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Bosnian Students Challenge Classroom 'Apartheid'

  • Gordana Knezevic

The school partition plan for Jajce is currently on hold, but it has not been ruled out -- and local authorities continue to insist on some form of separation.

High school students in the central Bosnian town of Jajce are still doggedly pursuing their yearlong rebellion to challenge a plan to segregate their school.

They have challenged a decision by local authorities to establish a separate classroom and curriculum on their campus for their Bosniak, or Bosnian Muslim, schoolmates.

It is a form of ethnic segregation, dubbed "two schools under one roof," that has been instituted in many parts of Bosnia, one of seven countries that emerged from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the bloody internecine conflicts that accompanied it.

Its critics include a group of teachers in Jajce who have initiated a "better school" initiative that proposes simply modifying the existing curriculum to suit students of different ethnicities. They have the support of local Franciscans and some members of the local Islamic community.

The school partition plan for Jajce is currently on hold, but it has not been ruled out -- and local authorities continue to insist on some form of separation. Years into the dispute in their community and elsewhere in Bosnia, Jajce municipal leaders organized a meeting on May 17 between local lawmakers and the "better school" campaigners to explore an experimental curriculum to replace the "two schools" scheme.

"After being separated in primary school, we don’t want to be separated in high school, as well,” said Nikolas Rimac, one of the students currently at the forefront of the struggle for an integrated school.

Rimac was critical of his parents' generation and its role in the region's internecine wars.

"They can’t move past the way things were 20 years ago, during the war," Rimac said. "What they went through was terrible, but it's not a reason to pass on that experience to us. The hatred they are passing on to us is not a solution."

Student Ivica Jukanovic put it another way to RFE/RL in July 2016, soon after the furor erupted, saying, "We don’t like the very word 'segregation' because it only drives nationalism in Jajce."

At least 54 schools in Bosnia are ethnically segregated, most commonly in central and southern parts of the country that were made part of the Muslim-Croat federation under the Dayton accords that ended the fighting in the 1990s.

Students of different ethnicity are taught in shifts, with different textbooks, curriculum, and teachers. In some cases -- as in Jajce's case -- Croat and Bosniak kids even use different toilets.

"I think the children and their parents are hostage to an unscrupulous political game, and we will only see the consequences of this in 10 or 15 years," a former Jajce student and activist, Samir Beharic, said.

WATCH: Students Speak Out Against 'Segregation' At Bosnian School (from July 2016)

The federation's constitutional court declared "two schools under one roof" unconstitutional in 2014. But in practice, nothing has changed since then. Even in places where the local school is technically "unified," Bosniak and Croat students are still following different curriculums and certain subjects are taught separately, including language, religion, geography, and history. They are reunited in gym class and in the computer lab.

Croats and Muslims make up a majority of the population in Jajce. But there is a Serb minority, as well. Its options are even less enviable. Forced to choose between a Croat or Bosniak curriculum, some Serb parents prefer to send their children to school in Banja Luka, 70 kilometers away.

"Indeed, at the heart of segregating schooling is the reification of supposedly irreconcilable identities. While Bosniak students learn Bosnian history, Croat students learn the history of neighboring Croatia. While Bosniak students are taught the language they speak according to newly minted rules of Bosnian grammar, Croat students are taught the same language using Croatian grammatical standards," Tea Hadziristic wrote on OpenDemocracy.net.

She argued that the wartime practice of ethnic cleansing has been continued in peacetime through segregation in schools.

After the war (1992-95), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) made efforts to undo the results of ethnic cleansing. There was an attempt by the international community to facilitate the return of Bosnian refugees to their prewar homes. At least half of the expellees made their way back, and schools were ordered to make provisions for returnee students of different ethnicity. The resulting system -- devised to accommodate them, as well as local nationalists -- was "two schools under one roof" (1997-2000).

Despite the compromise, nationalist parties found a way to undermine the OSCE order even as they claimed to be implementing it. Sure, they provided space for students of different ethnic groups under the same roof, but nothing more. The curriculum, school management and staff, and all activities remained separate.

All attempts to reform the system have been blocked by the ruling parties in the Croat-Muslim federation. Their argument is that segregation is not discriminatory and that it protects the right of each Bosnian ethnic group to receive an education in its own language.

Jajce activist Beharic said he is concerned that calls for school desegregation will fall on deaf ears among members of the ruling parties. Writing for a local web portal, he warned of the danger of allowing something as unacceptable as segregation to become normalized with time.

"Unless the OSCE, which in 2002 was given a mandate by the OHR (Office of the High Representative) to coordinate a thorough reform of the education system, together with foreign embassies, does not put sustained pressure on local and cantonal authorities, Bosnia could soon have its 55th ethnically segregated school," he wrote.

Ambassador Jonathan Moore, head of the OSCE mission to Bosnia, recently congratulated the Jajce students for supporting unified education.

While Beharic acknowledged that Moore had been supportive of the high school kids' struggle for unified schools, he said more could be done.

"[F]or far too long, [Moore] has also been too soft and lenient with the main culprits, thanks to whom Jajce is poised to take a civilizational step backward," Beharic wrote. He suggested that the nationalists leading the Party of Democratic Action and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in Bosnia are neither diplomats nor particularly trustworthy but former combatants whose holds on power depend on perpetuating ethnic divisions.

The group campaigning for unified education in Jajce may have received plenty of public support on its Facebook page (and elsewhere, frequently accompanied by the #skZIDN or #JajceZIDN hashtags), but Beharic argued that the students’ efforts will have been in vain without outside pressure on the ruling parties.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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