A safe space for children to become themselves
A house for school-age children in Srebrenica provides hope in a town forever scarred by the cloud of genocide
There are few opportunities for young people in Srebrenica, a sleepy mountain town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. Once a popular tourist destination famous for its mineral water spas, now this region is forever scarred by the Bosnian war of the 1990s, and the events of July 1995 in particular, when over just a few days 8,000 Bosniak Muslims were systematically murdered by Bosnian Serb forces in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.
The Srebrenica Genocide Memorial of Potočari, a ten-minute drive from the town, is a permanent reminder of those terrible days. Located in a former battery factory, that in 1995 contained the barracks of the Dutch UN peacekeepers, this is the place where hundreds of Bosniaks had fled to safety and where the genocide began. There is now a memorial museum inside the still dilapidated buildings. Its 30-minute film makes for difficult viewing.
Opposite on a grassy hill stands a graveyard with thousands of white slim pointed gravestones arranged in a flower shape around an outdoor mosque. It is the names and dates of births of the victims etched into the white semi-circular rock at the centre of this graveyard that tell the most gruesome tale. Line after line of repeated surnames. Sons, fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers. All of them wiped out in a carnage sparked by extremist unchecked nationalism.
The cloud of genocide
Nearly thirty years on, the genocide still casts a constant shadow over Srebrenica and its surrounding villages, and with Bosnian Serb nationalism once more on the rise, life is not easy in this town with its mixed Muslim and Serb population. There is little employment in the town and virtually no entertainment. Even bars close at 5pm, and by night-time it is the street dogs that roam the town.
There are few outlets for school-going children, who are daily immersed in the ethnic politics of a highly politicised educational system, which separates children according to their ethnicity from the sixth grade onwards for geography, history and religion classes, the ethnic politics of their surroundings, their families, and an increasingly nationalistic antagonistic media.
A House that is an alternative to nationalistic discourse
There is one place in Srebrenica that plays by different rules and is offering an alternative to this nationalistic discourse. The “House of Good Tones” was founded in 2011, with the assistance of the Bauern Helfen Bauern/BHB Foundation of Salzburg with a mission to provide artistic, cultural, training and entertainment programmes for local children within a multi-ethnic environment. Unlike many of the other goodwill projects that mushroomed in this region after the genocide and have since faded away, the House is still going strong and to date, over 2,000 children have passed through its doors.
Located in a large building over three floors in the town centre, the house has been lovingly renovated by its staff; its walls are covered with the photographs of happy smiling children. Open every day during the week, this is a safe space for children from Srebrenica and the surrounding area to come together and hang out, play instruments, browse books in the library or use the multi-media centre, or just play on the house’s play station.
Children between the ages of six and 18 can attend the house’s after-school programmes in music, community engagement, lifestyle, volunteerism, film and literature, all provided at zero cost to families. All the house asks of parents is that they help out from time to time. Staff also provide vehicles to transport children from more remote villages to and from the house. There are also a couple of small dormitories where groups of children can sleep over, and there is an eating area.
‘You can just be yourself’
Hilda Ðozić, the House’s Office Manager, relates before coming to the house, many of the house’s children, particularly those from more rural mono-ethnical villages, have barely met children from the other ethnic group. Their attendance at the house is life-changing for these children. “They play together, make music together and do projects together. They learn that it does not matter if you are a Muslim or a Serb. You can just be yourself. You can be friends with anyone. Your religion is of no consequence,” she says.
Music has been central to the House’s work since the onset, and there are instruments in almost every room: pianos, violins, guitars, even a full drum kit set up in the large attic space. The house has a choir, “Superar Srebrenica”, dancing and instrumental groups, and provides private and group music classes and the choir does regular performances nationally and abroad. “Music has no words. It is about positive things. It is a universal language for children,” says Hilda
Civic activist programme funded by EED
Over the years, the House of Tones has expanded its initial mainly musically focused curriculum to include more civic activist activities, thanks initially to an EED grant to encourage grant.
Children are encouraged to be proud of their town and to be proactive in improving their local environment. They have taken part in ecological actions, recently cleaning up local forest walks. They collect old clothes for donation. They help older people who live alone, clearing driveways of snow, helping with shopping, and keeping them company. Children can also attend workshops on media literacy and critical thinking. The house encourages peer-to-peer mentorship, with older children helping younger ones. One of the school’s current music teachers is a former student.
The house has also run healthy-eating programmes for parents and children, as part of its mission to improve the overall health of the town’s population.
The house’s staff believe that their role is to open the children’s minds to new ideas and to teach them to think for themselves. “We give them the space to be themselves. We help them to gain confidence in their own opinions and to be able to express these opinions. Once they know themselves, they are better armed to think about how they can act within our society,” says Hilda.
She explains that the inter-ethnic friendships formed through the house’s programmes often become life-long friendships. She sees these children as the best hope for Srebrenica and for the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina as its builds its future. “If we can change how children think, then we can change all of society,” she says.
This article reflects the views of the grantees featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the EED.