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  • Forfatters billedePernille Bærendtsen

Voluntarism as a Driving Force

Opdateret: 22. dec. 2019

Red hand on the wall of the University of Belgrade in Serbia in 2018.
Red hand on the wall of University of Belgrade, 2018.

During the period of 1992 to 1997, Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke (MS) sent over 900 volunteers from Denmark to organise activities for refugees and internally displaced persons in ex-Yugoslavia. In 1999, MS launched a network based on youth and reconciliation. This became the beginning of the South East European Youth Network (SEEYN), which gradually grew larger and independent from MS from its base in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, we address the question of what were achieved within the support of MS in the Balkans.

Before 1991, few had imagined there would be war in Europe again. However, in the wake of the collapse of Yugoslavia, a number of wars followed: The Ten-Day War in Slovenia (1991), the Croatian War of Independence (1991-95), the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-95) and the Kosovo War (1998-99). In the early 1990s, images of streams of refugees went over our TV screens. Ethnic cleansing, new borders and isolation were among the impact of the war. The costs were disastrous. More than a hundred thousand people died and many more were displaced from their homes.

In 1992, the Croatian grassroots organisation Suncokret asked the outside world for help. The emergency call reached MS, which got a part in the Danish Foreign Ministry's humanitarian fund for ex-Yugoslavia. Already in 1992, MS sent volunteers to Croatia, and when the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in November 1995, the programme with Danish volunteers was extended to Bosnia and Herzegovina s well as Montenegro. Staying from one to six months, 900 volunteers created activities with the aim of making everyday life a little easier for refugees and internally displaced persons. The driving force was humanity, and the experiences the volunteers made in the Balkans were later transferred into various activities when they returned home such as public information and debate or collections of clothes or other items for refugees.


The volunteer programme stopped at the end of 1997, but the many returning volunteers believed that a committed community within MS focusing on the Balkans had to continue. Pressure was put on MS to find new means of continued engagement in the Balkans. In 1999, when MS was given the opportunity to take charge of the youth component of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs' new regional programme Peace and Stability through the Cross-Boundary Civil Society Collaboration under the Peace and Stability Framework (FRESTA), volunteers in MS's Balkan community were also activated. In another circle, with the support of MS, the grassroots campaign Next Stop Serbia was also launched in 1999, the aim of which was to break the isolation that the Serbs struggled with following the sanctions and NATO-bombing.

Writing on a wall in Sarajevo in 1997.
Writing on a wall in Sarajevo in 1997.

In ex-Yugoslavia, confidence between old neighbors and families was depleted. Particularly the young generation was severely affected by the past but also by the tangible lack of future opportunities. Voluntarism was still a key approach in the draft programme, but now it was the young people in the Balkans who, through concrete voluntary activities, were to work on reconciliation in a regional youth network. As it was important to establish cooperation and reconciliation regionally the programme aimed at breaking down the feeling of isolation from the outside world. From the start, the three key elements of the programme were the exchange of young people for long-term voluntary placements, international workcamps and training seminars. All three elements drew directly on MS's unique experience and history back to World War II where MS was established based on taking an active stand in rebuilding Europe, and later during the 1960s in supporting African countries’ independence and development. At the same time, the idea was to beneift from MS's engagement in international alliances and other platforms by involving Balkan youth.

In December 1999, the first network meeting was held in Aarhus in Denmark with the participation of 11 civil society organisations from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of North Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia. It became SEEYN, which today is an independent network based in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It has since grown to include 24 member organisations from 12 countries, and since its inception, over 7200 young people have been through some form of SEEYN activity. Work is still focused on giving young people in Southeastern Europe the opportunity to develop their potential with a focus on developing and strengthening communities, cooperation, solidarity and economic capacity.

“Two things were extremely important during my work in South Eastern Europe. The first was collaboration and communication with people from the region. I was a few years older than most in the network. Yugoslavia was much closer to me. The opportunity to travel around the region and talk to people has meant a lot to me. Although I had no prejudice, I saw things more clearly after each trip. The more I understood, the less I condemned it."

Aleksandar 'Bebek' Petrovic (44), Serbia. PhD in Geography, teaches at the University of Belgrade.

The content of SEEYN's activities was continually expanding. For example, it would also include youth unemployment, human rights, social work and the environment. The culmination of the programme's initial phase was the Great Balkan Eco-Bus-Tour in the spring of 2002, when 50 young people attended a traveling conference on the region's common environmental and climate challenges. A theme that highlighted the joint values, and which required an approach that could not be limited by physical and mental boundaries.

"Dubrovnink sucks. Where are punks?" - writing on the wall in Dubrovnik in Croatia in 2002.
"Dubrovnink sucks. Where are punks?" - writing on the wall in Dubrovnik in Croatia in 2002.

Youth travelled by bus through six countries and held workshops and events along the way as well as meetings with local politicians. The tour was organised in collaboration with a regional network of local media, also funded by the FRESTA programme, which meant that local media coverage became quite extensive along the way. It all ended with a joint statement: Statement of South Eastern Europe Youth on the Environment presented by the two main organisers behind the trip, Tomislav Tomasevic from Croatia and Aleksandar 'Bebek' Petrović from Serbia in June 2002 at the UN Sustainable Development Summit (Rio +10) in Johannesburg in South Africa. Subsequently, this declaration was incorporated into the Serbian Government's environmental policy.

“Working with young people of different nationalities, religions and cultures was the most valuable experience. Also, the feeling that through your volunteer work you help the community directly is especially valuable. Through SEEYN's activities, I gained capacity in project management, evaluation and management. PS. I'm still wearing the Eco-Bus-Tour T-shirt and I have my SEEYN umbrella."

Cvetan Nikolovski (37), Republic of North Macedonia. Trained environmental engineer working with conservation of nature.


The involvement of MS in the Balkans was a support for a burgeoning hope for development towards democracy. The network promoted volunteering and young people wanted to join. The focus was on references to what was at the heart of the origin of MS, namely humanity, empathy and the fact that any individual can make a difference. But it was not easy. The process of establishing the network met obstacles: Widespread political hate speech and discrimination, a broken infrastructure, lack of money, bureaucracy for obtaining visa and making money transfers, and the fact that most young people lived at home with their families and had little or no experience of travelling, neither internally in the region nor outside. For example, many did not have passports.

The big question, however, also quickly became practical - for what would actually happen when youth would be brought together? The war, even though it was over, was still close. Did the youth actually want to meet, would it be safe and what progress would it make? We asked ourselves if we were naive. Therefore, we believed, it was especially important that the youth who participated in the early phase of the network establishment were young people with a surplus of energy, a kind of front runners in their respective communities, and that they had shown courage to break with restricting patterns of cultural and historical heritage. It was this youth who navigated, made good role models and who entered into new relationships into which they drew their own communities, for example by organising local workcamps and events. It was those who were curious, including and who dared to take the lead.

Daka (see below) and Peter (the co-author) toast during a day on the sea at Veli Losinj in 2001.
Daka (see quote below) toasting with Peter (co-author) during the training seminar in Veli Losinj - on a day off on the sea.

“I especially remember the leadership training seminar in Denmark because it was the first time I experienced that ethnic division did not matter - that diversity was normal. For me, it was especially important that people were not stuck in ethnicity and indoctrination. After all, we had been brainwashed during the war! It was important for me to learn how to be open to others. It made many things much easier afterwards."

Miodrag (Daka) Dakić (43), Bosnia and Herzegovina. Geography teacher, works with activism and environment (in photo above).

“I especially remember a trip to Bihać in Bosnia. I was excited, but also scared. I share my last name with one of the best known war criminals, Radovan Karadžić, and I was unsure how people would relate to my name. But - they were amazing! The network at that time was the only opportunity to meet like-minded people. We came to learn about each other, made lifelong friendships and overcame stereotypes and prejudices.”

Marko Karadžić (41), Serbia. Former State Secretary for Human and Minority rights, Asst. Director of International Admission Saint Louis University School of Law and Senior Consultant (Social Development) at the World Bank, LL.M in International Human Rights Law, M.A. in International Peace Studies.


One of the first, concrete activities in the network was organisation of workcamps, which typically took place in smaller communities. Belgrade Centre for Human Rights established a youth group, and it arranged its first work camp in Tekija, a small town on the border with Rumania.
One of the first, concrete activities in the network was organisation of workcamps, which typically took place in smaller communities. Belgrade Centre for Human Rights established a youth group, and it arranged its first work camp in Tekija, a small town on the border with Rumania.

One of the first activities in the network in April 2001 challenged our doubt. A 10-day leadership training seminar on the island of Veli Lošinj, off the coast of Croatia, aimed at preparing the youth to handle cultural encounters, diversity and conflicts. Orange trees were blooming, the sun was shining and the youth were full of energy. Many were away from home for the first time, and if we had had any doubts if they had wanted to be together, it was quickly overcome by the music. It was turned up on highest volume. Singer Đorđe Balašević, born in present-day Serbia, was particularly popular with his romantic ballads from a time when many people perceived themselves with a shared identity as Yugoslavs.

'The most valuable experience for me during this period was the leadership training seminar in Veli Lošinj in Croatia in 2001. It combined a good atmosphere and exceptional commitment from leaders and participants perfectly. Afterwards, I was so motivated to organise workcamps that I started organising right after".

Jelena Šantić (38). Sociologist, works for the government with quality assurance of higher education in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Ovo je Hrvatska?" This is Croatia/Is this Croatia? the writing on the wall in Vukovar in Slavonia said in 2002.
"Ovo je Hrvatska" - street art commentary on a wall in Vukovar in 2002 - additional statement (in blue) challenging the original statement written in Serbian Cyrillic with a "Is this Croatia?"

'The Danish model', as it came to be called in fun - all that freedom and partying under responsibility - however, annoyed some of the neighbours, who had arrived to the island as displaced Croats from Slavonia - an area adjacent to Serbia and one of the hardest affected in the war. They found the idea of reconciliation difficult. During a break, a group of men entered the training venue, shouting threats to the youth. Many were shocked. But then the collective group, and thus the network, unpacked its inner energy and strengths.

The threats were a reminder that we were not here for the fun and that everyone in the network had a job to do. Suddenly, the words on paper in the programme documents turned tangible. Participants and leaders responded by showing that they were ready to talk about the difficult issues. It was, for example, a quite concrete problem for the Serbs to travel through Bosnia and Herzegovia and Croatia by bus. For everyone it was about the fear of what the others might think. Participants sat in a circle on the floor of the assembly hall, and one by one, those who felt like it was talking about their fears and prejudice. This shared experience created a force of young self-confidence and invincibility which has clearly been SEEYN's hallmark ever since.

“SEEYN was a unique combination of Danish democracy and South Eastern European opportunities and cultural heritage. It was the only network that offered longer volunteer stays and camps. SEEYN has created a special voluntary culture in Southeastern Europe, and to that extent helped to break down prejudice in young people”.

Emira Mesanović (40), Bosnia and Herzegovina. MBA in Business Psychology, works at The Olof Palme International Center in Serbia. Former coordinator of SEEYN.

“My attendance at the conference in Uganda (organised by MS, ed.) and visits to the villages where South Sudanese refugees were located at that time was an important experience for me. Eight years later I got a job in South Sudan inspired by what I learnt during that conference. I am a refugee myself - during the war in Croatia I moved to Serbia with my family and grew up here. My first reunion with Croatia was through SEEYN, which gave me a different perspective on the future with the youth of the region”.

Maša Janjušević (39), Croatia/Serbia. Works for The Carter Center in Zimbabwe and as an Election Analyst, Coordinator and Liaison for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights under the OSCE.


Let's love. Writing on the wall in Belgrade in 2017.
"Let's love". Writing on the wall in Belgrade in 2017.

During the gathering of feedback (June 2018) from former people who helped establish SEEYN during the early phase, Croatia was heading into the final of the World Cup in Russia while Serbia was knocked out. Serbian Bebek wrote from Slovenia about how he had been in Croatia during the days before where he had solved his problem of finding a place to watch the match between Serbia and Costa Rica as follows:

"And I'm in the middle of Croatia. No, that wasn't a problem. I saw the match with my friend Tomislav and his family. Together we celebrated the victory with family lunch. And I continued my walk - our national team didn't. Instead, I want to be a fan of the Croatian national team now. Why? Because I have many friends in Croatia. From when? From my younger days when I was part of the SEEYN network!"

The network did bring the front runners forward and they carried many with them. This is quite evident when we look at the list of activities in SEEYN. But people also explain how these experiences from early adulthood gave them a stable foundation for jobs and careers, with more people continuing to act both politically and activist.

”It was a period full of beautiful moments, explosive energy, friendships, intense work. It gave me the ballast for challenges in my future work. It was very important to connect youth in the Balkans through these activities to overcome the dreadful national barriers and prejudices. It connected young people for life”.

Jelena Šantić (see above).

“Everything I've done since then has been influenced by these experiences from SEEYN. For example, my fight for equality and minority rights in Serbia”.

Marko Karadžić (see above).

Turska kafa - Turkish coffee. Available everywhere across borders. Here, in 2002 in Bar in Montenegro..

When we asked about the most important achievement people have made through SEEYN one repeating answer is: “I made friends for life”. Speaking of results, “friendships for life” is definitely something to be proud of in a Europe 20 years later characterised by polarisation and marginalisation. And in that spirit - as it turned out for the work on this article, that while only a few programme documents about the work in the Balkans could be found by browsing old versions of MS websites, there was immediate responses from the people we worked with in the Balkans. One of the first to respond to queries was Domagoj Kovačić, who was part of establishing the network right from the start. Between the Croatian football team's victories during the World Cup, he dug hard-copy documents in Zagreb, scanned them, and finished writing: “If you now look at the long-term goals of the network, it actually turns out that you did pretty well."

In one of the first key programme documents for the network it is clear from the long-term goals that the work will be aimed at establishing long-term contacts and solidarity between young people in South Eastern Europe, as well as with other young people in Europe for, among other things to deal with future conflicts and social and economic challenges. Another long-term goal was to break prejudice and to build a culture of tolerance, openness and active participation, as well as to increase knowledge and understanding about South Eastern Europe internally in the region, in Denmark and the rest of Europe.

"Mi smo" - "we are" written on a wall on the island of veli Losinj, where SEEYN held its first leader training seminars in 2001 and 2002.

We therefore also change Domagoj's 'I' to '‘us’'. The inter-personal method, 'the Danish model' - with freedom and partying under responsibility - proved to work in the Balkans. The network's expansion to other countries in Southeastern Europe, including Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, as well as the now over 7000 young people who have been through some form of SEEYN activity, clearly speaks of a SEEYN that has done exceptionally well. What really ties SEEYN together in the end is that people, who initially could have seen each other as potential enemies came to see each other as friends. We believe this is the heart of SEEYN, which 20 years later now exists independently of support from MS and the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Peter and Pernille were both volunteers in Bosnia in 1997, and participants on various workcamps in the region, then active in the MS Balkan community, in the start-up of SEEYN and with the formation of Next Stop Serbia. Pernille moved to Belgrade in 2000 and coordinated Next Stop Serbia as well as being the first Danish SEEYN volunteer at the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, while Peter became the first coordinator of the SEEYN office in Sarajevo. They helped to conduct the first networking meetings and to develop SEEYN's first leadership training seminar, which took place in 2001 at Veli Lošinj, Croatia.

This article was originally written for a publication issued on the occasion of Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke’s 75th anniversary in January 2018. It has been edited and adapted by the authors into English in December 2019 for the occasion of the SEEYN 20th anniversary.

All photos are taken by Pernille during the period from 1997 to 2019.

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