By Josephine Mintel
The Intercultural Icebreakers program, which is run through the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, has been bringing together young artists from Kosovo and Serbia every year since 2014. It aims to show how the dialogue between the two countries can display a more human side. We interview three former participants and the program’s manager to find out more.
When Granit Gashi agreed to participate in the Intercultural Icebreakers program, the Albanian from Kosovo wasn’t expecting to fall in love with a Serbian girl. But on his first night out in Belgrade with the program in 2015 at Kafe Blazanac, he met Milica Karic.
“When I first met her, I didn’t immediately tell her I was from Kosovo,” he said. “I look quite western, you see, so I enjoy this white privilege where people expect that I’m from the U.K. or Germany, and they are shocked when I say I’m from Kosovo. We were out drinking and when she asked where I’m from, I said, ‘can you guess where I’m from?’ and she said, ‘Scotland?,’ so I said, ‘yes, of course, I’m Scottish.’”
This was Granit’s first time in Belgrade. Intercultural Icebreakers is an annual program that brings together young intellectuals and artists (e.g. painters, filmmakers, and musicians) from Kosovo and Serbia to partake in joint performances and exhibitions in Belgrade and Prishtina (along with day trips to other cities in each region).
“The project aims at renewing old ties and creating new ones among young people, academic and artistic circles, media outlets, and civil society organizations, thus contributing to the dialogue, reconciliation, and normalization between the two societies,” says Jelena Dzombic, the project coordinator from the Helsinki Committee of Human Rights in Serbia.
The organization gets its moniker from the Helsinki Accords, the document signed in 1975 at the close of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe; this conference was held to establish détente between the Soviet bloc and the West. The Committee in Serbia was created in September 1994 as one of many national Helsinki Committees for Human Rights. One of the organization’s core tenets is peacebuilding and conflict prevention. It used to be part of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which is no longer in operation.
“I believe that working on intercultural dialogue in post-conflict societies is a very delicate and sensitive task, and one has to be very careful and professional while designing a curriculum—I did it jointly with two of my colleagues, one is a psychologist and the other sociologist,” said Dzombic.
The carefully designed project began in 2014, to give a more human and artistic dimension to the political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. “Ninety-eight percent of the participants visit Kosovo or Serbia for the first time, and unfortunately they are coming with different stereotypes, prejudices, and often fears. As program coordinator and trainer, you have to be very knowledgeable, empathetic, and open-minded in order to help them face their fears and break the stereotypes.”
Up to ten young artists from Kosovo and ten young artists from Serbia are selected from an open call for applications. In addition to general information, the application includes questions about the applicant’s opinions on reconciliation and reason for interest in the program. The two groups first gather in Belgrade for about a week, where they attend lectures and visit cultural sites. The group then travels to Kosovo, where they participate in similar activities in Prishtina. The group also usually visits other cities, like Novi Sad and Prizren.
In the case of Granit and Milica, the mission was certainly accomplished. During the Intercultural Icebreakersprogram, a romance between the two developed.
“After talking the whole first night, I finally told her I was from Kosovo,” says Granit. “We figured out that we were even from the same city, Peja, and we were like: wow! this is like Romeo and Juliet but from two ethnicities instead of two families. It made this thing kind of spicy, in a way [laughs].”
“When we found out that we were from the same town, I was really so curious to talk to him and hear his story—the other story,” says Milica. “In a conflict, it’s really easy to keep your own narrative, and I was really interested to hear his side.”
“Just introducing ourselves was such a powerful and complicated thing,” she says. “I have the most typical Serbian name, Milica. It comes from an old Serbian royal figure. I just thought about how I can’t choose to be somebody else or come from somewhere else with this name—when I say my name everyone immediately makes an association.”
Granit even invited Milica to visit their hometown, Peja. Her family hasn’t returned since the war. “Traveling to Kosovo was a big deal for me, and my family and friends,” says Milica. “They were super scared; they were worried about me. But after I started traveling there, I started going very often. Now, I’ve been to Prishtina, to Prizren, to Pec, to Klina.”
“She was so amazed, and it was a really wonderful experience,” says Granit.
Parting was also such sweet sorrow for the pair. “Eventually we ended up breaking up, because I had to go to Sweden and she was going to Austria for her studies, so we came to the conclusion that we had to be more practical with our lives,” says Grant. “But we had a lovely time together and it taught me a lot about Serbs, and their culture, and their narratives. We both came to understand the other better.”
Vana Filipovski, a participant from 2017, also had her horizons broadened through the program.
“Icebreakers was the first time that I traveled to Kosovo. When I told my mom, I was going there during the program, she begged me not to go. Even my friends were questioning me – what good will it do to go there? Why would you want to?” says Vana. “The truth is I didn’t have one single bad situation. I just met a lot of cool people. It’s crazy to me how the media and politics are so completely opposite of what people are truly like on the ground.”
One thing Granit, Milica, and Vana have in common after the program? All three now travel regularly to Kosovo or Serbia.
“I go to Kosovo a lot now,” says Vana. “What I’m doing now is a direct result of the Intercultural Icebreakers program. I thought I want to create similar programs and give more people opportunities to meet each other without the politics. Now I’m helping to create platforms where youth from Serbia and Kosovo can meet each other and exchange ideas.”
In one survey given to a generation of Intercultural Icebreakers, every single participant said they would recommend participation in the project.
“Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, the first things to be cut are the cultural programs,” says Granit. “Basically, the horizon is not looking so good, because many cultural programs and NGOs are cutting funding during the virus and are canceling events.”
Although Jelena Dzombic now works at the Strengthening Media Systems Project as a program officer at IREX office in Belgrade, she still has strong hope for the Intercultural Icebreakers program, “My former colleagues will try their best to continue the initiative. It is the first to connect young artists from these two societies, and it had so many good results.”
“It is crucially important to keep this initiative: the more generations of participants that go through the program, the more young leaders we have to continue promoting intercultural dialogue, peaceful communication, and joint work.”
This article was written during my summer 2020 internship with the Post Conflict Research Center.