Eliminating ethnic prejudices at the community level
As a little girl, Tanja Dramac lived in a country she knew as Yugoslavia. She assumed Sunday dinners with her family were an unchanging institution, an ongoing foundation of her life, followed by what she called “mundane Mondays in kindergarten.” Conflict was when you had a fight with your older sister. She lived in a neighborhood where people shared coffee and gossip, and no one worried about ethnic background. This simple normal life would soon feel impossibly wonderful, her “halcyon days,” compared to the ugly horrors of war. Yet she knows such a life existed. She knows it’s possible to live in harmony.
Tanja doesn’t dwell on the wars of the 90s that marked her youth, but she now sees that the Balkans were filled with ethnic tensions in the pleasant pre-war days, however people were able to set those fears aside. Leaders, acting for their own personal gain, used propaganda to intensify historical animosities between different groups of people. The whole era of war could have been avoided, she believes, if the different factions had followed leaders that tried negotiation and other techniques in conflict resolution.
Now, peace has returned to her community, but there is a difference. Her country is now called Bosnia and Herzegovina, and everyone sorts themselves primarily by their ethnicity. If Tanja were seen speaking to a Croatian or a Muslim, her friends would vent their wrath on her. If she fell in love with a non-Serb, she would risk tearing her family apart. Yet her early childhood memories gave her the dream of a different community.
She entered college at Bana Lazarevica in Banja Luka as a journalism major, which opened new opportunities. Earning a scholarship from the Bosnian government, she studied hard and was elected to the student council where she soon became president. An energetic organization, the Youth Center Srebrenica, had held music festivals to change the town’s image from its association with the ghastly genocide that had occurred there. Its young people proclaimed that their generation did not hate. Srebrenica is a hundred miles from Banja Luka, but Tanja joined, and then gained work experience through Musicians Without Borders. The municipality of Srebrenica granted her a scholarship.
After her sophomore year, she attended a summer session at the School of Democracy in Losinj, Croatia. The following summer, Tanja attended summer school in Oslo, Norway. “For the first time in my life,” Tanja says, “I heard stories from Croats, Muslims, Macedonians, Albanians, and others.” She listened spellbound over how similar their accounts were to her own. A feeling of optimism overcame her, the certainty that change could happen, and that her generation could overlook the propaganda and hatred. She has found a similar experience at HSI.
“My goals are simple, but incredibly challenging,” she says. She wants to help lead the country in eliminating its deeply imbedded divisions along ethnic lines. Tanja believes this process can only start at the neighborhood level, not actually addressing the conflicts, but simply bringing people together in computer workshops and sporting events. We must learn to see each other as neighbors, not enemies, she says. “And one day, perhaps our children can enjoy those same carefree days of my childhood.”