Greetings, Linda and I recently returned from a three-week trip to Europe in which we taught a workshop in Denmark and attended an international Peacebuilding conference in Dubrovnik sponsored by the Praxis Peace Institute. After the conference we got to see more of Croatia and spent a few days in Bosnia. The theme of the conference had to do with examining the roots of international and inter-ethnic conflict with an intent to bring about a shift in identification away nationalism towards a sense of global community. It was the third Praxis event to have been held in Dubrovnik since 2000, and as a Praxis Board member, I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended all three conferences. Our setting provided an ideal site for such a gathering.

Aside from being a city of exquisite grace and beauty, Dubrovnik has had a long history of tolerance and freedom. Outlawing slavery since 1416, long before any other European state, Dubrovnik also managed to avoid the travails of war. In a commitment to promote continued peace and minimize the possibility of governmental corruption and exploitation, Dubrovnik’s city council elected the city rector for a term of only one month. Re-election was not possible. Proficient in the ways of democracy and intent on long-term stability, Dubrovnik’s city council maintained peace and well-being for nearly six hundred years!

Presenters and participants of the conference came from all over the world and included educators, activists, social scientists, politicians, psychologists and economists. The conference opened with a day-long workshop on Conflict Transformation, presented by Johan Galtung. Galtung who is considered to be a pioneer in the field of peace and conflict research founded the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo in 1959 and has written numerous books and articles on peace. He has also served for decades as a mediator on the front lines of international conflicts and disputes in places including the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Equador, China, Tibet, Yugoslavia, and Somalia.

A workshop on conflict transformation proved to be an ideal way to begin a week-long conference on peacebuilding. We were not only given an overview of the principles involved in dealing with differences in relationships of all kinds (including couples, nations, and ethnic and religious groups), but also the practices in working with these differences. Having this grounding from the beginning of the conference gave us all an understanding of the ways of coming to terms with the kinds of concerns, issues, problems, and differences that inevitably come up in large gatherings, even when the focus in on peace!

One of the things that I was reminded of was that differences are inevitable but conflict is optional. Differences simply are an expression of differing perspectives and points of view, and they only become conflict when there is an effort on the part of one or the other parties to coerce or manipulate the other into compliance or agreement. Violence is simply a form of coercion and war is coercion taken to an extreme. Using the teachings that Johan presented during the workshop, we were able to practice the art of conflict transformation throughout the week and sharpen our skills in the process. It was great on the job training!

Conflict transformation is distinct from conflict resolution in that the latter usually involves one or both parties feeling that they have compromised something in the process of creating a peaceful outcome, and thus feeling some degree of dissatisfaction. Conflict transformation on the other hand refers to a process in which both parties ultimately feel that not only have their concerns been addressed and honored, but that they ended up with even more than they expected they could. It is the ultimate “win-win” game.

I had an opportunity to have this experience on two occasions during the trip, once at the conference and the other during a post-conference trip to Sarajevo. The primary ingredient in this process is a creative imagination. That is, one that can go beyond the dichotomy of either/or thinking and conceive of possibilities other than those that are readily apparent. Two of Johan’s books, Transcend and Transform and Conflict Transformation by Peaceful Means, describe some of the strategies and ways of thinking that support this process.

Our post-conference visit to Sarajevo proved to be one of the most enlightening and emotional parts of our trip. Still recovering from the artillery and bombing assault on the city during the early 90’s Sarajevo is a beautiful and very cosmopolitan city. For many years it had the reputation of being the Jerusalem of the Balkans, because of it’s acceptance and integration of different ethnic and religious groups, including, Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Christians, Jews and other groups. The rebuilding of the physical structures of the city as well as the broken and betrayed trust that war inevitably causes is still very much in evidence throughout the city. A highlight of our trip was a day that we spent with Jovan Diviak, a former general and deputy commander of the Bosnian Army during the Balkan War. Jovan took our group of seven on a tour of Sarajevo which featured many locations off of the tourist track. We visited a secret tunnel built between the airport and the city outskirts in which supplies were smuggled in from outside of the city and people were able to find their way to freedom in the midst of the indescribable horrors of the war. Jovan is an amazing man who has seen more suffering in his life than most people on the planet.

One of the extraordinary things about him is that he has been able to transform the pain and anger that he experienced as a result of the war to a commitment to heal his country. Jovan has committed himself to breaking the cycle of vengeance and retribution that has characterized much of the Balkans for hundreds of years. He has directed his energies instead towards the people, particularly the children who have been victims of the war. In 1994 while the war was still raging, he founded a citizen’s association “Education Builds Bosnia and Herzegovina”, an organization dedicated to providing educational and social support for children whose parents were disabled or killed in the war.

What began thirteen years ago as one man’s vision of the healing of a nation has become one of the region’s most effective means of helping children and families that have been harmed by the ravages of war. Over 35,000 children have been directly aided by the efforts of EBH and over 24,000 educational scholarships have been awarded that have totaled over 850,000 Euro. The organization is completely self-sustaining, manned exclusively by volunteers, and has been involved in international projects with a large number of European countries.

It was ironic that the most inspiring aspect of our peace conference experience came AFTER the end of the conference and was provided by a former army general who is no longer a warrior of war but has become a warrior of love. Jovan is clearly possessed by a passion to care for the children who are the victims of the war in Bosnia, a passion that has consumed him for over a decade and will undoubtedly continue to do so for the remainder of his life. We left the city of Sarajevo feeling deeply saddened for the losses that this city and region have so recently experienced, and simultaneously enormously inspired by the efforts of Jovan and others like him to bring about the healing in this war- torn country. On the drive back to the airport, Linda and I reflected on the power of intention, vision, and love, all of which fueled Jovan’s commitment. The thought crossed our minds, almost simultaneously, “Imagine what the world would be like if we could learn these lessons without war.” Imagine.