By Anton Polsterer, past governor of District 1910 and past chair of the Intercountry Committees Executive Council
I joined Rotary in Vienna in 1986 and transferred to the Rotary Club of Moscow while working in Russia from 1989-92. After moving back to Austria, I became governor of the district covering Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Austria. After years of war and totalitarian government rule, these communities longed for freedom and peace.
Our district had 130 clubs with more than 5,000 Rotarians. We represented five different nationalities and languages. Croatia and Bosnia were heavily hurt by the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Bosnia and Herzegovina had a pre-war population of 4.5 million people including Orthodox Serbians, Catholic Croatians, and Bosnian Moslems. During the war, close to two million people, almost 50 percent of the population was displaced within their own country to create “ethnic” regions. From the very beginning, we have aimed for ethnic diversity in our clubs, which wasn’t easy after all the displacement.
The real breakthrough came with the Rotary Club of Mostar (Bosnia), chartered in 2002. The club started many projects in the spirit of tolerance and ultimately succeeded in reuniting Rotarians from both the Croatian and the Moslem side of a town divided by bloody conflict and physically separated by the Neretva River.
During the war, close to two million people, almost 50 percent of the population was displaced within their own country to create “ethnic” regions.
The rebuilding of the old stone bridge, which was destroyed during the war in order to separate the town’s population into Croatians and Bosnian Moslems, became an important step in reuniting the two ethnic groups. Rotary members from the Mostar club were instrumental in coordinating and overseeing the project, and eventually organizing the bridge reopening ceremony. In 2004, the opening of the bridge served to promote unity. The bridge itself became a national symbol of peace.
I have spent time promoting peace between countries and ethnic groups through Rotary’s Intercountry Committees. These committees aim to implement bilateral projects with a focus on peace building. To form an intercountry committee between two countries, clubs and districts partner together to get to know each other better and create an environment of common understanding and mutual empathy.
I am asking you, my friends in Rotary, and especially on intercountry committees, to refocus your service projects on peace building. Find opportunities to incorporate peace components into all your service projects. Together, we can build a better, more peaceful, world.
- Read more about the reopening of the bridge in the February 2005 The Rotarian
- Learn more about Polsterer’s challenge to clubs on the Rotary Service Connections