Images of bombs exploding and starving refugees bundled in rags have plagued mainstream media reports on Southeastern Europe for the past two decades.
But what has received considerably less publicity is how successful the region has been in moving forward and dealing with its war-torn past.
While there are people who still view the Balkans with trepidation, Professor Robert Austin of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies — CERES — at the University of Toronto hopes to change this view.
“It’s important to understand the Balkans in all aspects, and it’s regrettable that when you think of the Balkans, war comes to mind. There’s no good reason not to give students the opportunity to study the Balkans. [The region] has a tremendous amount to offer,” he explained.
Austin gathered 34 students from universities across the province under the auspices of Woodsworth College’s well-established Summer Abroad program.
Over four weeks, Summer Abroad Southeastern Europe — SEE — allowed students to travel to Austria, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Slovenia while taking part in an intensive third year political science course called Return to Europe: Bringing Southeastern Europe Into the European Union.
Although Austin admitted that the launch of Summer Abroad SEE was one of the highlights of his career, getting the program up and running was not easy.
“It’s been a few years trying to get Summer Abroad to the Balkans. The biggest job was to convince the U of T administration that there was a market and make sure there was interest. I gain a lot of pleasure from introducing the Balkans to students and reminding people it’s an important part of Europe with rich cultural and historical legacies.”
Austin, who holds an undergraduate degree in political science from Carleton University and both a Master’s and a Doctorate from the University of Toronto, has a genuine passion for the region. Intrigued by the Balkans as a young man, he went on to specialize in the region’s politics.
Fieldwork has always been important to him, and hands-on experiences have taught him not to underestimate its value.
During the tumultuous period of the 1990s, Austin worked as a journalist in the region, and at one point led Radio Free Europe’s Albanian office.
Interestingly, he chose to base Summer Abroad SEE in Graz, Austria.
“Graz is exceptionally beautiful and welcoming for students. It’s easy to explore, and a nice place to come back home to. First and foremost, however, the University of Graz was a good partner for us. U of T is a premier university and we need to deliver a premier program. Graz is a reliable partner who understood what we were trying to do.”
Bernarda Gospic, a second year majoring in Croatian and Serbian Studies and Book and Media Studies, participated in summer abroad SEE and agreed with her professor’s sentiments.
“I think it was nice to study in Graz because it’s a neutral town in a neutral country. It just wouldn’t have been the same to base our study in one area of the Balkans. If we were in Croatia it would have been more focused on Croatia. If we were in Serbia it would have been more focused on Serbia.”
Her friend Sammy Halabi, a third year majoring in International Relations and Economics, took the course as well, but felt that having the lectures in Graz made it more difficult to grasp the historical legacies at play.
A very real and unfortunate obstacle in educating students about the Balkans is that the vivid memory of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia makes it difficult for some not to question the future and stability of the region.
However, the current state of the Balkans does not, as the students of Summer Abroad SEE learned, fit the preconceived notions that many people have.
After participating in Summer Abroad SEE, Gospic said, “I don’t think people in North America are really in touch with the Balkans at all. I don’t think a lot of people are even aware of some countries that are in the Balkans.”
To truly gain an understanding of the region today, Austin pointed out, “The Balkans have to be viewed along historical lines. What’s going on is more complicated than the wars that went on from 1992 to 2001.”
The first week of the course was dedicated to providing students with a serious historical introduction to the region, which included the rise and fall of both the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires.
The difficult task was entrusted to Professor Franz Szabo of the University of Alberta. A leading Canadian historian in the field of Habsburg history, Szabo was a natural choice for the job.
Halabi, who is accustomed to an intensive course load, found the amount of information presented to him in that first week to be overwhelming.
“It was a lot to handle. There was a lot of material. In some cases, we only got to go over it really topically.”
An opera house in Graz, Austria. The summer abroad program was based in Graz.
Gospic agreed, “Keeping up with all the content, and learning so much in such a short amount of time was hard. In three weeks, we covered the entire history of Yugoslavia. We had to learn the complete history of six countries in three weeks. And that first week was devoted to history from the beginning of time up until 1945.”
The demise of Yugoslavia is difficult to understand even for some of the world’s leading scholars.
Sabrina Ramet, a professor of political science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and a senior research associate with the Center for the Study of Civil War in Oslo explained that in the Balkans “the root cause of the problem was the illegitimate political system.”
The one party dictatorship, which ruled the country for almost 50 years, fostered ethnic tensions among the six republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.
When Yugoslavia was on its last legs at the end of the 1980s, the government was under the control of the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was eventually indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity in 1999.
Today, the region is rebuilding itself and working towards European political and economic integration.
Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country held the rotating presidency of the European Union until July 2010 said in a statement, “The last five to six months in the western Balkans have been — let’s be frank — the most peaceful, productive, [and] hopeful in recent history.”
Moratinos went on to say that the EU would continue to work towards bringing the countries of the western Balkans into the fold.
Croatia paints a positive picture for the region and although a date has yet to be set for Croatia to officially join the EU, it will be the first country of the Western Balkans to become a full member.
EU officials in Brussels have said that Croatia’s formal entry into the organization will be a big achievement for the region and will give a boost to other Western Balkan countries.
At this point, unfortunately, the future does not look as bright for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Halabi said, “I think Bosnia was where I could really feel the course. I could very much see the history there and get a feel for it.
“Take Sarajevo for example. When I walked through Sarajevo, I saw the bullet holes and markings on the ground where bombs had exploded.”
Gospic, whose background is Croatian, added, “I’ve grown up in Croatian culture, but I thought it was important to learn about the war on my own. I’ve heard things from my family, but it was going to Bosnia that actually hit me in a different way.
“Reading and sitting in lecture is one thing, but actually walking through the streets that others had to walk through as they endured the war is much different. Being able to see the remnants of the war is mind-blowing. Anyone can tell you something, but sometimes you actually have to see it to believe it.”
The reality is that Bosnia-Herzegovina is lagging behind its Balkan counterparts.
Governed by an international body called the Office of the High Representative, which the students of Summer Abroad SEE visited, Bosnia-Herzegovina is struggling to become truly stable.
When the war that raged between 1992 and 1995 ended, Bosnia-Herzegovina was split into two rival regions. The Republika Srpska, populated by Bosnian Serbs, and the Muslim-Croat Federation are still linked today by a constitution that was hastily written by the international community.
“This is Europe. Europe is supposed to be such an established place and the things that happened and are happening in the Balkans are hard to take in,” said Gospic.
Srebrenica, which was initially declared a safe zone by the UN during the Bosnian war, was the site of the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust.
When it was overrun by Bosnian Serbs in July 1995, thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys went missing, and while many were killed trying to escape through the woods, others were arrested and transported to sites to be executed and buried in mass graves.
Halabi described visiting the war memorial, established in Srebrenica in 2001, with his fellow SEE students as the most profound experience on the trip.
“It was life changing. Standing there, there were 5000 graves. 8000 deaths and 5000 graves. There was a huge memorial wall listing the victims’ names. You could see the son’s name beneath the father’s name beneath the grandfather’s name. Entire families were wiped out in a moment.”
When tried at the ICTY, the Srebrenica case involved nearly 450 witnesses and three years of hearings that only concluded last year.
Gospic experienced her most powerful and important moment of the program not in Srebrenica, but in the divided Muslim-Croat city of Mostar.
“When we were in Mostar I saw a sign that said ‘Don’t forget’ propped up on a stone on the main drag by all the shops.
“People are moving on but they remember what happened. They don’t forget. It said so right there.”
Possibly one of the most emotional and intensive programs that U of T offers as part of Summer Abroad, the SEE course gave students the opportunity to analyze and assess the legacies of war and peace in the region from a variety of angles.
Gospic said, “There was a diverse group of students from many different areas of study. It meant that opinions were coming from all directions.”
Although the Summer Abroad SEE students represented a variety of disciplines and interests, they got along with each other exceptionally well, and according to Austin, that was critical to the success of the program.
“The demand on teacher and students is extremely high but I enjoyed that we were able to develop a really good social milieu and sit down as a group of friends,” he said.
Whether it was the intensive course work they participated in, the life-altering field trips, the friendships they formed, or a mix of all of the above, the Summer Abroad SEE students now view the world differently.
Halabi said, “I think the most important thing I got out of it was a deeper understanding of what really happens in the Balkans. Just from a knowledge perspective, I know a lot more than I did before. Back in Canada I didn’t really get a sense of what these people went through and are going through.
“Since the course ended, I find myself checking websites like Balkan Insight for news updates. I’ve been reading it religiously and in a way, I feel connected to the region now.”