Thirty years on, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still without a shared history

Thirty years on, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still without a shared history

According to the OSCE, ethnic divisions continue to be reflected in the teaching and learning of history. In the picture, the history textbooks for grades seven to nine used in primary schools in Sarajevo (but not the whole of the country).

(Ricard González)

Gimnazija is perhaps the most prestigious secondary school in Mostar, a city that was bitterly split into a Croat half and a Bosnian Muslim half during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. Set in a historic, Moorish style building, erected over a century ago, it is the only school in the city that welcomes students from its two main ethnic groups. “The other high schools are segregated, for Bosniaks or Croats. Here, they all come, but the kids only mix for physical education and the technology classes,” explains Haris Idriz, former director of Gimnazija Mostar. One of the most problematic aspects of this system is that students receive very different versions of the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a state that is still very fragile and fragmented 30 years after the outbreak of the conflict.

An estimated 100,000 people died in the brutal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. The conflict was linked to Yugoslavia’s break-up, which led to other wars, but none so long and so bloody. NATO’s intervention forced an end to the hostilities, which resulted in the Dayton Peace Accords. The agreement divided the country into a self-governing district and two entities: the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is itself divided into ten cantons. Each of these administrative units has its own government. In addition, Annex V of the Dayton Accords sets out the country’s constitution, which establishes a system for the distribution of political posts based on ethnic quotas. The most striking example is the rotating tripartite presidency, consisting of one representative from each of the so-called constituent peoples: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

This sectarianism also applies to the education system, which is governed by around a dozen separate ministries of education, one for each administrative unit.

In some, there are denominational public schools. In others, pupils of different ethnicities attend the same class but are separated for lessons in subjects such as religion, language and literature, geography and history. In 56 secondary schools in three cantons, pupils go to the same school but different classes. One such school is Gimnazija Mostar, which is part of the ‘Two Schools Under One Roof’ system introduced by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the beginning of the new millennium. “The idea was that after a few years these schools would be completely united and integrated, and that they would ultimately become one school under one roof. This has not happened so far,” explains Samir Beharić, an activist at the Centre for Education and Socialising in the town of Jajce, one of the worst affected by school segregation.

No consensus on the horizon

There are, broadly speaking, three different curricula and, as a result, three different visions of the country’s history. “The rift is not only limited to issues related to the break-up of Yugoslavia and everything that came after that. There is also a difference in how World War II or even medieval history is talked about,” says Jasmin Medić, a historian at the University of Sarajevo. Bojana Dujković, a member of EuroClio, the European network of history teachers, agrees: “Each group exaggerates the crimes it has suffered, and minimises the crimes committed by its members or institutions. There is not even a consensus on what to call the war in Bosnia: civil war, war of aggression, war of religions.”

Depending on where they are taught, the key events of the conflict are presented differently in the textbooks used. In schools in the majority Serb entity, Republika Srpska, the genocide in Srebrenica is not mentioned at all, while the persecution of Bosnian Serbs is. In educational institutions in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a majority Bosnian entity, students are taught that the Bosnian Serb army was responsible for the genocide in Srebrenica and the ethnic cleansing of other communities in all the areas under its control, while the suffering of Bosnian Serbs is downplayed. The same applies to the textbooks on the Croatian curriculum.

The Srebrenica genocide is, unquestionably, the thorniest issue. In 1995, Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces executed 8,372 Bosniaks in this town in the east of the country. And since the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has ruled that a genocide was indeed committed, Medić argues that the different educational programmes should be coordinated on a common basis. “One option would be to take the rulings of the ICTY as a basis, since it is a neutral institution,” she says, while criticising the fact that the curricula taught to the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat communities are increasingly aligned with the curriculum of their respective neighbours, Serbia and Croatia.

Beharić recalls his time at primary school in Jajce, when the only curriculum that could be followed in the town was the Croatian curriculum, and the textbooks referred to Zagreb, which is where the textbooks were usually printed, as the capital. “I also had to learn the Croatian anthem by heart, as if it were my own, when I was in first grade,” he recalls, still astonished. Anđelko Maslać, spokesperson for HDZ BiH, the main Croatian nationalist party, refutes the notion that a similar situation could arise today and insists that Sarajevo is the capital for the Croats of Bosnia. “We, the Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina also have Croatian citizenship, but Bosnia and Herzegovina is our homeland. And I have no intention of leaving,” he says with conviction.

For Dujković, the main problem with the education system in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not that there is no single narrative of history but how poor it is: “Teachers don’t receive good training and they are not well-paid. They earn between €600 and €800 a month [in state schools]. Up to 90 per cent of their training is provided by NGOs, not the state.”

As well as providing a one-sided view of the country’s history, it does not encourage students to think critically, but only to memorise a series of dates and names. “What I call the ‘war of the nineties’ is usually quickly and badly taught at the end of the year in ninth grade,” remarks Dujković, who is devoted to the core work of the history teachers’ association, EuroClio: the production of teaching materials, in addition to the textbooks, that gather different testimonies and prompt students to think for themselves. “We are not trying to unify the history of Bosnia, but to improve the quality of the education in our history classes. The materials that we produce, which are all free and available online, deal with sensitive topics from a multi-perspective approach, including information from archives, newspapers from the period, interviews with witnesses, pictures, etc.,” she explains.

Control over how history is taught in schools helps the nationalist political parties of the various ethnic communities maintain their hegemony in the political arena. “Since the end of the war, these parties have secured at least 70 per cent of the votes,” explains political analyst Jasmin Mujanović. In the recent elections, on 2 October, the nationalist parties again won majorities in the parliaments of the country’s various administrative units. The results have, however, been questioned, following claims of irregularities, such as vote buying.

In 2020, the OSCE, aware that ethnic divisions continue to be reflected in the teaching and learning of history, recommended that textbooks should be objective and “aimed at building mutual understanding, reconciliation and peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. It did, however, recognise that there is a long way to go on the road to formulating a common history, underlining that, “In post-conflict societies, reform of history classes is a long, sensitive and complex process.”

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin