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WSU students travel across Europe to explore war, division and nationalism |

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For many, nationalism has become a political buzzword, an abstract term often devoid of complexity. Although what is widely recognized is its connection to violence, war, terrorism, genocide and revolution are all motivated or justified by nationalist sentiments. To better understand the divisions and violence that arise from nationalism, ten Wayne State students traveled across Europe in May of this year, learning from academics, visiting cities with war-torn histories, and touring the courts international institutions that judge those involved in war and genocide.

The trip began in Dubrovnik, Croatia, for a course on divided societies held at the Interuniversity Center. Here, scholars from around the world spoke about nationalism and violence in various countries, from Ireland to Turkey to Ukraine. While discussing the overall themes of the conference, WSU senior Regina Cabrera Hernandez said what she took away from the speakers was the complex nature of nationalism.

“It’s not just a physical thing, it’s how people feel and how they relate to their nation,” Cabrera Hernández said. “It plays a role in many conflicts that we see today and in the past, and trying to ignore it or pretend that war and societies are very rigid – that doesn’t work, because it’s about the way people relate to these abstract concepts of nation, your country and your people.

Another student who participated in the trip, junior Aduare Iwuh, said that despite the pervasive nature of conflict, the commitment of scholars who study it makes her optimistic about the potential for reducing it.

“There is still a lot of curiosity behind (the division and violence), and I think as long as there is curiosity there is hope, not necessarily to eradicate the divisions because I think that divisions are somehow natural, but I think there is a way to minimize the damage that results. comes with them,” Iwuh said.

Several WSU students on the trip presented at the conference, including David Faehner and Blythe Collins, who both spoke about ways to reduce the risk of violence sparked by feelings of division and otherness. Collins, a law student with a master’s degree in responsible tourism management, used work from her master’s project to study how the Arab American Museum in Dearborn dispels misconceptions and stereotypes about the Arab community.

“Tourism and getting involved in your local community can help demystify the other and reduce the negative side effects of nationalism,” Collins said.

Faehner, who holds a Ph.D. student at WSU whose work focuses on political theory, proposed that one way to potentially avoid conflict in society is to solidify a society’s moral principles through what he calls “democratic poetry.” .

“Where do we find our principles?…How can we anchor ourselves in a secular world where we cannot unify around anything?” » asked Faehner.

“As religion disappears, it will become necessary to create more collective stories on which we can base our societies,” Faehner said. “So democratic poetry is any kind of media you can imagine – songs, films, stories, plays – that tells the democratic story and makes a person believe these things rather than trying to argue with them. »

While the conference included discussions of the conflict in a more general sense, with discussions of different countries around the world, there was a strong focus on the violence that occurred during the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Brad Roth, professor in law and political science at WSU, who facilitated the trip, explained the state of the former Yugoslavia and why it was the ideal terrain for war after its fall.

“The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a very complex balance of different ethnicities located within the republics of the former Yugoslavia dominated by certain ethnic groups,” Roth said. “When the communist government in Yugoslavia dissolved, it was essentially a scramble for control.”

Many of the students and speakers at the conference were Croatian, one of several states that comprised Yugoslavia before its fall, and which had themselves faced the violence that followed. Several students on the trip spoke about the unique experience of talking to these people.

“There were a lot of Croatian students who were very young during the conflict, so hearing their perspective on the conflict, even just hanging out and having coffee, and hearing what it was like growing up in Croatia in the ’90s was very interesting,” Collins said.

Faehner said the opportunity to speak to these people provided a more intimate perspective on the themes covered at the conference.

“If you want to take conflict seriously, it’s best to talk to people who have actually experienced it,” Faehner said.

A city under siege

After the week spent at IUC in Croatia, the group spent the next few days traveling throughout Bosnia, with the majority of their time being in the capital Sarajevo. Sarajevo holds an exceptional place in history as the site of the longest siege of a capital in modern history during one of the wars sparked by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Additionally, very few parts of the city have since been restored and therefore exist as a living memory of the war that took place.

“When you walk around Sarajevo, the bullet holes are still present in the buildings, you can see where the snipers were targeting people,” Faehner said.

Throughout the city are commemorative pieces called Roses of Sarajevo, where red resin was added to the explosion patterns of mortar shells dropped during the siege. 200 roses exist throughout the capital.

Iwuh said visiting the city gave him a new dimension in his understanding of the siege.

“We took a cable car up to the top of a mountain and you can actually see that the town is surrounded by high plateaus, and if you have enemy fire coming from everywhere, you won’t be able to get out. And that’s kind of what happened,” Iwuh said. “There are many things like this where you can appreciate it by seeing it in person and I think reading it or even watching it on TV just doesn’t do it justice.”

The siege of Sarajevo took place during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, where most of the conflict was between Bosnian government forces and Serbian nationalists. During the war, the Serbs, a Slavic ethnic group whose population is scattered across the Balkans, sought to unite the Serbian people by redrawing Yugoslav borders. This was achieved through an ethnic cleansing of the region of all non-Serb ethnic groups, which included Bosniaks and Croats.

“This is the kind of thing that happens when you’re faced with a crisis of political institutions and strong competing conceptions of ethnic identity, and it’s sort of the worst-case scenario in all of this. So it’s unfortunately the ideal thing to study,” Roth said.

A palace for peace

After their brief stay in Bosnia, the group traveled to The Hague in the Netherlands to visit the United Nations international courts. During their stay, the students had the opportunity to visit three courts: the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals and the International Court of Justice.

The Kosovo Court handles cases related to the Kosovo War, another conflict involving Serbia in the region of former Yugoslavia. The group of students had the opportunity to attend the debates, despite some limitations due to publicly available information.

“You can watch the debates, but when they discuss sensitive information, they mute the audience. So we could see them talking…but we’re just not allowed to hear what they’re saying,” Iwuh said.

Cabrera Hernández said it was interesting to follow the debates and see the configuration of the functioning of the courts, taking into account their work.

“You take classes and hear about international law and how (the courts) work, but it’s really different being there,” Cabrera Hernández said. “The people who work there are normal people… they just look like normal people who work in an office building, but they go after war criminals. »

The other international tribunal the group visited was The Mechanism, an organization that handles appeals and retrials from now-defunct tribunals involving the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. During its visit to the Mechanism, the group received information on its internal functioning as part of the work started after the Bosnian War.

“When we went there, we were presented with information about forensics and how evidence was introduced about the massacres that happened in Bosnia and… about the process of finding human remains,” Roth said.

The last court visited was the International Court of Justice, also called the World Court. The ICJ is responsible for resolving countries’ disputes over international law and providing legal advice on international issues.

The group was given a tour of the court itself by a law clerk who worked there. Roth said each of the courts visited was unique in playing a role in the conflicts the students learned about throughout their trip.

“The ICJ has been the scene of a few trials, in fact at least three, related to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the most important being the case brought by Bosnia against Serbia in connection with the genocide, and this That’s how all these courts relate,” Roth says.

Discussing the group’s time in The Hague, Faehner said seeing the courts offered some optimism in the face of the seemingly intractable nature of conflict and division.

“They really have a peace palace, like a real peace palace in which you could imagine a kind of king and queen, but no, you have rooms where you have the files focused on the different countries,” he said. Faehner said. “A lot of resources are being put into it to make it actually look like a place where countries can settle their differences”

Speaking about the entire trip, Collins praised the trip and the experiences it gave him.

“It was a good trip. If they offer it again next year I would encourage everyone to apply, especially if you have never traveled before, as the Balkans is a very interesting region with a history so rich,” Collins said.

WSU has participated intermittently in the Interuniversity Center event in Croatia since 2000, with Roth and fellow political science professor Kevin Deegan-Krause often facilitating the trip.

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