Annedore Wilmes Interview

PF Please talk a bit about the Religion and the Prospects of a Truth and Reconciliation Process in Bosnia-Herzegovina Project, and your role in it.

AW It is a two-year research project, on which I am a research consultant.The project examines the impact of religion and the role of religious actors and communities, first, in the process of shaping and communicating accounts of what happened during the war in BiH in the 1990s, and second, in efforts to promote societal transformation and reconciliation in BiH. A primary focus is on differences of opinion over whether or not a local version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission could play a useful role in bringing about transformation and reconciliation. The project engages some who believe religious stakeholders might play a role in a TRC, and with those who believe they should not. There have been several attempts by different stakeholders to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission since the end of the war in BiH in 1995, none of which was wholly successful. We are interested in understanding why these attempts have encountered obstacles, what these obstacles were and whether some kind of formal Truth and Reconciliation process is now a conceivable option. Clearly, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is but one instrument to promote ‘truth and reconciliation’. There are, for instance, a number of grassroots projects challenging ideological accounts of history, encouraging victims, survivors and veterans to tell their stories and offering spaces to do so, as well as projects seeking to establish trust between the different population groups. Their work is and will be central to our research as well.

We are still in an early phase of our work. At the moment I am interviewing different selected interlocutors from various ethnic, religious and professional backgrounds in BiH. I am listening to their perception of the political and societal dynamics in the country; collecting information on the set-up and contexts of the attempts at TRCs so far; gaining insight into thepoints of view of different people, institutions, organizations and communities; formulating tentative hypotheses and making contact with relevant stakeholders.

PF What is the Project’s relation to the larger Truth and Reconciliation Process in Bosnia-Herzegovina? Does it have an official position, or does it work more informally with other organizations?

AW We do not have an official position and we do not follow a specific agenda. For example, we do not seek to establish a TRC or prepare for one. We are not gearing our work to achieve a particular form of reconciliation. We are researchers and primarily interested in academic understanding, analysis and the formulation of hypotheses. Local interlocutors have already indicated interest in our work and we will see how and who to communicate best the results of our research. I certainly do hope that our work will produce some helpful results and that those people who generously share their thoughts, experiences and time with us in the course of our research will find that their investment was worth it. Perhaps one more thought: As is true of any researcher, we are not working without an ethical basis and our initiative is not created out of the blue. I am aware that our individual thinking and exchange is in itself contextually shaped. I find it both challenging and enriching that the researchers of our team come from different countries, from both the former Yugoslavia and beyond, from different religious and denominational backgrounds and different academic paths, which certainly impacts on the ways we ask questions and perceive what we find; it widens our perspective.

PF The project is focused on grassroots organizing. How do you see this work complementing or, perhaps, conflicting with more “elite” levels of peacebuilding, such as official interreligious and political dialogues?

Sanski Most AW In principle, I believe, the different levels—that is grassroots, middle-range and top (see Lederach’s work)—have the potential of complementing each other and they need to complement each other for peace to become sustainable. Despite the existing divisions and prejudices (also) among the grassroots, it is this level where I see the biggest successes happening in BiH today. I have met many dedicated religious and non-religious peace practitioners working successfully ‘on the ground’ and facilitating actual change and transformation of individuals, groups and communities. There are people creating spaces outside the three (seemingly) homogeneous major public spheres and there are people bridging divides and clearly challenging the homogeneity of their respective ethnic and religious group in constructive ways, promoting resilience in the face of reoccurring political crisis. The results of this work are likely to appear threatening to those leaders on higher levels of state and religious hierarchies, who are anxious to not lose power, which means they will give only limited support, if at all. As long as people on the ground live with a sense of fear and actual and potential threat to be psycho-physically or politically killed by the respective other, political and religious leaders who guarantee to stand up for the rights and safety of ‘their own’ will have their supporters and followers. A problem here is that influential political work is so far only possible within those parties which represent the three major ethnic groups. Considering the recent history of BiH, these dynamics, which I can only outline here, are not surprising, but rather understandable. Observing the political ‘development’ in BiH it seems clear that there is a lack of political will on higher levels to make this country work. Today, the 15th of September, political leaders convene once more in Sarajevo in an attempt to eventually form the state-level government, based on the elections of October last year. Hopes that they will succeed this time are not very high. But there is also a clear political disinterest of many, especially the young, and that is dangerous. Prof. Jasmina Husanović from the University of Tuzla recently pointed out the need for the ‘politicisation of the everyday.’

PF You wrote for us in June about the arrest of Ratko Mladić. What kind of impact do you think the trials of Mladić, Karadžić, Milošević, and other war criminals have on grassroots peacebuilding efforts? Do you think these trials give the people you work with a sense that justice is being accomplished, and their peacebuilding work is contributing to a larger process of reconciliation?

AW Those people who I have talked to and who work on the grassroots level have a rather sober view of national and international politics, which is what many would ascribe the trials at the ICTY in The Hague to. Whilst many do endorse the prosecution of the key war criminals in The Hague, there is also a lot of criticism accompanying the trials: criticism of national and international calculation, and of partisanship with the respective other ethnic group and with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, or Serbia. The trials are highly politicized. It is important that those who were in charge for the preparation and conduction of the war are being prosecuted and convicted and peace workers on the ground obviously see that. But they also obviously do not miss the overt lack of true interest of those in greater political power in a more thorough transformation process. Ratko Mladić was so well hidden that the Serbian government found him only after more than 15 years? I have not met a single person who believed that. Do people have the sense that they are contributing to a larger process of reconciliation? It seems that some actually don’t and that some do. Some people I have been talking to are very, very pessimistic about the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They feel that their successes are too few, too random, that much, much more work needs to be done, comprehensively and countrywide, and that people often do not have the psychological and financial resources to do so. More than once I heard someone judging that the conflicts will escalate again as soon as the international community withdraws. Others are aware of the many small steps that are being made by many people all over BiH, some of which are truly amazing. Imagine, for example, a former fighter now working with other war veterans from all three former warring parties to re-shape the leading narratives of their lives and actions, based on the principle of nonviolence.

PF It has been over fifteen years since the end of the conflict, but the recent Human Rights Watch report on Bosnia indicated that religious discrimination is still prevalent there. Does it remain difficult for Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic persons to work together for peace?

AW A couple of days ago I interviewed a Muslim from the city of Bugojno in the central part of BiH. He was reporting on projects he is engaged in which bring people, especially young Muslims, Serbian-Orthodox and Catholics together to get to know each other on a personal level and learn about each other’s religion and faith. At one point they were taking a trip to memorials, including the memorial of the genocide of Srebrenica—together. This is pioneering work. For some of the teenagers it was the first time that they actually met someone from the respective other religious community. Having said that, many people in BiH have always embraced views and traditions other than their own, including religious views. Factors that make it more difficult today to instil such openness in young people are the effects of transgenerational trauma, propagandistic and one-sided media coverage, as well as the fact that there are many social and geographic ‘clean’ areas: districts, villages and schools where people are nearly exclusively amongst their own ethnic and religious group. This is particularly critical in the cases of schools, for obvious reasons.

Religiously marked offenses and violations, such as damages to mosques and churches, do happen and members of the three religious groups are being verbally attacked by others, mostly depending on whether or not they are part of the local majority or minority with people living in the minority usually being the ones who are abused most often. Knowing that members of each religious community suffer abuse in BiH, the Interreligious Council (representatives of the largest religious communities) has established a practice which explicitly rejects acts of religious abuse by so-called ‘acts of condemnation’. In an act of condemnation, at least one representative of each of the three biggest religious groups and local journalists come together, usually the day after a public abuse and at the place where the abuse, such as a hate-graffiti on a religious or sacred building, has happened, and publicly and together condemn the act. Sometimes the local imam or priest reports the act to the Interreligious Council, but wants to avoid the publicity caused by an ‘act of condemnation’, fearing that this would cause further aggression. Such a position would be respected as well.

SarajevoPF Some commentators describe pre-conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina as a place where Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats mixed easily to form thriving local communities. What do you think are the prospects for recovering interethnic and interreligious community there?

AW Last weekend I visited the Centre for Peacebuilding in Sanski Most ( The director of the centre, Vahidin Omanović, spoke about a project they will soon start, in which people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds will listen to each other’s stories, including both the war and post-war experiences people wish to share, but also—and this is something I have not heard of before— the memories of how people were living together before Yugoslavia fell apart. It is true, people talk about how ethnicity did not play a (separating) role in Yugoslavia, how people would not celebrate either Bajram or Christmas, but in many cases both, and how they in fact were not very aware of their ethnicity at all until the point when they were forced to join one side—an impossible thing to do for many, especially for those who have had roots in two or three different ethnic groups, say someone whose mother was ‘Bosnian Croat’, whose father was ‘Bošniak’, and who was perhaps married to a ‘Bosnian Serb’. Interethnic and interreligious relationships have to be (re-)established now in a context very different from pre-war communist Yugoslavia. One crucial challenge is probably to develop ideas and images of what degree and what kind of ‘inter-something’ people want their communities to encompass and how to work towards that—a development which has started and which will go on. Memories of pre-war Yugoslavia play an important role here, I imagine, but can be only one resource in a societal context which is politically, economically and religiously so different from pre-war Yugoslavia and which is marked by old and fresh transgenerational trauma.

What raises particular concern is that many young people today do not have any kind of personal memories of ‘what life was like before the war’ and grow up with images and pictures of ‘the other’ which are shaped by the fear and pain resulting from violence and losses their parents and grandparents had to suffer as well as from nationalistic media broadcasting. Depending on where you go in BiH, you are likely to meet people today who have friends amongst all of the three major ethnic groups, and many of these will affirm that ethnic and religious belonging are not relevant to them when it comes to befriending people. At the same time some of them would categorically exclude the option of marrying someone from the respective other population group – something which was very normal for the vast majority of their parents’ generation. The revival of religion during and since the end of the war plays into this. The picture is not as black and white as we sometimes draw it, things are quite complex really, way more complex than I can possibly depict here, and that is important to bear in mind too.

PF Your research also considers the role of  women in conflict and peacebuilding. How does the Bosnian conflict continue to shape the lives of women there?

AW The propaganda and violence that marked the conflict of the 90s has had a huge impact on the lives of many. Less than 7% of respondents to a survey by the United Nations Development Programme conducted in 2010 indicated that “what happened during the war in BiH 1992–1995” “is not important to me, and has no longer any impact on me whatsoever”. The ways in which it impacts people’s lives today really vary; different people are affected differently.

The ways women (and men) have responded to the violence, to the losses and threats they were facing, are manifold and this has influenced the ways the war has impacted their lives. Many stories of survivors include accounts of how women creatively and successfully shaped areas in their family and community lives which were just not part of their field of action in the patriarchic society they have been living in before their families were torn apart and husbands, brothers, uncles and fathers went to fight or were captured or killed.

In Bratunac, near Srebrenica, some women started to organize themselves in order to become politically active, working towards a society that is not limited by nationalistic and patriarchic structures. They founded Forum Žena, a non-governmental organization, soon stepped into public and got involved in local politics, which were exclusively male at that time. These women have overcome harassment and continue their activism until today.

Thousands of women were raped during the war, some of them repeatedly for long periods of time. Again, the ways this has affected them vary. Many of them have to deal with depression and other difficult psychosomatic and psychosocial responses. Some became activists themselves. Those who became pregnant and raised their children are now mothers to 16 to 19 year olds. Many women will be grieving the losses of their parents, husbands, siblings, sons and daughters until the end of their own lives. Some are living with the gap of knowledge of what happened to relatives who were taken away during the war. About 10,000 people are still missing. Many women are suffering from PTSD or have their partner or another family member or friend suffering from PTSD. Women have become both committer and sufferer of domestic violence, which has increased in the aftermath of the war. Some have not been able to return to their pre-war home and still feel expelled. Some have their whole family dispersed in countries all over the world. Some have not been able to complete their education for various reasons.

PF Women tend to be especially vulnerable during conflicts. In Bosnia-Herzegovina there are also other significant vulnerable populations, such as refugees and the LGBT community. Does your specific work with women seek solidarity with other vulnerable populations?

AW The vulnerability of women in conflict depends a lot on the make-up of the society in which the conflict is carried out. Prior to and during the war in BiH in the 90s the vast majority of those who had access to public decision making and to weapons, who were ready to use weapons and who were part of violent aggression, including systematic rape, were indeed men. Women were not drafted to fight and usually not part of military or (large-scale) political decision making. The LGBT community has basically no lobby and public space here in BiH. Very few live their sexuality openly, because the risk of harassment is too high. Some women activist groups which I have interviewed do seek solidarity with them, as well as with returnees, many of who are indeed in vulnerable positions. They face hostility, especially when representing (now) a minority in their hometown, they are excluded from relevant communication and generally marginalized. Feminist activism, dedicated to the transformation of hegemonic structures, attracts some of those who think, feel and live differently from the patriarchic, nationalistic, heterosexual mainstream. However, the phenomenon of feminism in BiH is certainly not a monolithic one, and you may encounter open resentments and fear from people who live their sexuality differently also amongst ‘feminists.’

PF You trained in theology at Edinburgh and in Germany. How has your theological training prepared you for the work you are doing in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

AW Thinking complexly, and being ready to ‘get lost’ from time to time in doing so; engaging with subjects that we human beings cannot do justice to—and still engaging with them, because the price for not doing it would be too high; being hopeful whilst acknowledging the difficulties at hand; questioning given ‘facts’ and approaching things from an unusual point of view; having a sense of the power and perils of concepts such as truth, justice and reconciliation; working multidisciplinary by using history, psychology, ethics, hermeneutics, anthropology, epistemology and philosophy in general; being cautious about ‘objective’ claims and ideologies; developing my own view; engaging appreciatively and critically with where I am coming from as well as with the other’s perspective; embracing diversity and being aware of the limitations of one’s own view point; working and thinking in the service of life—I have found that my theological training has helped me to develop in each of these respects, all of which are certainly relevant for the work I am doing right now. Training in law and religious studies has helped, but I feel that theology has had the biggest impact. And additionally, there is ‘plain knowledge’, such as Christian doctrines, history of religions in Europe, religious self-organization and the relationship between the concepts of church and nation, that is relevant for parts of the research that I am doing.

PF Is there anything else about your experience, the Religion and the Prospects of a TRC Project, or the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina that you would like to share?

AW Bosnia and Herzegovina is a beautiful country and worth a visit! Many people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation know that, as Yugoslavia was a popular tourist destination, but I regularly find that the war in the 90s and its repercussions are still the dominant association many people have of the area today. It is important to inform oneself about how to avoid places and areas that might be mined (there are clear criteria for that) and to not support plain war tourism which you can find here and there and which is a highly ambivalent endeavour at best. BiH is a fascinating country, with a stunning nature and a complex history, remainders of which reach back to ancient times. You are likely to meet warm people, a culture of hospitality, awesome food and very good travel facilities throughout the country. It is important that relationships are strengthened not only within the country, but also beyond, so that the stigmatization of BiH will be overcome eventually.

Interview conducted for Public Faith by Jamie Pitts. Please write with questions about the interview.

Image Credits: Sanski Most (top) and Sarajevo (bottom) by Annedore Wilmes.


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