Celebrating 25 Years of SPARK

In March 1994, when news came that a humanitarian aid convoy with International Workers Aid would be heading to Bosnia from Makarska, Croatia, Yannick du Pont, one of the founders of SPARK, wanted to take a short break from his studies at the University of Amsterdam and jump on board. He wanted to see what was going on in Bosnia himself. However, he had to be patient: hundreds of people were in line eyeing the few seats available in the aid trucks.

“The motivation was to help our fellow students in Bosnia during the war,” he shares about his initiative. At the time, he was part of the YSY – Youth Solidarity with Former Yugoslavia – a student collective, formed in 1994 by a group of Dutch students, who aimed to raise awareness of the devastating conflict happening just 2000 km away. The name was chosen because the students wanted to stand in solidarity with all youth affected by the conflict but became firstly involved with helping Bosnian youth in practice.

As the Bosnian war spilled into 1994, various Serbian and Croat armed groups continued to occupy Bosnia. Reports of war crimes and atrocities were not picked up by international media and the rest of Europe was losing interest in the ongoing conflict. YSY, comprised of professors and students of the University of Amsterdam, were among the first to lead people to protest on the streets of Amsterdam, as the movement was gaining momentum.

Time to protest

Hundreds of young people were intending to march across the rest of Europe at the time. YSY was soon invited to Paris to plan and initiate a huge, united chain of marches that would show the world the strength of the support for the victims and the survivors of war.

Finally, the students were ready to strike. On March 14th in 1994, a phenomenal, cascading wave of protests called ‘Refusons le partage ethnique de la Bosnie’ (We reject the ethnic division of Bosnia), overtook the streets. People joined in their thousands, flooding major European cities and even New York. YSY members were responsible for mobilising the crowd in Amsterdam, walking through the squares and along the canals, chanting together their urgent call to stop the atrocities in Bosnia.

Folia, the student magazine of the University of Amsterdam, interviewed YSY members back in 1994 to gain insight into their aspirations and activities. The student group in Amsterdam was busy galvanising people at marches, organising documentaries from Bosnia to be screened and lobbying local politicians to speak up. Still, they wanted to do more.

From Folia magazine, 7 January 1994, Issue 19 “Students fighting against the disinterest [about the war in the Balkans]”

That is when Yannick decided to travel to Croatia and join the humanitarian aid convoy. He had to wait in Makarska for more than a month, helping to load the trucks, to finally go to Bosnia, while trying to catch up on his studies. By the time Yannick reached Bosnia, Croatia announced a ceasefire on 29th March 1994, and other YSY members were able to join him. They distributed food supplies and other necessities to people in Tuzla. Issa Niemeijer, a member of the YSY, was astonished by the way people carried on rebuilding their futures despite the fragility of the region: “I was really impressed by the way people adapted and continued their lives during and after the war”.

War-torn building in Bosnia

Becoming a non-profit

Having returned to the warmth and comfort of their own homes in Amsterdam, YSY members decided that their support could extend further than handing out food packages. They’d witnessed the lack of support for people trying to rebuild their lives, continue their studies and go back to work. “YSY really tried to be supportive, we didn’t go there for adventure or the thrill like some NGOs, and that’s why I joined,” explained Issa. “Most NGOs weren’t interested in other aspects of support, besides the initial humanitarian aid, like the daily lives of people affected by the war. But YSY was”.  

The small group of young students began meeting and speaking with many of their Bosnian student peers, noting their needs. This information later became a full needs assessment report, which helped to secure a small amount of funding for the YSY to start creating courses and inviting professors to Tuzla, Bosnia.

At the same time, a Peace Agreement was reached in Bosnia towards the end of 1995, and the situation started to become more stable. YSY organised a delegation of students and professors from Bosnia to the Netherlands. In the next piece on SPARK’s history, read how the students opened up Summer Schools in Tuzla – the first international courses ever provided in Eastern Europe.

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