Meet Slobodan Blagovčanin, the man who chose to stay in Bosnia and embrace all the challenges it presents. He currently serves as a project manager and public relations officer at the Youth Resource Center in Tuzla. He grew up in Bijeljina, where he recalls his early involvement with the “Lara” foundation, a decision he made partly in jest and curiosity. There, he had the opportunity to interact with young people from different schools and backgrounds, all united by a common goal: socially responsible work and contribution.
Towards the end of high school, a chance encounter led him down an irreversible path: complete dedication to activism. He and his friends visited the Helsinki Committee, intending to attend a meeting, but Slobodan ended up becoming a part of the youth group. This opened up new opportunities and possibilities for him. And all of that make him our BTS star this week, as a young and dedicated professional from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Outside the “bubble”
“When it was time for college, I chose Tuzla to study psychology. It wasn’t a popular choice for young people from Bijeljina. They usually go to Belgrade, Novi Sad, or Pale. But my decision was based on my involvement with the Helsinki youth group and the OIA project, which is now known as the MOP (Training and Practice Program). It’s a fantastic program that I will remember for a lifetime. It provided me with the opportunity to work with other high schools and become certified,” Slobodan explains about the beginnings of his activism.
Over time, working in the non-governmental sector can often lead people to create a “bubble” of like-minded individuals and build their perception of society based on the safety zone of enlightened people. Slobodan, however, believes that isolating oneself within such a bubble is a mistake. He is convinced that it is essential to engage with those who do not share our opinions.
“In our society, it’s crucial to confront those who have different views. I never wanted to remain solely within my NGO bubble. Even today, I socialize with people I used to know. However, they now understand that when I’m around, we might address topics they wouldn’t usually discuss. On a daily basis, you will encounter people who think differently, and that’s inevitable if you work for society.”
Slobodan adds that it’s necessary to realize that we live in a society that sometimes resists development, information, and critical thinking. However, those who have traveled across the entire Balkans often have entirely different perspectives on war compared to those who remain isolated in their mountains and valleys.
Facing the past for the future
Facing the past is a crucial topic for both society as a whole and young people. The question is not just about acknowledging the past but how we approach it. Regarding the responsibility and role of young people in the reconciliation process, Slobodan emphasizes the importance of recalling UN Resolution 2250, which ensures the involvement of young people in all peace-building processes.
“This resolution was adopted a few years ago, and I see it as an election. It’s our duty as young people to address these unfortunate issues. In such a fragile society, we must realize that we no longer want war and understand what war truly is. When we achieve that, I believe we will all work towards maintaining lasting peace.”
Activism has helped Slobodan gain multiple perspectives on the events of the 1990s. However, he fears that few families in Bosnia and Herzegovina discuss topics like Srebrenica, Ahmići, and Kazani without delving into who is right – Serbian history, Croatian history, or Bosniak history.
In addition to families, teachers also bear a significant responsibility, but, unfortunately, many of them do not fully grasp their role. Slobodan emphasizes that it’s important not only to establish an official history but also to ensure that civil victims are not forgotten. Every person should have an interest in living in peace and preventing the tragedies that befell their ancestors.
Conformity is a crime
In Slobodan’s case, formal education was not suited to his needs. He notes the significant difference between the non-governmental sector and formal education, with the latter often refusing to evolve and keep up with trends.
“We are still living with a socialist education system where conformity was logical. Today, in my opinion, conformity is a crime. Any teacher who suppresses the creativity of students does not deserve the title. To be honest, there are more than half of such teachers in elementary and high schools and even at the university. Our students continue to learn until the 1990s, and beyond that, there’s no discussion of the Yugoslav wars. As things stand now, I wouldn’t want to see it happen because when children start coming out with three completely different opinions about the same event, it will be even more challenging to build their common future,” Slobodan conveys.
Concerning peace-building and the common future, young people often ask, “Whom are we reconciling? Those of us who were born during or after the war? We didn’t participate.” Slobodan believes they are right to ask these questions, but it doesn’t mean they should not act in the roles assigned to them. Achieving a solution requires a systematic approach, but Slobodan worries about how little effort is made within the educational system to address these issues.
“The education system doesn’t prevent fascism in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sometimes it seems to even encourage it in certain situations.”
To combat violence and extremism on social media, Slobodan, through Citizens against Terrorism (CAT), came up with a way to influence young people.
“We’re aware that young people spend most of their free time on social media, unfortunately. I agree that social media are an integral part of all our lives, but sometimes we spend too much free time there. We conducted several surveys and then decided to reach them through social media. We want to show them successful examples of young people and make them realize that things can be done differently.”
Later, they expanded their activities to different groups of citizens, regardless of age, to demonstrate that there are young people developing applications, leading activist projects, and doing meaningful work. CAT operates both online and through various on-ground activities, especially in cities where research has indicated a risk of youth radicalization.
Desire to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Despite the increasing emigration of young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slobodan believes that money is available everywhere, but they need to accept that they are the instruments of change.
“However, money shouldn’t be our ultimate ambition and goal. Despite the daily economic frustrations, the economic situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina should not be the trigger for leaving. I still stand by my desire to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This society has given me a lot.”
If he were to accept an offer in his field that would take him outside the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he insists that it must be directly related to Bosnia and the Western Balkans.
He doesn’t blame those who have left; he understands them. And sometimes, he wonders how he will view staying in Bosnia when he becomes a parent.
“Sometimes I think it might be selfish of me to want to stay in Bosnia because at some point, I don’t know if I can force my child to breathe this air. How acceptable is it for me to leave my child in such a polluted city, in an education system I know is flawed, in a society that can sometimes be highly nationalist and fascist. And recently, there’s a serious problem with racism, which I never believed could happen to us,” Slobodan concludes.
If he ever departs, he would go to Brussels, The Hague, or any city working on issues related to Bosnia and the Western European region. In his unique style, he delivers a message that one is more than zero. The interpretation of his message is left to all of us, whether we choose to stay or leave.