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Bosnian Schools Teach Reading, Writing -- And Division

Will they learn to get along?
Will they learn to get along?
The other day I was with my 6-year-old daughter at the international school she attends in Prague. She particularly wanted to show me the lunchroom, not because the food there is so good but because the ceiling is covered with the national flags of all of the students who attend the school. Fifty-eight flags, it turns out.

In my home country, Bosnia-Herzegovina, schools are completely different. But before I go into that, allow me to mention that Muslims in Bosnia are now celebrating Eid al-Adha (Kurban Bayram), and amid the festivities on December 8 came word that a mosque in the village of Fazlagica Kula, in the Republika Srpska (the Serbian-majority entity of Bosnia), burned to the ground.

Although the cause of the blaze is not known, there is widespread suspicion in the country that such a thing at such a time could hardly be an accident. Incidentally, most of the Muslim residents of Fazlagica Kula fled during the 1992-95 war and few have returned.

The roots of hatred and intolerance in Bosnia today do not only stem from the traumas of the war. After all, the fighting ended 13 years ago, which seems ample time for any competent leadership to at least begin the process of reconciliation. But this has not happened. Instead, each day, families and ethnically divided schools drive those roots deeper and deeper into the national psyche.

The mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosnia conducted a study of 230 schools there and documented an alarming national pattern. Many children are spending hours each day just going to and from school. Not because the more distant school is better, but because their parents want them to study in a school where their ethnic group dominates. In some cases, children even cross international borders to go to an "acceptable" school.

The OSCE quoted one child who evidently was repeating the words of his parents: "I am coming to this school to avoid the ethnic provocations that I faced at my other school," he said. "They don't look on us as pupils, but rather as some other kind of people. I want to go to the school where my people go!"

"We should be very concerned," Republika Srpska Education Minister Anton Kasipovic tells RFE/RL. "The key issue here is a lack of confidence among the different ethnic groups of these kids' parents. We cannot fix this with a short-term campaign. We will need a long time to deal with this."

Balkanized Education

But 13 years have passed with little progress to show. There are seven educational systems in Bosnia today, each with its own curriculum and textbooks. Muslim children learn that the events of Srebrenica were "genocide," while Serbian kids are told they were a "tragic accident." Some children learn that separatist aspirations are a legitimate expression of the right of independence, while others are taught such movements are treason bent on dismantling the country.

Everyone studies the history of the country and each ethnic group graduates from school with an entirely different worldview. All the children can recognize the flag of the United States or Britain, but few can recognize the symbols of other ethnic groups in Bosnia.

This kind of "education" is not building reconciliation. It is extending and expanding conflict and division. The Banja Luka (Republika Srpska) office of the Helsinki Committee reported this year that extreme nationalism is on the rise among Bosnian youths.

Local Helsinki Committee Director Branko Todorovic tells RFE/RL that no one is willing to discuss this problem publicly. He agrees with experts who see family life and the schools as the reasons for this potentially disastrous situation.

"I do believe these seeds of hatred and nationalism will bring us new divisions, deeper than what we have today," he says. "And I am afraid this will lead to new conflicts."

Division is the defining feature of Bosnia. Anyone who fights it is branded an enemy, a traitor to one's ethnic kin. Extremism is more a way of life than just a matter of isolated incidents.

There are a few exceptional schools in Bosnia, such as the One World College in Mostar and the Catholic Gymnasium in Sarajevo and maybe a few others, but these are a few and very far between. Most Bosnian kids will grow up knowing only the values of their own community and with a deep suspicion of the country's other two ethnic groups.

And none of them, I fear, will be able to lead a united country.

RFE/RL spoke to a 5-year-old Bosnian boy recently. "Do you know who Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbians are," we asked. "No, I don't," he said.

"Do you know who you are?"

"Yes, I do," he replied. "I am a boy."

Next year, he starts school.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL