Youth Basketball Unites the People of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Youth Basketball Win Unites All the People of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Members of the BiH Under 16 youth basketball team celebrate their victory at the European championship in Lithuania on Aug. 16, 2015.
Sport joins together youth and communities across borders
“It was the best reconciliation possible.”

November 2015—Twenty years after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), deep ethnic and religious divisions still exist. But while other efforts to unite youth have failed, sports have not disappointed, especially in August, when the BiH youth basketball team wowed the country by winning the European Under-16 Championship.

It was the first time that a BiH national team won the European title, and this striking success was widely, and jointly, celebrated throughout BiH.

Conflicting historical and political narratives persist, blaming one another for the war and defining the perceptions and attitudes of people at every age and level of society. The education system perpetuates these divisions with the physical separation of students from different ethnic groups.

But sport is a reconciliation game-changer.

Nine of the basketball champions came from local teams of Banja Luka, Mostar, Tuzla, Gradiska, Pale and Sarajevo. They came from three BiH ethnic groups and both entities, but together they played as one team.

We are brothers. We are a family. I am so proud of them,” said team captain Dzanan Musa after the final win.

The nine local players and thousands of other BiH youth aged 6 to 16 got the chance to play league basketball through USAID’s reconciliation project Fair Play, Fair Childhood: Bringing BiH Children Together Through Sports. The project breaks down national, entity and ethnic barriers, and promotes tolerance and acceptance through sports.

Together the team fought for the title, and together they celebrated and cried from joy. “It was the best reconciliation possible,” said one fan.

“Inside all the fun, laughter, joy and occasional tears was the spirit of sports, the message of equality, friendship and community,” said another.

As Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to unite people in a way that little else can. It can create hope …. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand.”

Anyone who was in Sarajevo the night the team came home has witnessed the power of sport to unite the people of BiH. More than 50,000 people took to the streets in Sarajevo and throughout the country to celebrate the victory of their national youth basketball team.

“It’s great to see that beautiful city beaming with pride and celebrating together,” said one fan on U.S. Embassy Sarajevo’s Facebook page.

The Under-16 basketball team also won a gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Georgia this year. But this project has demonstrated that success isn’t always adorned with ribbons or medals.

The Fair Play, Fair Childhood project, which runs from April 2014 to September 2016, also supports other youth sports games, including volleyball, football, beach volley, dodge ball, handball, tennis, table tennis, chess and badminton. In the past year, the project promoted friendship through sports and fair play in 28 towns, where more than 38,000 boys and girls got a chance to compete athletically and establish lasting friendships with other youth they otherwise would not likely meet.


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