serbia stories

May 1, 2013

Some pictures (out of the hundreds taken) from my week spent documenting a group of participants visiting Serbia with the British Council’s Active Citizens leadership scheme in February.

This trip was different to the previous months’ visit to the Outer Hebrides; the group were mostly British and Serbian, and all were significantly younger.

Many had already invested much of their time in setting up social enterprises – some are working with care leavers, some are using informal education and drama to teach marginalised youngsters in schools, whiles others are encouraging healthy eating and sustainable food production in their communities.

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They visited community projects in Novi Sad, Prijepolje, and Belgrade to see the work of Serbia’s social enterprises.

In Novi Sad, we went to the very impressive Jazas sexual health project, the only one to work with the city’s sex workers, many of whom are Roma, and speak no Serbian. Most are pimped out by their male relatives.

What struck me was how, despite recent cuts to voluntary sector bodies across the UK, equivalent Serbian organisations have even less support. Yet they find a way, through determined volunteers and international funding pots, to exist.

Serbia is still a deeply nationalist, right-wing, country, mired in a past defined by conflict. A youth community centre and performance space we visited in Novi Sad – the great CK13 – is run by a diverse group of young people determined to simply be themselves. As they say, they are not ‘anti’ anything; merely ‘for’ a Serbia that recognises difference.

Yet they have been attacked for doing so; had Molotov cocktails thrown through their windows, and been accused of betraying the Serbian state. They put their lives in danger for speaking out – and this, in Europe…..

For many of the group, particularly the British contingent, this was very shocking, and placed their own issues and challenges into stark contrast.

They were moved to ‘help’, although simply listening to these stories and sharing, as they have, on their return to the UK I think has been a powerful process.

All seemed to gain an awful lot from meeting each other; despite language barriers and cultural and ethnic differences, I have no doubt that this group of people will remain friends for life.