Three brilliant shocks of white tore through the darkness of the night sky as we followed the winding road from Tuzla to Brčko.
I had never seen a storm like it, hot flashes of light continued to illuminate the deep purple sky around the mountain peaks, which we snaked around and around until the sky turned black.
My destination was Brčko, a town on the north-eastern border of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Whilst the town itself may be small, its reputation is not. In fact, Brčko earned great notoriety in the wake of the Bosnian war in 1995, whereby it was responsible for nearly derailing the entire peace agreement between the conflicting Balkan countries. For it actually sits on a tripoint of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, and became a geographical deadlock during the war; as all three antagonistic nationalities laid claim to it. It also held great strategic significance during the war, as it lies on the banks of the river Sava, which is an important trade route between all three countries. However, being the most multi-ethnic point in Bosnia, it then became a monumental task deciding who it should belong to; so much so it earnt the name of the ‘great Brčko question’. The result? A free city, a special multi-ethnic district with its own powers. One that belonged to everyone, but also no one. However, a great challenge now lies ahead;
with one of the bloodiest wars of recent history now behind them, how can these three opposing nationalities live together?
The next morning, the storm cleared, revealing bright blue skies stretching for miles above Brčko, yet electricity still hung in the air as if this storm was not over just yet. I used this time to explore before I started my first day volunteering with the Firefly organisation; which was the real reason for my visit. I was staying in the Serb corner of Illička, a mile or so from the centre, with my host; a man called Milós. It was one straight road from Milós’ apartment into the centre of Brčko and, it was from this first walk that I truly understood the rich tapestry of this inter-ethnic town. Like a kaleidoscope flicking between views, each new side street offered a different eclectic mix of culture, with Bosnian mosques touching the sky with their towering minarets, to the gleaming golden domes of the white-washed Serbian orthodox churches and the gothic spires of the Croatian catholic churches. I would later find out that these spaces do not overlap, not even slightly, the fiercely enforced demarcations between each are upheld by every citizen of Brčko. As Milós said ‘they are watching all the time, every move is calculated, if you cross the line then that is your mistake…’. This tone jarred with me as I felt so relaxed and, apart from the nearby rumble of the oil factory, the sound of Brčko was a peaceful one.
But I was an outsider, I could only recognise religious buildings, I could not read the aggressive graffiti and I certainly did not know when one territory stopped and another started.
But, I did know that the people were the beating heart of Brčko and they knew every inch of this town…
Milós worked as the international volunteer coordinator for Omladinska Organizacija Svitac, which in the local language means Firefly Youth Organization. Started by British Aid worker Ellie Maxwell in 1996, Svitacs uses creative arts to encourage reconciliation, as young people often feel disenfranchised and marginalized in this post-conflict community. Crucially, it is a culturally neutral zone, one where religion and nationality are left at the door and activities all focus on greater ideas of peace and solidarity. Paper doves hang on the end of sparkling thread, dancing in the wind at the window and peace signs decorate the walls. Children rush in hurriedly taking their favourite seats and chant together, ‘Good morning, everyone!’ in the local language. Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian are virtually the same, coming down to a matter of accents, but here everyone speaks the local language. This is just a small flavour of how hard Svitacs works to create a neutral, safe environment, allowing children to make friends without politics getting in the way. Every day I learnt something new, whether through making an assault course with Tamara, crafting paper peace signs with Mia or listening to Bourja talk to me in a language I did not understand in the slightest. Peace-building in a town ravaged by warfare may seem like an impossible task and some may question the effectiveness of arts and crafts, but when dealing with something as complex as the human spirit why would creativity not be a reasonable ally? The work Svitacs is doing is groundbreaking, even if there are no instant results. In the future there may be a moment where a Bosnian boy is being told that Serbs are not to be trusted, because they are enemies of the war, but a little voice in his head may shout back ‘but I can be friends with a Serb and we can play together…’
This is just a small snippet of my time with Svitacs, but I am writing this to encourage you to take a chance on a country currently defined by its past conflict and go out there and see for yourself. Svitacs welcomes international volunteers from all over the world, their zest for life and enthusiasm to learn as much as possible about other places will welcome you as an old friend and their culture will feed you as if every day was Christmas.