(International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, 2002, 94pp.)
This study traces what was first a Norwegian effort to assist the people of war-torn former Yugoslavia and which has now become largely a locally staffed and administered project of dialogue and training in eight tension-filled cities of former Yugoslavia. The project began as a 12-week course in 1995 on "Democracy, Human Rights and Peaceful Conflict Resolution" for 10-12 people between 25 and 50 years of age at the Nansen Academy in Lillehammer, Norway. The Nansen Academy was founded in 1938 as a humanistic counterforce to the growth of fascism in Europe. It was named after Fridjof Nansen (1861-1930) the Norwegian explorer and statesman who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after the First World War. The aim of the Academy was to defend human dignity by providing a learning experience for people of different cultural, religious and political background. The Academy works in the Scandinavian Folk High School spirit which does not provide directly professional training but offers an opportunity for personal development within a humanist framework.
The fighting in former Yugoslavia had begun in 1991 although tensions had been growing for nearly a decade. Societies which had been living in relative peace and without armed conflict were split; cities were divided, and there were constant refugee flows. The States of Europe were slow to react, thinking that such conflicts were no longer possible in Europe. Once convinced that violence was possible and, in fact, wide spread in former Yugoslavia, both European governments and non-governmental organizations became active.
Conflict resolution as an academic field of study and as the focus of workshops or training courses had become popular in Western Europe after the end of the Cold War made major wars unlikely. The Nansen Academy course was one such project in conflict resolution, drawing upon the on-going work in former Yugoslavia of the Norwegian Red Cross, Norwegian Church Aid and helped by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who wanted to be helpful.
The aim of the Nansen Academy course was to bring together some 10-12 people who were relatively young, who might be potential leaders in the non-too-distant future but who were not so "high profile" that they could not be open-minded. They had to have a certain academic standard since the courses would be considered "university level" and the participants had to speak and write English well as all the lectures would be in English.
The Academy provided a "safe space" where people could meet face-to-face in honest communication, and 12 weeks was long enough so that there could be a process of evolution of attitudes. As Aarbakke notes "It is important to grasp that, while dialogue may seem like a simple matter for people who are used to discussing problems openly, it can be quite a revolutionary step for someone who is not used to this." One of the participants pointed out that "Yugoslavia was a monologue, not a dialogue, society. The various parts do not recognize each other If you are different from me, you are the enemy. In such an environment, dialogue is impossible. If you have a different opinion, you keep silent - or else you belong to the enemy. There is ordering and obeying, but there is no negotiation."
The most important part of dialogue is listening - this is what distinguishes dialogue from debate. As Dan Smith of PRIO has noted " As conflicts unfold, there is no possibility for addressing problems if both parties become complacent about the righteousness of their own positions. Being right is not enough - each side needs to listen to the other in order to move on, since there are always at least two sides to a conflict." Dialogue as such does not solve problems. It is rather a prerequisite for finding sustainable solutions to deep conflicts.
While dialogue is not debate, nevertheless communication skills are of great importance. Therefore participants used interactive learning, group work, role plays, theatre, visual presentation , "brain storming", and simulations.
Aarbakke underlines "One of the key planned outcomes of the workshop is to motivate participants to continue with conflict management and peacebuilding in their own spheres of influence. To this end, the concept of empowerment is dealt with in the workshop, and the participants are invited to consider, within the framework of peacebuilding, their own current competence, capacities and motivation, and what they need to improve in order to be able to make a positive and strategically useful contribution to sustainable, prosperous peace when they return home."
Thus, it was logical but not directly planned that some of the participants from the Nansen Academy courses wanted to continue having seminars in former Yugoslavia. With the help of some of the former teachers in the Nansen courses, seminars were held in different parts of former Yugoslavia designed to deal with the tensions of the specific areas. The seminars were shorter than the 12-week course of the Nansen Academy and often the participants did not live together. These seminars, with financial aid, developed into Nansen Centres now in eight cities of former Yugoslavia. Some of the courses are designed for competence building in such fields as conflict resolution and democratic processes; others are more dialogue oriented, bringing people together who would otherwise not be in contact. Some seminars are designed for a particular profession such as social workers or the police. Others bring together different sectors of society.
The process of developing open and tolerant societies in former Yugoslavia will, no doubt, be long and often difficult. The Nansen centres and their dialogue process are making an important contribution, for the slow and meticulous evolution of interpersonal and intercultural relations may lead to a profound and lasting transformation of society.