“Historic Moments at the Millennium: A Dialogue with former Yugoslavians as part of a Global Mediation and Reconciliation Service to Prepare for the UN Decade on Non Violence” presented at The Hague Appeal for Peace, The Netherlands 11-15 May 1999

by Virginia Swain and Anne Burling

The Peacebuilding Process of Reconciliation to develop political will is to create a safe place where people can begin to trust themselves and each other — we call this a Sacred Container. The need for this comes from an understanding of the shadow or unconscious part of each person where we express our woundedness without our awareness. A Sacred Container is a metaphoric structure, created by participants, to share resources and power, withdraw projections of the unconscious, and dissipate emotional reactions in such a way that the outcome of the meeting is owned by everyone present. A beautiful piece of Swedish glass is passed around to be a vehicle where the emotions can be reconciled. The only one that can speak is the holder of the Swedish glass. Facilitators let go of their need to control the outcome and lightly guide the process so that participants have an experience of owning unconscious emotions.

In todays conflicts, with such a high level of emotions causing people to raise their voices, scream and strike and even kill one another, a Sacred Container can be a useful way for participants to begin healng from those experiences, withdraw their projections and build relationships across divisions. Participants create ground rules for themselves that are primarily monitored by facilitators, but also by participants. A common experience brings people together naturally when the Sacred Container is in place and emotions are contained and released.

A small gathering of seven former Yugoslavians refugees in the greater Boston area met in Boston on May 7, 1999. It was co-sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of MA Peace and Justice Commission, the Coalition for a Strong United Nations and the Boston Department of Public Health in their Partnerships for Health Violence Prevention Month project.

We had invited people in Greater Boston through the co-sponsors to come to an interfaith gathering for prayers and dialogue to comfort, create refuge, safety, and a healing environment for participants from the former Yugoslavia. People who represent all sides of the issues are welcome, not to debate, but to offer solace to those concerned about the fate of the Balkans. The mutual understanding will be brought to the Hague Appeal for

Several considerations were pondered as we planned a Sacred Container for the ex-Yugoslavians. We wanted this first meeting to have as few impediments and be as simple as possible to succeed. We wanted to help participants establish trusting relationships with one another, believing in the power of a holding environment as a resource for healing, in spite of the barriers imposed by the controversy in the former Yugoslavia. To that end, we asked Americans who wanted to participate to sit on the outside edge of the circle to support the participants.

In this first effort, we required that participants speak English. We considered the possibility of trying to find an interpreter for those who didn’t but decided that the added problem of some members not understanding or speaking English was too difficult to overcome easily. The second consideration was the knowledge that all would have some degree of trauma. We wanted participants that had enough emotional maturity to have a degree of control over their emotions and an ability to listen to others who were telling their stories. When interviewing them before the meeting, it was important to ascertain their thoughtfulness and their ability to hear an “enemy’s” point of view. And thirdly, we had to persuade them that the meeting would be held in a respectful and sensitive manner.

The Sacred Container had to be safe and non-threatening with no surprises. We let them know that ground rules were important in how we were going to handle the very vulnerable and sensitive emotions that would be present. We told them we would have suggestions for the Sacred Container, but that they would have the final word on how safety would be invoked in the meeting, making sure that they would have a stake in the outcome.

Participants included a Kosovar, an ethnic Albanian. Peter Smith, co-chair of the Coalition for a Strong UN and co-facilitator with Virginia Swain, had heard his name from a colleague who described him as a man wanting to talk about the Kosovar situation from his point of view. An educated and very thoughtful man who had lived in this country for a number of years. His parents and extended family were either still in Kosovo or in one of the refugee camps. He was willing to come to the meeting. It was a relief to finally have at least one person who would be an appropriated attendee and who also had the date available. We were hoping he might have some friends or colleagues whom he could recommend. But he said he didn’t know anyone he trusted sufficiently to recommend. There was so much trauma and unprocessed emotion in the Kosovar community that he didn’t know anyone whom he felt sure could handle sitting in the same room with Serbs.

The next person interviewed was a Serbian man in his early 40s, who had come to Boston with his wife and small children. He was afraid for himself and his family both here and in Belgrade. And he was ashamed. The Serb thought about it for a week or so and then agreed to talk. He was apprehensive and wanted to understand the purpose of the meeting. Was he supposed to prepare something? We explained that politics, policy and blame were not on the agenda. Everyone would be given the opportunity to speak of their experiences, but not their political positions. Later, after we sent him a description of our meeting, we talked again and he agreed to come.

The meeting was scheduled for three hours. They were still talking four hours later. As a Serb said, we couldn’t leave on another… They spoke of a general lack of support for Milosevic and their common pain. They decided on their Sacred Container and used the Swedish glass to absorb their mistrust, anger and fear as they cried, lamented and shared their deepest selves. It was compelling to be there with them.

After the meeting was over, the Kosovar gave this statement, “It was useful for me to be exposed to this process. I felt hope meeting the facilitators and participants.That such individuals exist in the midst of the horror of the war, showed me the better side of humanity.”

This work moved our society forward promoting core human values. Its much easier now that there is a personal relationship where we put individuals faces
into a global event.

A Serbian woman, who had lived in the USA for many years, said she had been afraid she would unknowingly insult a participant if she expressed her feelings too strongly. She realized that there was anger in each of them that could easily have led to miscommunication. She felt Peter and Virginia reminded participants not to project their anger on each other. There is a spark of being good to your neighbor in each Yugoslav that already exists. If her/his existence is not in jeopardy, if the hatred is not passed on to their children, that spark could be used as a catalyst and a bridge for neighbors to help one another, rather than attack one another. I found that of God in everyone. Why can’t we have our country as we had it before?

Outside the circle of participants were an outer circle of six Americans praying for the ex-Yugoslavians to support them through the process. The Rev. Beulah Koulouris, co-chair of the Peace and Justice Commission, said in her sermon two days later, “I marveled at their ability to patiently listen. {At the end of the meeting} their apparent empathy for each other and their understanding of one another’s viewpoints as each person shared their pain and their hopes for the future made it hard to leave.”

The participants were asked how Virginia could bring their mutual understanding to the Hague Appeal for Peace, due to begin two days later. They asked her to talk about their hopes that the children of the world would all have opportunities to learn how to live with different types of people, learn not to be suspicious of other cultures, peoples and religions. They spoke of their hope that the world would find a way to stop a leader like Milosevic from gaining so much power. They wanted the international community to find a way to intervene without destroying life and property.

As Virginia presented their insights as part of her presentation, Establishing Professional and NGO Mediation and Reconciliation Services at the UN, on the panel at the Hague Appeal, she was so grateful to be their spokesperson, feeling privileged to know people who are willing to take responsibility for their pain and forge a new future. Virginia gave concrete examples of how these people learned through their experience of violence that they must change, people must withdraw their projections, respect and treat each other with dignity and respect.