Drums and Discussions in Sarajevo

An Act of Faith

This really was a quite extraordinary Congress. Ten years ago, Bosnia was ripped apart by a terrible civil war in which thousands died at the hands of their neighbours, with hatred and violence whipped up where there had been peace and friendship.

When FICE started to plan this Congress, it was something of an act of faith to even think of holding a major international Congress there, as the war was more recent. However, in South Eastern Europe FICE already had a good track record of bringing both staff and children together from the countries of former Yugoslavia in what were at first called Peace Camps and then became Friendship Camps. They were supported by Swiss and Dutch FICE members and, despite the recent historical rifts, the camps were a real success.

The act of faith in siting the Congress in Sarajevo paid off. Indeed, the collaboration between FICE members from Bosnia and its neighbours reflected their shared intention to build anew and be positive. The most potent symbol of their success was the Congress hall itself. The Congress met in the Faculty of Sports at the University if Sarajevo, and plenary sessions were held in the swimming pool. The prospect of this unusual venue raised eyebrows, but there was no water in the pool, so all the obvious jokes fell flat.

But what delegates were not told when they applied to attend was that the roof was only put on the pool two months before the event. The pool had been hit by shells in the siege of Sarajevo, and so a brand-new roof was installed, just in time for the Congress. The audience sat on cushions on the concrete benches for the spectators, and the speakers stood in the shallow end of the pool. The arrangements were still pretty make-shift, with cushions and temporary barriers and wooden steps for speakers to enter the pool, but they worked.

Considering the background against which they were working, the organisation of the Congress was praiseworthy. And when things did go wrong, – when too much food was supplied, for example, – people held up their hands and admitted that this was “the Bosnian way of doing things”.

Young People’s Congress

FICE holds international Congresses every two years, and in recent times there have been parallel Congresses for young people who are in the care systems of their respective countries. In 2004 in Glasgow there were separate Congresses at different venues for adults and young people, who came together in a successful plenary finale when a multimedia presentation with some powerful messages was made to the adult delegates by the young people.

This time, in Sarajevo, the young people arrived first, to start work and get to know each other. The two Congresses then ran in parallel, intertwining, with young people joining in workshops from time to time. One of their activities was drumming, and every main session was heralded by rhythmic thumping to get delegates’ adrenaline going. At the start of each of the plenary sessions, they marched in with their maracas, bongos and all their other instruments, and gave everyone an earful.

Drummers In Sarajevo, Bosnia

The final plenary ended with a sort of conga, as the whole young people’s Congress joined the drummers, leaders and other organisers in the shallow end of the pool. The total effect was dynamic and lively, and involved the adult delegates in a way which contrasted sharply with the Congresses of thirty years ago, where a row of important old men in suits would sit behind a table to speak at the audience.


The involvement of the young people was important in anchoring adult concerns firmly onto the needs and interests of the young people, but the informality of the drumming and dancing did not detract from the serious messages which were given.The involvement of the young people was important in anchoring adult concerns firmly onto the needs and interests of the young people, but the informality of the drumming and dancing did not detract from the serious messages which were given.

Perhaps the most moving and powerful came from Zeni Thumbadoo, Deputy Director of the National Association of Child Care Workers, which acts as FICE-South Africa. She spoke of  the disastrous impact of HIV/AIDS on families. 1.1 million children are now orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. As many as 160,000 families are now headed by young people and children because of their parents’ deaths, and systems have had to be devised to give practical, financial and personal support to these children. (The need is still desperate and monetary contributions funnelled through NACCW will be welcomed from any reader willing to help.)

Many of the papers focused on resilience, as the Congress theme was looking at ways of giving children good lives despite appalling experiences in their early years. Boris Cyrulnik of France gave an excellent paper on treatment for children following traumatic experiences. Lutz-Ulrich Besser and Anna Fromann of Germany also gave plenary sessions on other aspects of the theme.


It was a full programme, with a wide variety of presentations where speakers reported on projects and workshops in which participation was expected. I attended workshops on the guardianship of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers in the Netherlands, family conferences and peace education, all being of a high standard.

The workshop on peace education, which proved very moving and indicated the level of work still to be done, and the challenges faced by social pedagogues. In Sarajevo there are understandably still tensions in the community. Now that the Bosnian Muslims are resettled in Sarajevo many of the Bosnian Serbs have moved to a large suburb down the valley. To an outsider, no tension is visible and the atmosphere feels relaxed. In Serbia, people are having to come to terms with the split-up of Yugoslavia and the blame attached to their Government by people in other countries. Parents are having to explain to their children, and there is a complex web of emotional response as they justify their actions. In Austria, a country now free of war for sixty years, one delegate reported that the older generation still feels a need to come to terms with its Second World War opponents.

Dealing with such matters takes time and there are no easy answers, but in taking positive steps, FICE is still earning its title of Peace Messenger, awarded some years ago by the United Nations.

A Change of Presidents

The Sarajevo Congress marked the end of Theo Binnendijk’s third two-year term of office, and he stood down in accordance with the Statutes. His six years have seen an expansion of the membership, especially in South Eastern Europe, and the re-creation of the United States National Section.

Theo was hampered by the lack of a Secretary General. However, his colleague, Famke Schiff, has very ably supplied the Secretariat support, and since she has decided to retire  along with Theo, her efficient and friendly support for the Executive Committee and Federal Council will be much missed.

With his relaxed approach to leadership Theo also maintained the warm and friendly atmosphere which has been a characteristic of FICE over many years now. To some extent the Vice Presidents shared the load which the Secretary General should have carried, and Theo involved them in the Executive Committee for the first time. Towards the end of his presidency Theo set up a Working Group to consider FICE’s future, and the resulting plans should bear fruit under the new President.

Monika Niederle of FICE-Austria took over from Theo Binnendijk at the Congress. Her arrival should see the implementation of the plans made over the last year. She will be supported by a fellow Austrian, Bettina Terp, in providing Secretariat support, and Andrew Hosie of Scotland has offered to dedicate some time to fulfilling Secretary General duties such as support for projects. So, watch this space to see what happens. (Monika’s profile is the subject of another article in the issue.)

The Sarajevo Declaration

In preparing for the Congress, the organisers had drafted a Declaration concerning children’s rights, the aims of the child care profession, and the need to give children a sense of safety and belonging, a good childhood, education and therapy where necessary. This Declaration was worked on during the Congress and the young people made banners to indicate their response to the concepts in it. (The text in full is included separately in this issue of the Webmag.)

Declarations of this sort are important as, in hammering out the wording, people have to wrestle with the concepts and decide what matters most. They are not the only way of getting ideas across. A balloon from one of the young people attending had the motto on it, “Children have the right to love, play and dream”. Hear, hear.

Sarajevo City

The city is set in a beautiful wooded valley with a small channelled river rushing through the centre. Although there is a population of 400,000, the city centre is still built on a modest scale and has a slightly provincial feel, reflecting perhaps its status in the Empires of which Bosnia was part.

The Congress theme of renewal and making good reflected the current state of both the country and the city. The damage done by the besieging army ten years earlier was still visible. A substantial numbers of buildings are still gutted or heavily damaged. Others were pock-marked by shells and bullets. Yet the amount of repair work and rebuilding was more apparent, and in much of the city things were to all appearances back to normal.

 A quick review of Bosnia’s  history suggests that it has been subject to changes of Government, boundary  and ownership more often than anywhere else in the world, and in consequence,  different ethnic and religious groups have had to co-exist.

Sarajevo is a city of great character, set at one of the main historical cultural interfaces. It was at times part of the Ottoman Empire, and more recently in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Indeed it was in Sarajevo that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, triggering the First World War. A quick review of Bosnia’s history suggests that it has been subject to changes of Government, boundary and ownership more often than anywhere else in the world, and in consequence, different ethnic and religious groups have had to co-exist. In one square there is a cathedral, mosque and synagogue, as large numbers of Jews came to Bosnia when they were ejected from Spain.

The city has a Turkish market quarter with low-roofed shops, cobbled streets, fountains and mosques, but it also has modern shops and the variety of goods one would expect in a European capital. It is still getting on its feet. The day I decided to go sight-seeing, the museum concerning the Archduke’s assassination was not open, the National Art Gallery was being refurbished, except for one hall with a temporary display of wall-hangings, and I found out from the helpful curator that the National Museum was shut that day.

Still, the mosques were open, beautifully restored since the war, and watching the old men play outdoor chess proved fascinating, not so much for the quality of the chess, but for their style of playing, the continuous banter and argument and the occasional intervention of spectators.


As with all FICE events, the Congress gave opportunities to meet old friends and make new contacts, and a chance for dinners in good restaurants. (Try the House of Spite near the river if you happen to be in Sarajevo.)

There were also the little cameos which make travelling abroad interesting, such as the wedding cavalcades (seven or eight of them on the closing Saturday) which drove slowly round the city with horns blaring and flowers strapped onto the car’s bonnets. There was the man who spoke to me enthusiastically – and without prompting – about Paddy Ashdown’s time in the country and the way he had set up a proper system of justice. There were the domestic television programmes which seemed to be made up largely of oldish men singing loudly and accompanied by concertina players. There were the little shops selling ornaments and old cartridge cases with incised pictures. There was the shopkeeper who had had to rebuild from scratch when his shop had been flattened. There were the buildings where the winter Olympics had been held in the 1980s. There was the unpredictable style of driving. There was the usual good FICE weather with the warm late summer days, the blue skies being punctuated only once by thunderstorms.

And there was the ignorance of outsiders about Bosnia. When I said I was going to Sarajevo, there was uncertainty about quite where Bosnia is. There was concern about whether it is now safe. When I tried to obtain Bosnian marks, the lady at the bank actually asked me which country Bosnian marks were used in. Well, Bosnia is now on the map as far as FICE is concerned. They are wanting to build up their tourist trade. It’s a good time to visit, before it gets too busy.

Helsinki in 2008

FICE heads north for its next Congress, and planning is already well in hand. The Central Union for Child Welfare acts as FICE-Finland. They are a highly professional organisation, and will no doubt organise a good Congress. The theme will be “A Better Future for Children – Today”, and it will be held from 11 – 13 June 2008. Put it in your diary now.

FICE stands for the Federation Internationale des Communautes Educatives. It is an international professional organisation which has worked since 1948 to foster high standards of child care / social education / social pedagogy. It has National Sections in many countries, as well as individual members in other countries, and the National Sections are represented on the Federal Council, which meets twice a year in different countries.

FICE was founded after the Second World War to provide support to people working in residential child care, but its members now work with children and young people in a wide variety of settings. Each National Section has its own programme, but FICE International holds a Congress every two years, and is currently about to recommence its publishing programme in association with Trentham. Its website is www.fice-inter.org .

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