This summer, a seemingly innocuous World Cup soccer match between Serbia and Switzerland escalated into international political controversy when two Kosovar-born Swiss players imitated the eagle on the Albanian flag while celebrating their goals.
This incident, which occurred 20 years after the Kosovo war, drew world attention to the inter-ethnic and religious tensions that still exist in the Balkan Peninsula. According to Anca Cretu, a historian affiliated with the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, “the politics of nationalism is alive and well in these countries, mainly driven by political elites who want access to more power”. At the same time, “there has been a growth in social disenfranchisement” triggered by factors such as “widespread corruption, unemployment, fractured bureaucracy”. In response to these issues, the former Yugoslav space has recently experienced a wave of social activism. “Young people, in particular, have started reacting to one-off issues that directly affect livelihoods,” says Cretu.
The online poetry contest Mili Dueli (English: Sweet Duels) is a touching example of how young activists are using digital technology to heal the painful war wounds of the Balkans and rebuild a healthy social fabric in the region. Bosnian Nermin Delic started the contest when he was only 17 years old with the conviction that “promoting peace through poetry is a big step towards more tolerance”. Having processed over 10,000 submissions since its launch in 2012, Sweet Duels is the most popular online poetry contest in the former Yugoslav space. It has featured over 2,500 poems and 1,000 different artists over the past six years.
Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Balkans have been rocked by a series of military conflicts that lasted a decade and resulted in the deaths of around 140,000 people. For Delic, those horrors hit home. During this period, “many people have lost family members or parts of their bodies. Unfortunately, my father lost both,” he says. Towards the end of the Bosnian war, within days, Delic’s father had his leg severed by a landmine and heard the news of his younger brother’s death in battle. “There are thousands of people on the streets going through a similar situation. That’s why you can see a lot of blind, deaf, disabled and mentally unstable people”. They all suffer from “war disease” as Delic calls it.
The war wreaked havoc not only on individuals but also on the collective mentality. Growing up, “the most hurtful thing for me,” Delic recalls, was seeing young people who had no personal experience of war engage in offensive language and nationalistic arguments on social media. Even if they speak similar languages, “hatred between peoples” persists in the different countries of the former Yugoslavia. “For some of them, a participant in the war was a hero, for others – a killer.”
poetry for peace
Inspired by his father’s uplifting example of coping with loss and pain through positivity and forward thinking, Delic decided to play his part in healing the ex-Yugoslavian space through poetry. “My talent for writing was the compass that led me to think in this direction,” he explains. As a teenager, Delic’s own poems about his native Bosnia and Herzegovina were published and celebrated in neighboring countries such as Serbia and Croatia, leading him to realize that valuing cultural differences can foster tolerance and solidarity. common understanding. So, at just 17, he launched an online poetry contest for the Balkan region, which grew from 40 applicants admitted in 2012 to 227 this year.
Selected poems go through five successive rounds of assessment aimed at coaching contestants to improve their writing. In the grand finale, poets submit video recitals of their compositions. The winner is determined by a Eurovision-like system based on popular vote via social media and judging by a jury.
In addition to promoting the work of Balkan artists to wider audiences across their respective national borders, Sweet Duels’ mission is to be a catalyst for peace and reconciliation in the region. “In evaluating the poems, we think about the authors’ potential impact on the Balkan community. We are looking for open-minded people and someone who is not only an incredible poet but also a pacifist and a cosmopolitan,” says Delic.
What Delic is most proud of about Sweet Duels is the human connections it has created. It often happens that poets from neighboring countries who share a recent history of conflict become close friends and visit each other. “Art has no religion and should know no borders” emphasizes the young Bosnian.
Expansion across Europe
What’s next for the poetry contest? “Every year, digital technologies are improving and more and more people are using and spending time on social networks. The next step for Sweet Duels is therefore to spread to all regions of Europe through this online application system”.
Earlier this year, the Council of Europe warned of “the relentless rise of xenophobic populism, resentment and hate speech” across the continent. So, the impact that Sweet Duels brings is much needed. Poetry can be a solution to bridge the gaps between different European social groups. “A beautiful word opens all doors”, as a Balkan proverb says.