Schools' uphill battle to bury an uncivil war

A divided education system in Bosnia and Herzegovina shows few signs of reaching a state of harmony

In 1995, the Dayton Accords saw the leaders of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina pledge to end the war that had ravaged their countries. While peace has been maintained, the problems that led to the conflict have not gone away, with schools continuing to divide communities.

According to research by the Open Society Fund (OSF), founded by businessman George Soros, the deal that ended the war did little to foster greater harmony in education, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Dayton Accords split the country in two: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, majority-controlled by Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croatians; and the Republika Srpska, where the Orthodox Serbian population holds sway. Because of the religious split in the Federation, there are now effectively three distinct parts to the country, all with their own education systems. This has led to entrenched positions in different areas rather than constructive dialogue.

Dzenana Trbic, education programme co-ordinator at the OSF in Bosnia and Herzegovina's capital, Sarajevo, said: "Essentially, we have three separate education systems, which develop their own textbooks and policies. Very little has changed since the end of the war and this is particularly the case with subjects such as history, social sciences, literature and language, and RE."

The issue is made harder to keep track of by the devolved system of government in the federation, with regional authorities all having a say on what is taught in their schools.

Yet the OSF, with the help of other organisations, has tenaciously put up resistance to the nationalistic tendencies that can find their way into the curriculum. A project in the north-eastern town of Brcko has instigated RE classes for all pupils, regardless of their backgrounds. "If parents object to this then the pupils can attend ethics lessons," Ms Trbic said. "In other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina they would be simply doing nothing."

The OSF has also launched a supplement to a national newspaper, called Skolegijum, which aims to promote "inter-culturalism" within education.

"In the paper, we address issues such as special needs education and the everyday problems of teachers and pupils," Ms Trbic said. "We are trying to show that a nationalistic education system is a poor one for our children."

Although the struggle is an uphill one for the OSF and others with similar goals, hope has been bolstered by the election of a new council for Sarajevo.

"It has a majority of social democrats and we are part of a working group that began in May to create a new primary-school curriculum for next year," Ms Trbic said. "This is where we hope to spread the inter-cultural message most loudly."

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