success is illustrated by the desire on the part of the beneficiaries for more frequent visits. Due to this response, we hope to hire an additional Community Visits worker.
The most influential and representative publication however, remains Kako Si? even though only two editions have been published (during the spring of 1994). The idea of Kako Si? was to present a creative, more concrete side of the Project to the international community, by combining practical information such as reports, needs, and finances with more artistic impressions from volunteers. Kako Si? was originally printed in English but the news and views contained in its pages quickly filtered back to the local community. As Volunteer Project Pakrac is one of the only organizations in the world working on social reconciliation, it seemed important to communicate as many aspects of life in Pakrac as possible to the outside world.
Kako Si? is now resurrected and the first "new" edition will appear in late August or early September thanks to the generous funding from the Dutch Embassy in Zagreb and the cooperation with the local newspaper Pakracki List on layout and printing. Reflecting the changes in both the town and the Project, the goals of Kako Si? have evolved from the strictly international focus of the previous editions. The first "new" edition will be bilingual (600 Croatian and 400 English editions) as the Project continues to increase its integration with the local community. Articles both by local adults and children will be featured in the next issue. Though it is a difficult task to write for two audiences with varying views and concerns regarding Pakrac, it is hoped that Kako Si? will continue to be a forum to illustrate the Project's general goals and accomplishments.
As the Project hires and involves more locals, we hope that Kako Si? will eventually become truly community focused. The ultimate goal is to transfer the newsletter to local administration and transform it into a community-run paper reflecting the community's vision.