In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), many towns and cities remain ethnically segregated and schools teach vastly different narratives about Bosnia’s 1992-95 war. Mainstream media in BiH is highly polarized along ethnic and political lines and often serves to exacerbate already existing ethnic divisions. Youth, in particular, are saturated with polarizing and provocative messages and are minimally exposed to progressive ideas that could broaden their views to the possibility of accepting an integrated BiH. There is a deficit of positive stories about inter-ethnic cooperation and social change—an issue that is reflected in what shows up in young people’s social media feeds.
The Sarajevo-based Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) aims to combat these problems by injecting some positive messaging for young people to encounter as they scroll through their feeds. PCRC has been working on peace education and genocide prevention since 2010. One of its core programs is the Ordinary Heroes Peacebuilding Program, a series of reconciliation-focused, educational, and creative multimedia activities implemented in towns and cities throughout BiH and the Western Balkans. A central component of the program is the “Ordinary Heroes” documentary series, which depicts real-life stories of Bosnian citizens who risked their lives to rescue ‘the other’ during the 1992-95 war.
For the Resonant Voices project, PCRC has combined the concept of its Ordinary Heroes program with another one of its flagship initiatives, the documentary Uspomene 677, which follows three concentration camp survivors and three teenagers from each of Bosnia’s constituent ethnic communities as they try to come to terms with the consequences of the 1992-95 war.
“We are trying to teach young people that they can be agents of change in their communities,” explains Samantha Owens, who is coordinating the project for PCRC. “That’s why we are collecting not only stories of people who exhibited moral courage and heroism during the war, but also those who display moral courage in their everyday lives. We do this in an effort to send the message that you don’t have to be extraordinary to do something great.”
The campaign videos have been designed for dissemination on social media and the PCRC team is conducting focus groups to test its messaging and to examine what most resonates with young viewers.
“This is still much research to be done in this emergent field, so PCRC has been doing A/B testing to see which variants resonate more,” explains Owens. “Everything is a work in progress, because as an academic field of study, the counter narrative field is new and a lot has yet to be discovered. ”The first prototypes are geared towards Bosnian Croat youth, the smallest of the three predominant ethno-national groups in BiH.
“The challenge is to create a narrative that will resonate with members of one ethnic group without alienating members of others,” says Owens. “We are trying to create messaging that is tailored enough so that it will resonate, but not so tailored that it will be ignored by members of other ethnic groups.”
Once the first prototypes are tested, PCRC will create a host of other short videos geared towards other ethnic groups. “The most important thing is to remain positive without being inauthentic,” Owens elaborates.
“No finger pointing, no mentioning of the divisive narratives that are so present in the region. We want to focus on celebrating the good rather than directly condemning the bad.”
The team is also trying to tie the videos into what is currently going on in Bosnia, such as a recent protest movement organized by young people in the ethnically mixed city of Jajce to resist the creation of a segregated school.
In the design and concept stage of the project, Owens says the in-person mentorships and trainings provided as part of the Resonant Voices Initiative have been a tremendous asset. “The biggest assistance as part of that process was thinking through the theory of change,” she says. “We spent a lot of time asking ourselves what we want to accomplish and on designing an approach to effect that change.”
This video project will provide a natural way to share the content PCRC has collected and archived in partnership with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, including survivor testimonies. The organization is also currently working with the International Organization for Migration on an initiative to counter dangerous messages online.
The #OrdinaryHeroes campaign by the Post-Conflict Research Center received seed funding and mentoring support from the Resonant Voices Initiative