Feature 13 Jun 17

Bosnia’s Segregated Schooling Entrenches Wartime Divisions

In the second of two reports on the education system in Bosnia, where children are taught differently according to ethnicity, experts argue that segregated schooling is a way of keeping people divided.

Dzana Brkanic BIRN Sarajevo
Bosnian pupils. Photo: UNICEF BiH/Facebook.

Three different curriculums - Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian - are taught in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s schools in parallel.

There are no joint textbooks, so children learn three different variations of the truth about the 1990s war in their history classes, as well as three different literature canons. Even geographical terms differ according to the ethnicity of the pupils being taught.

Experts and historians allege that school textbooks are discriminatory on purpose and that they serve the purpose of stereotyping other ethnic groups in order to perpetuate the divisions of the war years.

A quarter of a century since the beginning of the war, most children do not know the established facts about what happened - and educational experts are sceptical about the possibility of establishing a unified educational system due to the lack of political will amongst the country’s leaders.

Pupils at the Obala Gymnasium in Sarajevo say they do not remember having been taught about the past war, and that they only know that the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina was “created after the fall of Yugoslavia” and that “the war began due to misunderstandings”, BIRN was told.

Pupil Amer Durmic said he only learned some of the history from his parents’ stories about how they managed to survive during the war.

“I remember having heard about the horrors in the detention camps. I would not be able to live like that,” he said.

His fellow pupil Dzenita Dzaka said she would like to have lessons about the war.

“I would like to know why all those things happened, why innocent people got killed,” she explained.

Lessons about the facts about the war that have been determined by court verdicts - the Srebrenica genocide and the siege of Sarajevo - have been included in the proposed Law on Primary and Secondary Education in the Sarajevo Canton, however.

Sarajevo Canton Prime Minister Elmedin Konakovic said children will be taught on the basis of the facts established in verdicts handed down by international and domestic courts.

“They will learn that genocide happened in Srebrenica, they will learn the names of the people who oversaw the genocide and the names of those who have been convicted,” Konakovic said.

“At the same time they will learn the names of our heroes, the heroes of Sarajevo Canton and the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the leaders, the commanders and the people who laid down their lives in defence against aggression,” he added.

He said that pupils would also learn about those who committed crimes in the name of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bosniak-led force in the war, not only atrocities committed by Serbs and Croats.

But Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated political entity Republika Srpska, recently made it clear that the history of the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica genocide would never be taught in Republika Srpska’s schools.

“Here it is impossible to use schoolbooks from the Federation [Bosnia’s other, Bosniak and Croat-dominated entity] in which it is written that the Serbs committed genocide and held Sarajevo under siege. It’s not true and it will not be studied here,” Dodik said last week.

Historians and sociologists are concerned meanwhile that lessons about the war in the Sarajevo area might be one-sided and thus increase divisions among children.

Textbooks promote segregation

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, pupils have the right to be educated according to their own ‘national’ (ethnic) curriculum, which means they study in their own language (Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian), and several subjects are taught differently according to their ethnicity, such as religion and history.

An analysis of the various ‘national’ textbooks published last month by the Open Society Fund and the ProMENTA reseach organisation raised concerns that lessons about the war will be discriminatory.

The analysis showed that the existing educational system divided students and stimulated segregation.

Some schools in the country operate the controversial practice of ‘two schools under one roof’ - separating pupils into different classes in the same building on the basis of their ethnicity.

The analysis also showed that pupils were taught that Roma were nomads who engaged in petty trade, collecting garbage and playing music, while Serbs and Montenegrins like to start wars.

In the textbooks, people’s religious and ethnic affiliations are considered to be identical, so all Serbs belong to the Orthodox Church, all Croats are Catholics and all Bosniaks are Muslims.

The analysis further suggested that children are taught that all migrants in Europe are Muslims and that the Balkans is a synonym for underdevelopment, conflict and instability.

Children are also taught that people who make a living from farming are primitive and that all atheists are immoral.

“In the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an ethnocentric narrative stands out,” said ProMENTA researcher Andrea Soldo.

She said that Bosniak textbooks emphasise Bosniaks, Croat ones emphasise Croats, and Serb ones emphasise Serbs.

“The others are mentioned incidentally or not mentioned at all, which teaches us that we should not learn or know anything about others,” Soldo added.

Sociologist Srdjan Puhalo said the best possible scenario would be for Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks to write a joint history of the 1990s - although he admitted that this idea was unrealistic.

“I think the best solution in Bosnia and Herzegovina would be not to teach students history lessons, but let them ask questions about it, teach them to ask the right questions, to ask why something happened, how it happened and who was responsible and whether it could have happened in a different way,” Puhalo said.

“I think asking those questions would be a much better way to understand all the things that happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina than learning history lessons by heart, like children do today. In those lessons, ‘our’ people are presented as victims, while the others are occupying forces and killers,” he added.

Two schools, many truths

In several cantons, there are still “two schools under one roof” despite verdicts handed down by the Federation’s Constitutional Court saying that this system violates children’s human rights.

Puhalo said that the country’s politicians are responsible for the continuing divisions.

“If you ask politicians whether it is normal to have schools for the rich and schools for the poor, they will say no. If you ask them if it is normal to have separate schools for black and white people, they will say no. If you ask them if it is normal for boys and girls to attend separate schools, they will say no. But, in the end they will say yes, it is normal to have separate schools for Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks,” he said.

Soldo said that reform was crucial for the country’s future.

“What we want to achieve as a society depends on education,” she said.

Azra, who attends the Secondary Vocational School in the town of Jajce, where pupils have been campaigning against segregated classes, argued that divisions must be overcome now for the sake of the schoolchildren of the future.

“If we fail to do it now, the next generations will not understand how nice it is when we are all together,” she said.

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