The field trip to Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina offered a great opportunity to see the realities of a post-conflict state and the ways in which nations are trying to come to terms with their pasts. In the Easter holidays of 2023, a small group of us on the DGSi programmes (Defence, Development & Diplomacy and Conflict Prevention & Peacebuilding) spent 10 days exploring Belgrade and Srebrenica: visiting museums, speaking to representatives from NGOs and learning more about the history of the region.
Our trip began with learning about the frequent cycles of violence experienced in the former Yugoslavia and the impacts that this has on politics and nationalism today. This provided us with a strong historical foundation and gave us context for the information presented by NGOs and museum-visits that allowed us to critique what we saw and heard.
Some of the most interesting things we encountered when visiting museums was seeing the ways in which the history of Serbia was presented – both what was kept in and the language that was used to describe events; but also what was kept out and thus hidden from national discourse. This frequently told us a lot about the way Serbs wish to remember their past and points to how they are projecting their national image in the present. When coupled with the graffiti we saw around Belgrade, we started to gain a greater understanding of the different sentiments and political feelings that are held by those presently living in Serbia and we began to hypothesise about what the future might hold for these people based on our knowledge of other post-conflict states.
In addition, we had the privilege of meeting with multiple NGOs and activists working in Belgrade trying to address the violent history of their nation. Psychologists who specialise in Generational Trauma taught us about the impact that this condition has on families, communities and whole nations that have seen multiple cycles of conflict. Trying to treat this complex condition and help people address their symptoms and behaviour presents a challenging task for these professionals, but one that can have a profoundly positive effect on people’s lives.
Other organisations we spoke to (such as the Women in Black; several refugee charities; the Mothers of Srebrenica; and a representative from the Roma community) are trying to address historical and present-day injustices. Much of their work involves consistently pressuring the government over many years in an effort to see change. For example, the Women in Black stand in Republic Square in Belgrade every week, calling on the Serbian government to recognise and apologise for historical crimes, such as the Srebrenica genocide. I was frequently inspired by these activists, who are often pushing against strong opposition, but who have remained persistent in their activities. Their desire to see change in the communities they serve, to see cycles of violence end, and to see people flourish provided glimmers of hope in the midst of difficult circumstances. I found these conversations helpful for thinking about my future career, both through acknowledging the immense challenges of the realities of working in the NGO sector, but also through being encouraged to see that there are so many people who want to see conflicts, and their repercussions, end.
Perhaps the most poignant and moving part of our trip came when we visited Srebrenica in Bosnia Herzegovina. The town itself still had the scars of the violence from nearly 30 years ago, with bullet holes marking the walls of many of the houses and plaques set up in remembrance of the dead. Yet it was the genocide memorial centre and the gravesite of the re-interred victims that was particularly profound. I was conscious as we were moving around the buildings that this was the actual site of the atrocities; that many had seen their loved ones here for the last time; and that what is left represents the grief of so many. The sight of over 8000 white gravestones in that misty valley is one that will stay with me for a long time.
Our trip to Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina offered us the opportunity to see and experience the realities of a post-conflict region on the ground. Given that much of a Master’s degree necessarily involves spending many hours reading and theorising, the chance to explore the tangible effects of the efforts of those who are attempting peacebuilding has been hugely helpful and inspirational. I am very grateful to Dr Will Plowright, our wonderful local guides, and the many engaging professionals we met for the chance to learn, ask questions, and be challenged on this course. I found the time hugely enriching.
Find out more about Durham Global Security Institute (DGSi) here
The School of Government and International affairs (SGIA) postgraduate programmes here