Why you should care

Because art can save lives.

Stari Most is a monumental white stone bridge in the Bosnian city of Mostar. Rebuilt after obliteration during bombing in ’90s war, it stands as a symbol of unity between the city’s two sides: Croat and Bosnian. But as symbols go, it’s pretty empty.

It’s taken more than 20 years for a war-crimes tribunal to convict Radovan Karadzic for his genocidal acts in the civil war that turned Serbs, Croats and Bosnians into enemies. And a recent municipal survey shows that more than 50 percent of locals under the age of 18 say they have never interacted with someone from “the other side.” But there’s a more powerful bridge here than Stari Most. You might call them dreamers, but an unlikely force is chipping away at deeply entrenched divisiveness. Meet the Pavarotti Music Center and the Youth Cultural Center Abrašević, two collectives (one on each side of the river) desperately trying to bring together young people from both sides — not through mediation or counseling or government programs but through song and dance.

The dynamics of the conflict are now part of the regular language; art opens new ways to communicate.

When the Pavarotti Music Center opened for music lessons in 1996, on the Bosnian side, there was only one student from the Croatian side — and he needed an escort to ensure his safety. Today, Pavarotti’s large corridors are filled with the sound of more than 400 young artists of all ethnic backgrounds and disciplines. “We don’t care whether they are Serbian or Croat. To us they are all just children wanting to have a good time,” says Elvedin Nezirović, the center’s director. And who could tell them apart, anyway? The casual observer would see nothing but kids, fiddling with guitars and practicing dance moves.

“Before the war, we all had friends on the other side and we remember that,” remembers Nezirović, “but now children stay between themselves.” Normally, you could count on public schools to bridge that divide. Not in Bosnia. Under the so-called “two schools under one roof” system, Bosnians and Croats attend school in the same building but during different times, with different teachers, using different history books. They couldn’t interact even if they wanted to.

Amar Santic, a Bosnian 19-year-old with a Mohawk, is sitting in Pavarotti’s courtyard tuning his guitar. He says many people his age still fear leaving their side of the city. “I only crossed the bridge for the first time when I was 15. Now I do it all the time to go practice with my band.” He’s headed to the Croatian side now, to the Abrašević Center, Mostar’s other alternative cultural center. This center was founded in 2003 by a handful of countercultural youngsters who believe art is a great gateway drug to reconciliation. Unlike the four-floor Pavarotti Center, Abrašević looks more like a squat, featuring crumbling walls, containers, graffiti and a remarkably high percentage of patrons with tattoos and dyed hair. Co-founder Kristina Coric says it takes a lot of courage to stand against what you’re taught about other ethnic groups. “You have to be a bit of a rebel,” she says proudly.

It’s just the latest example of cultures wounded by daunting trauma using music to heal. In Israel and Palestine, there’s a peace choir made up of Israeli and Palestinian girls, a radio station devoted to cross-cultural harmony and the 22-year-old Festival of World Sacred Music. In the U.S., hip-hop has long been used as a means of healing, most recently making headlines with a Bronx high school’s hip-hop therapy program. In the past, critics might have dismissed this kind of effort as do-gooder nonsense. But more and more science keeps emerging that shows that the human brain responds positively, and powerfully, to music.

Of course, learning to play the flute alone will not erase centuries of ethnic tension, nor will it make survivors forget the horrors of the war, says Cynthia Cohen, director of the Peacebuilding and the Arts program at Brandeis University. But it gives children a fresh identity they can share regardless of their background — whether it’s being a heavy metal guitarist or a ballerina. “The dynamics of the conflict are now part of the regular language; art opens new ways to communicate,” she says. And if these programs can work in Mostar, where young adults still remember the sound of mortars and the bodies on the streets, it proves they can help heal the wounds of war in other places, Cohen adds.

The collaboration between the centers has strengthened, and they are coming up with new programs like a rock ’n’ roll school and a graffiti festival that, next September, will turn shelled buildings into pieces of art. But Abrašević was dropped from the local budget this year, and the Pavarotti Center is paying for its 15 full-time staff, leaking roof and more than 20 different courses with a measly $15,000 a year. The city council didn’t respond to our request for comment, but its members have been occupied with a strange constitutional deadlock that has prevented the city from holding mayoral elections for four years now.

Sometimes in Stari Most, the Muslim calls to prayer ring together with the bells of the Croat churches, making it almost sound like a united Mostar again. But, according to Damir Kapidzic, professor of political sciences at the University of Sarajevo, the educational reform needed to foster reconciliation is not happening anytime soon. “It’s in the interest of many political parties to keep people divided, since they themselves are grouped by ethnicity.” For now, art programs may be the best hope the children of Mostar have of growing up without fear of one another. “Art is a long shot,” says Kapidzic, “but it’s the only one we’ve got.”

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