Feature 15 Jul 16

Bosnia’s Segregated Schools Perpetuate Ethnic Divisions

Dozens of Bosnian secondary schools are still segregated according to pupils’ ethnicity - perpetuating divisions within society but benefiting ethnically-based political parties that seek to exploit the system.

Rodolfo Toe BIRN Sarajevo
Bosnian pupils. Photo: UNICEF BiH/Facebook.

The principle of ‘two schools under one roof’ - separating Bosnian pupils into different classes in the same school building on the basis of their ethnicity – has caused controversy again this week.

Bosnian students have the right to be educated according to their ‘national’ (ie. 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.

This week the local assembly in the Central Bosnia Canton decided to create a separate secondary school with a Bosnian educational programme for pupils from two secondary schools in Jajce currently attended by children from all three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs).

Up until now, Bosniak students at the two local secondary schools could only study according to the Croat national curriculum, even though they had the legal right to study the Bosnian language and the Islamic religion, local media reported.

Pupils were also receiving report cards marked with the coat of arms of the unrecognised wartime Croat statelet of Herzeg-Bosna, a nationalist symbol which has been declared illegal.

According to the Central Bosnia Canton’s education minister, Katica Cerkez, the new school for Bosniak students will be set up using “existing resources”.

This means that it will operate in the same building currently used by the Nikola Sop secondary school – and pupils who were attending the Nikola Sop school before will be now separated from children of other ethnicities, while remaining in the same building.

“This was the only possible solution… creating a new legal entity under which students of Bosniak nationality will have the possibility to attend classes in the Bosnian language,” Elvedin Musanovic, a member of the cantonal assembly from the main Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, told media.

The proposal was mainly supported the SDA and from the Bosnian Croat party, the Croat Democratic Union, HDZBiH.

But other assembly members – including those from the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina – were against it.

“There were several other ways to solve this issue,” Social Democratic Party assembly member Nijaz Helez told BIRN.

“We all live together in Jajce and there was no need to separate these students,” Helez added.

The decision was also opposed by a number of pupils from both secondary schools, who staged a protest asking the authorities not to separate them along ethnic lines.

“I now have some friends who are, for me, even better than my religion,” one pupil, Tarik Sehic, told regional television station N1.

“We respect each other and we don’t have any problem,” he said.

Bosnian pupils. Photo: UNICEF BiH/Facebook.

Different timetables, no interaction

The phenomenon of ‘two schools under one roof’ is still widespread in the country, especially in some areas of the Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation political entity - despite a ruling by the Federation Constitutional Court that the practice is discriminatory.

According to Aida Becirovic, the Bosnia country chief of Schuler Helfen Leben, a German youth aid organisation, told BIRN that there are currently around 52 secondary schools in the country that operate under the principle.

They are mostly concentrated in central Bosnia and in the south of the country, in towns like Mostar or Stolac.

“Usually, the two schools have different timetables, occupy different parts of the building,” Becirovic explained.

“Sometimes they can have different entrances for students depending on their nationality, and breaks are organised so that they cannot interact,” she added.

Bosnia doesn't currently have a unified national educational programme, nor a state education ministry; while most of the authority on education is held by the entities, and in the Federation, by individual cantons.

The practice of having two schools under one roof started after the 1992-95 conflict as a way to ensure the rights of minorities and post-war returnees, according to the head of the OSCE in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jonathan Moore.

“Immediately after the war, what happened is that there was a school in one place, but a different community wouldn’t even go to that school, using restaurants or private homes for their classes,” Moore told BIRN.

The divided schools were intended as “an interim step, with the hope of bringing kids [from different communities] at least in the same building”, he added.

Over the years, however, what was designed as a temporary compromise became a permanent practice.

Although different ethnic education programs exist in several European countries, in Bosnia, where institutions are designed to reflect the principle of the equality of the three ‘constitutive peoples’ (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats), ‘two schools under one roof’ has become one of the symbols of the separation of the general public along ethnic lines.

In 2014, the Federation Constitutional Court ruled that the system was unconstitutional because it represented a form of segregation and discrimination.

However, two years afterwards, the ruling is still being disregarded, as lower levels of government refuse to comply with the court’s decision.

“It is just unfortunately another case of a constitutional ruling that has been ignored... there are hundreds of court decisions which have not been implemented,” Moore explained.

Pupils as patronage tools

The main factor which so far impeded any changes to the system is the power that political parties exercise on Bosnian society and their influence on the educational system, which allows them to use children’s schooling as a tool to extend their patronage networks.

“When you have two schools instead of one, you have more jobs you can hand to your own ethnic group or party members... When you have more schools, it costs more money, but as long as they provide jobs for people connected to political parties, than nobody cares about it,” Moore said.

“Parents are also the victims of political pressure... They express their frustration privately, but publicly they are very reluctant,” he added.

Moore argued that combining school which are now separated would not mean imposing the same curriculum on all pupils, but would save money and ensure better educational services.

Becirovic agreed that maintaining a segregated educational system benefited the country’s political élite – and had the knock-on effect of perpetuating ethnic divisions within society after pupils leave school.

“This is an optimal situation for Bosnian political parties, because they can separate young people and manipulate them, convincing them to fear other communities,” she said.

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