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The Answer Is Blowing In the Wind

This article originally appeared in the Conflict Resolution Center Internatonal Newsletter. Re-published with permission.

I meet Snjezana Mrse at the Fourth European Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution in Belfast. At this moment there is reason for melancholy. Snjezana, from Serbia, is sitting in a panel together with representatives of civil society from other parts of post-Yugoslavia: Kosovo, Macedonia and Croatia. She has lived almost all of her life in Belgrade, but her family comes from Croatia. She is a psychologist working for the Centre for Anti War Action. So she represents the Serbia we hear far too little about these days: the opposition that during the whole of Milosevic’s regime worked against the war and for democratic changes. Bravely, persistently and at great personal cost.

The panel is not very hopeful. The Kosova Albanians are desperate about the war and about their homeless countrymen who are living in forests in mountains that are already covered in autumn sleet. “They will die this winter whether NATO bombs or not” says one of the women. All the participants on the panel are gloomy; it is obvious that they are giving up.

Snjezana has no answer (which is not like her) to the unspoken question from the 300 participants of the conference. What can we, as NGOs, do to improve the situation? “I really do not know what you can do but I know what do we need now and that is just to survive physically and psychologically. I feel like a paper that is blowing in the wind, I pretend to talk sensibly and peacefully and I do not know if there is any one who hears me,” she says.

Before and after wars there are self-evident tasks for international NGOs working for peace on a practical level . For example, to support meetings across borders in order to break down isolation and division and encourage new strength, new methods of working and new networks. When war is breaking it is more difficult. The only thing I can think of doing at the moment is to interview Snjezana in order to tell her story, to show that there are ordinary people who suffer because of the war and who then try to take responsibility to hinder and later mitigate it.

To remember and to talk about what she has done over the past seven years can perhaps ease the distressing feeling of guilt she expresses. “Sometimes I even catch myself in thinking: Let them bomb us, we are not worth any better.”

So we meet in the cozy ambience of the Irish guesthouse and we talk during two evenings. Snjezana is 39 years old but says, “I feel as old as a grandmother and at the same time like a little girl who did not begin living yet.” The war has occupied her years.

In the troubled spring of 1991, before the attack on Croatia, the Serbian population reacted with a wave of demonstrations for freedom of the press, peace and tolerance and against nationalism and Milosevic’s threats of war. Hundreds of thousands of people joined the demonstrations, and also Snjezana, who had not been politically active before. “I was shaken by the prospect of war between us, I did not believe it could be possible. And I was preoccupied by the fact that the individual can do something to change large and apparently inevitable events. So I joined. There were all sorts of people in the streets and also many young people who would be forced to fight in the war. There were concerts, new songs, exhibitions, and theatres. It was one long non-violent appeal, ‘give peace a chance’. We were so many! It was a turbulent, fast and happy time: For some moments we really did believe that war wouldn’t happen.”

But it did and also in Belgrade. The demonstrations were prohibited. There were tanks in the streets, police violence, tear gas and killings. Even after the breakout of the war the protests continued but they were moderated and then they stopped. In August the war broke loose seriously. Osijek, Vukovar, Dubrovnik.

“I felt divided, almost insane, most of my family lived in Croatia. How can neighbour kill neighbour? My energy was high, but where should I use the energy? I had to give full consideration to my choices. I could choose side, flee, or stay in a new position in Belgrade: Try to understand and change without being on anyone’s side. I chose the latter. I also found out that it is not particularly important for a person`s lifetime to have property or a good steady job because in a split second you can lose it all. Does it mean then that all your life becomes pointless?

Who am I?
But who am I when I do not define myself nationally or via my job or my home? I found that what means the most are the close relationships, the sense of conectedness within small societies where one can feel comfortable, create something, treat others and be treated with respect, be strong. All that, that has become impossible for us in relation to the wider society. Precisely that. In promoting connection could I see that we -as psychologists- do have something to offer other people. We could create such social spaces where we could help one another to appreciate the small circles, maintain civil relations, never agree to fight one another, to flee or to be greedy”

Snjezana was not the only one to think like that. From all sorts of different occupations people gathered together to keep a civil society even under the constricted rule of nationalism. A wide range of NGOs emerged: a totally new experience for the Yugoslavs. As Snjezana explains, there was an atmosphere of autonomy and courage, people would help one another, for example to hide young men who did not want to go to war.

Refugee work
One of the first results of the war was the immense flow of Serbian refugees from Croatia in the summer of 1992. Snjezana worked round the clock with their children. “I learned how important it is to focus on what one can do and then let anything else become background: the worries, the stories of horror. When the children could not sleep because they were afraid that their parents were dead, only one thing existed for me: to give them peace and tranquillity. I made them relax, made them imagine their parents as if they could see them now and find that their children are happy and safe. Help them recall happy moments, loving words, good deeds. Then they fell asleep and that was all that mattered in that moment.

“Sometimes we succeeded in making the children let go of their concepts of the enemy. Once a group of children yelled that all Croats are Nazis (Ustase). I said, not all, but they continued. Then I said, ‘I am Croat,’ and for a long moment there was silence. One girl, especially, seemed very shocked, and I had a special contact with her. Next morning she came and hugged me firmly not saying a word. Among all the children’s names it is her name I will always remember: Rada.”

The war reached Bosnia in the spring of 1992. In Sarajevo hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Serbs and Croats protested against the dissolution of their country and against the unthinkable civil war which came anyway with killings and ethnic cleansings. In Belgrade the Centre for Anti War Action arranged demonstrations for peace, but fewer and fewer people attended. The people were tired and scared. The nationalists were in power and treated those people who demanded negotiations rather than force of arms as traitors. By the end of 1992, Snjezana was overworked and the political collapse was reflected in her own collapse.

Burn out
“The same stories, the same sufferings, flows of poor refugees again. I could not bear it anymore. I was burnt out and unprepared because at that time we knew almost nothing about traumas of war. My organism broke down: pains, lousy concentration, I smoked and drank too much, and had problems with my stomach -I literally threw up when I was told of new atrocities and new sufferings. I could not help anybody and consequently my will to live became weak.”

In 1993, in the midst of her despair, Snjezana was offered a scholarship to study Peace Studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana, USA, and she accepted. She was to study with 30 people from all over the world, among others from: South Africa, Uganda, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Northern Ireland, Rumania, China, Rwanda. Even though she cried all the way to the airport and cried most of the time on the plane she knew it was the right decision.

“My perspective was that I wanted to survive in peace, at a distance, to become a whole person again in order to go back to Belgrade and know what to do and do it. I needed a break and that break taught me something about time. We have to recognise its being, contain it and work with it, not work against it by pressing it and speeding it up. Because if we do that, time will be one of the biggest enemies of peace.”

“The studies were demanding and that was good for me. And even better was to be with all the others and share experiences, to know that we are not alone in Belgrade. This made me stronger and more together. The last evening we sat together, we were sad because we knew we were not likely to see each other again and at the same time we were happy because of what we shared.”

Dayton Agreement
In the summer of 1994 Snjezana returned to Serbia. The good news was that there were some hints of an ending to the war in Bosnia. The Dayton agreement drew to a close. The bad news was that corruption, Mafia and greed had occupied the country.

Snjezana joined MOST, a group of 25 psychologists working within the Centre for Anti War Action in Belgrade. MOST means ‘bridge’ and its initials stand for: peacefulness, openness, co-operation and tolerance.

“At the time group MOST worked mostly with school children and refuges. It was vital that children learned something about non-violence, tolerance and how to resolve conflicts in a civilised way, and how to see through enemy image concepts. We developed programmes (Goodwill Classroom) for three different age groups, educated 60 trainers, trained hundreds teachers, we wrote and published manuals. We succeeded via the university and via UNICEF to implement the programmes in public schools. Through these programs, during and after a war 12,000 children learned something about a culture of peace. Imagine, we succeeded in something, we were amazed and enthusiastic.”

CR Workshops
MOST took a new initiative in 1995. They knew that the only alternative to Milosevic was a coalition of democratic parties and organisations, and they wanted to support these groups’ insecure co-operation by training them in conflict resolution and negotiation. They arranged seminars and workshops for politicians, NGOs, and people from the alternative media and unions. It was quite a challenge to work with people with such strong opinions, strong perceptions of themselves, and many disagreements. It was an absolute pre-condition for the trainers not to be looked upon as omniscient specialists.

“So what we did was to make ourselves available. We learned from them which situations they would like to know more about. We told them that our profession was psychology and not politics, but what we had to offer them was a new different way of approaching and solving their problems, a new approach to co-operation and negotiation, and that it obviously was entirely up to them whether they use the methods or not. It was their choice.”

“We did not give any theoretical lectures. We had them do realistic role-plays about concrete problems that emerge in local societies, which they had to negotiate about. They were complicated problems. Our participants made all the classic mistakes: to stick to certain solutions far too early and then to fight for them like bulldogs. The simulated negotiations became chaotic but we let them try over and over again. When they asked us ‘what shall we do?’ we insisted that they should make their own suggestions so that they themselves would find a constructive way. In the end they asked us ‘Don’t you have some models, some techniques that could be of some help?’ and it proved to be the right time to offer them alternative model.”

“They were very satisfied and very eager to learn more. However, in one of our workshops there was a remarkably negative atmosphere between the participants and us. The workshop took place in a city from where young men were recruited and trained to be sent to Bosnia. In the break a man approached us and told us that he was one of the people who trained the soldiers and sent them to Bosnia. I became rather nervous. He then told us that as he had seen the consequences he was now doubtful about violence and a possibility of a just war as a method for resolving conflicts. This was why he came to the workshop, but he did not trust us. So the first day he brought a psychologist with him ‘to test you’ and she said that we were OK and that we would not manipulate with the training. Now he wanted to say to us that it was brave of us to come to that town for Anti War Action and that he respected us. That is the best evaluation I have ever had.”

1996 – 97 Democracy demonstrations
It was a springlike period, and optimism and the opposition grew larger. A coalition for democratic change and against Milosevic regime formed. In the beginning on the quiet and later visible to the whole world. In the middle of the cold winter – from November 96 to February 97 – 89 days in a row, hundreds of thousands Serbians demonstrated in all the big cities. It was a protest against the government’s fraudulent attempt to cancel the oppositions’ election victory. But it was also a protest against the rule that had only brought about war, poverty, and isolation. And for a civilised society. These demonstrations were called ‘the democratic snake’ or the ‘walks’.

“We danced in the streets, to the music from flutes and drums. People waved and made noise from the windows, there were theatres in the streets and a gigantic figure of Milosevic in a convict’s uniform. There were funny slogans, happy faces everywhere, we saw each other, we were there, we existed, we had fantasy, and I cannot imagine anything more wonderful than that. After these dark years I was afraid that people like me had already left the country but fortunately we were together again. It was a creative explosion of disrespect. It was never showed on the official television channels, but the international press supported us. We were a sensation. So many people and no need for control and no violence on the street, except some broken windows – those on the regime’s buildings. Our only weapon were eggs, which we threw on the regime’s buildings, as we needed to deal with our anger, but eggs also mean new life – it was an egg (r)evolution. And even though some were hit by the anti-terror-police and some were put in jail, people were not afraid, and they came again and again.

“But even this upheaval was suppressed. The coalition got some of their demands fulfilled and later fell apart. The brutality of the police increased, imprisonments took place, persecutions, water cannons. The demonstrations dragged to a close. Foreign media lost interest. Milosevic consolidated his position. When Centre for Anti War Action called for demonstrations against the war and violence in Kosovo only a handful of people showed up. Even I was not there for I could not bear to face the fact that the “walking” resistance does not survive.”

NATO bomb threats
I interview Snjezana in the days when everyone thinks NATO will bomb. British Airways has suspended the route to Belgrade, Snjezana’s travel is postponed. Between the workshops and seminar on the conference the discussion topic is NATO’s intervention. Again an absurd choice.: ‘Leave the refugees in the lurch’ or ‘bomb the Serbs’.

NATO’s threats increase. Milosevic tightens his hold over the civil opposition. Snjezana has brought with her a statement from, among others, The Centre for Human Rights and Centre for Anti War Action in Belgrade. “We believe that in this case a military intervention is against the interests of the people who at this moment suffer the most: All citizens of Kosovo, Serbians, Albanians and other ethnic groups”.

In her own way Snjezana agrees: “Though I believe in non-violence, I am now so angry at Milosevic regime, that I in moments of despair, I could vote for anything just to stop the violence in Kosovo. However, I am afraid the bombardments and the threats will make everything worse for us. People would again support Milosevic and the most extreme Albanian leaders would be strengthened; the hate will deepen and the negotiations would become impossible. This situation calls for much more creative responses. I can explain that by using a metaphor: ‘If you are dealing with a mad person you must act as reasonably and human as possible so that they also have the possibility for doing so. If you act like them you become like them’. Something like this happens if you bomb.”

“The worst is, that all of us who want change will be put out of the running completely, when we are already barely in there. The war will be frozen into the hearts of the people; they will blame the international society, every Albanian and us for whatever destruction is taking place. Milosevic will receive support for his revenge and if you bomb a poisoning of the mentality will take place, among both Serbs and Albanians.”

Trying to explain her thoughts clearly, Snjezana is now spontaneously saying ‘if you bomb’ and all of a sudden I understand that it is my F16 planes that are ready for take off in Italy. It is my ‘international society’ that has been blind to the fact that the Dayton agreement failed to see the explosive Kosovo. It is my government who has accepted infringement of the UN Charter. It is me and my countrymen who remain passive. It was my media, which praised the egg revolution and has now forgotten those people who allowed themselves to hope.

It is Snjezana who, as a paper, is blowing in the wind. But it is also her and her friends who will establish themselves again. What they have done will somehow throw out tendrils, nothing is in vain. But right now they need support. They only live a couple a minutes away from us. The have e-mail, they have fax, they continue their work, and they need contact and encouragement from abroad. They need to feel that they are not left and forgotten.

Translated from Danish by Cecile Poulsen-Hansen. Hansen and Hammerich are associated with the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution.

Contact Snjezna Mrse at MOST/CAA, Macvanska 8, Belgrade, 11000, Yugoslavia. Phone/fax: +381 11 344 17 37 or+381 11 446 13 32, e-mail: [email protected]


Paul Wahrhaftig

Paul Wahrhaftig, has been active in organized conflict resolution since its modern beginnings in the early 1970s, both as a practitioner and organizer/networker. While maintaining an active mediation practice he continues to maintain contact with conflict resolvers around the world. Recently retired from his  position as President of the Conflict Resolution… MORE >

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