Interview with Vjekoslav Saje (Balkan as a Soul-Bridge CC, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)

vjeko1) Could you please say a few sentences about your CC and the activities in the region?

As the situation in Bosnia is still undefined and tense, the economy is fading, corruption is blooming, tribal passions are growing. All these factors are creating a difficult environment for normal citizens, young people, and intellectuals. The struggle for human rights has been reduced only to ethnic/religious issues, and the protection of their constituent aspirations. Minorities and others, including myself, have been marginalized. Democracy has been hijacked by the nationalistic (Nazi) parties.

To that end, our CC tries to bring people of all ages together, to organize some training workshops in problem solving and communication skills, direct them to certain projects and initiatives, including URI, give them recommendations for different universities, help them find jobs. We are happy to do this within our CC, at this point.

A few months ago the youth of Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Brcko, gathered in Bihac for training in conflict transformation skills entitled “Hope for a Better Future: Transforming Attitudes and Building Society.” The young people came as representatives of their religious communities—Muslim, Roman Catholic, Serb Orthodox, Jewish, Protestant, and Agnostic.

After long discussions the young adults brainstormed a list of possible future projects. As they were interested in all the ideas presented, they chose to combine projects rather than dismiss one or more of the projects. The areas in which they chose to work were:

1. Broadcasting a Youth radio program,

2. Organizing a meeting of the youth of Kosovo and ex-Yugoslavia with young people from Bosnia,

3. Visiting monasteries and religious cultural sites;

4. Having a meeting with religious leaders,

5. Helping people with special needs, and

6. Developing a Youth website.  

They chose to combine the visits to the religious cultural sites with the meeting with the religious leaders. To develop a work plan for these projects, the young people divided up into teams and presented their vision for the projects and what would be needed.

Also we developed a network of volunteers to assist young adults with special needs to participate in our inter-religious activities. We have organized visits with them to different religious buildings and communities in Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica, Banja Luka, Rama and Srebrenica. One trip was organized to Serbia with a help of EU. We plan to do something similar with our friends in Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Croatia. We are keeping it a low profile at this point, as fund raising is in a real crisis at the moment.


2) Could you tell as a few sentences about your background?

I was born and brought up in a multi-cultural family of Christian and Jewish tradition in Sarajevo, a city where Jews, Christians and Moslems have lived in harmony for five centuries. I am married to a woman from the Muslim tradition and I was here with my family and friends during the siege. Even so, I did not lose hope for better days, mutual respect, and understanding to come.

To that end my main struggle has always been to cherish the best from the values of each group, and enjoy our diversity. This precious social tissue was jeopardized during the recent war, and I find it very important to engage reasonable people, teenagers and young adults in particular, in restoring these values. That is the only way to discourage evil and to try to prevail again, in future.


3) What inspired you to participate at URI?

The energy that I felt at our first gathering in Budapest, and the honest, open, unbiased and embracing approach to all traditions, religions and cultures in the world gave me hope that my country and my region had a chance to restore the same values, as we used to have many centuries ago. I also realized that our experience of multi-religious society and its survival during the war could inspire other people to try to build the same.


4)How do you evaluate the importance of interfaith activities and the impact it can have to improve mutual respect andunderstanding for one another?

I am working on projects in developing civil society in my country. I am concentrating mainly on working with young adults, providing them training in problem solving, conflict resolution and transformation, inter-religious dialogue, and on improving their communication skills. I also work with the American University from D.C. in organizing Balkan study visits for students who will be working in the fields of International Relations, conflict resolution and peacemaking.

So, this is giving me a chance to connect people from different cultures, with different experiences, and let them communicate and create some new ideas and projects. To that end many of our young people were able to participate in URI events, and also many of the young adults from different countries were able to join our interfaith initiatives, and become familiar with URI ideas. The end result of all this would be in changing attitudes, learning from each other, mutual respect, and enjoying diversity.


5) What is your motivation and inspiration?

During and after the war I was engaged in different conflict resolution workshops for religious communities in Bosnia, and the Balkans, and facilitated in the formation of an Inter-religious Council in the country. My motivation is to connect people who believe in the idea of co-existence and mutual respect and expose them to different challenges and experiences.

I have been traveling a lot, inside and outside BiH, meeting, working and enjoying contact with people of different ethnic, religious, or cultural backgrounds, sex and race. This is giving me inspiration to continue in networking with people with new and fresh ideas.

That is how I got in touch with people who had an idea of forming URI. I was asked by Karimah to form and bring a team of people of different religious backgrounds from Bosnia, to Budapest, to have the first joint meeting. Since then we have stayed in the same stream of building peace together, with different means.


6) What do you see as the biggest challenges?

There are many, but the main issue and challenge at this moment is a volatile political situation in our country as the parties are still taking ethnic/religious sides, and claim the protection of their own people. There are many people from religious communities who are calling for wisdom to prevail, as well as from secular circles. The country is divided along ethnic lines. Education is split according to the majority in the canton, or the entity. So the new generation of Bosnians has different curriculums at the moment, meaning different language, geography, and history text books and lessons. This is causing further divisions and separations.

All this disruption in society needs to be absorbed and corrected by the efforts of civil society and Non-Government Organizations, our CC included. The challenge to that is also a big crisis in fund-raising opportunities, which are fading due to lack of interest in the region, as well as due to the financial crisis in the world, in general. This brings us to the challenge of how to operate under these particular circumstances. We have realized that we should rely on the support of some small businesses, voluntary work, and on lots of enthusiasm and good will, always hoping for better.


7) What has been your nicest experience in this context so far? 

One of the tasks I am proud of was to organize the preliminary meeting of the religious leaders, Muslims, Roman Catholics, Jews and Serb Orthodox, and then to facilitate the formation of the Inter-religious Council of BiH.

I am also grateful and privileged that I took part in the formation of URI, which gave me a chance to meet so many good people, committed to peace, Karimah in particular, and to participate in different URI events later on.

Also I have been working a lot to bring young  adults together, to work on projects of reconciliation and dialogue.,. I would be happy to share some of my experiences, and also learn more about how to create a better life and relationships for the future in different regions of the world.

Some of the young people I work with have already become very active in making some change in their local communities, and they also participate in some events abroad, including URI events. We intend to present the knowledge which we all gain, as well as some new ideas weacquire, during our future workshops, conferences, and also through individual encounters and talks.

And of course if there is anything else you would like to say and which is not covered by the interview questions, please feel free to do so.

Since we are all very much involved in peace building in URI, we should be able to consider any conflict in, FOR AT LEAST, 3 dimensions, and do our best, not take events out of context. To that end it would be useful to remind ourselves of some events that took place in the past.

Misinterpretation, or hiding of past events, is usually the biggest obstacle, preventing us from living normally in the present, or in the future.

Every country has got so many problems, so we should all appreciate and care for the problems of many, not just a few.

Our society in Bosnia and in Eastern Europe is still very much divided, along social entity, ethnic, and even religious lines, so there is so much work ahead of us in changing attitudes and bringing young generations back together.

I am always struggling with people who launch conspiracy theories, where the enemy is always supposed to be beyond our reach, and never within.

There is a great NGO in Bosnia Gariwo, Sarajevo branch, run by Svetlana Broz, a granddaughter of Tito, dealing with issues of civil courage, mainly through a project by which young adults realize that one needs to be brave in order to accomplish any change. We cooperate a lot with them in transforming our society.