How I Learned to Appreciate Religion’s Role in Building Peace

By: Prithvi Iyer

Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a place I had ever pictured myself visiting. This small country in the Balkans had quite simply never captured my imagination. Its allure was less obvious to me, unlike that of western European countries such as France and Switzerland that are often romanticized in globalized pop culture. 

But thanks to a student trip made possible by the University of Notre Dame and Peace Catalyst International, I recently visited the country—not as a tourist, but as a student of peacebuilding who gained a new appreciation for the role of religion in peace processes and reconciliation. 

In preparation for this trip, I spent time acquainting myself with the dynamics of the conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. While this preparation was key, no number of readings could have prepared me for what I felt and learned by immersing myself in the world of the locals and their myriad experiences. 


New encounters challenge old perspectives 

Coming from India, I was not oblivious to anti-Muslim discrimination and its violent implications. In fact, my background provided me with an interesting comparative lens to process what local peacebuilders and students shared about the nature of violence taking place in Bosnia, especially during the war of 1992. I always thought that South Asia’s experience of discrimination and the relative ambivalence of the international community was exacerbated because the region’s population is non-white. But as a local aptly explained to me, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, being a Muslim in Bosnia has meant facing prejudice and oppression—a reality that white skin or blue eyes cannot protect against. The sobering inference I drew was that anti-Muslim prejudice can exist independently of racism. 

The trip also provided me with experiences that challenged my worldview. For one, visiting Srebrenica, the site of a historically significant massacre, and seeing the detailed ways in which each life lost was documented and memorialized was unlike anything I have ever seen. Despite experiencing wars and losing many lives to conflict, India does not have similar memorials that document violence by providing it with a physical and tangible manifestation. This prompted me to wonder how narratives around victimhood in my own country may be obscured by the lack of efforts to memorialize these tragic events. 

Sarajevo’s city cemetery is pictured.

Upon contemplating how Bosnians grapple with memories of wars and the existence of memorials, I found the ways cemeteries were constructed in the middle of the city of Sarajevo to be especially fascinating. Rather than hiding these sites from view or constructing them on the outskirts of the city, planners ensured cemeteries in Sarajevo served as an integral part of the overall landscape. Our Bosnian guide told us that this was to encourage Bosnians to confront and celebrate lives lost rather than shy away from it. Children play in these cemeteries and are not scared to run through the acres of green grass that occupy these traumatic spaces. By integrating memorial sites into the visual spectacle of Sarajevo, the city’s residents ensure they will never forget the lives that have been lost. At the same time, they do not view death with something to repress, but rather something that should be confronted and normalized; to me, that is a beautiful sentiment. 

My experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina also made me introspect and critically examine the ways in which I think about religion. Most of the students in this trip had religious affiliations and the conflict in the country necessitated an understanding of religion and how they shape narratives of victimhood. Meeting local imams, priests and visiting key religious places in the country was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned that despite not having a religious affiliation, I still must empathize and put myself in spaces that constructively engage with the idea of faith. Conversations with my roommate (a devout Muslim from Pakistan) and local Bosnian students taught me that religiosity is not necessarily a deterrent to peacebuilding and often, is a crucial component of reconciliation work. 

I returned from this trip not converted by religion, but having formed a deep appreciation for the place of religion and faith in healing societies fractured by identity conflicts. 

Letting go of my own biases regarding institutionalized religion and delineating the oppressive potential of religion from its peaceful dimensions (which provide a bulwark against systemic injustices) had a profound impact in reshaping my own belief systems. I learned about how different denominations in the church can have varying approaches to inter-faith dialogue and peacebuilding. Meeting a Franciscan priest who spoke about how he has many atheist friends challenged my own stereotypes about religious people being closed-minded. I returned from this trip not converted by religion, but having formed a deep appreciation for the place of religion and faith in healing societies fractured by identity conflicts. 


Learning from others’ stories

I would be remiss to not mention the people I met and the value of the interpersonal connections I formed on this trip. Exploring the rich cultural history of Sarajevo with local students who quickly felt like good friends was deeply enriching. Beyond conversations around the conflict we were learning about, I was intimately familiarized with daily life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the ways beauty can be found amid divisions and violence. Seeing people marred by conflict still live life with unbridled optimism taught me that societies can respond to historical cycles of violence with calls towards peace and reconciliation. 

One anecdote that captures this beauty is my conversation with Mirela, a local Bosnian peacebuilder working with us on this trip. She spoke of how her childhood was snatched from her because of the genocide during the Bosnian War. But rather than letting that traumatic experience characterize who she is, Mirela still exudes a sense of humor and zest for life that is deeply inspiring. She told me how being a young mother now is her way of re-living her childhood. This ability to find avenues for fulfillment despite a history of trauma challenged my perception around what living with trauma should or can feel like. Conversations with amazing women like Mirela and with college students showed me how people are spearheading a push towards normalizing relations and looking beyond differences. 

As I return to the United States and continue my education in hopes of aiding peacebuilding efforts, I am aware that these reflections and lessons can quickly evaporate as I get consumed in my next project or the next context in which I work. While I can’t predict the future, this trip, and the transformation it has forged have not been merely academic. My learning has been personal and affective, and has had spiritual dimensions. I eagerly hope this is the first of many visits I can make there, and I hope more people at the Keough School and beyond get to experience the richness Bosnia and Herzegovina has to offer.


Top Photo: Prithvi Iyer enjoys a hike during a recent student trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The View from Vichy: Gaining Insights on France’s Contested Holocaust History

By: Emma Jackson

The name “Vichy” carries a lot of baggage. Some think of the expensive skin care brand or the historic thermal spa city frequented by Emperor Napoleon. Others immediately think of the pro-Nazi collaborationist “Regime de Vichy” and “État Français” that existed from 1940 to 1944.

Vichy is a small city in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of central France. It was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the category of Great Spa Towns of Europe. So naturally, at the time of my recent three-week stay during a university break, this element of Vichy’s identity was prominently marketed. 

Vichy, France

Supported by an Advance Language Training grant from the Keough School’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies, my time in Vichy helped me improve my French language skills and dig deeper into the city’s complex history.


Some historical background

After the Nazis invaded France in 1940, France and Germany signed an armistice that effectively split the country into two zones: the German military occupation zone and the so-called “unoccupied” or “zone libre” (free zone). Following the armistice, a puppet government was quickly formed within the zone libre in Vichy from an agreement between Hitler and French Great War hero Marshal Phillipe Petain.

A memorial in Vichy to Jewish victims of the Holocaust who were deported from Vichy, France during the Second World War.

While there is still some disagreement in France over the role of the Vichy Regime in the persecution of European Jews, recently declassified documents confirm that rather than acting out of self-preservation, the Vichy collaborationist government was a willing participant in the Holocaust. The Vichy government initiated anti-Semitic policies, such as removing Jews from the civil service and seizing property, even before the Nazis demanded their cooperation. It also willingly carried out large-scale arrests and deportations: some 77,000 Jewish French citizens and refugees were sent to death camps.

While researching this history, I found that France remains divided over the role of the Vichy government and there are multiple interpretations of the level of collaboration and the severity of the government’s crimes. In Vichy, there stands a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, but even this epigraph displays lower deportation numbers than official estimates. It also only mentions “Juif étrangers” (foreign Jews), brushing over the fact that Vichy France also arrested and deported Jewish French citizens.

Town Hall in Vichy, France

In recent news

A far-right candidate for the recent 2022 French elections, Eric Zemmour, a French Jew, has made some controversial statements about the Vichy government. For example, he claims that by first deporting foreign Jews to Germany’s death camps, Petain helped “save” French Jews. Zemmour was recently convicted and fined for racist hate speech against unaccompanied child migrants, describing them as “thieves, rapists, and murderers,” and is known for his incendiary remarks and staunch anti-immigration, anti-Islam rhetoric. 

Zemmour and other right-wing politicians favor protectionist policies and are generally “Eurosceptics” (that is, critical of the European Union). There are some interesting similarities with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany—founded by Eurosceptic former members of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—which is now regarded as Germany’s anti-immigration party. 

While this visit was my first time in France, I quickly realized that far-right political parties in France promote similar agendas to far-right parties in Germany.

During the weeks I was in France, the country had taken over the European Union’s rotating presidency for six months starting in January 2022. One day after France’s presidency began, the government removed an EU flag that had been attached to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and had attracted criticism and protests from right-wing politicians. Marine Le Pen claimed that “replacing the French flag at the monument was an attack on the country’s identity,” and Zemmour called it an “outrage.” Before my flight to return to the US, I stayed in Paris and walked by the Arc de Triomphe and other major attractions. Interestingly, while the flag was removed, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tour Eiffel, the Notre-Dame de Paris, and the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) were all lit up with the EU flag’s distinctive blue and its gold stars.

From the outset, I was interested in studying the French language in Vichy because of the Régime de Vichy’s complicated and dark history from 1940 to 1944. Living in a city with this historical memory of the Holocaust and its dark legacy of faith-based discrimination and anti-Semitic policies informed my research on right-wing nationalism, Islamophobia, secularism, and the development of xenophobic policies in Europe. The recent news regarding the right-wing candidate Eric Zemmour, the widespread protests over vaccine mandates, and reactions to the EU presidency certainly made the experience more memorable and helpful for my academic research.


Emma Jackson is a master of global affairs student in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. During Notre Dame’s winter break, she undertook immersive French language training at CAVILAM Alliance Française in Vichy, France. 

Top photo: Emma Jackson in front of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, which is lit with the blue background and yellow stars of the European Union flag.

Originally published by Emma Jackson at nanovicnavigator.nd.edu on June 03, 2022.

I Watch Live Genocide in Ukraine, My Home Country

By Anna Romandash


Editor’s Note: In this reflection, Anna Romandash, an award-winning journalist from Ukraine and a student in the Keough School’s Master of Global Affairs program, shares her perspective on the horrific human cost of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


I grew up in Ukraine in the 1990s. I never saw the Soviet Union, but I heard stories. They were so bizarre that I could never picture them. 

My parents told me about their childhood, and even though it had similarities with mine, it seemed surreal. I could not imagine living in a gigantic military empire where food was scarce, but guns were plenty. 

Ukraine in the nineties was very different from that reality. Yes, it was poor, and yes, it was transitioning from a colony of a corrupt and merciless system to an actual democracy. But the transition was going forward. It did not move as fast as we all wanted, but it got there. 

In thirty years, Ukraine went a long way. 

Cities which were once blocked by the Iron Curtain turned into bustling megapolises, colorful and shiny, full of possibilities, dreams, and aspirations. Villages modernized but kept their traditional look. Everything was growing and going somewhere. 

I love Ukraine. It is beautiful, and it is home. 

I never took for granted anything I had in Ukraine. I would often get mad at my fellow citizens, get annoyed with how things were managed, or with some popular ideas. But at the end of the day, I got them. I got Ukraine. I understood Ukraine better than I understood anything else. 

This is something people tend to have: a bond with those who live on the same land and belong to one nation. 

Ukraine is big and diverse, but the differences did not prevent me from understanding other Ukrainians — the same way other Ukrainians could understand me. 

And we all understood, or rather, felt the constant shadow over us. 


The Threat of Russian Expansionism

Russian colonialism was always looming somewhere in the northeast, always watching carefully when to strike. Even before actual military actions, we always expected Russia to interfere in some way — that fear is shared by the many nations who were conquered by the Russian empire. 

The West would always disregard claims, pleas, and criticisms that Ukrainians, Estonians, and other people from Eastern Europe would make about Russia. We were considered paranoid and cowardly, unwilling to accept that Russia is just a big neighbor whose influence is not a menace, and encouraged to accept that the Kremlin will impact our domestic and international policies in one way or another. 

The West explained to us, Eastern Europeans, that they get Russia better and that we should just let it go. We should not worry about Russia because its influence is logical given its size and location, and even though it is not a liberal democracy, it is still a trusted and reliable partner.

Classic Westplaining. 

But even I, who never saw the Soviet Union, knew what Russia’s regime was. It was only the West that still hoped to build healthy relations with the Kremlin, but nations whose histories were marked by hundreds of years of Russian colonialism knew better. 

Russia has interfered in Ukrainian politics since I can remember. In 2004, Putin did not like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and the election of a pro-European president. This is when “gas wars” and “food wars” started. The Kremlin would ban Ukrainian imports and stop sending Russian gas via Ukraine to Europe while blaming us for stealing it! 

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and we watched in horror. 

It annexed Crimea in 2014 and invaded parts of Eastern Ukraine where its puppet regime created fake republics. If it was not for Russian intervention, none of those things would have happened. 

Russia poisoned its former agents, killed opposition leaders, and threatened Ukraine — and the world — many times. Yet, the West was quiet about it. I assume they thought it was all big talk. 

So when Russia accused Ukraine of stealing gas, the West believed it, taking its word and blaming Ukraine.

When Russia invaded Georgia, the West just watched. No serious sanctions, nothing. Business as usual. 

Relations with Russia and the West actually improved after that.

Ukraine was bullied into accepting Crimea annexation, and Russia did not get a tough response over its involvement in Eastern Ukraine. The West made a collective shrug, and that was it.

This is the reality which brought us to this day. Now, the West is starting to sound the alarm. It cries about a mad killer leading the Kremlin and wonders how it can stop him without provoking him. But the truth is, Putin has not changed. He has always been like this: willing to kill, invade, and deceive to get what he wants. It’s just now he does it much more openly and on a much bigger scale. 

The West keeps on judging Putin according to its own standards. But they don’t work. We see that the collective security agreements are useless, and so is the UN. Russia is in the UN Security Council. This is a country which massacred people in Bucha. This is a country whose soldiers raped Ukrainian women and children on the territories they sieged. This is a country that claims that it has not committed any war crimes when the evidence is clear as the light of the day. 


Death and Devastation

While the West keeps on calculating the costs of leaving its comfort zone, I calculate the dead. Those numbers are impossible to confirm now, but locals report at least 20,000 killed in Mariupol. This is a city that Russians are continuing to siege and devastate. This is the toll of only one city. 

More than a hundred fifty children have been killed. 

Five million people have fled the country.

Eleven million displaced. 

Cities destroyed. 

And there’s more. 

The Ukrainian army liberated the area north of Kyiv in the beginning of April. They filmed what they saw in this rich and prosperous region after Russians left it, weeks after bloody occupation.

If you have not heard about it, Google it. The cities are Bucha. Irpin. Chernihiv. Hostomel. 

In Bucha, Russians killed every single male ages 16 to 60. They shot them and put them in a mass grave. Those men were civilians. Unarmed.

They killed the mayor and her husband. They tortured them before murdering them. 

When Ukrainian soldiers entered the city, they saw corpses everywhere. Russians went on a killing spree before they left. They killed all the locals they saw outside. They also killed people who were hiding in their houses. Some corpses had their hands tied up. They burned one boy alive. They raped a woman in front of her son, then killed her. 

I thought I would make a call to action here and ask you to speak up and demand your governments to help Ukraine. 

But it has been a few days since I cannot function normally. 

And I don’t know what to ask of any of you. 

I don’t believe Western governments anymore because they have no empathy as they allowed for this to happen. They rejected Ukrainian pleas for help. They refused to provide the arms we asked for. They are still buying Russian energy and financing the war against Ukraine.

I don’t know how I will be able to return to Notre Dame. I don’t know how I will be able to surround myself with happy young people who dream and hope. I watch the genocide of Ukrainians happen in real life, and the worst is yet to come. 

And I don’t have questions or demands for anyone anymore. The world has failed me.


Cover image: A damaged high-rise building in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by Julia Rekamie on Unsplash