Storytelling’s potential for personal transformation
Through the workshops, 22.5 percent of training participants decided to take a further step in their transformation through public speaking events to the wider community (Catholic Relief Services 2014). For them, who suffered greatly during the war, sharing their personal stories of transformation became something they could do to help individuals and communities better understand and accept alternative and historical narratives of "other groups,” helping them to think critically about dominant narratives and paving the way to reconciliation.
For many of the speakers, the motivation to engage in public speaking events was deeply connected with their will to participate in truth-telling and peacebuilding processes. They found the PSE project very important for reaching out to youth and to encourage young people to start questioning their beliefs about other ethnic groups. Other speakers found it to be a continuation of their trauma healing process (Bosankic, Mesic and Sosic 2012). Therefore, as peacebuilding activists and advocates, they started a joint initiative to present their personal narratives to the broader community through PSEs.
PSEs include stories about human lives before, during and after war. They are structured into approximately 15-minute testimonies for each of the three main speakers (one Bosniak, one Serb and one Croat) who jointly and openly talk about their experiences, maltreatment, loss of loved ones, emotions, thoughts and coping styles developed to maintain dignity and life during the war and in the postwar period. These testimonies are unique in that the reflections are individual and personal rather than from a historical or political perspective. The speakers talk about life after war, endeavors to overcome hostility toward "others," trauma, and their transformations from past war victims to peace activists today. After these stories, they take questions and comments from the audience (another approximately 45 minutes) as a post-story dialogue between storytellers and listeners (youth, peers, academics and others).
Attendees of PSEs are of different ages, genders, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Depending on location, the group may be ethnically homogenous or heterogeneous; it may consist mainly of youth, but at times it will have people of different ages. The group's size could vary from 500 to more than a couple of hundred. Many people who have attended PSEs come from communities affected by conflict and a sense of victimhood. That sense of victimhood is often woven
Remembering side by side 111 into their socially constructed identities along with the collective group's chosen trauma and chosen identity. They bring to the PSE their own war memories, emotions, reflections, doubts and their experiences of living in a postwar and transitional society. They also are generally most familiar with their own ethnic group's dominant political and historical narratives. It is unlikely that they would have participated in a similar activity previously, leaving their attitudes about others and about reconciliation processes previously unchallenged. In particular, the effect of PSEs is likely highest for youth, since youngsters in BiH live most often in homogenous enclaves where one group’s prejudices and stereotypes are maintained while many of these youth have not had the opportunity to meet “others” and hear their stories.
In order to influence change, a number of inner cognitive processes have to occur during the PSE. Listeners have to personally understand and recognize the relevance of the PSE so they are motivated to listen; if motivated, they must have the ability to process what they hear. Since there is sometimes silence or unawareness around conflict, speakers' personal narratives provide a unique perspective of history and as such hold the power to influence the perceptions and attitudes of those who listen. This process could be more or less helpful. If listeners are open to hearing about the experiences of other religious and ethnics groups, a PSE could open a place for their personal growth and better understanding of the past conflict. However, if listeners hold strong opinions and beliefs about the facts of what happened during the war, and are less willing to hear war testimonies of other groups, an internal conflict may occur and as such could block potential for change.
During the post-story dialogue, listeners are concurrently relating new information to their prior knowledge and experiences and validating those information according to own personal identities, experiences, histories and visions. Personal wartime stories may also help listeners to better understand the context, as well as accept new stories; listeners (especially youth) often comment that they have never heard of atrocities committed by their own ethnic group or say they were unaware that "such things" happened at all. Very often, listeners trust all speakers very quickly, mainly because members of their own religious and/or ethnic group do not publicly judge but support narratives of different ethnic groups. That is when listeners start to feel empathy or resistance toward the speakers and develop more or less favorable thoughts about their stories. For those with more favorable thoughts, a powerful relationship between the narrator and listener is likely to occur, which may facilitate a collaborative process of meaning-making (Senehi 2002). Without having to give up one’s social identity, listening, experiencing and understanding should give people the possibility to change some of those group beliefs that are destructive to the intergroup relationship. For others with lack of motivation and/or understanding or with less favorable thoughts toward stories and speakers, attitudes will remain the same as before or become even more deeply entrenched against the "others." Some listeners might hold that PSEs relativize the different groups’ roles during war, question the truthfulness of the testimonies and consider public acceptance of structures and states as morerelevant to reconciliation processes than PSE testimonies. In practice, however, observations and qualitative data gathered through internal evaluations suggest that such comments are rare. If present, they are mainly expressed by individuals who had suffered heavily during the war and are themselves in need of psychosocial support, ones with strong nationalistic political active involvement or those whose close family members were prosecuted or convicted for war crimes during the 1990-1995 conflicts.
As two participants (ex-war camp prisoners) stated in a focus group interview (Ibid.):
If only, during our public speaking we affect five people from one hundred, I feel that we have accomplished something. We do not have to change someone’s attitudes completely. ... I am aware that I camiot change anyone, but I can influence some people to a certain degree and maybe some other people seeing our work will feel inspired to do something or at least to speak differently (about others).
(Banja Luka, focus group participant)
The first time I told my story in the workshop it was very difficult, and it is difficult every time I tell it, but every time I tell it, I am breaking down barriers and I feel more free. Until then, I did not have strength. . . [to tell the story] and nobody ever heard it until then . . . and now after all the seminars and workshops it is easier to talk about it; now I feel better after telling my story
(Tuzla, focus group participant)
These responses indicate the potential of storytelling for both personal and collective transformation.