SARAJEVO — the power of the narrative — Field Notes

Teanna Sunberg
3 min readMar 6, 2020

Certainly, I have been aware of the power of a narrative for some time now. So too, the power wielded by the dominant narrative. And even the power that emerges when two competing narratives create paralysis to act in a governing body. In 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovena becomes a textbook case for the power of a narrative — for this lesson to be taught, an estimated 100,000 people lose their lives in a little more than 3 years.

The Power of Words

What becomes painfully evident is that a narrative begins much earlier than its visual rise to power. It fans itself in conversations that begin to scratch at the identity of a certain group of people. Remarks and tiny jokes, seemingly harmless, but like a good fire, they serve as the kindling for what eventually becomes a consuming flame.

Before the war, Bosniaks (muslim-ethnic heritage) and Serbs (orthodox-ethnic heritage) and Croats (catholic-ethnic heritage) lived side by side as neighbors. They intermarried. They worked together. But, as communism disintegrated in 1989, the 6 countries of the former Republic of Yugoslavia began to break away from the union. Of the 6, Serbia had always dominated the union — benefitting most economically and politically. As that power began to ebb, the narrative that grows and eventually dominates is that the Muslim majority of countries like Bosnia and Albania, threaten an eventual population overload to the rest of Europe. It sounded something like this, “If we Christians aren’t careful, those Muslim pockets in Albania, Bosnia, and Kosova will band together, demand Sharia law, and begin to destroy our culture.” The narrative evolved into “We are protecting the rest of Europe from a Muslim invasion.” History teaches us that as soon as a nation understands itself to be on the brink of an invasion, it easily moves into aggression.


Neno, our excellent guide for a walking tour of Sarajevo explained his heritage. His mother was Bosniak (muslim-ethnic). His father was a Serb (orthodox-ethnic). Neno was 6 when the war started. They had a happy marriage and a good life. His mom worked for the national treasury as an accountant. His father was a laborer. They had both been born in Sarajevo. During the war, his father refused to join the Serb…

Teanna Sunberg

Balkan & Central European culture specialist. Culture Crossings: Where culture, justice and church intersect. Missiologist.