Velma Šarić felt small as she stood frozen, looking out at the sea of distraught faces, the clamouring noise and sickly smell of blood and sweat intermingling with the tangible feeling of despair. She clutched her mother’s hand a little harder and took a deep breath, knowing that although she may have witnessed the atrocities of war these past few years, nothing could compare to what the women and children before her had experienced.
Furtively, she glanced around the gymnasium hall in Srebrenica, a town in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina, taking in the creased faces on both young and old. Women lined the walls, many falling in and out of consciousness as volunteers tried fruitlessly to dress their physical wounds. Helpless children cried by their sides, dirty, hungry and traumatised, little ones who had no capacity to understand the situation.
It was July 1995 and Velma was 16 years old. She was witnessing first hand the aftermath of a massacre in Srebrenica, the worst atrocity of the Bosnian War and one that saw more than 8,000 men and boys slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces in and around the town. “That moment definitely marked me,” Velma says. “I remember my mother was baking cakes out of whatever we had in the cupboards. She told me we had to go to a local school because there had been a horrific genocide and there was an enormous amount of women and children in need of help.
“We walked down to a local school and in the gym hall there were thousands of women and kids. It was devastating; many of them did not know what had happened to their husbands, their fathers, their sons.”
Some bodies were being brought into the gymnasium where they were identified before they were taken away for burial. “It was a scene that affected me for life,” says Velma. “I didn’t know how my future was going to turn out or even if I had one but I knew I had to do something.”
Velma stuck to her word; today at the age of 35 she is the founder of the Post Conflict Research Center (PCRC) based in Sarajevo, a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to cultivate an environment for sustainable peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the greater Balkans.
She is the winner of the 2014 United Nations Intercultural Innovation Award (in partnership with car manufacturer BMW) that recognises grass roots programmes that contribute to dialogue, understanding and acceptance of diversity. She has devoted herself to spreading intercultural understanding in a country still divided by ethnic lines.
“Many people look back on the age of 16 and remember getting their driver’s licence, falling in love for the first time, and going to high school dances and parties,” says Velma. “When I look back at my life at 16, however, I am consumed with memories of war.”
Velma grew up during one of the most destructive wars of the late 20th century. The Bosnian War, fought essentially because Serbs and Croats living in Bosnia wanted to annex Bosnian territory to Serbia and Croatia respectively, was a conflict that would see two million people made refugees and over 100,000 people killed in three and a half years.
“The experiences I had really shaped me,” Velma says. “When the conflict started in my country I thought it would never stop. Every time I left home I thought I may never see my mother or father again, we said goodbye every day. Over those years I and my only brother, Safet, had no hopes, no dreams.
“The war and violence became our reality and we had no idea when it was going to end.”
Forced to leave their home on the outskirts of Sarajevo for the relative safety of a remote village, Velma’s middle-class family – her father was a social worker and mother a tailor – found themselves scavenging for food, sharing communal bathrooms and sleeping in cramped rooms full of other families. “When my father told us we had to leave our home, I thought it would only be for a few weeks at most so I took what was important to me then. My posters of Madonna, Michael Jackson and New Kids on the Block.
“We thought it would be for only a few days or weeks but then as the months dragged on we had no idea when it would end so in 1993 we decided to go back to our home. Our home town – Kladanj – was under siege still and when we got there we lived under constant fire. I witnessed the shelling, the snipers the constant fear of a grenade going off or hitting our flat. We lived on the fifth floor across from the hospital and when I was 13 I saw the first massacre of women who were working in a clothes factory. I saw it from my balcony and the memory will stay with me forever.”
When the conditions in her home town worsened, her parents decided to flee once again.
“We left one night and spent three nights in the forest because we heard the city would be taken over so we had to hide. We had nothing to eat and were in constant fear. There were 60,000 refugees in the area and people were struggling for daily requirements like food and proper clothing.”
Weeks later they were able to return home after they were told it was safe to do so. But rather than harbouring bitterness for a stolen childhood, Velma decided to embark on a lifelong mission to foster ethnic understanding in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “I was so frustrated that after 20 years we were – and are – still struggling with the basics like who started the conflict, and how many people were killed.
“We’re raising a new generation of kids who don’t learn about the war in school. They learn about it from parents, because it’s not in the national curriculum… because we can’t agree about history.”
It was this divisive continuation that compelled Velma to begin her own organisation. Having studied political science at Sarajevo University, she worked for The Institute for Research of Crimes Against Humanity as a research associate studying mass graves in Eastern Bosnia, eventually moving to London where she worked for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Velma felt a need to make a bigger difference. “I worked alongside some charities in Bosnia but I very quickly realised that many of the victims were not getting the help they needed,” she says. “So in 2010 with the help of professional friends and academics who all told me to start up my own NGO, I started thinking about moving things forward.
“It worried me that if we couldn’t teach kids about their past, then the opportunity for renewed conflict could be created. Hearing stories at home from [possibly biased] family members could create animosity towards other ethnic groups. That is how Ordinary Heroes began.”
Ordinary Heroes is one of the projects rolled out throughout Bosnia by Velma’s organisation, PCRC, and one that has received acclaim. It’s a multimedia educational project that uses and celebrates the personal accounts of ordinary citizens who showed bravery in helping others during the long years of war.
By showing the children of today acts of interethnical kindness, the aim is to promote tolerance, reconciliation and interethnic cooperation in the next generation.
“We reach out to smaller rural communities with this multimedia project – one component is a documentary series that depicts real-life stories of Bosnian citizens,” Velma explains. “We turn up with 500 kilos of equipment to put on an exhibition in a public square. It’s an enormous work and we coordinate with the local youth centre and schools, local radio and TV. We then do a two-day workshop that was put together by the University of Massachusetts and they do four hours of training where we teach them how they too can be ordinary heroes. Would they be bystanders or would they help if they saw someone being beaten?”
The Ordinary Heroes project’s multi-ethnic approach is unique to intervention strategies currently being used in Bosnia and Herzegovina in that the rescuers narratives’ represent all ethnic groups, highlighting their similarities rather than their differences.
“I want to show the kids of Bosnia that this is a global phenomena but goodness exists. Yes, we had this awful piece of history but we also had incredible examples of moral courage from all ethnic groups and they should also see this side of war, not just the bad one.”
And the idea is taking off. “We have evidence that the project is directly helping reconciliation,” Velma says. “That is because we do methodological measurement in every town we work in, so last year we visited 14 different places, mostly in Eastern Bosnia, where horrific war crimes took place, and we do these evaluations.
“According to a study by the University of Massachusetts and the University of Sarajevo, 70 per cent of the kids who attended our workshops are willing to forgive and are willing to interact with other ethnic groups.
“We had nearly 500 kids last year so it’s proof that what we do is having an impact on local communities. That evidence is so important to me because if we are not making a difference what is the point?”
With such impressive results, it’s no wonder PCRC’s successful creative multimedia approach to peace building has drawn the attention of Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon, to name but a few.
And it was not only politicians and stars who recognised the conviction of Velma’s work, but also the United Nations. The PCRC was awarded the Intercultural Innovation Award, a partnership between the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and BMW Group. The top prize of $40,000 (Dh146,925) plus a year-long programme of managerial, marketing and other consulting help, was given to PCRC out of 600 entries from global grass roots organisations.
“Winning was something really really special,” Velma says, “because over the 15 years it has been going I have always been struggling with no resources and I know how good we are as an NGO but funding here in Bosnia is difficult. To be recognised at UN level and to know someone is watching was amazing. And to know that if you do a good job you will be recognised by a corporation such as BMW – who know about quality – that to me was incredible.”
Velma plans to continue her hard work to make sure every PCRC project is a success, even if it means sacrificing all her spare time.
“This is my path.,” she says. “It is what I am."
The 1992-95 war
In 1992, the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia voted to be an independent state. The vote was along ethnic lines with Bosniaks and Croats voting for independence, while Bosnian Serbs preferred to stay with Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.
On April 6, 1992, around 40,000 people from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina converged in Sarajevo’s main street to demand peace. One report says a Serb nationalist shot into the crowd, killing five people and igniting the 1992-1995 war. The Serb nationalists, helped by neighbouring Serbia, laid siege to Sarajevo and within a few months occupied 70 per cent of Bosnia, expelling all non-Serbs from territory they controlled. Bosniaks and Croats, who were allies, turned against each other and joined the fighting that claimed over 100,000 lives leaving the once-ethnically mixed country divided.
A 1995 peace agreement brokered by the US ended the conflict but its compromises left the nation ethnically divided into two mini-states – linked by a central government.