"What was war childhood for you?": with different objects and workshops, a Bosnian museum teaches children the power of peace - RED/ACCIÓN

"What was war childhood for you?": with different objects and workshops, a Bosnian museum teaches children the power of peace

 Una iniciativa de Dircoms + RED/ACCION

The War Childhood Museum reflects, through memorabilia such as letters or toys, the stories of children impacted by war. It also organizes workshops to reflect on the importance of empathy and the peaceful resolution of armed conflicts. In 2022, 4,500 children mainly from Bosnia, but also from Montenegro, Serbia and Sweden participated in more than 300 workshops.

"What was war childhood for you?": with different objects and workshops, a Bosnian museum teaches children the power of peace

Intervened by Marisol Echarri.

Jasminko Halilović was born in 1988 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, although at the time it was the territory of the Republic of Yugoslavia (what we know today as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo). When he was four years old, the Yugoslav Wars began, these were a series of armed conflicts between the different regions seeking independence from the larger country. Specifically, in the Bosnian War, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, who wanted independence, clashed with Bosnian Serbs who wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia. The conflict took place between 1992 and 1995 and left more than 100,000 deaths and two million people displaced.

Sarajevo was besieged by Bosnian Serbs who surrounded civilians to make the authorities give in to their demands. After four years, they withdrew in 1996. To this day, it is the longest siege of a city in modern history.

From a small question to a big book

After finishing high school, Halilović studied Finance and founded different companies. He always thought about doing something about the war that had marked thousands of childhoods of his generation, including his own. Therefore, he chose to write a book about different experiences through the concept of short memoirs. "I created a web page with the question: 'What does war childhood mean to you?' and limited the answers to 160 characters," he says. Within two months, more than 1,000 people had responded and wanted to know if they could continue writing and send him various objects, such as toys, drawings and diaries. "I realized that they hadn't had the opportunity to talk about their experiences. I saw potential in this topic and above all in the possibility of building and benefiting a community," he says.

Along the way, many survivors thanked him for the chance to tell their stories. Visnja Muzika contributed to the collection with the letter given to her by her neighbors for her seventh birthday, that was the only gift they could afford. In this TRT World article, she said: "I am very happy to be able to give it to the museum to show other people that little things like this piece of paper can give hope in the middle of the horrors of war."

Along with this process, Halilović wrote the book Djetinjstvo u ratu (Bosnian for War Childhood). When he finished, he realized that memories in general were connected to objects and belongings. So in 2012, before the book was published, he designed the first project for a museum that would help reflect and raise awareness about the impact of war on childhoods.

Every year the permanent exhibition in Sarajevo shares stories and personal objects that have not been exhibited before. In 2022, 44 of the 50 stories on display were from Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the remaining six were Ukrainian (Image: War Childhood Museum. Intervened by Marisol Echarri).

The foundations of a museum

During the war, Halilović's biggest dream was to see Bosnia, after becoming a independent country, play in a World Cup. So he traveled to Brazil in 2014 to watch his country's debut against Argentina. That trip made him meditate on his life purpose, which he wanted to align with the idea of a museum showcasing the experiences of childhoods during the war.

In 2015, he gathered a small team and they established a methodology to start the collection. A year later they held the first exhibition and in 2017, they opened the permanent display of the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo.

A collection of personal objects and testimonies

The collection has more than 5,000 objects from 16 different armed conflicts from World War II to the Ukrainian War. Any object that tells a story of someone whose childhood (up to the age of 18) was affected by war can contribute to the entire collection. The material in the different exhibits depends on the objectives of each exhibit. For example, in the permanent Sarajevo exhibit, the stories are mainly Bosnian and there is a small section with international narratives.

The team always try to make the international exhibitions (they have taken shows to countries such as Ukraine, Serbia, Kosovo, Sweden, Holland and France) and the permanent Sarajevo exhibition as representative as possible of the entire collection. For this reason, a balance of stories is made depending on genre and age range. In addition, there are 41 categories for the different stories, which serve to organize exhibitions. These include: general danger, shelter, loss of a loved one, experience as a refugee, clothing, games, among others.

The museum is privately funded, mainly through donations from individuals or foundations and its own income from ticket sales and the gift store. Some years it receives a small contribution from the Bosnian government.

The collaboration with the association Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow, and Professor Henry Bell of the University of the West of Scotland, resulted in a workshop based on elements of image theater for all ages. (Image: courtesy of the War Childhood Museum. Intervened by Marisol Echarri).

The importance of peace for children

A multidisciplinary team carries out all the work of the museum. Among them are educators, historians, psychologists, experts in children's rights, translators. Throughout the first half of 2017, an educational program was built through workshops with the help of Educator's Institute for Human Rights aimed primarily at school groups. The development of the new materials aimed to generate awareness of the role of each child in the peacebuilding process. Merima Ražanica, coordinator of the museum's educational activities, comments: "Recognizing the importance of peaceful conflict resolution and the development of empathy are two key focuses of the workshops".

All the preparation for the workshops is done in collaboration with a psychologist and is divided into three stages. Before the visit, when during class time they carry out a preparatory activity; during the tour of the museum, which includes a sharing session; and after the tour, when they put into practice what they have learned. Likewise, the activities are developed for different age groups: first and second grade of primary school; third and fourth; fifth and sixth; seventh, eighth and ninth; high school and university.

In 2022, the museum was visited by children and young people from 15 Bosnian cities, including Sarajevo, and from Montenegro, Serbia and Sweden (Image: courtesy of War Childhood Museum, intervened by Marisol Echarri).

Due to the complexity and sensitivity of the theme, the child's inner circle is included in the process of the visit. Then, each child receives a letter from the museum through his or her educator. The letter invites them to think about the subject from a broad perspective, emphasizing that all children in the world have different experiences, some of them affected by war. Parents or guardians and educators also receive a letter with general information about the museum and the care of children on site. Ražanica comments: "This channel of communication is important to create a safe space for the children, introduce the subject matter progressively and make sure we don't shock them".

In addition to the letter, each group does pre-activities with their educator. Some of these are taken from Compass, the Council of Europe's Manual on Human Rights Education with Young People. For example, they reflect on what things they would take from home if they had to flee and then make a list and rank them according to their importance. "That helps them to put themselves in someone else's shoes, specifically someone who had to leave their home because of the war. Also, they think about both basic needs and emotional needs", says Ražanica.

At the museum, there is an interactive guided tour with questions and discussions about some of the exhibits. A high school student from the Mixed High School of Economics and Catering in Travnik, Bosnia, said: "I liked the shape of the museum, its purpose and idea because you can learn a lot about the experience of others".

This is followed by a sharing about building peace holistically and how to get there. Alma Ramić, a teacher at the elementary school, highlighted "the work of the educators who encouraged the students to freely answer the questions." Aida Jerlagić, also an elementary school teacher, commented: "My students enjoyed the visit, which, for me, is the best indicator of the care with which the workshops are prepared. These gave them experiences they will remember forever."

When they return, one of the tasks for the larger groups is to meditate for a few days on what concrete actions can be taken in their community and what the obstacles are. In this way, each group chooses which project they will carry out to contribute to the peace-building process. "The most important thing I learned from the museum is that hatred never brought anything good," commented a high school student from Lukavac Grammar School in Lukavac, Bosnia.

The youth-oriented activity called "The Peacebuilding Balloon" consists of writing down on a hot air balloon, after some questions, how children and youth can participate in the peace process and what are the obstacles to it, so they can see this process in broad strokes. (Image: courtesy of the War Childhood Museum. Intervened by Marisol Echarri).

Other dimensions of empathy

In an effort to make the themes addressed in the museum accessible to all, there are workshops for children with hearing or visual impairments. For example, under the concept of a portrait that a child had made of herself during the war, the group is encouraged to use clay to generate their own portraits with tactile replicas of museum objects and their stories in Braille.

During 2023, the museum organized Children in War, an international seminar together with the civic organizations HERMES and Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), in collaboration with The Anne Frank House. More than 70 teachers from all over the world built a kit with 25 activity plans for teaching on the subject in other institutions. This option will be available on the museum's website from October 2023.

Finally, in April 2023, the museum created interactive guides under the methodology of Lilliput PLUS, a project that encourages the participation of families in European museums. With the materials provided by the organization, more than 120 families with children under 10 were able to visit the museum interactively.

Next to some of the exhibits there are small yellow benches with a sign that reads: "Ask an adult to read this story to you" (Image: courtesy of War Childhood Museum. Intervened by Marisol Echarri).

A virtual and international museum

The collection is growing every day and the institution has many possibilities to expand. Therefore, one of the main objectives is that the virtual museum prototype can be a global platform for the whole world to appreciate this experience.

The War Childhood Museum is the only one in the world that focuses solely on childhoods marked by war. In 2022, it hosted more than 5,000 students in school visits and held more than 300 workshops for 4,500 children.

Today it has an office in the Netherlands, Ukraine and small projects in Asia, and they are looking to expand much more in the latter two places. "I don't feel it's a competition issue, but I learned several years ago that the existence of this place helps people heal the relationship with their past and those around them," Halilović recounts.

The visit to the museum is, for many of the children, the first time they are able to deal with the topic of war and its power to make peace in a constructive way. "As a child, my opinion was invalidated because I was young during the war, but I was still expected to conform to the opinions and values of my closest circle," Ražanica recounts. "Children are sought to make peace when they were not part of the conflict. It is meaningful for me to be able to talk to them and invite them to talk openly in a conscious way, more turned towards peacebuilding."

This article is part of the Soluciones platform, a partnership between Río Negro and RED/ACCIÓN.

The original article was published on October 6, 2023.