Bosnian students’ long fight against segregated schools

In Bosnia, there are 57 “two schools under one roof”, segregated according to ethnicity. War degenerated into a battle for the children, fought out in front of the blackboard. Cosmopolitan youth, however, are fighting back. Recently, their continued protest led to a breakthrough. ‘We won this battle, but not the war’, says 17-year old Nikolas Rimac.

© Pieter Stockmans

Children are standing in line according to ethnicity. Bosnian Croats follow the curriculum of neighboring country Croatia and learn their capital is Zagreb.

The children are crisscrossing on the playground. No obvious signs indicate who is Muslim (Bosniaks) and who is Catholic (Bosnian Croats). When suddenly the bell rings, in no time they are standing in lines according to ethnicity.

The Bosniaks enter the building and sit in their classrooms on the ground floor. On the walls, there are drawings of mosques. The Bosnian Croats walk up the stairs to their school on the first floor. Their walls display drawings of churches.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that education is where we decide whether we love our children enough to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world. In Central Bosnia, parents, schools and politicians pass on the world they have built from the debris of hate, sorrow and war to the next generation.

© Pieter Stockmans

On the first floor in the Croatian school: drawings of churches. On ground floor in the Bosniak-school: drawings of mosques.

In Jajce, Bosnia, you will find two schools under one roof: the “Croatian School 13 September” – referring to the day in 1995 when Bosnian Croats conquered the city – and the Bosniak school “Berta Kucera”, named after a communist partisan and the name of this school before the war.

Sedin Duranović, librarian of the school Berta Kucera, shows the official documents. For the Croatian schools the Minister approved the curriculum of neighbouring Croatia. Students take the courses in geography, history, societal orientation, language and literature – in short, the “national” subjects – from Croatia, not from their own country Bosnia.

The roof on top of both schools is leaking. It is the only reason why the two directors are collaborating.

“The capital of Croatia is Zagreb”, learning outcomes read for the course “My world and surroundings”. In the classrooms of the Bosniak school there is a map of Bosnia during the Ottoman Empire.

‘In kindergarten, the children were still sharing the same classroom’, the teacher says. ‘But from the first grade, the years of shaping their identity, politicians segregate them according to ethnicity. How does one explain that to a six year old?’

The system has no outspoken advocates. ‘Better to have two schools under one roof than one school without a roof’, one of the Bosnian Croat teachers laughs. That is all he has to say. Even director Ivan Rajić refuses an interview.

In the hallway, Rajić is talking with director Fikret Cancar from the school Berta Kucera. The roof of both schools is leaking. It is the only reason why these two men collaborate.

© Pieter Stockmans

Teacher in first grade show the handbook of her daughter. Below, “Zagreb” is mentioned. All school handbooks come from neighboring country Croatia.

Together apart

Two schools under one roof is the legacy of the Bosnian war of the 1990s. Supported by the then Croatian President Franjo Tudman, the Bosnian Croats declared the autonomous “Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna”. They adopted the Croatian curriculum.

Upon returning to their towns and villages, Bosniak refugees found out that their children would have to go to Croatian schools and would not learn about their own country Bosnia. In 2001, the OSCE offered a solution: Bosniaks could open a separate school in the same building, using the Bosnian curriculum.

‘The “two schools under one roof” were intended to merge into one’, says Jonathan Moore, Ambassador of the OSCE in Bosnia. Sixteen years later, the Bosnian Croats are still teaching their children as if Herceg-Bosna officially exists.

The structure of the Bosnian state as created by the Dayton Peace Agreement allows for this. The Federation of Bosniaks and Croats is comprised of ten cantons. Each canton has its own Minister of Education. In cantons with a large number of Bosnian Croats, the Minister of Education is always a Bosnian Croat. This is the result of bargaining for ministerial appointments.

That’s how it is in Central Bosnia, where Jajce is located, even though only 38 per cent of the population is Bosnian Croat. Segregation of curricula, the result of ethnic cleansing, is an accomplishment the Bosnian Croats are not willing to give up.

Director Fikret Cancar is worried about this development: ‘I asked director Ivan Rajić to at least organize music, drawing and sports together, but everything is stuck at a higher level. For twenty years already. The subject has become taboo. Meanwhile, my children use the word “they” when they speak about the children of the Croatian school. Us here, them there. This is scary.’

A report from the Council of Europe mentions 16 per cent of Bosnian children do not want to be in mixed classrooms. In 2002, Bosnia was admitted to the Council of Europe, but the country was required to abolish segregation in education.

Segregation, the result of ethnic cleansing, is an achievement that the Bosnian Croats are not willing to give up.

Twelve years later, the Supreme Court said in a similar ruling: ‘The policy reinforces intolerance and leads to ethnic isolation. Schools need to use integrated educational facilities.’ The successive Ministers of Education of the Central Bosnia canton ignored the decisions. ‘Separation is the right of every constituting people of this country to maintain education in one’s own language’, said Katica Čerkez and Jozo Jurina. Yet, in March two hundred linguists in the Balkans wrote that ‘inhabitants of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia speak a variant of the same language.’

Since the 1990s nationalist parties are promoting the recognition of their exclusive identity based on small differences in language, which they then turn into obstacles to education reform.

‘Language is just a sophism’, says director Fikret Cancar. ‘The minimal differences between Croatian and Bosnian do not prevent Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks to learn about national courses of both Croatia and Bosnia together.’

‘Besides, in large cities without segregation, such as Sarajevo and Tuzla, it is suddenly not a problem for Bosnian Croat children to go to school with Bosniaks and to learn according to the Bosnian curriculum.’

Friends without Nationalism

Over the years, the number of segregated schools has only increased. ‘Now it is up to us’, students from the high school Srednja Strukovna, a Croatian school with half of its students Bosniak, must have thought.

A year later Nikolas Rimac (17) is sitting with his comrades Ilijana Brtan, Ivica Jukanović and Nikica Papić, downheartedly on a bench near the splashing water of the Pliva Waterfall. They all turn out to be Bosnian-Croatian. ‘A lot of water will have to fall before anything will change around here’, says Nikolas. His cynical chuckle hides his deep feelings of disappointment.

© Pieter Stockmans

Nikica, Ivica, Ilijana and Nikolas founded “Friends without Nationalism” and recently changed its name into “Naša Škola” (Our School): ‘If they aim to divide us in groups, chances diminish that there will still be youth like us.’

It started with Halima Hodzić, a Bosniak student. She had refused to receive her degree because it had the Croatian coat of arms printed on it instead of the Bosnian one.  In geography, she had to learn that Bosnia and Herzegovina is “a centuries-old Croatian state”.

The Minister of the canton then claimed that he had received a petition from parents to segregate the school. The students asked to see the petition but received no answer.

‘The Bosniaks were against separation’, says Jajce mayor Edin Hozan. ‘They did not even ask for their own country’s curriculum, but only that the Bosniak students would learn about Bosnian geography and history. The Minister refused even that.’

‘His proposal: either all students follow Croatia’s curriculum, or you establish your own schools just for Bosniaks. Segregation.’

‘Either all students follow Croatia’s curriculum, or you establish your own schools just for Bosniaks.’

‘I understand the Bosniaks’, says Nikolas. They grow up without learning about their own identity, even though they are in their own country. That is a strange form of uprooting and discrimination. I think it is terrible that they, our friends, have to leave.’

Walking along the frozen lake, Ilijana meets her best friend. She is Bosniak. ‘My parents are nationalistic. Only at school I began to think with an open mind’, says Ilijana.

Ivica will soon marry his girlfriend. She is Bosniak too. ‘Perhaps we are the products of a mixed education’, he says. ‘If they divide us into groups the number of physical meeting places will decrease and this will also reduce the chances that there will still be young people like us. What do you expect from the youth if adults send out signals that being together is wrong?’

‘The worst thing is that they did not even ask for our opinion. Do they want a school without students then?’ Nikolas says indignantly. With their group “Friends without Nationalism” they organized demonstrations and threatened to boycott the school. They got the support of teachers, the mayor, the Islamic Community and the OSCE.

‘Why waste scarce resources on new schools if you could use them to improve the quality of education?’ asks OSCE Ambassador Moore.

Does nationalism go at the expense of good education? School librarian Sedin Duranović confirms: ‘This tiny little library is serving 1100 students.  We only have a handful of copies of some of these books, not even enough for one class.’

Representatives of the parents’ council also spoke out against segregation, but according to Nikolas many parents support the nationalists.

‘You do not represent our people’, ‘we did not kill each other to stay together afterwards’: a selection of comments made by Nikolas’ father.

‘My parents want to keep me locked up. Keep your world small, be a sheep in the flock, keep your anger towards the enemy.’

Nikolas sounds depressed when he speaks about his parents: ‘My father has fought in the war. He considers the federation with the Muslims as an error of history. Sometimes it feels as if I have experienced the war myself through my father’s feelings. How many times have I heard that Croats are superior? He glorifies the fascist Ustaša Movement.’

‘It has worked on my brothers, but not on me. From an early age I started to read about the war, the mass killings by the Ustaša in World War II. I do not consider myself “a true Croat”. I am a citizen of the world. My father is deeply hurt when I say things like that. I think he is disappointed because he raised a softie.’

Ivica greets a group of friends. They are drinking beer and wearing football clothes. Nikolas wants to leave. ‘They only care about football and girls, not politics’, he whispers. That is the way our parents want their children to be. My mother is afraid that I will not get any opportunities because I am a dissident.’

‘She hides my phone so that I cannot make appointments. She prohibits me to participate in meetings of action groups in Sarajevo. My parents want to keep me locked up. Keep your world small, suppress your feelings, be a sheep in the flock, keep your anger towards the enemy so you never leave your little bubble. Every day I see friends giving in to the pressure from their parents.’

It’s the economy

According to a recent Gallup Poll 55 per cent of Bosnia’s citizens is willing to take up arms for “their nation”. However, without any open conflict between Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo, war is unlikely. At least on paper, all three are on course towards EU membership.

Why then are there still supporters of ethnic nationalism? Next to being an ideology it is also an instrument to continue the elite’s political and economic power.

© Pieter Stockmans

By passing on the us-versus-them mentality to the next generation, nationalists keep the electoral system in place, whereby every Croat votes for “the Croat party” (HDZ) and every Bosniak for “the party of the Bosniaks” (SDA).

By passing on the us-versus-them mentality to the next generation, the nationalists are preserving the electoral system whereby each Croat votes for “the Croatian party” (HDZ) and each Bosniak votes for “the Bosniak party” (SDA).

Since the 1990s these parties hold the levers of the economy. Bosnia belongs to those European countries with the most corrupt leaders and the poorest populations.

Elections do not serve rearrangements of power, but are a means to confirm the dominant position of nationalist parties over and over again. Citizens must believe that it is necessary to “defend” their community against the other. That is why politicians disproportionately emphasize minor differences.

The more people look beyond the boundaries of ethnic identity to see the cultural and economic similarities, the more chances there are for change. ‘We are hungry’, is the same in all three national languages.

The vendors of group identities are turning fear into political and economic capital, but they are harvesting anger because the system produces poverty. In Bosnia, this kind of anger could mobilize people against nationalism rather than in favour of it, as in France.

‘I am disappointed, in everything and everyone. I am going to Germany. There I will earn in a month the same as I do here in half a year.’

For the time being, mobilization mainly takes the form of emigration. ‘Everything is so expensive and I earn 300 euros a month’, says one of the Berta Kucera School teachers with the hysterical laughter of a woman jaded in life. ‘I am very angry, and disappointed, in everything and everyone. I am going to Germany. There I will earn in a month the same amount as I do here in half a year.’ Uprooted by corruption and nationalism she will join the army of emigrants, far away from her country, her passion – teaching – and her family.

A country cannot adopt a new vision for the future if its intellectual class is looking abroad. Emir is Bosniak. He is drinking a beer in a Croatian heavy metal bar. ‘My mother was an investigating judge and she prosecuted the previous mayor for corruption’, Emir says. ‘He was succeeded by a man from the same political party.’

‘This is not about one corrupt man. The entire system is corrupt. Our generation has witnessed how our parents’ efforts have led to nothing. We do not have the time to fight that same battle all over again. We just want to live. Everybody wants to leave.’

His friend, drinking whiskey, is even more cynical: ‘My wife and I are going to Germany. Neutral. No problems. Then we do not have to choose whether our daughter becomes Croatian or Bosnian.’

Because she is Bosnian-Croatian his wife holds a Croatian passport and hence she is an EU citizen – yet another way to create ties with the Croatian “motherland”.  He himself is a Bosniak and he holds a Bosnian passport.

‘We are from the same country, the same family. But we have different rights because supposedly we belong to different “nations”. We should be equal citizens of Bosnia.’

Equality, fraternity, unity

Are Nikolas’ Friends without Nationalism the living proof of a growing community that does no longer identify with the three separate identities? Are they bringing back the Yugoslav ideals of equality, fraternity and unity? Could this make the social influence of nationalism disappear slowly?

Not for the time being. At the 2013 population census only 4 per cent registered as “undeclared” or “other”. This category is meant for Jews, Roma and other minorities, but it could become a protest category for citizens who prefer a neutral Bosnian citizenship.

Especially in large cities, many residents of every ethnicity understand that nationalism preserves corruption and poverty. ‘Bosnia is not a multicultural country’, says Vlado Celebor, a bartender in the capital. ‘We are all Slavic, with the same surnames and language. We just have a different religion.’ He refuses to name his ethnicity.

© Pieter Stockmans

Nikolas Rimac: ‘I don’t consider myself a “true Croat”. I am a world citizen. My father is deeply hurt when I say so. I think he is disappointed that his own son is a softie.’

Nikolas does not want to be named a Croat. ‘I am a citizen of this country and thus Bosnian. Maybe one day I’ll even start a movement, “The Others”, the real Bosnians. The minority will become the majority and nationalism will collapse.’

‘An optimist will not see the obstacles, only the path. Optimism is what all those apathetic young people need, the belief that the power of the many can change something. But if they do not see quick results most of them give up.’

But it did not take long for Nikolas’ disappointment to turn into unwavering optimism and impressive activism again. Friends without Nationalism changed their name into Naša Škola - “Our School” - and started mobilizing a whole school community. With dozens of volunteers they collected hundreds of signatures and organized letter-writing actions addressed to the minister.

‘We don’t just want to stop additional segregated schools, we want to see all existing segregated schools abolished.’

Finally, last week, the Minister of Education of the Central Bosnia canton decided not to divide the Croatian school Srednja Strukovna into a Croatian school and a Bosniak school. Instead, Bosniak students will have the opportunity to follow history and geography according to the curriculum of Bosnia. They will also receive diplomas without the Croatian coat of arms.

Nikolas is pleased: ‘We achieved our main goal: stopping segregation. There will be no new “two schools under one roof”. Students will stay together in one school. We won this battle, but not the war.’

The proposed solution does not mean that Bosnian Croats now take the official curriculum of their country, Bosnia. Nor does it mean that the Minister of Education will develop a joint curriculum for Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. Bosnian Croats continue to use the curriculum of neighbouring Croatia, they continue to learn that their capital is Zagreb.

‘We want a curriculum that is good for everyone, and a high quality education’, says Nikolas. ‘We don’t just want to stop additional segregated schools, we want to see all existing segregated schools abolished. That’s the only way to stop the protests.’

That’s why Naša Škola organized a protest in front of the government building of Central Bosnia in Travnik on Tuesday, under the slogan “Join the fight for better education”.

‘Even though now there is a breakthrough, our peace march continues’,  says Nikolas. ‘The minister never wanted to receive us. Now we are going to her, so she does not think she is rid of us now. We will show her that we are strong and determined. We will continue to fight for better education and a joint curriculum for all students in Bosnia.’

© Naša Škola

Activists of Naša Škola ask to sign a petition to stop segregation in schools.

Like a philosopher, the seventeen-year-old Nikolas Rimac says farewell with a story about the director of the Croatian school.

‘I asked him why teachers could not be more creative. His answer: the laws of nature are also not reinvented every day. That is their mentality: the laws of society are forever fixed, just like the laws of nature. But an open mind transcends fear and changes the world.’

In a changing world there is always growing fear that identities will disintegrate. This is why Zilka Spahić, a professor at the University of Sarajevo, organizes seminars for teachers from different backgrounds. Her initiative receives the support from the Ministers of Education from both Sarajevo and Tuzla.

While maintaining everyone’s identity she seeks ways to integrate different curricula. ‘Dialogue is not about convincing the other’, she says. ‘As soon as participants realize this, they are reassured. The intention is to explain your identity to the other and to listen when the other is explaining his. Only then we become aware of ourselves and acknowledge the other.’

One curriculum where all children learn together about each other’s identity: it sounds utopian. But the utopia lives.

Translation by Jori De Coster

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