UNITED Ohrid Conference Report: Days I and II

On 26 October (Conference Day I), participants arrived at a venue close to Ohrid, Republic of Macedonia, for the UNITED network conference “Living Together: Transform a divided past into our common future”. Focusing on the topic of national reconciliation and nation-building, the conference was organised to offer participants the opportunity to learn about and discuss the topic, exchange ideas and best practices, and to network with other like-mindsc_6581ded activists from all over Europe. In the evening, participants got to know each other over informal icebreaking activities.

The morning session of Day II began with personal introduction of staff and participants. Each person introduced themselves by telling the rest of the group about an aspect of their identity using a simple “I am” phrase. Examples included “I am a volunteer,” “I am a human,” “I am an activist,” “I am a dreamer,” “I am a global citizen,” “I am a pacifist,” – and, of course, “I am UNITED.”

This was followed by opening remarks introducing from UNITED’s Balint Josa, and Milosh Ristovski of local host organisation CID, who introduced their organisations and talked about what they hope this conference will achieve.

Read our interview with CID co-founder Boshko Stankovski

The first panel, “understanding the basis of reconciliation” opened with Boshko Stankovski of Center for Intercultural Dialogue (CID). He talked about the basis of the reconciliation process and the dilemma between reconciliation and justice. “Peace-building is the tricky part, because the peace must be sustainable. The four layers of a peace agreement are the institutions, the legal framework, the transitional justice and the resolution of competitive narratives.”

The second speaker was Besnik Emini from EUROCLIO – European Association of History Educators. He spoke about the role of history in the reconciliation process. “History teachers should decompose the lies that are found in the textbooks by critical use of sources” he said, showing how historical sources can be manipulated to illustrate different viewpoints. “Some students have an affinity to work with visual sources, while some prefer to work with written sources. But our education system is currently built to work with an authorial system, and doesn’t take into account the diversity of different abilities.”

He also outlined the specific situation for history teachers in Republic of Macedonia, where schoolchildren attend different schools based on their ethno-linguistic groups. These schools often also include different aspects and viewpoints in their history curriculum, reflecting the differing views of history among the population and reinforcing the ethnic dividing lines. He introduced learning resources created by his organisation to help students to learn about different historical viewpoints, and the history of Yugoslavia before the 1990s. The idea of the resources is to present historical sources and encourage students to think critically.dsc_6607

The final speakers in the panel were Majda Behrem-Stojanov and Edita Colo Zahirovic of Catholic Relief Services in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “No one thought that a major conflict would break out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country was ‘Yugoslavia in miniature’, a diverse society where many different ethnic groups were represented. But unfortunately we were wrong.” Majda said. “Now we have a situation where there are Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Croats – but also other groups such as Bosnian Jews – however, according to the constitution these groups are classed as ‘other’. There is no national identity for members of these minority groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” She explained that this is a big problem for people from mixed families.

Like Besnik, she highlighted the problem of educational segregation. Even in schools which consider themselves multiethnic are united only in administration – children from different ethnic groups might go to the same school building, but do not receive the same classes and don’t even have the chance to meet each other in breaks, she said. “We haven’t tacked the difficult topic in Bosnia and Herzegovina that are directly related to war and all the hurt it caused. Where do we go from here to have a united future? People thought that if we just don’t talk about the problems, they will go away. But they didn’t. Now is the time to tackle these most painful topics in a safe environment.”

Edita talked about the concrete peace process that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the war. In many respects, the settlement that has taken root since the war has not been satisfactory, giving yet again the example of education and the different narratives of history that children from different ethnic groups are exposed to. However, she talked about the potential for transformation of the conflict into a different future: “The Chinese word for conflict means both danger and opportunity. Conflict can be viewed in the same way. We need to transform a culture of war into a culture of peace.”dsc_6621

In the afternoon, participants worked in discussion groups on the Danger of Words. In the first part of the session, they looked at a variety of different example of hate speech, analysing how words can be damaging when misused. In the second part of the session, they are taking part in discussion groups to find out what unites them as a group, and to hear more about the work of the different organisations represented at the conference. The day’s formal programme concluded with a plenary session where participants were able to discuss the issues that came up in the working groups, including a very deep discussion about the nature of political correctness and whether words should be considered as dangerous.

In the evening, conference participants took part in a speed-networking activity where they got to know more about each other’s work and best practices. They also had the chance to share and try different international snacks and drinks they brought from all over Europe.

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This event has been organised with the financial support of the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe, the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The event reflects the views only of the organisers, and the sponsors cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.