Monday, 27 November, 2017

Jessica Benham (Outreach Officer) from the HMDT staff team recently took part in Project on Peacebuilding: Democracy & Post-Conflict Politics in Bosnia. The project was run by Most Mira, a charity set up to build a better, more peaceful future for the young people of Prijedor and the surrounding areas of Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the Genocide in Bosnia, founded the charity in 2008.

During my time in Bosnia, we visited memorials and mass grave sites, conducted a community survey and took part in workshops. I met some incredible people from all over the world who had come together to take part in the peacebuilding project, including young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The population of Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians who have close cultural ties with neighbouring Serbia), and Bosnian Croats (Roman Catholics who have close cultural ties with neighbouring Croatia).

In the turmoil following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Bosnia declared independence in 1992. This was resisted by the Bosnian Serb population who saw their future as part of ‘Greater Serbia’. Bosnia became the victim of the Bosnian Serbs’ determined wish for political domination which it was prepared to achieve by isolating ethnic groups and, if necessary, exterminating them.

From 1991, in the north-western Bosnian municipality of Prijedor, non-Serbs were forced to wear white armbands. The Serbian newspaper Kozarski Vjensnik began to publish allegations against the non-Serb residents that they belonged to far-right fascist organisations, or had involvement with Islamic terrorism. Radio Prijedor began to broadcast anti-Croat and anti-Bosniak propaganda and television stations began to broadcast interviews with radical Serbian leaders and pro-Serbian nationalistic songs which were previously banned.

After the takeover of power from the municipal Assembly by Serb forces, non-Serbs were forced out of their jobs and approximately 47,000 homes were destroyed. Non-Serbs were sent to concentration camps such as Trnopolje and Omarska which had been set up by the ruling Serbs in mid-1992.

The war ended in 1995 with peace negotiations taking place in September. The Dayton Peace Accords were agreed in November 1995, and ended the Bosnian War, the worst conflict in Europe since World War Two. Bosnia and Herzegovina was confirmed as an independent and unified state, made up of two federal entities – the (Bosniak-Croat) Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska.

The segregated schools system in Bosnia Herzegovina was developed and implemented after the war ended in 1995. To this day, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs are taught different national curriculums. Over 50 schools in the Federation operate a ‘two schools under one roof’ system where two ethnic groups will be taught in a segregated building. In some cases, the two ethnic groups will use separate entrances to get into the school building and even have different times to attend school. The two ethnic groups will not socialise with each other at school or during their leisure time.

I think that it is problematic that each ethnic group is taught from a different national curriculum as each one can be highly politicised. For example, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs will learn three different versions of what took place during the war in Bosnia. Each curriculum has its own interpretation of the truth and blames other ethnic groups for starting the war. This perpetuates divisions amongst children, teaches them from a young age to be intolerant and leads to a process of othering.

In June 2017, students in Jajce protested against the two schools under one roof system after a victory when their regional government was forced to reverse the decision to implement an ethnically segregated school in their town. They are determined to carry on their campaign to ensure that other segregated schools in the Federation are abolished. Amar Kundalic, the organizer of the protest, believes that the education system is the only way to stop young people from leaving Bosnia saying, ‘Unless politicians make necessary changes and abolish divisions, there will be no coexistence and progress’.

Following this protest, Dennis Gratz from the Nasa Stranka opposition party, drafted a law to end the practice of segregated schools. Gratz is confident that the law will pass, however experts indicate that he may face opposition from many political parties in parliament. Surveying the region of Prijedor during the peacebuilding project, we found that 19% of residents think that it is the responsibility of schools to improve interethnic relations. Arguably, children to be taught in the same classes as other ethnic groups would be a way forward to improve these relations.

During the conference in Kevljani, we met many families who wanted to live in Bosnia all year round however they were prevented from staying because of the lack of opportunities for their children. The work of Most Mira intends to build relations between ethnic groups through theatre. This builds confidence in young people and gives them a purpose outside of education. By bringing interethnic groups of young people together, this also brings the community together and offers a space for discussion and a new perspective for older audiences from younger generations.  

A 2011 Council of Europe report found that one in eight children in Bosnia and Herzegovina avoided joint activities with students of other ethnicities, and one in six did not want to be in the same class as members from other groups. If the segregated schools system were to be abolished under Gratz’s law, this report shows that there would still be a need for peacebuilding organisations in the region, such as Most Mira, to ensure a smooth transition for children from interethnic groups.

Thank you to Most Mira. If you would like to find out more information about the work they do, please visit mostmiraproject.org