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How Oklahoma Native Leslie Woodward Uses Media To Ease Ethnic Tensions In The Balkans

Oct 30, 2015

Throughout the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina was no stranger to genocide and war. Divided by three major ethic groups, tension is still palpable two decades later.

Oklahoma City native Leslie Woodward, the founder and project director of the Post-Conflict Research Center, uses positive storytelling through multimedia as a peace-building strategy for the region.

Woodward’s journey began when she met her partner Velma Šarić , a journalist and Bosnian Muslim who has firsthand experience with the country’s ethnic issues. Woodward and Šarić share stories about sexual violence, ethnic conflict, Bosnian youth and heroes of war.

“The media tends to focus on things that are very divisive, a lot of propaganda, a lot of negative reportage,” Woodward said. “So, we're trying to get into the media with some really positive stories about individuals who chose to make a difference in their communities.”

A lot of her work focuses on youth. She provides educational programming that teaches youth about how to lead during conflict and gives them their own journalism projects for her platform Balkan Diskurs.     

Woodward also works with the United Nations, setting up workshops for civil society members on genocide prevention. The U.N. has a difficult time accessing parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the Republika Srpska, one of the two administrative entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serb communities are not open to United Nations programs.

According to Woodward, the best work comes from grassroots efforts done by the United Nations’ Office of Genocide Prevention.

“They're trying to create some ways that the local communities can actually directly reach them to let them know about situations or rising tensions on the ground so that they can act,” Woodward said.

When Woodward attended the Srebrenica genocide memorial with members of the United Nations earlier this year, the ethnic tension was tangible. Woodward says the key to stopping things like the 1995 slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and the Balkan Wars from happening is the youth.

“I would say a solution to overcoming these ethnic barriers and these ethnic tensions is education of the youth,” Woodward said. “They're the ones that need to be educated so that they don't carry on the legacy of this war.”

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Leslie Woodward, welcome to World Views.

LESLIE WOODWARD: Thank you so much for having me.

GRILLOT: Leslie, you've done some really impressive work in the fields of strategic peacebuilding, post conflict development, resolution. Tell us a little bit about how you got interested. You're from the state of Oklahoma, how you got interested in these things and ended up traveling the world studying issues like post-conflict peacebuilding.

WOODWARD: Absolutely. Actually my journey started at Baylor University, and originally I was a biology major so this was a little bit far off from what I ended up doing with my career. During my time at Baylor I had a chance to go to Kenya where I was working on the ground in the slums and in different parts of Kenya with people that were afflicted with HIV and AIDS, orphans and, in particular, the group that moved me were the refugee women that I was working with. They had come from Somalia, Sudan, The Congo and had escaped some really horrific situations without their husbands oftentimes to Kenya to start a new life with their children, and it was in Kenya that I really saw the resilience of the human spirit and it really moved me to change my path a little bit. So, I finished out my degree in biology and decided to go into international studies at the University of Denver. Because I wanted to keep my science background in play, I actually went into strategic peacebuilding so that I could look at more of the mechanisms of creating a project monitoring and evaluation processes and project development, management of actual NGOs and things of that nature - a little bit more technical side. It was during my studies there that I had the chance to go to Bosnia. I was working with an association for former concentration camp detainees, and that's when I met my soon to be partner Velma who is a Bosnian. She's a Bosnian Muslim who actually was a refugee during the war and she had been working as a journalist for the past eight years when I had met her. Really just an inspiring individual who objectively approached people's narratives and stories from all ethnic groups. So, when I met her she had all of these ideas for projects. She was really creative but she didn't know how to put things down on paper, and so, because I had some experience volunteering and grant writing and actually being able to devise a plan for how projects could go, I decided that I would help her in her endeavor. I didn't know it would be a long term situation, but I decided that I would move to Bosnia shortly after graduation. It was then that we started our organization about four years ago.

GRILLOT: So, this organization is the post-conflict research center that you started. So what specifically are you working on in Bosnia in terms of the projects? Doing research obviously is what's indicated in your title, but obviously hands on activities with the entire community in Bosnia. You obviously have three communities, just to remind us, the Bosnian Muslims you referred to, the Croats and the Serbs. What are the projects you work on to bring these communities together?

WOODWARD: We have a lot of different approaches to creating a sustainable peace in Bosnia, and one of the approaches we have is storytelling. We do that through a number of different methods that includes film-making, photography, investigative journalism. We use those methods to, oftentimes, tell the stories and narratives of individuals who experienced a certain issue. So, for instance, we do stories about people who save the lives of others during times of war that we call ordinary heroes. We have documented the experiences of women who went through sexual violence and rape during the Bosnian conflict, and they tell their stories about the stereotypes and the stigma that they face on a day-to-day basis. We tell the stories of our youth and the kinds of struggles that they have that are related to the legacy of war that has been left behind even though they may not have directly experienced the war. We use these stories and these different ways of storytelling to bring really hard hitting issues to the forefront. We also like to have an approach that's a little bit more positive and hope inspiring because that's something that's often missing in Bosnian media. The media tends to focus on things that are very divisive, a lot of propaganda, a lot of negative reportage. So, we're trying to get into the media with some really positive stories about individuals who chose to make a difference in their communities. Another thing that we work on is educational programming. So we do a lot of training with members of the youth, and this could range anywhere from teaching them about moral courage, rescuer behavior and active versus passive bystander-ship and how you can become active in changing a situation for the better, or it could be our multimedia training that we provide to the youth where we train local correspondents from throughout the country to write for us for our media platform Balkan Diskurs and we give them a topic every month and we have about 15 kids who act as our local correspondents to discover stories from their own communities. We do things like, for instance, the United Nations where we actually assist in setting up workshops for civil society members on genocide prevention. Then the final thing we do is consultancy work. We have a lot of people coming in from the external communities, international communities such as researchers - this is where our research comes in because we facilitate research from all over the world - to actually helping out with film work. We worked on Women, War and Peace which is a series by PBS which focuses on women who changed the face of war during conflict, and one of the episodes was on Bosnia and how Bosnian women actually changed international law, making rape during a conflict a crime against humanity, and we even worked with Angelina Jolie on her film In the Land of Blood and Honey. So, those are the kinds of things we do in the consultancy realm.

GRILLOT: Well, it's interesting to see that you're taking this type of approach, the positive approach as you mentioned, the hope inspiring approach because we just marked not too long ago the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica, for example, and so recognizing and remembering and reminding ourselves that this wasn't that long ago this massive war, this incredible genocide and the hundreds of thousands of people that died in Bosnia, which I think your film and other products demonstrate. Again, to think back about how that concluded was to create a situation where the United Nations played a big role, still plays a big role, in Bosnia Herzegovina. You mentioned you work a little bit with the U.N. about its role there and kind of bring us up to date of what the political status of Bosnia is today, because it's such a complicated arrangement between these three parties as we were talking before and how the U.N. has helped or not to create an independent society that's going to be productive and capable of integration in Europe and the future.

WOODWARD: Right, well the most functional the U.N. is in Bosnia is through their individual branches, for instance the UNDP, United Nations Development Program, or United Nations Office of Genocide Prevention who works directly on the ground. That's where they tend to be the most active and also the most successful. So, there tends to be a different kind of view of the U.N. depending on where you are inside of Bosnia. So, if you're in Republika Srpska, which is the Serb dominated territory of Bosnia, you tend to have a much different view of the United Nations and they have a hard time accessing those communities which is something that we try to help them with since we're working on the ground. If they are in the Federation, which is predominantly Croat and Bosniak, they face a lot of questions from the local populations about why they didn't step in during the war and why it took them so long to intervene, but people in general tend to have a little bit more of an accepting view in the Federation. In terms of the political situation, Bosnia is extremely complicated. There are three presidents from each of the different ethnic groups who rotate every eight months. So it's really difficult to push policy though on any level. You also have a situation where you have two different entities, one is the Republika Srpska and one is the Federation as I mentioned before. Those are actually physical boundaries that are separating different ethnic groups from each other and from interacting.Then you have ten cantons that are inside the Federation that all operate on their own agendas and on their own set of rules and so things get extremely complicated, especially for people who work at a grassroots level and would like to access, let's say for instance, the educational system. Well, each different sector in each different canton has their own rules about how to approach a school, and so we'll have to go through various levels of bureaucratic structure and permissions to even access a certain city or town or school. The politicians in Bosnia, they oftentimes block us from doing our activities because the status quo is working for them. It profits them. They don't want to see things change because they're still profiting from the war, and so things are very corrupt in that sense.

GRILLOT: So, I mean this may not come as much of a surprise to some that are concerned about the big bureaucratic nature of the United Nations. I think that that's probably something a lot of people are concerned about, not just in Bosnia but elsewhere. Nonetheless, they're keeping people apart, reducing tensions, trying to prevent a rise, a re rise, of nationalism. Is that fair to say, despite the bureaucracy and some of the corruption that you're referring to? What would be the alternative to this type of arrangement and is there any way out of where they are now?

WOODWARD: Well, the United Nations is doing a good job when they're doing their individual projects on the ground because they're really good at listening to local organizations and taking feedback from them. I know our work with the United Nations Office of Genocide Prevention, what they're trying to do is they're trying to create some ways that the local communities can actually directly reach them to let them know about situations or rising tensions on the ground so that they can act. We also had some representatives from the United Nations attend Srebrenica genocide commemoration with us and they were able to see firsthand that tensions are still high. Sometimes their hands are tied when it comes to the bursts of violence, just like with what happened last year with the government protesting that was happening in Bosnia about a year ago. They tend to step back from that, but when they're doing their grassroots approaches and listening to local organizations they are having a lot of success in that area. I would say a solution to overcoming these ethnic barriers and these ethnic tensions is education, education of the youth. They're the ones that need to be educated so that they don't carry on the legacy of this war.

GRILLOT: Well, Leslie thank you so much for being here today and telling us something hopeful and positive about Bosnia. Thank you so much.

WOODWARD: Thanks for having me.  

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