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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Teaching Intolerance

This article was originally published on Transitions Online, with support from the Education Support Program.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina—In early March 2008, the town council of Capljina, a Croat-majority town in the country’s south, announced that all Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Bosnian Serb pupils at the town’s only primary school would attend classes elsewhere in the future. As justification, local authorities pointed to the lack of available classroom space and the fact that the students—most of them refugee returnees—were learning from a Bosnian, not Croatian, curriculum.

The students’ new home was not, however, chosen with sensitivity. Parents of the 175 Bosniak and Bosnian Serb children soon learned that authorities planned to relocate the school to the local Youth House, a building that served as a military prison run by the Bosnian Croat army during the war, where hundreds of Bosniak and Bosnian Serbs were detained and tortured before being run out of town.

Twelve years after the end of the Bosnian war, education remains the least reformed sectors in Bosnian society. Pupils and teachers at all levels continue to experience ethnic and religious segregation, intolerance, and division. The quality of education itself falls well below European standards, prompting an army of young people to seek higher education abroad.

Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina is highly politicized, a reflection of the country’s lingering struggles with ethnic division. Bosnian schools have become a battlefield in the fight for ethnic dominance, resulting in a system of ethnically “clean” schools where children learn from ethnically specific curricula and textbooks, and have little interaction with their peers from other ethnic groups.

Mixed Fruit

Capljina’s primary school is a perfect example of a post-war Bosnian phenomenon called “Two Schools Under One Roof,” mostly present in the country’s Bosniak- and Bosnian Croat-dominated Federation entity. Under this concept, Bosniak and Croat pupils and teachers use the same school facilities but have no contact with one another, and follow divergent, ethnic-based curricula. In the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, Bosniak and Croat returnees similarly attend their own ethnic schools.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina devised the “Two Schools Under One Roof” plan in 2000 as a temporary measure to encourage people to return to their homes, and prevent ethnic violence.

“The two-in-ones were indeed designed from the very beginning to be a transitional solution with administrative unification being a further step towards eventual integration,” says Claude Kieffer, director of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina Education Department. “However, though agreed upon by the authorities and legally mandated, even this first step has not been achieved in most places.”

In many such schools, Bosniak and Bosnian Croat children, as well as their teachers, have no mutual contact. Students often arrive at school via different entrances, they take separate breaks, and the teachers have separate common rooms. In some more “reformed” schools, the classes are multiethnic, but when time comes for national subjects such as geography, history, and language, they separate.

Even though the project was meant to be temporary, it seems that “Two Schools Under One Roof” strategy will persist, for authorities and parents alike have shown no intention to abandon it.

Last year, Greta Kuna, Education Minister of the Federation’s Middle Bosnia canton (where the largest number of “Two Schools Under One Roof” exist) told local media that authorities were not going to suspend the project because she saw no problem with it and “because it helps in reducing education expenses.”

But she also said something more illustrative of the larger problem. “The ‘Two Schools Under One Roof’ project will not be suspended because you can’t mix apples and pears. Apples with apples and pears with pears,” Kuna explained.

Ethnic Divide

The segregated system affects not only students, but teachers as well, as they continue to be appointed based upon ethnic criteria. For instance, there is an unwritten rule that a Croat teacher cannot teach geography or history subjects in Republika Srpska, while a Serb cannot teach those subjects in the Federation. However, they can teach other, more benign subjects, such as art, mathematics, foreign languages, or physics—since schools have to fulfill ethnic “quotas”.

Furthermore, the names of dozens of primary and secondary schools are also contributing to ethnic intolerance. Instead of being named after recognized scientists, writers, or other major contributors to the country’s cultural heritage, schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina often carry the names of military commanders or politicians from the recent war, or historical figures linked to a specific ethnic group who have nothing to do with education.

Classroom walls are decorated with religious posters. Not so long ago, the offices of professors or school libraries in Bosnian Serb-dominated schools had pictures of indicted war criminals, including Europe’s most-wanted wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

The biggest problems have to do with teaching ethnically sensitive subjects such as history, geography, religious history, and languages. Existing textbooks on these subjects are filled with nationalist and intolerant language regarding the other ethnic groups, particularly when talking about the recent war. (For some examples, see the bottom of this article).

In 2006, ProMENTE, an international consultancy and Open Society Fund Bosnia and Herzegovina conducted a study of textbooks on national subjects from three ethnic curricula and concluded that in many cases they were fascist in nature.

Vedran Zubic, a professor of geography at Sarajevo’s Dobrinja Gymnasium and one of the editors of the ProMENTE research, said that the examined textbooks represented an extension of wartime nationalist rhetoric, filled with hatred and intolerance.

“That is why today we have a generation of young, intolerant, ethnically isolated, and ethnically overfed pupils who are being used as weapons of nationalist politicians,” he says. “And it doesn’t exactly surprise me that they are the main participants in the protests like the one against Kosovo independence, against the deportations of Mujahideen (Muslim fighters from Islamic countries during the war), and so on.”

According to Zubic, it will be difficult to annul classroom segregation and ethnic-based curricula, as it has been freely functioning since the early 1990s and by now has deep roots.

“Theoretically, the only way to create a “civilized” educational system is to create unified curricula and textbooks on a state level, which would offer just plain information, without nationalist and intolerant commentaries,” Zubic said.

However, even if neutral textbooks are created, no one could prevent teachers from adding their own opinions on certain subjects.

No End In Sight

The OSCE’s Kieffer says that the suspension of ethnically-biased curricula is unrealistic. He stressed that the OSCE instead is advocating a more holistic education system in which state-level learning objectives and standards, together with a system of elective courses, ensure that children spend more time learning together than apart.

“The reality on the ground remains, however, that most people believe, according to the Bosnia and Herzegovina constitution, that each constituent people has an inalienable right to have its children taught exclusively in their mother tongue upon the basis of a curriculum of their parents’ choice,” Kieffer said.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are 13 separate education laws, all different and none at the state level. The two entities have their own laws, the Federation’s 10 cantons have theirs, and the self-governing District of Brcko has its own.

In 2003, the international community, led by the OSCE, created an education bill intended for state-wide implementation, which it then forced the Bosnian Parliament to pass. However, with the government itself unable to reach agreement on those issues that make the current education system ethnically biased, the relevant authorities have never implemented the law.

In the meantime, ethnic animosity is not the only problem plaguing the country’s education system: teachers are poorly paid; many schools, especially in rural areas lack proper infrastructure; and computers and Internet connections are privileges that few have.

Finally, a new kind of segregation, though less noticeable, is being implemented with respect to the Roma and children with special needs. While the latter suffer from the lack of funds to deal with their disabilities and to arrange special transportation, the overall needs of Roma children have long been neglected, virtually excluding them from education. Only around 7 percent attend primary school, and almost none after the fourth grade. No textbooks exist in the Romani language that might ease the integration of young Roma into the school system.

Bosnian Serb Geography Textbook

“Republika Srpska is an independent state”

“Orthodox Christianity is the most important religion—Muslims are Islamic Serbs while Croats are Serbs Catholics”

“The maps are showing all Serbian states—Belgrade is the capital of all Serbs”

Bosnian Croat Geography Textbook

“Zagreb is the Croat capital”

“Muslims are ethnic group and not religion”

“Name all Croat cities in Bosnia”

“Bosnia and Herzegovina is a centuries-old Croat state”

Bosnian Geography Textbook

“Bosnia and Herzegovina was always under attack from the East and West” (i.e. Serbia and Croatia)

“Muslim don’t attack sacral objects—unlike others”

“Islam is the best religion”

“All the Serbs did aggression and genocide on Bosnia and Herzegovina”

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