the daily work at Centre for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights in Osijek, Croatia

Ljerka Toncovic´, sociologist, head of the Educational Centre

Osijek is a town and harbour by the river Drava with 122.000 inhabitants. It is the biggest town and the administrative centre of eastern Croatia. During 1991-1992 the town was heavily shelled as it was placed at the frontline and received more than 50.000 refugees from different ethnic groups. The surrounding areas on three sides of the town is now still controlled by UNTAES and in a process of peaceful re-integration to the Republic of Croatia.

The Centre for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights was formally established in May 1992 as a part of the Antiwar Campaign of Croatia, and since 1993 it has been independently registered as a collective member of it. It was a nucleus of civil society resistant to any kind of divisions (ethnic, religious, political or ideological) imposed by the violence of war.
From the beginning the activities were educational, counselling programmes and activities which support and promote nonviolent and creative social changes towards the realisation of human rights, freedom and peace in the broadest sense. It implied working on ourselves as well; the inner attachment of the members of the group, based on nonviolence, acceptance of differences, personal courage and initiatives, understanding, tolerance and cooperation.

Today, the Centre includes 50 members, men and women, most of which highly educated from different ethnical, religious and social backgrounds.

The basic working conditions today are still difficult, but in a political change. After four years of neither war nor peace, broken communication with people in occupied zones, very slight success of the negotiations and a language of hatred, now we are facing the possibilities of reintegration, renewal of relationships in common life in East Slavonia and Baranja.

This is a new situation for people from both sides who were not prepared for common life, forgiving and reconciliation. At the same time, our town is burdened with various post war problems: with a lot of traumatized, wounded, displaced, unemployed, low paid people. The low standard of living, housing problems, the unpredictable economic situation, the undemocratic atmosphere make people dissatisfied, without enthusiasm, perspective and hope.

No matter of the reconciliation process in which Centre for Peace found its place, a cooperation with various institutions is still difficult to realize. The society is still suspicious towards nongovernmental and peace groups. However, after a few years of cooperating with the Peace Centre, people, now as members, become more involved in our activities.

We have three groups of projects with connected activitites:

1. Human rights protection
Replying to the request for direct protection of families threatened by eviction in the autumn of 1992, members of the Centre for Peace started nonviolent direct protection. A very intense period of such protection was during the autumn and winter 1992 and spring 1993. In that period volunteers were involved in direct protection like monitoring and reporting violations, appealing to the responsible persons at local, governmental and international levels; providing an attorney representing the people at court free of charges; volunteers were present during threats of eviction; peace activists mediated between families and institutions, etc.

Owing to quick response after military action in West Slavonia, by the new Office for Human Rights Protection and Trust, rebuilding in Pakrac has been opened, in which more than 1000 persons came to ask for advice, help or assistance. Mediation between the Serbian population which stayed in Westerns Slavonia, local authorities and institutions continues as part of the trust building process.

The protection of human rights will always have a connection with rebuilding of trust, nonviolence and peace, especially in the reintegrated areas of East Slavonia and Baranja, where we plan to establish a new office.

After the war we recognised new problems and violations of the rights of war victims, women and children. The ones who survived atrocities of the war suffer from post traumatic stress disorders, facing losses and social injustice that are connected with their unfulfilled needs and rights guaranteed in the Croatian Constitution. Among these people usage of alcohol, drugs, violence and selfdestructive acts are increasing.

In the families, besides the already existing pathriarchal and authoritative structure and low life standard, a new form of violence with usage of weapons appeared. At the same time, the state in its campaign of supporting demographical renewal, denies those problems. The systematical and organised state protection does not exist.

A society without tradition of publicity and citizens´ responsibility needs education for human rights through public promotion, public dicussions, lectures and school programmes. In fact this is the plan for the Centre for Peace.

The rebuilding of a human rights culture in Croatia is still a matter for the future.

2. Peace education and psycho-social support programs

With these programs from the very beginning we wanted to achieve two goals:

- to mitigate results and symptoms of post stress syndrom and empower personal adaption to
the changed circumstances

- to promote, apply, practice and teach people new communication skills and creative problem

We begin with releasing the suppressed and destructive emotions of fear? sadness and anger, confronting and mitigating consequences of past stress, then procede to build trust, confidence, cooperation, self-esteem, creativity needed for handling problems and conflicts, new perceptions of life and possibilities.

From March 1992 till now, the Centre organised about 150 workshops for its members, citizens, students, social and health workers, lawyers etc, not counting a great number of creative workshops for the children. About 3000 adults participated in the education as well as 2000 children in permanent creative workshops.

Our trainers are enabled and qualified to educate or conduct nonviolent communication, conflict handling, protection of human rights and environmental issues programmes as well as psycho-social supportive programmes for facing stress and traumas - using different approaches, methods and techniques like: verbal and nonverbal language, movement, dances, songs, games, art processes, rithuals, relaxation, meditation, prayer etc.

We succeeded in involving and making interested in these issues a lot of professionals working in schools, university and social institutions who want to practise and apply their knowledge in work and families. They see that the programmes are helpful for personal and professional life. Now, we plan to establish the Centre for peace education and social support also as a resource centre for peace, an information and publication centre, with a psycho-social library.

In our educational programs we want to include new "target" groups like managers and business people, politicians, war traumatized people, family groups and all people interested in their own self-awareness and development processes.

A peace culture can be accomplished only in an peaceful and nonviolent everyday living.

3. Programmes for supporting the peace process and building a nonviolent democratic society in a reintegrated area of Croatia

In summer 1994, the Centre started to participate in a project called "House of Meetings" in Mohacs, Hungary, with logistic and material help of "Peace Bridge Donau", the foundations "Die Schwelle", and cooperation with the peace group from Sombor. The war had divided families and friends. The exiled people temporarily settled in Osijek and members living in Croatian UNPA East got an opprtunity to meet. The first meetings were characterised by fear, distrust and existing prejudices, but it was the first step out from the self isolation of the UNPA and contributed to the peaceful integration of the population. The result of the meetings is to reduce the prejudices and fears on both sides and these activities are recognised as possible personal contributions of the exiled people to a peaceful return. The Association of Displaced Persons of Croatia has accepted and practised the meetings as part of its activities. About 300 persons have met who have been separated during the war.

- As the interest for the meetings was increasing, a new group composed of teachers who worked in Baranja in the same school before the war was formed. Workshops have been held in September 1995 in Osijek and Baranja and later on a joint one in Mohach. Teachers prepared in this way will play a significant role in their environments and contribute to reconciliation.

- A similar programme started in August 1994, called "Common bench", with the idea of personal meetings between people who lived in the same street or village before the war. The goals were: building trust, reducing the prejudices, psychologically supporting the victims, mediating between neighbours, starting new peace groups. About 1000 people have met on neutral ground in Mohacs.

- Another programme is going on in Pakrac (West Slavonia) with the task to assist the return of refugees who formerly lived in two streets of Pakrac where Serbs and Croatians fought each other.

- "Offering hands" is the name of a new women's group supporting the peace process in Eastern Slavonia, which gathers 32 refugee women from Osijek and 10 participants from the new Association for Peace and Human Rights in Darda, Baranja. The project is a direct support to the Dayton programme of displaced and refugees visiting places where they lived before and want to return to, and it is organised by the UNTAES. The aims are to reduce fear and mistrust and open possibilities for further cooperation The idea is also to extend women s experiences from their families into their community and the wider society.

We realised that after the war, women appeared as mediators in building peace and nonviolent relationhips and they will have an important role in the future. That is why the Centre for Peace started women's projects to form women s leadership which would have an impact on public policy.

- A very new project "Building Nonviolent Democratic Society in Eastern Slavonia" is about to finish its plan and curriculum and will be started next year, during the transitional period of the UN presence, and should continue for a minimum of five years.

The Centre for Peace Long Term Program

Our long term program has two main goals:

- establishing the local peace structure for the building of a democratic society from the grassroots upwards

- opening the process of reconciliation

This process should be initiated through opening communication and working on existing conflicts between two ethnic groups. It should include dealing with the past and reconciliation of the future - which means building the vision of a common future.

20 teams settled locally in the field will involve local people interested in working on that task. One Bosnian volunteer will be included in a team for preparation for future work in Bosnia. The teams will be trained in communication skills and conflict resolution and their work in the field will be supported by international volunteers, networking and coordination, by an evaluation/research team, a supervision team, a team for oral history and the Resource Centre for Education and Development.

The working process will be followed by research and scientific publications, and by an independent local newspaper and radio program.

During the first phase, the opening up of communication between Croatian and Serbian people living in one local community will be facilitated by a listening program, recording and meeting the basic needs, feelings and understanding. Active listening would be used for opening public discussion. Persons would have a chance to be interviewed and heard about their personal histories and war experiences, something we see as a way of preventing an escalation of the conflict in the future. This is the way of healing supressed negative feelings and thoughts as well as empowering people to find out common needs and interests for further common living and working. Social development would take place according to the vision of building a new society based on an active, inclusive and cooperative approach.

For the restoration of the basic feeling of security, dignity and reconcilitaion a local peace structure, built from below, is necessary.




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Epost: tulle.elster@peacelink.nu