Reconciliation Through Education in Eastern Europe

Interview With Ivan and Mirela Cigic

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SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina, OCT. 18, 2010 ( An education program sponsored by the Catholic Church in Bosnia and Herzegovina is contributing to the reconciliation effort and building interreligious relations.

In this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Ivan and Mirela Cigic, Catholic journalists and film directors, spoke about the Schools for Europe Program, which is peacefully bringing together Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim students.

The couple explained how this initiative has been key for building a future in a country that recently passed through the Bosnian War.

Q: Ivan, you both experienced the war; you lived through the war. How was this for you?

Ivan: Actually, I just had graduated from the university. I was coming home to find a job and maybe three months later the war started.

The shock is not easy to describe. I was in bed and it was 6:00 in the morning when I heard the anti-aircraft shooting at the incoming planes. On this day six people from my town died in five minutes, and four of them were not even twenty years old.

The second shock was to see all these refugees coming from the Mostar area, some of them were in their 80s, who had never left their villages before. You could see in their eyes the confusion and shock; they could not understand what was happening.

The medical teams were attending to their wounds, but you could see the shock and they were in a daze. I could not understand why this was necessary.<br>
Q: What was the worst experience for you, Mirela?

Mirela: The worst for me was when we had to leave the house.

I have seen refugees before and felt sorry for them, but somehow I believed this would never happen to me. I felt it would not last very long and we would survive, but when the bus came to pick up the women and children and they forced us to leave our houses, it was the worst. I did not want to leave my father and my brother.

They said that they had found accommodation at hotels on the Adriatic coast and that it would be fine. We were then forced to leave.

To me the worst experience was to be a refugee and forced to line up for flour, oil and rice. It was humiliating and degrading. I was young enough to work and I wanted to be active and to do something and felt that I did not want anyone feeling sorry for us. I wanted to do something.

Q: How are the relations between people now, more than ten years after the end of the war?

Ivan: It is hard to say. There is definitely some mistrust, but I can assure you that there is also goodwill among all.

I do not think that anyone who has experienced war even for one day would like to experience it again, no matter which side, and I am certain that my generation will not have another one. There is, however, mistrust.

There is always that fear that if it has happened once it can happen the second time.

I learned that there is a thin line between war and peace. I thought that it would never happen yet I lived and experienced it so there is this fear that it can happen again and yet there is this hope and goodwill among the people that it will not happen again.

Q: What is about the situation of the Catholics in your country?

Ivan: What we are trying now and for almost ten years now is to establish a kind of mechanism to prevent the domination of one particular group, which has not worked so far.

Being Croatian and Catholic in Bosnia and Herzegovina is difficult at the moment because we are a minority, although there are certain regions where the majorities are Catholics. There is so little space here and in 80% of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian Catholics became a minority because of the war and ethnic cleansing and we are desperately pleading for some form of protection from domination.

Q: What is your fear for the country?

Mirela: My fear and disappointment is towards the European Union and their activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their speeches are full of a multi-ethnic promises but whenever Croatian Catholics plead for the reconstruction of their churches and villages, they do not get it. We do not understand what the problem is. And by this we fear for the future.

We are about 450,000 remaining Catholics and every year we are losing our people so in ten years who will remain?

If the people have no jobs, no possibility to practice their religion, and no possibility to educate their children in their own language then there is no reason for them to stay. We can ask for more sacrifices, but for how long?

Q: Can you say in a few words what the School for Europe Project is and why is it important?

Mirela: It is a light in the dark in Bosnia. Schools for Europe is an important project because it gives people, mainly Catholics who still remain in Central Bosnia and Northern Bosnia, a reason to remain and be educated there.

There was pressure on the Catholic Church from the minority Catholic population to do something otherwise they, particularly the young, were leaving.

The young suffered during the war and after ten years nothing has changed economically. There was no war but there was no peace either. So people were getting tired and wanted to find a better future somewhere else.

Q: Can you tell us more about the beginning of this project?

Ivan: The parents thought that a school in their own language — Croatian — would be the only chance and the reason for them to stay.

The first project for the schools happened and opened in Sarajevo. The war was still going on. The city was being shelled daily and — Bishop Pero Sudar was telling us the story about the first meeting with the parents regarding this project — there was heavy shelling and the bishop thought that no one would show up because it was impossible to leave the shelters. He was thinking that the people would wait for him in the corridor and was only expecting a few couples.

When he arrived there and saw an empty corridor he said: «The project is over.» Then one Franciscan sister approached him and said: «The parents are waiting for you.»

The bishop answered: «Where are they?» «They are in the sports hall.» «Why there?» «Because there are more than 500 parents there.»

So under heavy shelling 500 parents came to ensure that would be some kind of future for their children. So this was the first sign that this project should be supported.

Q: So the School for Europe Project is essential?

Mirela: At that time no one would believe that these schools would mean life not just for Croats and their children but also others.

These schools very soon became the very best schools in the state and even Orthodox and Muslim children soon attended these schools; they did not attend the religious classes but they attended the other subjects because their parents wanted the very best education for their children. So it is really an incredible project and it means a lot to people there.

Q: How many schools are there now?

Ivan: Now, I think there are schools in Sarajevo, Zenitza, and Tuzla. There was a school in Konitz, a small city close to Mostar, but due to the massive migration from the city, the school was closed.

Imagine before the war there were 7000 Croat families, but now there are not even two children. This is an illustration of the problem we are talking about. At the moment, I think they are preparing a new school in Bihac. So in total there are five schools.

Q: You are parents yourselves. Are signs like this symbol of hope that would help you stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Mirela: This is a difficult question. We, as any parents always look to ensure the best possible life for our own kids, but so far we are hopeful.

But you know, when you experience war once, you as a parent with ch
ildren, you always have that fear. Is it good to stay or is it is better to go to a country where things are better and where conflicts are not likely to happen? This is a constant thought because of our children; on our own we would survive and manage.

Q: What is your appeal to the international community?

Ivan: We are happy. God helped us; God protected us at that particular moment, but this is, perhaps, a call to the international community to think one more time about the pressures upon us to assimilate and not to push us out of our country, because in the current political thought that guides the international community, the Croat Catholics do not feel welcome on their own soil.

Q: Because of religion?

Ivan: We have experience working with the international community here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and every time someone mentions religion, of whatever persuasion — Catholic, Orthodox or Islam and the practice thereof, the members of the international community are so afraid about the mention of religious freedom to practice one’s faith.

I have the impression that they would prefer us not to practice any religion, as if religion was the cause of this war. I feel that if you are a good believer — Catholic, Orthodox or Islam — you will never start a war.

I think they should encourage us to practice our faith and find a common ground to live in harmony and not to blame religion as the cause of this war.

Q: So, it wasn’t religion that divided you in the past?

Mirela: The easiest way to explain the war is to blame religion, but in reality it was economics.

We are a people who are able to live together. We — Catholics, Orthodox, or Islam — have lived together for centuries.

We can live together again despite the conflict. We have friends amongst the Orthodox or Muslims and among Serbs. There is of course fear, but we are able to overcome it and are able to build our future together.

We just plead to the international community who are helping us to be constructive and not blame religion as the cause of this conflict because religion was never the cause.

If you establish a constitution and a law that protects human rights, freedom of religion and minority rights, then there won’t be that fear, but that has not been clearly established yet.

* * *

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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