The view from here - Bosnia and Herzegovina - Knocking down the ethnic partition

9th November 2012 at 00:00

The very architecture of the scheme would seem to beggar belief. Two schools under one roof, where separate sets of pupils enter and exit the same building without brushing shoulders, take their recreation in different playgrounds and are taught lessons steeped only in their own cultures, a world away from their peers sitting on the other side of the classroom wall.

This is one of the many bizarre legacies of the wars that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and exploded most viciously in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995.

As a result of the Dayton Accords that ended the conflict, the country was divided into the Bosniak-Croatian Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and the Serb-led Republika Srpska, yet the ethnic fissures caused by the conflicts permeated more deeply into society than even that would suggest. The "two schools under one roof" practice has been by and large confined to the FBiH, with Catholic Croatian and Muslim Bosniak pupils in the federation's most ethnically riven areas being educated according to different syllabuses since 1995. But with the government determined to look forward rather than constantly hark back to the recent and bloody past, the days of segregation in education look to be numbered.

In August, the FBiH's education minister, Damir Masic, announced his intention to do away with separate schooling in two years' time. Multi-ethnic classes will be the norm, he insisted. Yet, to some extent his hand has been forced. The "two schools under one roof" practice breaks laws that Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted after opening up to the wider world in recent years. With relative stability has come a need to bolster the country's political and economic status on the international stage.

"Bosnia and Herzegovina, in its post-accession commitments to the Council of Europe, has pledged to end segregation in schools," Nina Suomalainen, deputy head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, told TES. "Ending discrimination and segregation in education will bring enormous benefits to the country collectively and to all students, families and communities."

Although there is external pressure to bring an end to discriminatory practices, there are signs that local people have also had enough of the divided lives they have led in a country where, pre-conflict, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs enjoyed neighbourly relationships. In fact, it was a local court in the ethnically charged city of Mostar that initially ruled that the "two schools under one roof" phenomenon was incompatible with federal law.

The dreadful sounds of battle have been replaced by an often mistrustful silence between the different communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the 1990s. The hope now is that a noisier, more understanding engagement is possible, not least in the country's classrooms.

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