Amra Pandžo


Exploring the Bosnian Spirit of Nonviolent Coexistence Through Oral Histories


Background and importance

These days, most people know about Bosnia-Herzegovina because of our recent war (1992-1995). Journalists and historians often described the war as a result of ‘ancient’ animosity between ethnic groups as if killing and violence is inevitable for people in our region of the world. While our history does show a disturbing frequency of war – World Wars One and Two and the last war, all during the twentieth century – this picture is too simplistic. To those especially who know Bosnia-Herzegovina personally, there is a historic and passionate interplay between violent or competitive responses to conflict and more cooperative interactions and intentional relationality sometimes called the ‘Bosnian spirit.’ The Bosnian spirit is a characteristic and dynamic ethos in Bosnia-Herzegovina of suživot (life together or living side by side) or shared ethno-religious identity, characterized by, for example, the concept of komšiluk or neighborliness. It has traditionally fostered not only coexistence, but also a sense that life is only truly whole/complete when it includes ethno-religious others. However, this history of coexistence has evolved through the changing cultural and political climates, keeping some elements, revising others with evolving circumstances such as the Ottoman millet system, which provided some degree of collective political autonomy, the ethnically constructed violence of twentieth century wars, or the unified sense of Yugoslav identity under Tito’s socialism.

Despite violence, the legacy of Bosnian spirit is still known. If we think of peace in a positive sense, as a feeling of completeness, this means that living together is key for a sustainable peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to those with this Bosnian spirit. This spirit is a tradition unique to Bosnia-Herzegovina (as compared with other former Yugoslav states) that evolved as a legacy of its history, religion and mix of cultures – there is no majority group in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as there are in the other former Yugoslav states. As such, the sense of sharing, even some sort of synergy, is present in this Bosnian spirit, which is generally perceived as a positive aspect of social and interpersonal life. Research has produced a solid body of scholarship on the matter – philosophical (Mahmut?ehaji? 1994, 2000), psychological (Weine 1999), anthropological (Bringa 1995, Sorabji 2006, 2008, Ma?ek 2009 and Kolind 2008), historical (Banac 2000, Donia and Fine 1994), political scientific and conflict studies (Armakolas 2011, Bougarel 2007, Bougarel, Helms and Duizings 2007) – but there is a very limited scope of studies of this spirit or essence of mutual recognition, respect and cooperation in the postwar period. This project (oral history data collection as proposed to IPRA Foundation and in the bigger project) seeks to remedy that lacuna.

Of course, this Bosnian spirit has been challenged by the recent war’s alternative rhetoric and action to separate ethno-religious (or national) groups, ‘purify’ spaces via ethnic cleansing, and generally see ethnic ‘others’ as a threat to ‘our’ group. While there is no doubt this latter narrative has played a very strong and traumatic role in Bosnian life in the last twenty years, it is seen by residents in contrast with what they remember (pre-war) or still embrace as their tradition of tolerance and diversity. The war and the nationalist movements are each viewed, in this vein, as a betrayal of Bosnia’s spirit (Mahmut?ehaji? 1994, 2000). Despite nationalist politics and the current segregation of society, the sense of Bosnian spirit remains, though perhaps viewed with more skepticism given the recent past. What will become of this spirit? Will it die out as a lost tradition or will it continue to evolve with changing currents, to be revised in the postwar context as an inherent element of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s social and cultural life? This project works from the assumption that the Bosnian spirit will be re-envisioned as an indigenous, dynamic culture of peace that stands in contrast and even balance against extremism, divisions and segregation that remain after this latest war. In the postwar setting, it must be consciously chosen and owned. As such, it is a messenger of hope and true potential for reconciliation in the broadest and deepest sense of that word. And this is not only important for BiH, but for other multiethnic societies, which can learn from this ethos or model.

What are the roots of the phenomenon of Bosnian spirit?

Contemporary societies contain many different ethno-nationalities – people who live together in the same towns, cities and neighbourhoods. Due to globalization, the way people co-exist today is very similiar in London, Brussels, Paris, etc. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, different nationalities have lived together for centuries and have established a specific model of co-existence which is, in a way, archaic (it can be very religious and conservative), but also inclusive and tolerant at the same time. This model of and orientation towards co-existence in Bosnia and Herzegovina is called the ‘Bosnian spirit’.

Bosnian spirit is historically traceable: each period and set of influences contributed. Itself, the place where East and West were integrated, the medieval kingdom of BiH sustained three religious communities (Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and the indigenous Bosnian Church) living side by side despite the medieval principle of one religion for each territory ruled (cuius regio ilius religio). The Ottoman Empire brought about the particular Balkan Islamic multi-ethnic environment and communitarian millet system, establishing mutual respect across groups via political representation and separate family law for each religious community, as well as establishing multiethnic cities filled with non-Muslim immigrants. As such, the ethnic communities remained distinct while living cooperatively but separately. Later, the Austro-Hungarians not only protected BiH’s minority Muslims, but also assisted their integration into European society and formation of an indigenous European Muslim identity by founding its institutional representation: ‘Rijaset’ – the Islamic Community of BiH.

Tito’s socialism significantly transformed this spirit through the policy of ‘brotherhood and unity,’ which brought a new and positive dimension to the old pattern of (communitarian) coexistence in BiH. During this time, many and hybrid identities could mix and flourish, fostering interethnic cooperation and interaction: for example, ethnically-mixed marriages became acceptable and commonplace. BiH developed strong social cohesion during these years and was commonly recognized as the paradigm of Yugoslavia and a super-ethnic yugoslavism, especially in the capital of Sarajevo.

In this context, the recent war in BiH (like the two previous world wars) and the success of ethnic cleansing struck a severe blow to the historic development of ethnic interaction and the existent social capital. The war itself denied and sought to destroy the culturally rich fabric and general spirit of goodwill in BiH by insisting on black and white categories, fear, and ‘purifying’ territories of the threatening ‘others.’ While there is no doubt that the war and this narrative have played a very strong and traumatic role in Bosnian life in the last twenty years, it is seen by many residents in contrast with what they remember (pre-war) or still embrace as their tradition of tolerance and diversity. Today, most young people have minimal exposure to ‘others’ and little sense of ‘active coexistence’ where neighbours of different religions and ethnicities experientially know each others’ cultures, holidays, traditions, and ways of living. Therefore, war and the nationalist movements are each viewed, in this vein, as a betrayal of BiH’s spirit.  Despite nationalist politics and the current segregation of society, the sense of Bosnian spirit remains in some pockets, but it is definitely viewed with more skepticism given the recent past. That spirit has been blamed for increased victimization during the war – the one who hesitated to shoot the ‘other’ (out of compassion or a personal sense of responsibility) would himself be shot first. This project seeks to consider this social dilemma and the possible steps forward into a more peaceful future. The link between Bosnian spirit and an ideological nation-building Bosniak project – instrumentalizing Bosnian spirit as the historic character of the Bosniak Muslims – also produces skeptics.

These days, Bosnian spirit is obvious to many external observers and researchers but many residents of Bosnia-Herzegovina say that it is disappearing. It is the same with the ‘Bosnian state’. There are so many intentions to destroy it but simultaneously, it continues to exist. Consequently, the central question for this research is whether the Bosnian spirit could be the formula or recipe for its future. On the one hand, the research seeks to uncover the ingredients of this recipe, tracing its transformation through history, its (implicit) conceptualizations and lived behaviors like komšiluk and mutual respect. On the other hand, it recognizes the alchemical character of Bosnian spirit – that a combination of ingredients is a necessary but insufficient for creating Bosnian spirit in the hearts, minds, and behavior of people in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


The goal of this project is to gather data via oral histories about the Bosnian spirit that will be the basis of a larger project using positive (appreciative inquiry) approaches for fostering a culture of peace in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. It seeks to recognize an indigenous culture of peace even after the devastation of the recent war, and to empower this culture of peace through acknowledgement, further research, and local ownership. Today, the Bosnian spirit is in danger of being lost due to mistrust, trauma and extreme skepticism – because trusting the ‘other’ led to greater victimization in the war – and a new sense of defensiveness and protectionism.

This research will consequently use oral history methods to: (1) build appreciation for the little-known Bosnian spirit which is in danger of vanishing due to postwar skepticism and ‘realism’ about possible relations between alienated ethnic groups; (2) witness to the historical presence of this spirit which goes unnoticed in more traditional research; (3) remove polarized images of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ versus narratives with rose-colored glasses about previous life in Yugoslavia; and (4) “recover and preserve important aspects of a human experience that would otherwise go undocumented,” (Texas Historical Committee) in this case, a key foundation of a multiethnic and multireligious society that was lost due to fear, extreme nationalism, war profiteering and ethnic cleansing.

Some of the answers sought in the oral history-telling:

– what is this Bosnian spirit (how is it defined by residents of BiH) and why is it crucial for the continuance of the Bosnian state?

– What are the roots of this spirit (how was it created)? Was it in Islam’s unique appearance in the Balkans or in Socialism’s ethos of brotherhood and unity?

– how is it passed from generation to generation and how can it be maintained in these new circumstances?

– what are the challenges to keeping this spirit alive today, in the changed, postwar situation of BiH?

– what is the role of fear and victimization in blocking this Bosnian spirit?

Research Strategy

The strategy of this project is to survey 40-60 people about Bosnian spirit – to see the general associations and sense of how this concept is maintained and/rejected today in Bosnia-Herzegovina, postwar. Following this, the research will compose interviews of twenty of those surveyed. The form will be semi-structured interviews in person and/or over the telephone. It will probe for stories illustrating personal experiences of Bosnian spirit, such as ‘living side by side’, mutual recognition, the richness of sharing others’ traditions (e.g. religious holidays), and the importance of merhamet (compassion) and komsiluk (neighborly relations). There is special interest in the role of Islamic faith in Bosnia-Herzegovina, because of its clear ties to Bosnian spirit. This highlighting of Islam is to enhance its local peacebuilding capacity as well as be a model for other contexts globally.

The survey and interviews will address people of various ages (especially youth aged 20-30 and elders) and ethno-religious groups (Bosniak Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats, but also atheists) in Bosnia-Herzegovina and of course maintain gender equality. For the sake of efficiency, interviewees will be people who have expressed their own concern for and commitment to peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina. My own network of peacebuilders and academic contacts will provide me with broad resources. The qualitative data collected will, in the continuation of the larger project, be presented and discussed in an advisory group made up of local peace scholars and activists, in order to create a training model (an element of the bigger research project, see below) to foster Bosnian spirit for the future of a multiethnic and multireligious society.

My plans for this research topic is a larger project, in association with, among others, The Center for Southeastern European Studies (University of Graz) and the Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies (University of Sarajevo). However, in order to apply for larger research grants, it is imperative that I gather this preliminary research to demonstrate the presence of this peace culture and its potential for future peace action in Bosnia-Herzegovina and, ideally, beyond. As such, this pilot research project will empower me to pursue deeper research that can be applied to activism and policy-making in my country for the long-term.


• Create questionnaire and conduct oral history survey (January–March 2012)

• Conduct oral history interviews (March-May 2012)

• Transcribe interviews (June-July 2012)

• Analyze research results in consultation with partners/advisors (August 2012)

• Write report (September–October 2012)

• Present report for ministries and the public (November–December 2012)

This project is motivated by and interested in digging deeply into the indigenous historic cultural, social and religious foundations of peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It fills a large gap in research. Not only do researchers on Bosnia-Herzegovina tend to focus on the negative situation today – the problems that remain in the political, social and legal systems – they also overlook the dynamic legacy of connectedness and inter-ethnic life side by side that is so particular to this country as a result of its history and evolution. Visitors comment upon it frequently and yet it is not studied currently, acknowledged or tapped for peacebuilding activity. While there is a literature of this ethos from before and even during the war, since this is an evolving socio-cultural element, research is currently needed to discover the postwar reality. As a consequence, this research will be the foundation for a greater project that recognizes, engages and seeks to nourish this Bosnian spirit in the changed environment of postwar alienation (physical segregation and emotional/psychic estrangement). It is clear that this Bosnian spirit concretely fosters peace, as improved relations, and therefore should be encouraged.
However, the recent war provides this otherwise clear ‘good’ with a very real and important challenge that this research will also consider. The orientation of Bosnian spirit – to show mercy (merhamet) and act decently (according to the unwritten rules of neighborly conduct) – opens a door to victimization, as was seen in the recent war. This project wishes to explore this relationship of Bosnian spirit to peace and violence and consider how it can be re-envisioned or reborn in this postwar era.

Amra Pandžo 6 month project report on Small Peace Research Grant

Exploring the Bosnian spirit of nonviolent coexistence through oral histories

The project began in March, upon receipt of funds from IPRA Foundation. Accordingly our project timeline moved forward two months. We created our survey questionnaire in March, seeking and receiving feedback from our advisory board about the questions. In April and May we distributed hardcopy the questionnaire in Mostar, Livno, Bijelina, Tuzla and Banja Luka via NGO partners in those locations, as well as some in Sarajevo. Surprisingly to us, we had great difficulty in retrieving completed questionnaires. We have been told that it is a very difficult set of questions and we interpret this to mean (1) they are not simple, multiple choice options, (2) the questions deal with somewhat abstract issues  and, perhaps most importantly (3), the idea of Bosnian Spirit (or ‘active suzivot’, as we have come to call it), is not in the public debate and therefore requires new reflection. For this reason, the questionnaire has required more time than expected. After the initial widespread distribution and relative failure to gather responses, we took a second approach to solicitation in June, July, and August: using more of our own personal contacts and asking them to ask their contacts as well. In this way, we were more closely tied to the distribution and able to use our personal relationships with these contacts as incentive to get answers. This has resulted in 40 completed questionnaires to date (after distributing perhaps 120), almost all of which have been translated during this last month from Bosnian to English for the sake of my research partner.

A new, promising development supporting this research project not previously included on our timeline, is the acceptance of two articles to be written about the data gathered and analysed from this research. The first will use the questionnaire data for a paper (“Peace as Suživot? Legacy, Loss and a Look towards the Future”) at the conference “Constitutions of Peace” within the panel “Peace between people: conceptions and practices of peace Bosnia and Herzegovina two decades after war” to take place in Marburg, Germany, in October. There my research partner will present our results. Secondly, she and I are writing a chapter focusing our the women of this research, entitled “Women in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the spirit of suzivot” for a volume of essays entitled Spirituality of Balkan Women. These two outputs of scholarship support the research by analysing and reporting on the questionnaire findings and getting feedback even before conducting oral histories.

The later, oral histories, will be conducted and transcribed from mid-October through the end of the year. In January and February 2013 we will analyze both the research results in consultation with partners/advisors and write a further report for wider distribution here in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Amra Pandzo CV

The Foundation acknowledges that Amra Pandzo has successfully completed her project.