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Velma Saric – Bosnian with vision

Exclusive Interview : –
Velma Saric Director of The Post Conflict Research Centre and Institute of War and Peace reporting, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina was awarded by the UN in recognition of her excellent work. She was presented award in 2014 Intercultural Innovation Award Ceremony recently.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) and Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser (right), UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, present the 2014 Intercultural Innovation Award Ceremony, to Velma Šarić, the founder and Executive Director of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC), which won this year’s top prize. The centre’s multimedia-based peacebuilding project “Ordinary Heroes” promotes reconciliation and enhances inter-ethnic cooperation among Bosnian citizens by utilizing stories of rescuers’ behavior and moral courage to save lives during times of ethnic violence and genocide worldwide.

The London Post conducted an Interview with the UN award winner Velma Saric. Here how she responded to our questions:

1 – The London Post. Can you please tell us about your personal life?

I was born in 1979 in Vlasenica in north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, and grew up in the small industrial town of Kladanj, which is an important transit point halfway between Tuzla, Sarajevo and the Drina River. My father was a social worker and my mother worked as a tailor at a local clothing shop, and when I was 10, my only brother Safet was born. We lived a simple, yet happy life before war broke out in the former Yugoslavia.

At the start of the genocide in Bosnia in 1992, I was 12 years old. I spent the next 3 years under siege and constant shelling until the end of the war in 1995. The experience of the war and its aftermath affected me so deeply that I decided to make it my mission to help my country recover from the legacies of war in way that I could, so, with limited financial support and amidst the instability of a still fragile post-conflict environment, I managed to put myself through school and was able to obtain a degree in Political Science from the University of Sarajevo. During my time at university from 2004 to 2008, I worked as an expert associate on research related to genocide, international law and war crimes. I also was given the opportunity to serve as conference secretary and organizer for an international conference focusing on the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica. As the main organizer, I was able to garner international support and attention by bringing well-known scholars, such as Samantha Power and Dr. Gregory Stanton to Bosnia for this conference. It was also during this period that I taught myself English so that I could work with members of the international community who trying to help my country recover.

After my time at university I became a Sarajevo-based correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) during which time I focused on covering war crimes trials and issues related to war crimes prosecutions in the region. During my work as a journalist I was able to work with many incredible people throughout Bosnia, the region, and the world who would come to me asking if I could assist them with projects related to transitional justice and peacebuilding. Suddenly, I was doing jobs for filmmakers, photographers, scholars, NGOs, and others seeking to execute conferences, workshops, documentaries, reportages, exhibitions, and projects that contributed to reconciliation in BiH and the greater Balkans region. I still serve as a primary local contact for many media outlets including Al Jazeera, BBC, PBS, National Geographic, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The London Times, La Repbulica, Le Monde, Sunday News, The Guardian, The Observer, Neue Zürcher Zeitung/NZZ Executive, TV Espana, Danish TV 2, and Deutsche Welle.

In 2010, shortly before founding PCRC, I had the opportunity to develop my skills as a filmmaker when I became the Field Associate Producer for PBS’s “I Came to Testify” and “War Redefined” episodes of the Woman War and Peace documentary series. I worked alongside Co-creator and Executive Producer Abigail Disney to produce the film, and will now introduce the series to audiences in Bosnia to spark constructive dialogue and promote healing. That same year, I also worked alongside Director Mirko Pincelli and his production company Pinch Media to produce my first feature length documentary “Uspomene 677” (Memories 677) which focuses on Bosnian citizens’ direct and indirect experiences with concentration and rape camp detainment during the Bosnian war in the 1990s. The film addresses the legacy these camps have left behind for contemporary Bosnia and how wartime events are shaping the beliefs and attitudes of new generations. Al Jazeera Balkans is now broadcasting Uspomene 677 for audiences throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Shortly after PCRC became a registered NGOI was asked to serve as a consultant for Angelina Jolie’s film In the Land of Blood & Honey. Jolie then requested that PCRC organize private screenings for victims of rape and war before the movie’s release as well as serve as co-hosts for the film’s Sarajevo premiere in Sarajevo. PCRC was also given the responsibility of distributing Jolie’s personal donation of 2,100 tickets to students, NGO representatives, embassies, and human rights activists throughout the country.

I was also recently nominated to take the position of Sarajevo project manager of the newly founded War Art Reporting and Memory Foundation (WARM) which is an international foundation working on telling the stories of the world’s contemporary conflicts. WARM members include world-renowned war reporters, photographers, filmmakers, authors, and artists such as Christiane Amanpour, Rémy Ourdan, Janine di Giovanni, Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Ziyah Gafić, and Danis Tanović.

2. The London Post – Since you have a busy life and work schedule, how you manage both?

When PCRC was in its infancy, it was hard to juggle work and have a social life at the same time. For the first couple of years, everything depended on me, my partner and co-founder Leslie Woodward, and my brother Safet. We made a lot of sacrifices to do what we believe we were meant to do, which includes getting married and starting a family. These are things I still plan on having in the future, I just have to focus on my career for now and have faith that those things will fall into place when they are supposed to.

PCRC has been an official organization for three and a half years now, and we have experienced many successes and hardships during that time. I have to say that one of the greatest accomplishments for us thus far is the team of people who have come to work for us. Much of our team still consists of volunteers who come from all parts of the world to dedicate countless hours to help make our organizations and its projects successful. Our internship program has become a core of PCRC’s operations, and this has made managing work and my personal life much easier. We’ve also been able to hire a few full-time employees. This really means a lot to me since I know how hard it is for people in this country to find a job, so that the fact that we can give people employment is something we are really proud of.

3. The London Post – You are a role model – how can you make more of you?

I try to base my morals and values off of those who have mentored and inspired me throughout the years. One of those special people was Dr. Eric Markusen, a great scholar, educator, and most of all, friend. He believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself, and because of him I was able to gain the confidence and strength I needed to pursue my dreams. There have also been several women in my life who have really made me who I am today. Those women include my mother, Abigail Disney, and my best friend and partner in this amazing endeavor Leslie Woodward. I try and incorporate the lessons I’ve learned from these role models into all aspects of my life and work. I think a great example of how PCRC is striving to create new role models can be seen through our “Ordinary Heroes” project. Our ordinary heroes embody the values of moral courage, kindness, compassion,

and understanding that we, as human beings, should strive for and I hope that, by teaching the youth how to nurture such values, we can create role models for generations to come.

4. The London Post – How and why you joined PCRC?

The story of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) really began in Sarajevo in the summer of 2010. That summer, I had designed and organized a study abroad program for American university students from Colorado. One of the students that took part in that program was Leslie Woodward. While coordinating the program, I began getting to know her. She was so responsible and her compassion for this country’s people moved me. She had an ability to connect with victims even though she didn’t speak our language and she had a real passion for making a difference in people’s lives. On top of these qualities, she was able to analyze and approach the most difficult questions and topics with sensitivity and objectivity. The fact that she was willing to work with me voluntarily on so many different things and was able to take all my seemingly crazy ideas and put them down on paper made me believe that maybe my dream of one day having my own NGO could become a reality.

One day Leslie asked me why I didn’t just branch out and start my own organization. I explained to her that it was risky and that I didn’t know if I could do it by myself, to which she replied, “Well what if I moved here and helped you do it?” I knew she would have to return to the US soon because she still had a year of graduate school to complete, but I soon found out how serious she really was. As soon as she got back home, we began working through Skype writing projects, grant proposals, and developing strategies and plans for our new organization, which we had yet to give a name to. We worked almost every day for a year while Leslie was finishing her degree and I was working full-time as a journalist, researcher, and movie producer. I remember once we even worked through Skype for almost 19 hours straight. I could call Leslie at any time of the day or night and she would answer. She was always there for me when I needed her. Why was it so important for me to meet Leslie? Because her optimistic approach to life and her ‘Yes we can!’ attitude is rare in this country and quite contagious. She believed in me 100 percent which gave me the push I needed to start creating the organization I had always dreamed of. Five days after Leslie graduated, she moved to Bosnia. That first year, we worked without an office and with very little funding.

Leslie’s arrival was the catalyst for establishing PCRC, but my wartime experiences and the memories of refugees escaping from eastern Bosnia, the horrific stories about the rape of girls and women, the bloody massacres of civilians, the sound mortar shots and gunfire, and the lack of food, water and electricity were all instrumental in shaping the person I am today and the journey I decided to take to establish an organization dedicated to helping those who suffered in this war alongside me. I was greatly impacted as I listened to thousands of testimonies from victims and witnesses during my work as a journalist. I saw how they were living, without any support or help, and I wanted to give them a voice. Through my work with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, I learned how to be fair, balanced and objective. I never wanted to limit myself to listening to just one side of the story. I wanted to understand the different perspectives and experiences of all sides. I believe that every individual tragedy deserves to be respected no matter which side it is coming from.

I also always dreamed of doing something that instilled hope and optimism among the youth in this country and preserved the memories of war while building a better tomorrow. Currently, my country

doesn’t instill the belief that you can do anything you put your mind and heart into, nor does it provide visible opportunities that members of the youth can pursue. My journey has been exciting and difficult and we are constantly faced with new challenges, roadblocks, and opportunities, but, in the end, I hope that my story can serve as an example that anything is possible if you follow your passion, believe in yourself, and work hard to achieve your dreams.

5. The London Post – Can you please tell us aims and objectives of your organisation?

In essence, PCRC is working to cultivate an environment for sustainable peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the greater Balkans region. We’re working to bridge intergroup and interethnic divides through focusing on illuminating positive narratives from the past that are often neglected by mainstream media and utilizing them as catalysts for social change in the present and future. A key part of our work is that we are independent and impartial – we work with all groups in Bosnia, including Bosnia’s more marginalized communities, such as Roma, the Jewish community, and youth from mixed marriages.

We also try to help other professionals by leveraging our expertise and acting as independent consultants for local and international groups and actors, including journalists, photographers, researchers, filmmakers, NGOs, educational institutions and others who are interested in carrying out projects that contribute to a brighter future for this country and the region.

6. The London Post – What kind of projects you are doing at the moment?

Currently, we have several projects underway. First is of course our “Ordinary Heroes” project, for which we won the 2014 Intercultural Innovation Award. “Ordinary Heroes” is a multimedia educational project that utilizes stories of rescue and moral courage to promote tolerance, reconciliation and interethnic cooperation. One of the main components of the project is a documentary series that depicts real-life stories of Bosnian citizens, who, by choosing to rescue the ‘other’, became heroes in a time when their country was committing acts of genocide. As part of this project we also run youth workshops in local communities across BiH and have a supporting photographic exhibition that is displayed in local public spaces.

A second initiative we are currently working on is “Balkan Diskurs”, which is a multimedia platform run by a regional network of journalists, bloggers, artists, and activists, and aims to respond to a lack of objective, relevant, and independent media in the Balkans region. PCRC launched the Balkan Diskurs website the August of this year, and the work that’s being published on the site connects themes across intergroup divisions and national borders in the region, providing fresh views on culture, politics and society. This October, PCRC will be training a group of you bloggers from across Bosnia who will serve as correspondents for this project.

PCRC is additionally involved in developing a project that focuses specifically on the plight of survivors of sexual violence in the Bosnian war. This project entitled “Breaking the Silence and Stigma” aims to increase awareness and understanding of the consequences of the use of sexual violence in war through presenting and exploring the experiences of female victims from all three of Bosnia’s

constituent ethnic groups. Women who have until now been forced to suffer in silence will be provided with an equal platform to share and discuss their experiences of violence, as well as the social stigmas and lack of support that they have since endured.

Finally, PCRC is excited to announce its new partnership with The Art of Revolution from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to bring the project “One Million Bones: Bones of the Balkans” to Bosnia and Herzegovina. One Million Bones is a large-scale social arts practice, which combines education, hands-on art making, and public installations to raise awareness of ongoing genocides and mass atrocities. PCRC first became acquainted the project in June 2013 when the organization and approximately 2,500 volunteers from across the United States gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to lay out over one million handcrafted bones as a visible petition against genocide and mass atrocities. The installation of the bones was the highlight of a three-day event that included speakers from across the anti-genocide movement, a candlelight vigil, educational activities and an advocacy day. Since the close of the installation on the National Mall, these bones have been awaiting their next call to action, and in July 2015, Bosnia recognizes a tragic anniversary: twenty years since the Bosnian genocide and the massacre in Srebrenica. The Art of Revolution and PCRC are now working together to bring 100,000 of the bones, one bone for each victim of the Bosnian genocide, created for the One Million Bones project to Bosnia to be displayed in the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center during a special ceremony commemorating the victims.

7. The London Post – What impact your organisation is making on the people?

First, our primary impact is on an individual level. Many or our interventions are designed to change current attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs that play a role in continued divisions among ethnic and religious groups within Bosnia. All of PCRC’s project aim to bring awareness to important topics and educate individuals about the experiences of other groups as well as the commonalities that they all share. For example, our Ordinary Heroes youth workshops, which are contact-based intervention focusing on stories of moral exemplars from the war—heroic helpers who risked their lives to rescue members from other groups—significantly influenced participants willingness to forgive the outgroup of previous misdeeds. In addition, such interaction increased participants’ belief in reconciliation, and intergroup contact in the presence of a moral exemplar narrative was found to be effective for restoring broken intergroup relations.

PCRC also focuses at making an impact at the community level through the promotion of tolerance and reconciliation. Although we are based in Sarajevo, we dedicate a large portion of our time traveling to various parts of Bosnia and bringing our projects and activities to communities that are often left out of the peacebuilding process. Because our activities are participatory nature, community members are directly in our interventions.

Our impact reaches a broader audience as well. Through media exposure, our projects reach the general public and indirectly influence beliefs and emotions about the past, intergroup relations and reconciliation processes. Additionally, through broadcast of our documentaries on media networks such as Al Jazeera Balkans, our films can be seen by over half a million viewers across the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

8. The London Post – How people in the international community can assist you?

People from the international community can help us in many different, and sometimes surprising, ways! We always seeking collaboration with the international community and are open to include them in the design of our interventions through expert consultations and financial support. We also accept volunteers and interns year-round who would like to contribute their time and knowledge to our organization while. Funding and donations are always welcome, but assistance with publicity, capacity building, and promotion of our projects is equally important to PCRC’s success. As an organization concerned with creativity, we’re always open to new ideas.

9. The London Post – What kind of assistance you require and/or need?

We are expanding our activities into other parts of the world and are always looking for partners who can help us do so. We are also currently working on how best to make our films more widely available internationally, and are looking for help to screen and distribute our documentaries wherever there is interest.

10.The London Post- Other Comments

On August 28, 2014 PCRC’s project “Ordinary Heroes” was awarded first place by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and the BMW Group for the 2014 Intercultural Innovations Award. The award recognizes non-profit organizations worldwide for their innovative, ‘grassroots’ programs which contribute to dialogue, understanding, and acceptance of diversity among differing cultural, ethnic, and religious groups.

Until now, this work has focused on towns and cities across both the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. The Intercultural Innovation Award will allow us to broaden our horizons. In essence, we can now reach more people, expanding our work within Bosnia, extending the project activities to Zagreb, Croatia and Belgrade, Serbia, and developing new materials that can be used by like-minded organizations to replicate the project within their own communities.

These are not the only benefits provided by the award. Along with the other 10 finalists, PCRC is proud to become part of the “World Intercultural Facility for Innovation” (WIFI) — a UNAOC and BMW Group program designed to help organizations become more efficient and expand. Over the next 12 months, PCRC staff will have access to specialized training to further develop a diverse set of skills including leadership, communications, and financial sustainability, as well as tailored support to encourage the replication of the “Ordinary Heroes” project.

We are truly grateful that this project has been recognized on an international level and we are extremely excited about the year to come!


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