BiH – Introduction

Photo: Ron Haviv
Photo: Ron Haviv



In May 2017, we will come together – from different countries, cultures and religions — in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. From there we will proceed to Srebrenica. This retreat is organized by the Zen Peacemaker Order Europe to bear witness to ethnic conflict and war crimes and to the role of the international community.





It has been more than two decades since former Yugoslavia fell apart. The brutal conflicts that followed its dissolution are over, but the legacy of the tragedy continues to unsettle the region. Often described as Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II[1], the Yugoslav Wars have become infamous for the war crimes involved, including ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and rape. Of these conflicts, the Bosnian war (1992-1995) is regrettably the most iconic.

The Dayton Peace Accords of 1995, which ended this war, accepted the division of the independent republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) in a Bosnian Serbian entity (Republika Srpska) and a Bosniak-Croatian entity (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) [2]. This partitioning of Bosnia along ethnic lines makes reconciliation a long and difficult process that necessitates a willingness to work together openly and a courageous acknowledging of responsibility in confronting the past.


Entering the complexity that is Bosnia-Herzegovina requires a lot of listening. This action, as practiced in the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order, rises from not-knowing and bearing witness.
As Peacemakers, we will bear witness to the siege of Sarajevo[3], to the massacre that took place in Srebrenica[4] and to the destruction of the village of Kravica[5], all arising from actions to ethnically cleanse large territories of Bosnian land.
In this way, we also want to remember all the other victims of the Yugoslav Wars.
We will visit the notorious United Nations compound in Potocari, where an international peacekeeping force was based (e.g. the ‘Dutchbatters’), which became the harrowing symbol of international powerlessness.

By bringing different local groups together with international participants, we are willing to face this dark complexity that arises when we try to locate ourselves to the past and present developments in Bosnia.
We also want to bear witness to our shared responsibility in the “non”-intervention of the international community.


In Bosnia, Muslims have lived together with Christians since the 15th century. Sometimes one dominated, sometimes another.
Walking along Ferhadija Street in Sarajevo is a tour of both space and time, bearing witness to different religious and cultural streams as they come together and split apart. The architecture, the places of worship, stores and restaurants all testify to that unmistakable quality of aliveness when different cultures come together in a spirit of mutual respect and appreciation.

Not so the thousands of bullet holes in the walls of almost every building built before 1992. Not so Srebrenica.

Times of great change test us the strongest. It is easy to lower our voices and withdraw in the face of violence by extremes on both sides. It is easy to say that we do not know what to do…

We should go to Bosnia to bear witness to what is not so past, to what resonates now, and may be a harbinger of what is to come. Against the backdrop of the recent political and societal developments in Europe , this Peacemaker project will even be more meaningful. The recent terrorist attacks and the thousands of refugees flocking here seeking safety silently call us to action amidst our indignation, shame and fear.

This retreat is about what happens when life contracts into you vs. me, when we shut our eyes to the despair of others because they are others, not us. That is when the whole process begins anew: children crying out for their parents, mothers wailing after their boys and men, the sorry procession of families carrying what they can as they flee, guns and burned homes smoking behind them.

When you come to Bosnia in May, let go of what you know and bear witness to what happened in civilian cities twenty-two years ago. Look at the roses on Sarajevo streets where children were felled by sniper fire on the way to school, mothers on their knees alongside thousands of white graves at Srebrenica. Come and feel this web of interdependence that goes through each and every one of us.


During the retreat we will bring a diverse group of people together representing all sides of the conflict or as many as possible.
Just as in Rwanda, leaders of local contingents have taken active part in planning the retreat, both before and during. And just as we did in Rwanda, we have sent in a council trainer to train local activists in council so that they could co-lead those groups during the retreat.

By our presence we concretely want to support the local Bosnian people in their own peace-building process by sponsoring their presence. We will offer them scholarships, some training and limited funds and we will inform the world about the results of the processes.

Being aware that we are touching an open wound, we as international Peacemakers will be careful not to bring any kind of ‘peacemaking knowhow’. Instead, we will educate ourselves beforehand about the local and historical situation so that we can sensitively detect the different narratives and especially question our own Western point of view.

Then, coming to BiH we will listen to the soil…


Spirit-holders on the retreat will include imam Vahidin Omanovic, Nikica Lubura-Reljic, a Bosnian Serbian peace-building practicioner, Jared Seide, the supervising Council Trainer, Yugoslavian born Jozo Novak and Zen teachers Barbara Wegmüller and Frank De Waele, who will be the Spiritual Director of the retreat.

We at the ZPO are grateful for all those who have contributed, participated and supported this process to date. We are particularly grateful and excited about our collaboration with our friends at the Center for Peacebuilding in Bosnia as we develop and listen to the process of bearing witness to take action together.

For more information on the programme click here


[1] According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, the Yugoslav Wars resulted in the deaths of 140,000 people.

[2] English-speakers frequently refer to Bosniaks as Bosnian Muslims. This term is considered inaccurate since not all Bosniaks profess Islam or practice the religion. Partly because of this, since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Bosniak has replaced Muslim as an official ethnic term in part to avoid confusion with the religious term “Muslim” as an adherent of Islam.

[3] The siege of Sarajevo, which lasted a 1425 days, was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

[4] The massacre of some 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica was ruled a genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2004 and by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2007. Yet, the UN Security Council did not define the Srebrenica mass killings as genocide (8 July 2015).

[5] Kravica, a village near Srebrenica badly damaged in the war, was the place of major killings.

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