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Teaching Democracy in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Prague, April 19 (RFE/RL) - More than 165 teachers and administrators from Bosnia-Herzegovina are headed back to their blackboards and bombed-out schools, armed with new ideas about the role of education in constructing a democratic society.

The educators recently took part in a conference in Sarajevo, entitled "Civitas Sarajevo," which was organized by The American Federation Of Teachers, The Center For Civic Education, The Council Of Europe and The United States Information Agency (USIS). An earlier conference on the same subject was held in Prague at Radio Free Europe nearly one year ago.

Conference participants from 23 cities and towns across Bosnia - including representatives of such isolated, former front-line towns as Gorazde, Bihac and Brcko - attended workshop sessions on human rights, tolerance and the principles and practices of democracy.

Penn Campbell of USIS said the workshop "struck a blow for multi-ethnicity and territorial integration, in the face of pressures in the opposite direction."

The four years of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina disrupted the education of students from primary school to university. Buildings, books, blackboards and computers were destroyed, while classes were held sporadically, if at all, depending on the level of fighting and the availability of heat for the buildings.

Professor Hidajet Repovac of Sarajevo University's Sociology Department says students also suffered serious psychological effects not only because of the terror of war, but also because the communist ideology they grew up with was replaced by a new ideology combining socialism and nationalism, without democracy.

Repovac says there can be no democratic education in Bosnia-Herzegovina, until educators have what he called "freedom of choice." In his words, "our educational system is leaning on the old system, like on crutches. It looks like an invalid and a lot of time will be needed in our programs and plans if we want to teach children democracy and freedom."

School inspector Salem Halilovic agrees. He says "nowadays in Bosnia, you will find few people who dare say what they think and feel." Halilovic, who is from the Eastern Muslim enclave of Gorazde, says, "in our curriculum, there is not much room to talk about democracy."

Snjezana Vasilij, a university history professor in West Mostar, the Croat half of the divided city, adds that the influence of religion is stronger than that of democracy. She says children, especially in rural areas, are divided along ethnic lines at school.

According to Vasilij, Bosnian Muslim, Serb and Croat authorities have introduced separate curriculums in schools located in their various territories that stress the differences, rather than similarities between kid's ethnic backgrounds. She says the curriculums differ in language, religion, history and geography.

International education experts say they fear that separate education systems will perpetuate perceived national differences in Bosnia and could lead to new conflicts in future generations.

Much of Bosnia's fighting forces in the war in the former yugoslavia were made up of students, who swapped the schoolroom for the trenches, and in doing so say their future is now bleak.

Dino Tanovic, a war veteran at 28, said of his predicament,"I have no apartment, I lost my house, I have no job, I have no money... For the last four years the army was everything for me.... now I am nowhere."

Soldier Amir Latinovic put it this way, "The only thing I have learned these last four years is how to fire a machine-gun, throw hand grenades, and fight." The 22-year-old says he has no patience to return to school. He said he would have to learn things he was supposed to learn when he was 18. In his words, "I simply can't do it. I'd shoot the teacher if he gave me a bad grade."