The Balkan Journalist Dialogues

“It is not their religion, or even their language, that divides Serb from Kosovar. It is the incompatibility of the stories they tell. These stories, nearly all with some grain of truth, are now being woven into the complex fabric of national myth.”
Julie A. Mertus, Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War (1999)

Ten years ago as war ravaged in the former Yugoslavia, a group of inspired Norwegians took their concept for resolving conflict through dialogue to the divided nations in the Balkans. They recognized that special attention to the incompatibility of the stories and myths would be essential in waging peace in this divided region.

It was the Olympic connection that first drew the attention of Lillehammar's Nansen Academy to the Balkans in 1994. Lillehammar was scheduled to host the Winter Olympics as war waged in Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose capital, Sarajevo, had hosted the Winter Olympics almost a decade earlier.

This bond between the two cities triggered the Nansen Academy to invite potential leaders from the former Yugoslavia to Norway for training in peaceful conflict resolution. Politicians and opinion leaders were brought to the neutral, peaceful town of Lillehammar to discuss the stories and myths that had been perpetrated about their enemies.

These seminars inspired the organic growth of the Nansen Dialogue Network, which was developed in the former Yugoslavia by earlier participants of the Norwegian seminars. From 1999 to 2004, seminar alumni established ten Nansen Dialogue Centres in Sarajevo, Mostar, Banja Luka, Belgrade, Podgorica, Skopje, Pristina, Mitrovica, Presevo and Osijek.

At these centers, participants arrange interethnic dialogue seminars and engage in other peace-building activities, both locally and regionally. The project receives financial support from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Church Aid, and Norwegian Red Cross. But intensive working sessions still take place in Norway.

And in June 2004, 22 journalists from the divided region traveled to Lillehammar to discuss how their stories could be part of this dialogue of peace.

The Network's approach has always been simple. It applies the techniques of dialogue as a strategy to build peace. The mission of the Nansen Academy purports that by providing a neutral and open space where different actors in a serious conflict can interact and discuss their differences face to face, the actors themselves will break down enemy images and achieve greater understanding.

During their two week stay in Lillehammar, the journalists for the divided communities ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the same room, lit each other's cigarettes, slept in small dormitory rooms, shared bathrooms, and laughed at jokes about politics and power. Some even spent the endless twilight Norwegian nights dancing. But most importantly, these journalists learned about their role in nation building.

The enthusiastic director of the Nansen Dialogue project, Steinar Bryn, is a larger-than-life Norwegian with personal ties to the Balkans. His long raven beard and equally long black shaggy head of hair create a startling presence. But his semblance is quickly softened by his affable nature. His appearance, he said, is his passport into the Balkans. It allows him to appear as either a Serbian cleric or an Albanian farmer.

Last June was the first time journalists were invited to participate in the Nansen Dialogues. Byrn said it was because journalists are among the most prolific producers of enemy images.

One of the participants described media as “a second mother… so powerful in telling stories and setting minds.” It had been reported that every bullet fired in Bosnia was supported by media activities.

“The war definitely wouldn't have been so cruel and bloody without media hate speech,” described one editor of a Sarajevo magazine. But the Nansen Dialogue Network hoped that these media producers in the divided communities could be not only purveyors of past myths of hatred but potential promoters of peace.

Byrn told the group, “When we brought in the political leaders, they said the problem was with the journalists.” Byrn demonstrated the complexity of this situation using his favorite method: storytelling.

He told how the same tragic story of an Albanian man and his son being killed by Macedonian police. He explained how this story had been reported differently in the divided communities. Yet members of both communities were confident they had been told the truth.

Incompatible stories were routine for all of the diverse groups who had engaged in the Nansen dialogue workshops. All sides in the Balkan dispute believe their facts are obvious and well-known to everyone.

“When the Serbs say it (the shooting) didn't happen, they believe the Albanians must know this too, but they are lying, which reinforces the Serbian notion that all Albanians are liars.”

It was these conflicting realities that Byrn said provide an excellent argument for engaging in dialogue workshops. He said he had heard Serbs and Albanians say things in these workshops their colleagues across the table had never heard before. Byrn profoundly added, “We can't assume we all have the same facts.”

The conflicting myths that had been nurtured for years in the divided regions of Yugoslavia were confronted by the participants in this workshop as well. Many of the young journalists were teenagers when the war began.

A television journalist from Macedonia described how her favorite aspect of the seminar was the stories she heard from other members of the group. “I was too young, so I didn't know the details,” she said. “Now my views have been opened up.”

Another journalist from Bosnia and Herzegovina said she also appreciated others' stories. “I had my own war in my country. I didn't care much about other people. Now I understand.”

Yet, even though it had been nearly ten years since the conflict began, emotions were still raw among many of the participants. “We are all the same across the table,” one journalist from Bosnia and Herzegovina remarked. “Without the names, we would never know who worked for whom or what region they came from.” Her eyes filled with tears as she explained how sad it was many of the stories across that table were so strikingly similar.

Rehashing of war stories proved challenging for some participants. One Albanian explained that participating in this group was difficult for him. “My cousins were killed by Serbs,” he said. “I don't have to love them, but I have to respect them (the Serbs in the group). At this meeting we learn respect and trust… and trust is most important.”

The sheer act of leaving her job to attend this seminar in Norway proved a personal hardship for one of the journalists. The editor at her newspaper had been brutally killed by what she called mafia forces just days before the workshop began.

As a result, she questioned whether she should attend the workshop at this time. But in the end she was grateful she chose to attend if merely for time away from the day-to-day struggles she faced. She added that she wished she could remain in Norway to avoid the dangers of being a reporter in her homeland.

Others were more optimistic about the situation in their country. “There is one part of every (former Yugoslavian) nation that wouldn't want us to talk to each other but that part is getting smaller all the time,” a journalist from Bosnia and Herzegovina said.

But journalists can sometimes be skeptics. A few said that while congeniality among the journalists from the divided regions reigned at the Nansen Academy in Norway, once the journalists returned, many would revert to their old ways. Others believed this project was well worth the time and energy.

One reported, “I've been a risk taker all my life. This (project) is worth the risk. If I didn't believe in it I would give up and go back to teaching.”

Also encouraging were several tales about journalism ethics in the region. These stories offered encouraging words for a discipline that had been used to foster hatred and spread terror in the Balkans.

One journalist proudly told of a colleague who worked with her at the national radio station in Skopje. The colleague was repeatedly told by her editors to accentuate the tragedy and conflict in her reports. She responded that she would not sensationalize the stories for the sake of her editors. This same journalist told of positive stories she was sharing with her listeners.

“You must find examples of good things to tell to those who don't believe the communities are working together,” she said.

Byrn strongly contended that the lessons from these sessions would not end when the participants returned to their respective corners. “When they return home, there will be a network and new gatherings. The network between them will be active. They will use each other.”

These new gatherings will focus on the participants' assignment to develop a substantial the peace-building media project.  Bryn was reluctant to describe the scope of the project except to say that the group members will develop the unique design of each project. “We will support them to carry some of this back home.”

Back home the storytelling will continue. These journalists will evoke the conversations and the laughs they experienced. They will recall the stories of hope they shared in a small town in Norway—stories which will help them weave a new fabric of peace in the Balkans.

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