Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: Trnovo Turns for the Better

In the Bosnian town of Trnovo, Serbs, Muslims and Croats are coming together to heal the wounds of war.
By Julie Poucher

Vlatka Simanic, 24, has lived nearly half her life under the shadow of war and ethnic hatred. But even now, as she surveys the destruction, the bleak economy, and the political instability in her country, she still vows she would never leave.


"There's a future here," she insisted with a cheerful laugh. Vlatka's optimism should give heart to her elders who, a year ago, were dismayed by a UNDP report that most young people would like to leave the country if given half a chance.


The over-50s, counting the years to their pensions, wondered if anyone would be left to pay them. Looking at youngsters loafing around in café bars, drinking and taking drugs and longing to be somewhere else struck gloom into the grey-haired community.


But Simanic, a Bosnian Serb, believes things are changing for the better. And she's working hard on her own account to make the dream come true. With Mersiha Zolota, 25, a Bosniak, she runs a youth group to bring youngsters from all sides together in the town of Trnovo, about 30 km south-east of Sarajevo.


Trnovo is a good place to start. It stands slap on the boundary line drawn up at the end of the war between the two parts of Bosnia. One section of the town is in Republika Srpska, the other in the Muslim-Croat Federation.


Before the war Trnovo was a popular weekend tourist resort with its hundreds of natural springs at the foot of Mount Treskavica. The town's picturesque houses and rustic cottages, along with its two hotels, churches, and schools were looted, shot at, and set ablaze during fighting between Serbs and Muslims. Control of the town changed hands an endless number of times.


Simanic has been living with her family in their weekend house in the Serb half of Trnovo since the war while they try to repossess their home in largely Bosniak Sarajevo.


Mersiha Zolota is the only Muslim in the municipal assembly of the Serbian part of Trnovo. She is its speaker and youngest delegate. She and her family hope to return to their home in the nearby Serb village of Kievo once they have the money to rebuild it.


People in both parts of Trnovo are slowly returning to the town as their houses are reconstructed with aid from the international community. About 250 Bosniaks have come back to Serbian Trnovo since the end of 1999 and 15 Serb families have gone back to the Croat-Muslim part of the town.


According to UNHCR, there are now 2000-2500 and 1000-1500 people living in the respective sections.


With the increasing number of returning residents, old wounds are starting to heal. The current German SFOR contingent, deployed in the area since June 2001, told IWPR, "The development in Trnovo must be assessed as particularly positive because both municipalities already work in close cooperation."


"We've had no complaints so far," said UNHCR field officer Srecko Neuman, who's been working in Trnovo since 1996. He told IWPR, "Trnovo might be seen as unique because tolerance usually isn't this good in rural areas where everybody knows each other and who did what."


Tolerance is something Merisha knows all about. "If we want a good economy, and we want our state to be stable, we have to live together, try to move forward, build new factories, create jobs for people and don't think about who is Bosniak, who is Serb, and who is Croat," she said.


As a young person, she sometimes has trouble making older colleagues take her seriously. "They always say you are young, listen to us, we know more. But I always say look at your town and see what old politicians have done. They shut up after that," she said.


Mersiha, with her drive for helping youth through political action, and


Vlatka, with her commitment to teaching kids about the natural


beauty of Trnovo, co-founded a youth group to bring together 15-30


year-olds from the two sides. They want to make it easier for displaced youth to return to Trnovo.


"Honestly at the very beginning I was afraid it wasn't going to work,"


Vlatka said. Mersiha, too, was surprised the young people should find such common ground.


The two young women formed their project after attending a countrywide youth seminar organized by the OSCE and the National Democratic Institute. The group now has between 100 and 150 members, evenly divided between Serbs and Bosniaks. During this summer they met in a makeshift shelter made up of two containers and situated right on the boundary line between the two Trnovos.


Soon they will move into the Trnovo Culture House which will be completely rebuilt by winter in the Serbian part of the town, with funds from SFOR, the EU and other, largely German, international aid.


The premises are designed as a multi-ethnic meeting place for all inhabitants of Trnovo, a place to show movies, hold concerts and dances, to open up an Internet café and a library.


Mersiha and Vlatka say their group acts as if there was no ethnic boundary. They spend most of their time organising activities like mountaineering, football tournaments, aerobics, basketball and ski trips to Jahorina where the 1984 Olympics were held.


They also hold round table talks on topics like drug prevention and seeking to curb depression common among young people who cannot find work. "They are really poor," Vlatka said. "Their spending power is minimal. Because of this many young people yearn to go abroad and our job is to persuade them to stay."


But Vlatka says most of her youth group members are optimistic. "Every year the situation gets better," she said. "Connections between the entities are more established, and there are bigger opportunities for education and employment."


Support for the youth project has poured in from both communities. Every day there is greater cooperation between the two halves of Bosnia on wider issues. The Serbian and Bosniak women in Trnovo are working together on building greenhouses in both parts of the town to create a better life. The two municipalities are also working together on a waste-water purification system.


UNHCR's Neuman said, "Municipal authorities have become pragmatic because they can see the benefits of joint projects and realise it's easier to get access to international donors if they work together."


Julie Poucher Harbin is a Sarajevo-based freelance reporter and frequent contributor to IWPR.


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