A street scene in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The city, which suffered damages during the Bosnian War, has undergone reconstruction and now attracts more and more tourists every year. Photo by: xiquinhosilva / CC BY

The first time I saw the U.S. Agency for International Development’s logo was on packages of humanitarian aid distributed during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I cannot remember how many times I waited in line for the aid, but I do remember the 1,425 days I spent in besieged Sarajevo. The image of the hands on the logo meant life. Those packages of food meant survival.

I never thought that a few years after the war, I would start working on USAID-funded development projects, and become part of something that was so important to all of us who have lived through wars and conflicts. It started with the USAID Business Finance project, an emergency low-interest loan program designed to kick-start production and employ masses of unemployed, demobilized soldiers and civilians who had their life on pause for almost four years. It was the USAID Business Finance project that first took me to Banja Luka, the capital of the “other entity” — the Republic of Srpska, which was created by the Dayton Peace Accords. After the war, I never thought I would go there. I never thought it would be possible to sit in the same room with the people who were once enemies, let alone become friends with many. I am sure my colleagues from Banja Luka thought the same.

Reforms are hard to implement with a constitutional structure like Bosnia’s — a country with less than 4 million people and 14 governments. It is often forgotten that people don’t change immediately simply because the war has ended. It takes time for wounds to heal, and to trust people again. You are consumed with grief and anger. You can’t think clearly or think about what your country needs. You think you gave enough to your country simply by being part of the war.

That is why development projects are crucial. They help you break the vicious cycle of placing the blame, and expecting apologies or reliving the war. They bring you back to present, without asking you to forget the past. They tell you what your country needs now; what you need to do if you want to live in a peaceful, stable country.

I spent more than 12 years working for Chemonics on different development projects in my country, on everything from court management systems to banking. My personal favorite, the Governance Accountability Project, worked with 72 municipalities to dramatically change the way they interact with their citizens. The success of each municipality — regardless whether it was Bosnian, Serb or Croat majority — felt like a personal success for all of us involved.

On my first projects, expatriate staff were in all managerial and senior positions. My last two projects were 100 percent Bosnian staff, with rare expat short-term consultants. That alone shows progress in building a new generation who looks to the future and wants to see their country prosper. Step-by-step, often in baby steps, we move forward, or at least move away from the horrors of war. The Dayton Peace Accords, which brought peace to my country, are now one of the greatest obstacles to its further development. Bosnia is still not a part of the EU, and it will take years until it is. But, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a peaceful state that attracts more and more tourists every year.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, I was fortunate to be surrounded by expats who sympathized with all that happened, but also opened my eyes to the opportunities before me. I am now trying to do the same for my colleagues in Afghanistan, where I currently work providing finance, compliance, human resources, and capacity-building support through Chemonics’ Country Operations Optimization Program. I do not pretend to understand the complexities of Afghanistan, the tribal divisions and decades of lost generations under different invasions. But I understand my colleagues who received education in refugee camps in Pakistan. I understand their passion to change the world. They do not have a spare country to go to once they get tired of trying, as many of us working here have. They need to give it all to make sure we succeed. Every little reform toward building a more stable, less corrupt country is a victory.

Development work is hard, and sometimes, it feels like we are failing. But those who have had to send their kids to schools in dark basements under the sounds of shelling, or in buildings with high walls and barbed wire — like my parents did, like my Afghan colleagues do every day — know it is all worth it. It is worth the hope, worth every small step in the right direction. Because if we do nothing, we open the doors to those who would rather have generations of new laborers in their poppy fields than educated men building a country where they deserve to live. We surrender to countries stuck in the past, fighting over centuries-old disagreements, always on the brink of another conflict.

No conflict remains isolated. Conflict affects neighboring countries; it is a financial strain; and it is an insult to humanity. Bosnia still has those who prefer guns over dialogue. But no matter how threatening their voices are, there is an army of strong, educated people who are no longer afraid of them.

In Bosnia, in Afghanistan — and so many other countries facing conflict — it is up to us to make their voices louder.

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Cordaid, Mercy Corps , OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

About the author

  • Dzenita Kolja

    Dzenita Kolja is executive director and co-owner of CDS Consulting, a Bosnian-based international development firm. She has over 17 years of experience working on USAID-funded projects, including 12 years with Chemonics, serving in different roles supporting implementation of projects in Bosnia, Serbia, Moldova and Afghanistan. She currently leads Chemonics’ Country Operations Optimization Program in Afghanistan.