Interview with Steinar Bryn – Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue

The Bridge Museum is very honoured to have Steinar Bryn’s thoughts on peace, reconciliation and bridge building. A four-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Steinar is the Senior Adviser, Nansen Centre for Peace and Dialogue in Lillehammer, Norway. He has been instrumental in the process of bringing societies and ethnicities together in the Balkans (photo courtesy of John Froschauer, Pacific Lutheran University).

What is your background and what brought you to Nansen?

The Nansen Academy was established in 1938 as a humane counterforce to the development of fascism and Nazism in Europe; a humanistic alternative to the forces building up toward war. Europe was on fire. As a young man (19) I came to the Nansen Academy and immediately fell in love with the place. I have since worked as a teacher and as a director of the Nansen Academy, and over the last 20 years I have spent all my energy developing and practicing the Nansen Dialog approach as a member of the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue.

How long has Nansen been working in the Balkans?

Lillehammer, Norway hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1994, which brought us closer to Sarajevo, the Olympic host in 1984. We asked ourselves how we could contribute given the ongoing war in the Balkans; and what we could offer was a dialogue space for people from ex-Yugoslavia where they could come together. In 1995 we invited the first group of 15 potential leaders to come to Lillehammer to sit and talk about what went wrong and why. Since then 3,000 people have visited Lillehammer and we have built up ten operative Nansen Dialogue Centers.

Has the situation improved? Are there any “results” or are those too hard to qualify?

The situation is not warlike anymore. But the division between the people has not improved much. Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia – these are deeply divided societies with segregated education and deep segregation of cultural, social and political life. Although our work is against the tide, we do see results. In Croatia, B&H and Macedonia we are influencing the educational policy on a national level. In numerous municipalities Nansen represents an alternative to the ethnic principle as the organizing principle. In municipalities like Vukovar, Srbrenica, Bratunac, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Zvornik, Jajce, Prozor-Rama, Stolac, Mostar, Sarajevo, Porgorica, Mitrovica, Pristina, Kosovo Polje, Obilic, Belgrade, Bujanovac, Jegunovce, Skopje, Tetovo and Strumica, Nansen’s approach represents dialogue, reconciliation, bridge building and integration.

Funding for reconciliation usually trails way behind the “strong state” approach, which favours economic development. Are there cracks in the strong state approach that are beginning to form?

When B&H and Kosovo, after enormous input of resources from abroad to build up strong states cannot show for more than two dysfunctional states, it is slowly coming to the surface that the neglect of dialogue and reconciliation has both humane and financial consequences.

How would you rate the reconciliation approach in South Africa? Is that a model for other countries and regions? Did it succeed because it came from within the country?

It is hard to compare; the understanding of history, guilt and responsibility, truth and reconciliation is not the same all over. The conflict in South Africa was also literary very black and white, in Kosovo in 2014 it is harder to pinpoint who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.

How much is due to the personal relationships of key politicians, say Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in the case of France and Germany?

It was very important, so was the decision by their Foreign Ministries to meet on a regular basis, so was the interaction between organizations and people. After 20 years (1965) France and Germany had moved closer than Serbia and Croatia (2015).

We have seen a bridge in Mitrovica, Kosovo come to symbolise the differences, dare I say, hatred between ethnic Serbs and Albanians. What to do? Will it be generational and we should just concentrate on the young and then gradually the situation will improve? Is it less about conflict resolution and more about management?

In my opinion the need to develop integrative spaces is very strong. In Kosovo today there is mutual apartheid. Only a few politicians and some NGOs have active interaction with each other. People live segregated. Serb and Albanian children grow up without a common language in which they can communicate. At the moment this is developing into a frozen conflict and going the wrong way. We reacted strongly to apartheid in the southern states in the U.S. and in South Africa. Why don’t we react stronger when we find it in the middle of Europe?

Are there parallels with Herzegovina (Stolac, for example) or learnings from BiH more generally?

I see clear structural similarities between the municipalities mentioned above where Nansen has been very active. Individuals should not be blamed for structures beyond their control, but we all make a decision whether we support their existence or try to change them. The scary development is that integration/segregation is becoming a major European problem. Recent riots in Copenhagen, Malmø, Paris, London and even the massacre on the island outside Oslo can be seen as the results of our lack of ability to live together. Belgium was without a government for 500 days, partly due to the lack of a unified state where the people have developed a common loyalty to the state. We, the citizens of Europe, need to come together and talk about and develop strategies of how we can improve our lives together.

What about social media and the building of strong, potentially interethnic, networks of young people who have participated and understood the reconciliation approach?

I am sorry, but I am too old. I still think face to face is crucial, more important than Facebook. Facebook and social media, as all other media, can be used to motivate and mobilize, for the right and for the wrong causes. The authentic meeting, face to face, is still crucial.

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