Again and again, participants of our Peace Camps in the former Yugoslavia write that they found friends there that they would never forget. Vanja Nedic tells the story of Emina, Johnny, Nicola, Semir and herself; they met in 2007 and 2008 at the Peace Camp on the seaside in Neum and later at the follow-up camps. To this day, they remain close friends and continue to be associated with the project: Emina Beganovic from Tuzla (Bosnia-Herzegovina) supported us as a translator at the encounters in Neum since she was 13 years old, now she lives in Germany and is engaged in the coordination group of the project. Vanja Nedic, when she was sixteen, organized the first group that came to Neum from Vukovar (Croatia). Like Johnny Mirkovic from Vukovar and Semir Salihovic from Tuzla, she accompanied groups to the meetings for several years, lived in Poland for a while and has just returned to Croatia. Johnny Mirkovic works in Sweden and Semir Salihovic lives in Sarajevo. Nikola Pilja from Sombor (Serbia) supports us in all IT matters, lived for some years in Kuwait and now back in Serbia.

(Text: Vanja Nedic) For years I was getting puzzled looks when I would decline a visit or meeting because I had a Skype call scheduled with a group of friends. I called them “Skype Coffees” although we never had coffee as the calls were always late in the afternoon, spanning to the late evening.

We all met as children back at various Vacation From War Peace Camps. I don’t even remember when and where exactly because it feels like we know each other from day one of our lives. We know each other for sure for half of our lives now. We are all from the same conflict, but different sides of it. We don’t allow that to stop us loving and supporting each other every step of the way. What the 2020 situation (and we all well know what it is) stopped was us from is being able to meet for the 1st of May barbeque, or celebrate Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox holidays together.

In one of the many video calls I made a somewhat surprising comment: “I’m happy the whole world is catching up with me now.” Let me explain. Due to the Covid-measures, many had their daily, weekly, monthly and even annual in-person meetings and any other form of close contact shattered or moved online. For me, a person working remotely and used to chatting with my co-workers online, living in a country which is not my home country and quite used to keeping in touch with family and friends over texts and video calls, online has been my normal for a while. I eased into it through time but it became normal for everyone else overnight.

At the beginning of the pandemic I had calls with two very different groups – one was older adults, all foreign and all, I would say, privileged compared to me and my upbringing; second were these young adults from the former Yugoslavia who all have been through war and growing up in post-war cities and torn apart communities. What a difference! The older adults were so pessimistic, so shocked, so not ready for the challenging situation that was unfolding. The youngsters were not really optimistic, either, but as a collective reacted differently: Bring it on! We’ve been through worse. This collective feeling helped in the crisis, we all stuck together, overcoming distance, overcoming borders.

Now, online catch-ups with friends and family became widely accepted and if you say “I’m not going to join you for this xyz activity because I have a scheduled online call with friends” it is perfectly ok. When we started our group calls years ago, this was not the case. When the lockdowns started, we already had our monthly schedule of a few hours long calls of sharing what happened in the previous month and what each of us was planning for the next one. This became our little ritual over the years. Having this stability and unconditional support from people who have been through it all with me, the good and bad, and can understand it all, helped a lot. Don’t get me wrong, we are all very, very different, with different hopes and dreams but what unites us is the support we give each other.

The political situation in the Balkans was always an issue, whether we liked it or not, especially this year. When the lockdowns started in the spring, we lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Germany, Poland and Sweden and we compared the situations and the reactions of the governments in our home countries and our host countries. This exchange of information was also part of mutual support. For traveling, the different rules and regulations were a nightmare and the exchange in our group was indispensable. We also help each other with questions concerning our work and give each other tips. Since we work in different areas, an outside view is often helpful.

We are all children from war areas, we were all displaced, in the first part of our lives unwillingly and this time intentionally. First we were refugees, now we are economic migrants. We have moved, we have changed, but our connection can’t be broken by the distance or ebbs and flows of our lives. Different countries, different cities and we still keep in touch. We have always overcome it, and we will continue to do so. We continue to sit down and talk, and laugh, and chill like we are sitting at a table at one of the Peace Camps and chatting our way into the night.