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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Back To School -- Officials Taking Steps To End Ethnic Divisions (Part 2)

Bosnian officials appear to be taking steps to end ethnic divisions in schools, nearly a decade after the end of the country's interethnic civil war. In the second part of our two-part series, "Back to School," RFE/RL reports that Bosnian officials say they are on target in implementing an internationally sanctioned integration plan.

Prague, 29 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Until now, Muslim and Croatian children in dozens of schools in Bosnia-Herzegovina entered school buildings through separate entrances to go to separate classrooms with different teachers.

Children from Bosnia's three main ethnic groups -- Croats, Muslims, and Serbs -- studied under different curricula from different textbooks, which sometimes included ethnically offensive terminology or controversial interpretations of events.

All this, officials say, is coming to an end. The Council of Europe has made eliminating ethnic discrimination in education a postaccession condition for membership. Officials say they are confident the reforms will begin as planned during this school year.

Safet Halilovic, the Bosnian minister of civil affairs, told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service that Bosnia has already overcome "bottlenecks" on the way to education reforms.

"In my opinion the preparation for the new school year has been going rather well and that we will achieve the most important goals and requirements under the commitments that we undertook to the Council of Europe in November 2002," Halilovic said.

Not everything seemed to be going smoothly earlier this week, when the International High Representative in Bosnia Paddy Ashdown fined the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) for failing to issue instructions in two cantons on unifying ethnically divided schools.

Robert Beecroft, the head of the OSCE mission in Bosnia, spoke of a "blatant violation" of Bosnia's commitments to the Council of Europe.

"The continued existence of '52 [two] schools under one roof' is a blatant violation of this commitment. I urge the authorities at all levels, and especially in cantons 'six' [Central Bosnia] and 'seven' [Herzegovina-Neretva], to end this practice as a matter of urgency," Beecroft said.

The unification process would see the "two schools under one roof" register as single legal bodies with one director and one school board.

This week Ashdown said he would consider further measures if instructions were not issued soon.

In ethnically divided Mostar, where the reforms have been especially problematic, the municipal assembly of the Croat-populated section of the city yesterday approved the administrative unification of the local secondary school with a school from the Muslim-populated eastern part of the town.

Other reform efforts have proceeded more smoothly.

Blair Blackwell of the OSCE mission's education department told RFE/RL an agreement between authorities of Bosnia's two entities to implement a common core curriculum throughout the country would make it easier for students and teachers to transfer from one school to another facilitating the integration of returnees' children.

"The purpose and the essence of the common core curriculum is to ensure student mobility, to ensure that a student anywhere in [Bosnia and Herzegovina] has access to quality education, has access to the schools, and can attend classes together. It also provides a common foundation for the further modernization of the curriculum," Blackwell says.

Authorities of the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska agreed this summer on a new school curriculum that would have students spend more time together studying a group of designated "national" subjects like language, literature, history, and geography.

No new sets of textbooks to go with the new curriculum have been prepared at this stage. Local media report that teachers have yet to receive instructions on how to implement the curriculum.

In a separate move, a commission of experts earlier this year agreed to remove ethnically offensive terminology from some textbooks and to revise maps to accurately present Bosnia as a single state.

The commission decided that the interpretation of contested events from the past 10 years will have to wait and opted instead for listing events in chronological order.

"The historical events of the past 10 years is something that is a very difficult thing to address and a very contentious issue right now. Basically, it was decided by the commission for historical events in the history textbooks to present only a chronological event list for the time period of the last 10 years," Blackwell said.

Zijad Pasic, the education minister for the Muslim-Croat Federation, told RFE/RL that revised textbooks will be ready for the new school year.

"For the first time really, in this school year in Bosnia and Herzegovina, textbooks have been printed in accordance with all European criteria and standards. All unacceptable text has been removed from textbooks. In all main subjects, we have more authors and more textbooks at the disposal of students and teachers so that they can have a wider choice of authors and books. I think this year we have the greatest variety and the best textbooks in Bosnia and Herzegovina," Pasic said.

Officials also pledged to bring to an end the earlier practice in some Serbian and Croatian areas of using textbooks printed outside the country.

The "Dnevni Avaz" daily, however, reported this week that at least a fourth of some 420 titles used in schools are still printed outside the country.

Severin Montina, federation deputy education minister, admitted things now look somewhat chaotic. But local media quote him as saying reforms will be gradual and that any time lost in the first few months of the school year will be made up by the end of the year.

Blackwell says guaranteeing children's access to education and ending segregation in schools has been a priority over the past year -- but work still remains.