June 11, 2019

First international summer university in Tuzla

Celebrating 25 Years of SPARK

‘This was in front of me, so I had to jump in,’ says Mare Faber, looking back at that tumultuous period. She was a young Sociology student from the Netherlands, who was invited to participate in Youth Solidarity with former Yugoslavia’s  (the organisation that would soon become SPARK) first ever summer university in Tuzla, Bosnia in 1996.

The group was extremely young itself, having just started to shift from students organising marches against the Bosnian war, to a formal non-profit organisation. Some of the members were sitting in their small Amsterdam office, calling professors across different continents, trying to persuade them to join them in teaching courses in post-war Bosnia.

The aim was to establish the first ever international summer university in a region that had just come through an ethnic war. Since the organisers were themselves young students, many professors did not take them seriously and turned down their requests to join them in teaching. No one could predict whether they’d have much success, but having visited the region and met young people there, they understood the needs of local youth.

Students participating in the Tuzla Summer University in Bosnia Herzegovina

“I admired them for their courage and determination,”

shared Mare about her fellow students, looking back on the past twenty five years. The team was led by the now Directors of SPARK, Yannick and Michel, as well as Issa Niemeijer, who went on to open his own bakery in Amsterdam.

It was Issa who encouraged Mare to get involved. The idea of travelling to the post-conflict region to assist in the rebuilding excited her. And in the summer of 1996, she joined the convoy of students travelling from Amsterdam to Tuzla.

Tuzla’s first Summer University

The road to Tuzla was a difficult one as the aftermath of the war still lingered in people’s minds. The students had been working tirelessly to organise transport for professors, rooms for lectures and seminars, and reaching out to the dispersed community to publicise the opportunities on offer. “They worked very hard on a very low budget”, said Mare.

Many professors from across Western Europe agreed to volunteer their time in Bosnia, despite the security concerns. “The initiative was very daring under the circumstances, but also very effective,” shared Professor Gregg Jaeger of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Boston University who gave lectures on the philosophy of science at the summer university.

Promotion materials by YSY in 1996
and an invitation to a professor

Settling in Tuzla was also not an easy task. Power outages, lack of proper accommodation and the lingering feeling of unrest made the immediate future seem bleak. Mare recalls a conversation with a young man at a party, who told her of the recent Kapija grenade attack that killed seventy young people. The man described his frantic panic to search for his brother, who could have been there, but he found him at home reading the newspaper. Thankfully he was safe, but many of their friends were lost. For Mare, this was a defining moment: she realised there was not so much separating her from the people who were living through the horrifying realities of war. She says it strengthened her desire to make herself useful to the young people of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The dormitory for the Western European students was situated within a crowded and chaotic refugee camp. Over a period of  two months, the students observed, first-hand, the physical and mental scars the war had carved into the people.

War-torn buildings in Tuzla

The summer university in Tuzla  became one of the few safe spaces  where the, ever-hopeful, local youth could openly discuss practical and political solutions for rebuilding their region. The school was their beacon of hope, with classes ranging from Neurology to Environmental Engineering. Professors started arriving not only from other European nations but also from Turkey and the US and young Bosnians spent an entire summer studying and discussing against the backdrop of war torn Tuzla.

Defeating fear

After returning to their classes in Western Europe in the autumn of 1996, the political situation in Bosnia Herzegovina gradually stabilised. However, young people in the region still lacked basic educational opportunities. So the following summer, in 1997, the same group brought the summer university back to the streets of Tuzla, with Mare Faber joining the organising team.

The main principle of the summer university was democracy and inclusivity for all. In its second year, the summer university saw 8 students from Banja Luka – the ‘capital’ of Republika Srpska – embark on the risky journey to Tuzla to join the classes. Crossing the ‘Inter-Entity Boundary Line’, the unofficial border that separated the Republika from the Muslim and Croat Federation side of the country, the eight students described it as if entering a different region. After years of conflict, the two halves of the country had different car licence plates, currencies, and even used different alphabets.

The university in Banja Luka was in very bad shape, with hardly the resources to provide the students with a good education due to the lack of funds and of access to the latest knowledge in the fields. The summer university in Tuzla offered the Bosnian Serb students a great opportunity to be taught by international academics and expand their horizons.

Promotion Materials by YSY in 1996

However, the distance between the two sides of the country, although not far, was symbolic and, as such, dangerous. The young people were offered an armoured escort by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which they gladly accepted.

Although, as Mare observed their progress and interactions with Bosnian Croat students at the summer university, she noticed a change in the students from Banja Luka. “After a few weeks in Tuzla at the summer university, their spirits shifted: when it was time for them to go home, and were offered the OSCE escort, they laughed and declined: no need!” Their fear of the other side had melted away. “The university had a greater impact than just providing academic support. It helped re-establish contact between different ethnicities”.

Each year, almost a thousand students participated in the summer courses. The idea of inclusive education went on to become a central feature of SPARK’s work as a result of the phenomenon witnessed in Tuzla’s summer university students. From the success of the summer universities, the organisers went on to establish the first public international colleges in Kosovo, with the same inclusive principle (read more about this in the next 25th anniversary article).