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Bosnia’s segregated schools

Two decades after the war, can a nation that learns separately ever be united?

istockphoto; Globe Staff Illustration/iStock

ZEPCE, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA — Kristina Lovric is 17 years old and lives in a country with one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in Europe, but until recently she had never taken a course with a Muslim. Lovric, who is Catholic, enters the front door of her white stucco high school and turns right to go to class. Muslim students walk through the same door and turn left.

The arrangement is called “two schools one roof,” and it’s one of the troubling inheritances of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. As Catholics and Muslims in this town began to recover and rebuild after the conflict, they started to live separate lives, and an entire generation of children has been educated in uneasy parallel. Students are not only physically separated from one another, but are taught in separate languages and study from separate history, literature, and geography textbooks. Today, there are more than 50 divided public schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a small country the size of West Virginia.


The division is a legacy of the US-sponsored Dayton Accord, the 1995 agreement that created the current political framework in Bosnia. The accord has been widely credited for a lasting, if closely supervised peace, but it has also frozen the country into what some call an “ethnopolis”: a geography of victors where towns and cities tend to be dominated by the particular ethnic group—Croat, Bosniak, or Serb—that won the most local battles during the war.

“The virtue of the agreement was that it ended the war between the groups. That was what was politically possible at the time,” said Thomas Mesa, acting deputy chief of the US Embassy in Sarajevo.

Now the United States is trying to soften some of these fracture lines, starting with the schools. Since 2012, students in Zepce have been able to apply for a US-sponsored program that brings Muslim and Catholic students together in a joint English class and summer camp. The course is based on contact theory, which postulates that face-to-face interaction between groups reduces prejudice and stereotyping. If students were able to communicate in a third language, neither Croatian nor Bosnian, they might be able to discuss touchy issues such as religion and politics, while preparing for a global workplace where they would interact with people from many cultures.


When Lovric attended her first class with Muslims in Zepce, she felt nervous. “It was weird because we never had classes together before,” she said in English. “We were never in the same room talking about the same things.”

It is a small step toward unifying the curriculums at the school, and it’s not clear yet whether it will work. Some earlier efforts to integrate education here caused protests, and no one has yet agreed on what a common curriculum for Bosnians would look like. But it is a crucial step as Bosnia, like many post-war countries, grapples with how previous enemies can live together long term. Education is particularly contentious, and particularly important. What students learn about one another in schools here—both in books and from the kids in class next to them—could either create a foundation for lasting peace, or prevent it from ever taking root.


From the outside, Zepce today appears tranquil, a farming town nestled along a major rail line in a wide green valley in central Bosnia. A prominent Catholic church and a mosque stand within two blocks of one another, a reminder that for generations, Muslims and Christians lived together peacefully.


Bosnia and Herzegovina is sandwiched between Croatia to the west and Serbia to the east. All used to be part of the former Yugoslavia, which began to break apart in the 1990s. Religious nationalism flared as new states sought to define themselves. Croatia, predominantly Catholic, emphasized purity in language, religion, and ethnicity, kicking out Serbs, who are Orthodox Christian. Bosnia was a crossroads of three religions, 17 percent Croat, 31 percent Serb, and 44 percent Muslim. When Bosnia declared independence in 1992, ethnic Serbs wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia, in part because Serbian political leaders stoked fear that Bosnia would become an Islamic state. Bosnia’s independence movement erupted into a vicious triangular war, marked by atrocities and persistent outside intervention, in which 100,000 people died.

In the beginning, Muslim and Catholic militias cooperated to defend Zepce against their common enemy at the time, the Bosnian Serbs, who, backed by the Yugoslav military, were taking ground fast in eastern Bosnia. But in June 1993, Bosnian government forces, which were predominantly Muslim and fortified by outside Islamic fighters, launched an assault against the Bosnian Croat military, which was backed by Croatia. The battle raged for a week, destroying half of the town, according to the military historian Charles R. Shrader. In a surprising twist, the Bosnian Serbs “lent” the Croats several tanks to finish the conflict, and the Bosnian Muslim forces surrendered.


The war ended with the US-brokered treaty signed in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, establishing a truce and seeking to balance the rights of each group. The agreement provided the “rights to security of person” and the “right to education,” among others.

From the start, those two rights had an unanticipated consequence, institutionalizing the ethnically divided education system that had developed during the war. Protective parents asserted that their children were not safe in the same classroom with children of other religions. In Zepce, Croats were the victors; they dominated the school curriculums and initially blocked the Bosniak students from attending. In eastern Bosnia, meanwhile, now called the Republika Srpska, Serbs run their own schools. In Sarajevo and Tuzla, dominated by Muslims, there are Bosniak schools.

Today most of Bosnia’s 2,200 public primary and secondary schools offer mono-ethnic curriculums. Croat-dominated schools use textbooks from Croatia. Serb-dominated schools use textbooks produced in Serbia. Bosniaks use textbooks developed in Bosnia. Each textbook presents a different version of history and geography. (The term “Bosniak” itself was revived after the war by Muslims who wanted to be identified with their own, independent country.)

Bosnia is not the only country in which a civil conflict is suppressed in part by keeping classrooms separate. In Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic students are educated separately. There are segregated schools for Palestinian and Jewish students in Israel. Greek and Turkish students still speak different languages in separate schools in Cyprus.


Those who support such division argue that it keeps children safe and enables them to develop confidence and a strong sense of identity. But American and European advisers worry that 20 years after the end of the war, maintaining segregation fosters national division, encouraging an exaggerated notion of students’ differences instead of developing the understanding and cooperation they need to create an integrated Bosnia someday.

“Divided schools are not acceptable in the 21st century,” said Aleksandra Krstovic, national program officer for the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, whose job is to bring Bosnia’s education up to European standards. “Society is so divided, I am pessimistic about the political future of this country.”

Muslim children at a mixed school in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 2006. Muslim and Croat children attend the school together, but in separate classrooms with separate teachers, and separate textbooks.Hidajet Delic/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

The “two schools one roof” system, although it may carry echoes of Jim Crow segregation for an American observer, was intended as a step forward on the path to full integration. It was implemented in 2005 with the approval of the US Embassy and under the direction of the OSCE.

Side-by-side education had a rocky start. In 2005, when the education minister responsible for Zepce ordered that students study the same curriculum, Croat students and parents turned out in the streets and boycotted the schools.

This was, in part, due to a longstanding argument over history. During the war, Croat and Bosniak textbooks denounced the Serbs as aggressors; each side portrayed itself as victims. Today, the presentation of different perspectives is still limited. Falk Pingel, the former deputy director of The Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research based in Germany, tried to help revise Bosnian history textbooks several years ago. According to Pingel, textbook reviewers were unable to agree on how to present the Ottoman conversion of Bosnians to Islam. The Bosniaks wanted to emphasize a long period of acculturation, while the Croats and Serbs preferred to stress “the cruel and violent oppression of the culture and religion of Christian Slavs under the Ottoman Empire.” Similarly, the Croatian textbooks have not revealed the full extent of the persecution of Serbs and other groups in concentration camps during World War II. History of the most recent war is not currently taught at all, upon recommendation by the Council of Europe.

Today, Zepce’s students and parents have compromised somewhat. The secondary school has one principal and two administrations. While physically separate, students at least study the same course materials in math, biology, computer science, and other politically neutral subjects. Muslim and Catholic students can take specialized courses, such as traffic management, together. However, they still study their own language, history, and geography.


Though they go to class in the same building, even today many Croat and Bosniak secondary school students say they do not socialize outside during breaks. A few years ago, tensions between the groups erupted. Josip Mijatovic, 17, a Croat who would like to join the US Army, said at games and rallies some students would raise the flag of neighboring Croatia; others would unfurl the green and white flag of the United Islamic Community, which represents 1,700 mosques in Bosnia. Students called each other Ustase, Croatian Fascist, or Balija, a derogatory term for a Turkish descendant of the Ottoman Empire. They gestured with Sieg Heil salutes and an open hand representing five centuries of Ottoman domination. Fights ensued.

In light of this conflict, in 2010 the US Embassy formalized efforts to counteract the effects of segregated schools. The embassy has sponsored summer camps, basketball games, and spelling bees for young people of different ethnicities to interact, spending $3.2 million on interethnic reconciliation.

“We think it is important to provide as many opportunities as possible for young people to cross those religious barriers, those ethnic barriers,” said Mesa. “The more interaction you have of different ethnic groups, they’re going to realize they are not that different and find a lot of common interests and common ground.”

The interethnic programs have touched just 70,000 people, only 1 percent of the total Bosnian population. But a small pilot program in Zepce, Tolerance Through English, offers an example that could be a springboard for deeper ethnic unification of schools.

Every Saturday morning for the past two years, English teacher Almira Malicbegovic has been helping to lead 14 Catholic and Muslim students through an American-style curriculum, with films, field trips, and presentations. The program has provided the students with different perspectives from the United States, including an episode from the FX cable reality show “30 Days,” in which David Stacy, a Christian from West Virginia, goes to live with a Muslim family in Michigan where he grapples with strong feelings after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Although the students were first wary, said Malicbegovic, after a few classes they began talking. Leonardo Tomic, 17, a Catholic who says he would someday like to visit Boston’s TD Garden, was surprised to learn that “there are very small differences in language” between Croatian and Bosnian. Samira Faralic, 18, who is Muslim, was pleased that she was able to discuss the differences between how she and her Catholic roommate pray while they shared a room at summer camp.

“It was interesting. Using English made it easier to communicate because English words are the same whether spoken by Bosnians or Croats,” said Lemana Spahic, 17, who is Muslim. She said she and her Croat friends discussed the Bosnian war and decided it was not something that they should allow to determine their future. It seemed unnatural, she added, to be divided because of religion in school.

Education in a transitional nation is really a struggle for the hearts and souls of children who are helping to form a national identity. And it’s complicated when society has competing interpretations of recent events. “Teaching controversial issues from the recent past involves strong emotions and invokes painful and traumatic memories; many often feel that their sufferings are not sufficiently emphasized in the condensed accounts necessary for a textbook,” writes textbook author Snjezana Koren in her analysis of the evolution of Croatia’s history education.

Although the teens I talked to said they came to see one another as individuals, by the end of the course many still cleaved to what they had learned before taking the class, whether from parents who had suffered at the hands of their wartime enemies, or from textbooks conveying limited views. “I made good Muslim friends,” Lovric said, but added, “our parents were in the war and talk to us about religion. For this reason, we won’t be uniting.”

Mijatovic too, acknowledged that his feelings about his classmates had shifted. “When I was a kid, I wouldn’t play with Muslims. Now I realize we are the same,” he said.

But he believes it is too early for the school to integrate, pointing out that the United States has its own history of segregated schools, divided by race, which prevailed for 100 years after the end of the Civil War. “Maybe in 50 to 100 years, we will be united, but now is too soon.”

Susan E. Reed is a Boston-based author and journalist who covered the Bosnian war. She can be reached at thediversityindex@gmail.com.