Dealing with social trauma of a war through education for peace


Selma Porobić and Alma Jeftić

Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina

This blog post sheds some light on how peace education could transform social trauma in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina with lessons for other post-war societies.

Societies affected by social trauma undergo significant transformations, typically involving collective identity restructurings. These may entail conscious efforts to 'close the chapter' on the shared grievances of the past.  When not addressed, the narrative (re)constructions will continue by group members often temporally and spatially far removed from the actual event, leading to what Vamik Volkan calls a ‘chosen trauma’ – a group identity connecting trauma, memory and fundamental safety. 

Post-Hiroshima Japan, post-Holocaust Germany and post-apartheid South Africa are examples of long-term collective processes aimed at discontinuing transmissions of tragedy represented in the group memory. In Germany, the second generation engaged in revisionist tendencies when attempts to talk openly about the atrocities committed by Nazis in WW II were ‘prematurely’ brought to the table. It was only the third generation that was able to vocalise and deal with the guilt of the first generation, but was this their responsibility?

Social traumas caused by war, genocide and massive human rights violations suggest a transgenerational recovery from collective violence. Part of this process is about understanding the conditions that prompted the interconnection of systems of violence – structural, overt, interpersonal and personal, intimate. It is about uncovering the social dynamics that relegate certain groups to ‘less human’ status and fuel binary group relations, such as victim-perpetrator. Safe environments that encourage reflection support this development. They offer healing narratives to protect from political exploitation of trauma and support transformation of antagonistic positions.

A powerful tool in this process is ‘pedagogy of remembrance’ which arises from the basic need to understand the dreadful consequences of wars and genocide and to develop a certain moral framework for ‘never again’ action-taking. We would like to illustrate this by looking at post-conflict societies, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

During the 1992-1995 war, BiH’s close-knit multicultural society was torn apart through human rights violations on a massive scale, best understood as well-planned military and political ‘demographic engineering’. During the conflict, 100,000 people were killed, 2.5 million forcibly displaced and 70% of infrastructure destroyed. The country itself was partitioned into ethnically cleansed territories. Today, the war past in BiH is difficult to openly vocalise. Communication among diverse social – particularly ethnic – groups is hindered by distrust and fear, fuelled by the Dayton Peace Agreement, which institutionalised the war divisions and antagonism. This paralysing post-Dayton reality leaves little room for genuine public dialogue supporting peacebuilding and reconciliation. 

Likewise, the mono-ethnic school curricula directly hinder the new generations’ opportunities to meet and engage in dialogue. Although school children are officially not yet allowed to learn about the 1992-1995 atrocities from school curricula, efforts have been made to educate history teachers to talk about sensitive topics. In 2002, education for peace was introduced in primary and secondary schools in order to support the much-needed social agency for change. In 2003, a country-wide Association of Teachers and Professors of History (EUROCLIO HIP BiH) was formed, tasked with improving the quality of history classes and providing training in teaching sensitive topics. Despite its noteworthy and country-wide outreach in promoting democracy and human rights in the classroom, it failed to offer solutions to divided schools and teaching curricula, which remain a major obstacle to peacebuilding in BiH.

Today, in the economically strained everyday reality, traumatising war memories are pushed aside by the majority. At the same time, the intrusive presence of conflict narratives in the highly politicised media continues. Being surrounded by several different traumatic narratives in the classroom is challenging for both teacher and pupils. What is a teacher supposed to do if he/she is confronted with two (or more) different interpretations of the same war event, or when his/her narrative differs from the one shared by the rest of the class? 

Previous research has shown that when such narratives are shared in a non-judgmental environment, imbued by active listening and reflection, positive outcomes are expected. Training both teachers and students in BiH to use these communication techniques is relevant, but even more so to directly support them in actively seeking and creating a safe environment for dialogue and reflection.

Museums, as symbols of the past connecting to the present, are often safe pedagogical environments. An example is the War Childhood Museum (WCM) in Sarajevo. Unlike other war-related museums in BiH, it documents experiences of those indirectly involved in the war (children), who suffered its multiple consequences. It consists of recollection of stories, objects and personal belongings of individuals whose childhood years were marked by the 1990s war, but it also includes exhibits on child realities from other war-torn countries, such as Ukraine and Syria. The WCM provides a safe space for different perspectives, histories and views to meet. Its storytelling method (employing video records) helps to relate and develop empathy. By nurturing pro-active empathy, WCM upholds the key principles of education for peace and should become an integral part of general curricula in BiH.        

Peace education supports the ability of educators and students to leave their memory prisons and become capable of taking a different perspective and developing empathy through experiential learning beyond the classroom. Its role is critical to systematic societal undertakings towards recovery from social trauma of war in BiH and elsewhere.


Porobić, S. (forthcoming 2020) 'Social Identity Transformations and Social Trauma Nexus.' In Hamburger, A., Volkan, V., and Hancheva, C., (Eds.) Handbook of Social Trauma. Germany: Springer International Publishing 

Porobić, S. (2018) 'How Can Refugees Heal? Reflections on Healing Practices Across the Refugee Process – From Displacement to Integration, Return and Beyond' in Hamburger, A., Tutnjevic, S., Hancheva, C.,

Jeftic, A. (2019). Social Aspects of Memories. Stories of Victims and Perpetrators from Bosnia-Herzegovina. London: Routledge. 

Jeftic, A. (2019). 'I Was Close to Them': Re-experiencing War through Trauma-based InterviewsSocial Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2019.1681555

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Dr Selma Porobić and Alma Jeftić (PhD Candidate) are psychologists with extensive experience in the field of war, trauma and memory, affiliated with Research Network on Transnational Memory and Identity in Europe, Council for European Studies, Columbia University.

Issue: Trauma

Exposure to trauma and bereavement is common in conflict-affected regions. It affects indivduals and whole societies. Enjoying peace after the crisis is often impossible. How helpful is trauma resolution to the prevention of future conflicts? Who does trauma therapy address? Are there best-practice examples in post-crisis countries?

Guest moderator

Cordula Reimann, from core

For many organisations working in development and peacebuilding, trauma prevention and trauma sensitivity have become important guiding principles of their work in general and their specific activities on Dealing with the Past in particular.

In this edition of the FriEnt blog, we could win academic scholars and practitioners to reflect on their analytical concepts and practical experiences around trauma work and why this concept is relevant for successful dealing with the past processes and how it can be translated and applied in the actual peacebuilding practice. Trauma work refers here to all pro-active approaches and strategies to address and transform the destructive dynamics and consequences of trauma and traumatization on both an individual and a collective level.