The story of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) began in Sarajevo in the summer of 2010. With few resources and having to overcome the difficulties of living on opposite sides of the world, advances in technology and globalization supplied us with our some of our most powerful tools. We had 2 Mac computers and unlimited access to Skype which we spent countless hours on developing projects, writing grants, and strategically planning how to make PCRC a reality. Once PCRC was established, we worked without an office or funding and with only a few part-time volunteers and interns. Our journey has been exciting and difficult and we are constantly faced with new challenges, roadblocks, and opportunities, but, in the end, we hope that our story can serve as an example that anything is possible if you follow your passion, believe in yourself, and work hard to achieve your dreams. People always ask us, “How did the two of you come together?” and “What is the story behind PCRC?” Therefore, we decided to explain some of the reasons behind why we chose to do this work and how we ended up on this path together.
Velma’s Side of the Story
Many people look back on the age of 16 and remember getting their driver’s license, falling in love for the first time, and going to high school dances and parties. When I look back at my life at 16, however, I am consumed with memories of war. I remember the faces of refugees escaping from eastern Bosnia, horrific stories about the rape of girls and women, bloody massacres of civilians, the sound mortar shots and gunfire, and the lack of food, water and electricity. These years became an instrumental part in shaping the person I am today and the journey I decided to take to help those who suffered in this war alongside me.
I was especially inspired by Dr. Eric Markusen, a great scholar, educator, and most of all, friend. He believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself, and because of him I was able to gain the confidence and strength I needed to pursue my dreams. For many years after I met Dr. Markusen, I had dreamed of someday establishing an organization that dealt with issues of sustainable peace and reconciliation in BiH. I also dreamed of doing something that instilled hope and optimism among the youth in this country and preserved the memories of war while building a better tomorrow. Currently, my country doesn’t instill the belief that you can do anything you put your mind and heart into, nor does it provide visible opportunities that members of the youth can pursue.
Another part of my life that impacted me greatly was listening to thousands of testimonies from victims and witnesses during my work as a journalist. I saw how they were living, without any support or help, and I wanted to give them a voice. Through my work with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, I learned how to be fair, balanced and objective. I never wanted to limit myself to listening to just one side of the story. I wanted to understand the different perspectives and experiences of all sides. I believe that every individual tragedy deserves to be respected no matter which side it is coming from.
Leslie arrived from Denver, Colorado in the summer of 2010 to participate in a study abroad program which I designed and organized. While coordinating the program, I began getting to know her. She was so responsible and sensitive and her compassion and empathy for this country’s suffering moved me. She had an ability to connect with victims even though she didn’t speak our language. She had so much energy, motivation and passion for making a difference in people’s lives. On top of these qualities, she was able to analyze and approach the most difficult questions and topics with sensitivity and objectivity. The fact that she was willing to work with me voluntarily on so many different things proved to me that we can make this dream a reality.
After she returned to the US, we continued our adventure through Skype writing projects, grant proposals, and developing strategies and plans for our new organization which we had yet to give a name to. We worked almost every day for a year while Leslie was finishing her graduate degree and I was working full-time as a journalist, researcher, and movie producer. I remember one time when we worked through Skype for almost 19 hours straight. I could call Leslie at any time of the day or night and she would answer. She was always there for me when I needed her. Why was it so important for me to meet Leslie? Because her optimistic approach to life and her ‘Yes we can!’ attitude is rare in this country and quite contagious. She believed in me 100 percent which gave me the push I needed to start creating the organization I had always dreamed of.
Leslie’s Side of the Story
For as long as I can remember, I had a dream of venturing to Africa and, in 2007, I had the chance to travel to Nairobi, Kenya where I worked in the slums of Kibera and Matumba and was able to get involved in various development and peacebuilding projects. I was deeply touched by the people I encountered, especially the women and children I had the opportunity to work with. I was inspired by programs that aimed to provide children with the education and skills needed to lead them out of poverty and give them the chance to succeed in life outside the slums. I was also deeply affected and inspired by women who had been victims of war and poverty, many of whom had escaped to Kenya from Rwanda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. These women had lost their husbands, children, and family members to unthinkable acts of violence and evil, but, in spite of experiencing such tragedy, trauma, and abuse, they were working to make new lives for themselves. It was in Kenya that people showed me the true resilience of the human condition and strength of the human soul. They gave me strength and helped me find my calling and passion. I knew then that I wanted to dedicate my life to those who were victims of circumstance and who, if given the opportunity, could rise above their circumstances and use it to do great things. When I returned home, I began focusing my efforts and education on helping those affected by war, genocide, and poverty. In following this path, I have acquired a great interest in countries where conflict transformation is needed and where reconciliation, post-conflict development, and peacebuilding processes are in progress. These interests eventually led me to BiH and to Velma.
When I met Velma in the summer of 2010, I immediately knew there was something special about her. There was something so powerful about her spirit, and I can only describe it as a bright light that draws in all those who surround her. She was so knowledgeable about the history of the region as well as the difficulties and challenges BiH was facing. She was working on so many meaningful projects, often for free, and I was able to see that her motivations were pure and her passion was driving her forward. She inspired me and I knew that she would change my life forever. We began to spend more and more time together, sometimes sitting for hours on end jotting down ideas and talking about the vision we had for peacebuilding and reconciliation in the region. We eventually got the chance to organize a conference that brought international and Bosnian students from throughout the country together to discuss the issues surrounding genocide and concentration camp detainment. Despite the fact that there was minimal financial and logistical support, the conference was a great success and Velma and I realized then that we were a great team. Even though we came from such different backgrounds and parts of the world, we shared a vision and a deep passion for our work which created an unbreakable bond between us.
When I left Sarajevo, Velma and I continued to work daily. I couldn’t help but become completely committed to our seemingly crazy dreams and ideas for the future, and I made the decision to return to BiH permanently so that Velma and I could pursue our dream full-time. After a year of adjusting our lives to the 8-hour time difference between us and working solely through Skype and via e-mail, I finished my MA and set off to start my new life in Sarajevo. I knew it was a risk and that I would be giving up everything I was used to, but it has been the best decision of my life and we continue to grow stronger each day.