Recognising the Ordinary Heroes among us: multimedia as a tool for reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina

On 26-27 February 2015, the Post-Conflict Research Center from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, visited the University of Edinburgh to present its award-winning “Ordinary Heroes” project. “Ordinary Heroes” won first place in the 2014 UN Alliance of Civilizations and BMW Group Intercultural Innovation Award in a ceremony hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Bali, Indonesia. The Global Justice Academy at the University of Edinburgh sponsored PCRC’s travel to Edinburgh.

Mina Jahić is a widowed octogenarian from Rogatica, in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose husband and two sons lost their lives in the wars that followed the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. She lives by herself in an upper floor of a prefabricated apartment block not far from the capital Sarajevo. A devout Muslim, Mina’s hope for the future of her country lies in the youth, who she believes still have the power to change the ethnocratic system that has blocked any attempts for reconciliation and reform since the end of the war in 1995. What Mina’s wartime experiences separate her from her neighbours, however, are the risks she took to save a stranger escaping his execution. Mina is an ordinary hero.

Ferid Spahić, a gas station attendant in Ilijaš, a small town to the northwest of Sarajevo, was in his mid-twenties when the first shots were fired in Bosnia by Serb paramilitary forces bent on “cleansing the land” for a “Greater Serbia” under the guise of preserving Communist Yugoslavia from dissolution. A Bosniak Muslim, too, he and his neighbours were targets of ethnonationalist destruction that quickly engulfed Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. One day in June 1992, a Serb man from his village, whom he had seen as a trusted neighbour, rounded the local Bosniak men into buses, telling them as they were separated from their wives and children that they would be transferred to Skopje, Macedonia, and later reunited with their families.

Those men, save for Ferid, were never seen again. As Ferid witnessed the first group of Bosniak men being taken away from where they were held in the surrounding forest to be shot, their bodies dumped unceremoniously into the “Paklenik” pit, he sought an opportunity to escape, seizing it in the split second the Serb gunman standing nearby looked away. Running with his wrists bound in wire, he eventually stumbled upon the village of Mrce, where Mina Jahić had been staying with family.

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Mina Jahić as featured in “The Rescuers” photography exhibition (PCRC and PROOF: Media for Social Justice)

Mina attended Ferid’s wounds and hid him from paramilitary troops in the vicinty for a month before he could leave for safety elsewhere. “My son Meho came to me and asked what I thought about taking Ferid in during the night, so that nobody, not even my sister-in-law or her husband, would know about it.” she said. “I said okay. I knew it was a risk. I knew they were walking around with their guns, shooting. But I said okay. If I had to go back and do it all again, I would do the same thing. He is a human being. He needed to be rescued. He needed to live.” For her actions, Mina Jahić was honoured in 2011 by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a State Department ceremony held on 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Mina’s story was first uncovered a few years earlier by Velma Šarić, then at the Center for Justice and Reconciliation, and Leora Kahn of PROOF: Media for Social Justice, as part of the “Rescuers” project sponsored by Yale University. Since then, Šarić has gone on to found the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) in Sarajevo with Leslie Woodward, who visited the University of Edinburgh on 26-27 February 2015 to present PCRC’s award-winning Ordinary Heroes project, of which the “Rescuers” photo exhibition is an integral component. Leslie’s visit was supported by the Global Justice Academy’s Innovation Initiative Fund and was also sponsored by the Global Development Academy and the Graduate School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.

Ordinary Heroes is a multimedia peacebuilding project that utilizes international stories of rescuer behavior and moral courage to promote reconciliation and interethnic cooperation between Bosnia’s divided citizens and youth. It consists of several components: a series of documentaries promoting themes of rescuer behavior and interethnic cooperation; “Heroes in Training” youth workshops that focus on developing pro-social behavior and active bystandership amongst Bosnian youth; and “The Rescuers” traveling photography exhibition, which brings international stories of intercultural cooperation to town squares and local public spaces across Bosnia.

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PCRC Founders Velma Šarić and Leslie Woodward (second from right and right) greet Agata (“Jagoda”) (middle from left), who saved the life of Hamdija (second from left) during the Bosnian Wars, in Vareš, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The narratives that underlie each of these components are purposefully multi-faceted: they are drawn from across Bosnia’s three main constituent ethnic groups, and represent the experiences of both men and women, and of rescuers and those they saved.  These ordinary heroes come from all walks of life, but they each represent moral courage, compassion, and a love for others that motivated them to risk their own lives to save neighbours, friends, and strangers during times of genocide and mass atrocity.

In focusing on these often overlooked stories of the past, the project seeks to propagate an alternative and more complex interpretation of the Bosnian war – leaving behind any notion of ethnic division as an all encompassing or natural state of existence. In turn, this serves to encourage ordinary people to act positively as heroes and agents of social change in the present, further breaking down barriers of ethnic division in local communities across the country.

On 28 August 2014, Ordinary Heroes was awarded first place by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and the BMW Group at the Intercultural Innovation Award Ceremony held during the 6th Global Forum of the UNAOC in Bali, Indonesia. More than 1,200 participants representing heads of states and governments, foreign ministers, and members of the Alliance Group of Friends attended this year’s Forum.

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PCRC Founder Velma Šarić accepts the first prize in the 2014 UN Alliance of Civilizations and BMW Group Intercultural Innovation Award from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and H.E. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, High Representative of the UNAOC, in Bali, Indonesia.

Moving forward, PCRC hopes to take Ordinary Heroes to divided communities around the world, to give people the chance to learn how to be rescuers in their own contexts and to find a novel approach to reconciliation, be it through multimedia, sport, education, religion or otherwise. The Edinburgh presentation of Ordinary Heroes was the first held outside the Balkans since the project’s inception. By reaching out to the academic community, as well, PCRC seeks to broaden its network of researchers and peacebuilders who can help bring to light further stories of ordinary people making heroic choices in extraordinary times.

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PCRC Co-founder Leslie Woodward and Human Resources Coordinator Yeree Woo visited the

University of Edinburgh to present the Ordinary Heroes project on 26-27 February 2015.

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