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Bosnian Journalist Working To ‘Break The Chain Of Trauma’

Bosnia and Herzegovina -- Asja Hafner, Digital Media Manager with RFE/RL's Balkan Service. Sarajevo, February 7, 2018.

Asja Hafner found the strength to survive the three-year siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War of the 1990s by telling the stories of her fellow survivors as a magazine and radio journalist. Now she’s working to end the legacy of prejudice, intolerance, and violence that still pervades her country more than two decades later with a social media counter-extremism project.

“All of us who came of age during the war became convinced that our work had to have meaning, that it had to be in support of a cause,” said Hafner. “So I chose journalism.”

Hafner began her career as a journalist in 1993 at the height of the wars that would eventually lead to the break-up of Yugoslavia. She worked for the magazine DANI, one of the few publications that continued publishing in Sarajevo during the war. She says she focused her reporting on “the phenomenon of trying to live normally in a city under siege.”

When the war ended in 1995, Hafner spent a few years abroad before returning to her native Bosnia to produce TV and documentary films and other multimedia stories on a variety of topics.

In 2017 she joined RFE/RL’s Balkan Service as a Digital Media Manager, and one of her main focuses has been a counter-extremism project called “Not In My Name,” which produces digital content tackling radicalization and extremism for social media, namely Facebook. The aim of the project is to provide a platform for engagement and respectful discussion about why people become radicalized and driven to violence, and how the cycle can be stopped. A twin project exists in the Albanian language for audiences in Kosovo, and both are part of a broader initiative at RFE/RL to counter extremism by facilitating dialogue.

“Sometimes we feel like we’re dancing on the knife’s edge,” said Hafner. “How does one start the discussion about extremism and get people engaged without provoking more hate? One way is to create counter-narratives.”

One counter-narrative Hafner and her team present deals with the tragic consequences for the family of a radicalized person who has turned to violence.

Though Bosnian muslims overwhelmingly adhere to a moderate and tolerant interpretation of their religion, there is an alarming trend of radicalization, especially among young people, with some even joining the ranks of ISIS militants in Syria. “Not In My Name” produce short videos for social media about the pain of families left behind by a loved one who went to Syria. Journalists working on the project also tell the stories of young women who feel they were tricked in to going to Syria, have returned home to Bosnia, and are now struggling to reintegrate into society after their experience.

The threat of radicalization is not limited to religious extremism. As Hafner explains, in a post-conflict society like Bosnia, there is a long line of antecedents that have left people vulnerable to extremism.

“The trauma of the war was never really dealt with,” said Hafner. “And under these circumstances, where we’ve seen state support of violence, political manipulation, ethnic hatred, and personal experiences with violence—these can also be drivers of extremism.”

Another powerful report produced for “Not In My Name” is a video feature about Dragana Seferovic Pilav, a Bosnian Muslim Roma who grew up partly in orphanages and is passionate about ballet and Taekwondo.

Ballet, Taekwondo, And A Fight Against Prejudice
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These types of features, says Hafner, serve to dispel societal stereotypes and prejudices. Hafner describes the mistrust among ethnic and religious communities and intolerance of differences as an “infection” in Bosnian society, and extremism as a “symptom.”

A similar video feature celebrates the initiative of a group of young people from the muslim community who volunteered to remove graffiti on a highway sign defacing the Cyrillic transliteration of city names. Cyrillic is the script used by Bosnia’s ethnic Serbs, who are mostly Orthodox Christians. The post generated dozens of comments applauding the teens’ efforts.

“I know how the trauma of war and violence can be transferred from one generation to the next,” said Hafner. “I’m hoping that our journalistic work on ‘Not In My Name’ can help break the chain of trauma.”

--Emily Thompson