In 2016, a cantonal government decided that, in one of the secondary schools in Jajce, which was following a Croatian curriculum for all the students, a separate school would be established on the premises for Bosniak students with a parallel Bosniak curriculum. The students in the integrated school rebelled and mounted a campaign to prevent their school from being segregated. After two years, the students prevailed and pressured the government into halting their school’s division into two.
Fifty-six schools in 28 Bosnian towns and cities operate under a two schools under one roof system. Why do segregated schools exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina? How did the students in Jajce win the fight against school segregation? And how can the problem be resolved, if it can be resolved at all?
With Samir Beharić, Téa Hadžiristić, and Valery Perry.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your instructor, Peter Korchnak.
The timing of this episode is accidental. I’ve been meaning to cover the subject of two schools under one roof in Bosnia and Herzegovina for a while. But it’s certainly related to the worrying developments on the ground in the country, with the talk of secession and all that. The story that inspired today’s episode also points to a way out of the quagmire that is Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The story is this: In 2016, the government of the Central Bosnia Canton decided that, in one of the secondary schools in Jajce, which was following a Croatian curriculum for all the students, a separate school would be established on the premises for Bosniak students with a parallel Bosniak curriculum.
The students in the integrated school rebelled and mounted a campaign to prevent their school from being segregated. After two years, the students prevailed and pressured the government into halting their school’s division into two.
VALERY PERRY: The example of the school in Jajce was a good example of showing how a group of people working over time were able to come together and finally say, “Enough is enough.”
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: I would say, the struggle of the students in Jajce has set up a new norm, not just for your Jajce, but even beyond. Because what students in Jajce achieved is a unique experience of young people in terms of activism in the post war Bosnia and Herzegovina.
TEA HADŽIRISTIĆ: But overall the issue is just ongoing. The people who have to live in that system are fighting against it, but the odds are truly stacked against them.
PETER KORCHNAK: What happened in Jajce? How did the students win the fight against school segregation? Why do segregated schools exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the first place? And how can the problem be resolved? Can it be resolved?
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: two schools under one roof in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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[INTERLUDE – School bell sound effect]
What Is Two Schools Under One Roof
PETER KORCHNAK: You heard my first guest, Samir Beharić, in Episode 40, “The Great Bosnian Emigration.” Beharić was born in Jajce, in 1991, just before the war. His family had to flee Jajce and were among the two million people displaced during the war. In 1997 they returned to their hometown.
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: After I returned, I enrolled into, or my parents enrolled me into, what was back then a school that was operating exclusively according to a Croat curricula. So back then, it was [the] late 90s, there was not a single two schools under one roof school, as we know today. And then when I was 10 years old, I enrolled into [a] school that was a segregated school.
I had a friend, Dragan, I’m Bošnjak by the way, and my friend Dragan is Croat. And while we were attending primary school, for example, we would go from our neighborhood together to school and then in front of the school building, we would basically separate, segregate, call it as you wish. Dragan would enter the school building from one side, I would enter the same school building from the opposite side. I would attend classes on the first floor, Dragan would attend classes on the second floor where the Croat kids would attend the school. And then after the school, we would go again home together, and then when we would get home, you know, we would play soccer together.
PETER KORCHNAK: In Jajce, primary schools operate under what’s called a two schools under one roof system. Essentially, there are two separate institutions, one for Croat children, one for Bosniak ones, housed in a single building, ostensibly to honor the legal right to be educated in their own respective language and culture.
The two secondary-level schools in Jajce—a vocational school and a high school, which is named after the Jajce-born poet Nikola Šop and which Beharić attended—are both integrated, meaning they’re each a single institution which kids of all ethnicities attend together. This means that children who attend the first eight years of their education in separate, ethnically based schools in one building, attend high school with peers of all ethnicities.
As a former „two schools under one roof“ student, I have suffered from segregated school system.
What @Andric1961 is advocating here is the same segregation pushed by HDZ and SDA nationalists.
— Samir Beharić (@SamBeharic) January 5, 2021
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: This sort of nonsense, made me think, especially while I was in high school, when I went to the same school together with Dragan, and I was asking myself, why didn’t we attend the same school even before? What’s the big deal?
And then I started to ask my parents, to ask my cousins, to ask my teachers in high school, and the first pressure that I got was especially, you know, in high school from the teachers. It was a pressure in the sense that they did not want to discuss it, except of [sic] one professor.
PETER KORCHNAK: The big deal is this.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: The two schools under one roof system came about as a good policy.
PETER KORCHNAK: Téa Hadžiristić was born in Tuzla the same year as Beharić, and has lived in Toronto since 1993. She is a policy analyst, with one foot in her home country’s affairs through a side gig at an international foundation.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: After the war, many people were internally or externally displaced in Bosnia. And some people decided to return, to wherever they were from, their town, so those are the returnees. And they would generally come back to a place that looked very different than the one they left.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jajce’s major modern-history claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of socialist Yugoslavia, where the country was created in 1943. To this day, people from all over that former country gather here on the 29th of November to commemorate the defunct holiday. You can hear my field report from one such celebration in Episode 19, “Happy Birthday, Yugoslavia!”
In the socialist period, Jajce was diverse in an exemplary manner. Yugoslavia’s last census, in 1991, showed that 39 percent of town residents were Bosniaks, that is Bosnian Muslims, 28 percent were Serbs, 14 percent were Croats, and 16 percent identified as Yugoslavs. Like Bosnians everywhere, all Jajce kids of all ethnicities attended all school levels together, followed the same curricula, and used the same textbooks. The war scrambled all this up. Following a series of military campaigns and waves of ethnic cleansing by the various armed forces, Bosnian Croats eventually prevailed, and after the war many Bosniaks, including the Beharićs, returned as well. About half the city’s population died during the war, did not return after the war, or has since left. And Jajce ended up split between Croats and Bosniaks, at about 46 percent apiece.
VALERY PERRY: The two schools under one roof were developed initially in communities where ethnic cleansing had not been complete, where you had enough Bosniaks and Croats in a town, that you had kids from both sides who needed to be educated.
PETER KORCHNAK: Valery Perry is from the United States and has lived in Sarajevo since 1999. She is currently an associate with the Democratization Policy Council, a think tank. One of her many past engagements was as a deputy director at the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, from 2004 to 2011.
VALERY PERRY: And unfortunately, in several areas, there was such political pressure and such intentional effort to exclude the other, that you had groups of students who were not allowed to even study in a school building. They were studying in cafe bars, or garages, or private homes.
PETER KORCHNAK: As in Beharić’s case, when people returned to a Croatian-controlled area, some enrolled their kids in schools teaching Croatian curriculum. As a Bošnjak, Beharić may have learned Croats were the war’s primary victims; that Serbs primarily but also Bošnjaks were the bad guys, lesser peoples even, and had to be avoided if not suppressed; or that conflict between these groups was natural and permanent. One Jajce student told the BBC, “You’re…being taught that others are no good and you don’t spend a single hour learning about their culture, beliefs, or values.”
In other words, divisive rhetoric. For that reason, many other parents—
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: —were scared to send their kids to school there. They were scared of, you know, sending their kids to the enemy, quote unquote. And they knew that the curriculum would be very biased in favor of whoever the dominant group was, that they would be learning, you know, their historiography of the war, their version of the language, whatever dominant religion that that would be kind of there, and that these kids would basically just be bullied and ostracized, you know, at best and and maybe maybe harmed. And so a lot of parents were either just keeping their kids at home and homeschooling or sending their kids somewhere else.
PETER KORCHNAK: OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization. It addresses a wide range of security-related concerns, from arms control to human rights to democratization to counter-terrorism and economic and environmental activities.
Witnessing the problems of returnees in the school system, in 2002 the OSCE and other international organizations devised a new, temporary measure in order to get all kids in regular school: separate educational institutions—two schools—would be established in the same school buildings—under one roof. While kids would go to the same building they would attend separate schools based on their ethnicity.
VALERY PERRY: And you would have the Croat kids learning according to the Croat curriculum on one floor, in one wing, or in one shift, while the Bosniaks would be in the other one.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: We’ll just keep it separate. And that way, no one will be afraid to send their kids to school. This is a peacekeeping measure.
PETER KORCHNAK: Separate but together, together but separate.
Two schools under one roof, or two in ones as Perry calls them, were only established in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the part of the country where power is shared between Bosniaks and Croats. The country’s other entity, Republika Srpska, is predominantly mono-ethnic, Serb, and kids there learn from a different curriculum altogether. Fifty-six schools in 28 Federation towns and cities, mostly in three of Bosnia’s ten cantons in the central part of the Federation, operate under the two schools under one roof system.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: They all kind of operate a little differently. So I think in some of them, there’s two completely different curricula, in some of them it’s just these kind of core, quote unquote ethnic courses that are separated, so they’ll go to a different history class, a different geography, class, language, and religion, and then they’ll have a shared, I don’t know, math class science class kind of thing.
In some schools, I think essentially, the only places that they run into someone of another ethnicity is the bathroom.
PETER KORCHNAK: In a paper on flirting among the youth of Mostar, Azra Hromadžić studied the first integrated or reunited high school in the country, the Mostar Gymnazium. Here the original two schools under one roof became a single legal and administrative entity, with one name, one principal, one budget, and so forth. The OSCE hails this unification as progress, but, writes Hromadžić, “reunification…preserved separate national curricula for the students of the two ethnic groups, therefore maintaining and perpetuating…ethnic segregation.” End quote. The students study together in hard disciplines like math and physical education, but in separate classrooms in language, religion, geography, and history.
There remains a spatial division as well. Croat classrooms alternate with Bosniak ones. This “[spatial] ethnicization of the school organizes movement, orientating ethnically demarcated bodies to ethnically entrenched spaces,” writes Hromadžić. It is only in the school’s unisex bathrooms that this ethnicization is “temporarily suspended…. This marginal space, with its damp, white tile walls, is packed with students smoking together during recesses, engaging in intimate practices which they call “mixing.””
[INTERLUDE – School bell sound effect]
The Impact of Two Schools Under One Roof
PETER KORCHNAK: What does it do on the ground, to people who go to the schools, their parents, their communities? What are the outcomes or what are the consequences of this in real everyday life for people?
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: What happens on the ground and how it affects the students, first of all, is just ethnically isolating them and segregating them.
Mixed marriages have gone down to I think only 4% of marriages in Bosnia. I think that really points to a lack of social contact between ethnic groups.
PETER KORCHNAK: Before 1991, mixed marriages, that is intermarriages between various ethnic groups, accounted for 13 percent of all wedlocks in Bosnia and Herzegovina. That’s triple the current rate. Intermarriage was predominantly an urban phenomenon, however: there was a 30 to 40 percent intermarriage rate for Bosnia’s large cities, for example 34 percent in Sarajevo. By contrast, rural Bosnians married across ethnic lines rarely.
In 2019, two students from a segregated school in Travnik, he a Bosniak, she a Croat, married and had their wedding photos taken holding hands through the fence dividing the school yard. The photo went viral and, lo and behold, soon the fence came down and a new one was installed around the whole building. But the dilapidated Bosniak part of the school building is still visibly discernible from the newly painted Croat one, and the school remains segregated.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: And I think that was just so stunning that that was on the headlines of many of the, you know, local news portals, it was just a very novel and surprising thing that these people got married, which is just so absurd if you look at the history of the country, and of course, how similar these so-called ethnic groups really are. You know, it’s two people who speak the same language, look the same, are from the same city and the same country and this is touted as some, you know, huge victory that they’ve managed to meet and overcome their differences and get married. And I think that’s a real loss for any kind of civic culture in Bosnia, the sense that, you know, really other groups are the other and and should be avoided and cannot be related to.
PETER KORCHNAK: Intermarriage is only one measure of a heterogeneous polity’s quote unquote mixing.
In an article for Open Democracy, Hadžiristić reported on surveys of Croat students in Mostar who have never been to the quote unquote Bosniak part of the city and Bosniaks who have never been to the Croat side for fear of what might happen to them there. The episode, quote, “seemed to demonstrate how segregated schooling had directly contributed to keeping generations born after the war physically and emotionally divided, and how deeply ingrained fairly new ideas about the unacceptable nature of ethnic mixing had become in two short decades since the war,” writes Hadžiristić.
In her ethnographic study of Mostar teens, Hromadžić found that, while young people play with transgressing ethnic lines when they flirt in the bathroom, many still maintain they would not seriously date, let alone marry, a person of another ethnicity slash religion. So even in a previously heterogeneous town, where “mixing” was normal, youth now prefer to stick with their own ethnoreligious compatriots, even though, Hromadžić writes, “the avoidance of mixing is framed not as an effect of ethnic nationalism and isolationism, but as a preference for cultural preservation and as a symbol of cross-cultural respect.”
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: Sometimes people talk about it, people who are against the system say, you know, it’s good to have these kids together because they then they will learn to respect differences. So it’s all about respecting differences and human rights and, you know, but at all reifies the idea that there are very big differences between these people, which, again, I think is rather absurd.
The main differences between these people is religion. And so when you listen to young people kind of talk about the idea of segregated schools or about other ethnic groups in general, they’ll most often talk about religion and religious holidays, like, “Oh, well, you know, they don’t celebrate Christmas and we have Valentine’s Day, and they don’t. And this is just presented as this impossible hurdle to overcome.
VALERY PERRY: Thinking about Bosnia-Herzegovina’s education system is a fascinating and a frustrating topic, and it has been since the war. The fascinating thing is that education has been very effectively operationalized and manipulated by political structures to support the citizens that they want to have to continue the status quo that they wish to sustain.
Years ago, when I was working on education with the OSCE, a political actor who was engaging on this issue and wanted to break down some of the ethnonational segregation in the school system, noted that the political parties against educational reform wanted students to be little ethnic soldiers. And education, particularly on issues related to identity, like history, mother tongue, literature, geography, were all tools of creating an us and a them and in raising up a generation of students to believe that it’s impossible for them to live in a diverse society.
The supreme irony is that all of these people, all these young people who are leaving are leaving because they’re living in a system where every time they turn on television or pick up a newspaper, their leadership is saying, we can’t possibly get along, we can’t possibly live in a diverse environment, we can’t possibly cohabitate with so many different types of people. But then they go to Berlin or New York City or London, where they encounter more diversity on a single subway train—and they do fine. This is not a problem of individuals being close-minded, it’s a problem with the system being intentionally close-minded.
PETER KORCHNAK It’s easier to stay within their own group, Hromadžić’s students say, to not intermix with ethnic others. Not necessarily because of ethnicity per se, on a personal level the kids obviously don’t care. There are simply “practical impediments to sexual and reproductive mixing,” Hromadžić writes, including “administrative, institutional inhibitions…forms of ethnicized bureaucracy…which render ethnically mixed people invisible.” End quote. In a country where everything operates along ethnic lines, crossing those lines can create problems.
Indeed, one high school teacher in Sarajevo has told NBC that, “we have a generation of young, intolerant, ethnically isolated and ethnically overfed pupils who are being used as weapons of nationalist politicians.”
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: Somehow all of this really what it really amounts to, or what it results in, is it creates the divisions that supposedly existed before the war. But it really is creating them in retrospect. So you know, the story is that the war happened because there was just these insurmountable ethnic differences between people and they all, you know, they spoke different languages and they just couldn’t live in a country together. And we have to have, you know, a very bloody civil war.
But really, these things have to be created because they didn’t exist and people did live together and they did understand each other, and they did go to school together. And instead now we’ve had this kind of protracted 30-year period after the war where they are creating a society that is like that, that is completely ethnically segregated.
And people think they don’t speak the same language and you know, they feel very distant from each other and don’t want to live together. And I’m not saying that has completely succeeded. I think in many places it has not and there’s a lot of people who oppose that and people who really do maybe see the absurdity of that. But unfortunately, it seems to be the kind of dominant political mode of the day.
PETER KORCHNAK: In a 2011 interview for the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Perry pointed out that ethnically-based schooling also has a negative impact on economic mobility in the multiethnic country. People taught they must stick with their own group are much less likely to move across entity and ethnic borders to take advantage of potential employment or business opportunities. Lack of jobs and discrimination based on ethnicity are among reasons people emigrating from Bosnia and Herzegovina cite for leaving.
The practice also undermines trust in the common state and a common future for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnian Croats are taught that, as members of the Croat nation, their capital is Zagreb, not Sarajevo, and their language, Croatian, distinct and different from Bosnian and Serbian, even though it’s nearly identical. Almost all Bosnian Croats have passports of the Republic of Croatia and, as adults, are allowed to vote in Croatia’s elections. When I traveled through Bosnia and Herzegovina in the winter of 2019, I could tell when I entered Croat areas by the appearance of Catholic Churches, Herzeg-Bosna flags, and Croatian presidential election billboards, all promoting the right-wing incumbent (who ended up losing by the way).
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: It’s not helpful to building a unified state, which Bosnia really needs to be in order to have any kind of future.
[INTERLUDE – School bell sound effect]
How Jajce Students Fought Segregation
PETER KORCHNAK: Both secondary-level schools in Jajce use the quote unquote Croatian-language curriculum. “Discrimination!” cried some politicians at some point, and in July 2016, the Central Bosnia Cantonal Assembly voted to establish a new secondary school on the premises of the Nikola Šop High School using the Bosniak-language curriculum. This would have segregated the students based on ethnicity in the first new two schools under one roof since 2002.
The students revolted. They had not been consulted about this, they did not ask for it, and they refused to be divided in this way. Quickly they mounted a campaign against the Cantonal Assembly’s decision.
VALERY PERRY: The example of the school in Jajce was a good example of showing how a group of people working over time—I mean, it wasn’t something to happen overnight, there have been NGOs and peace activists working for quite some time—how the students were able to all come together and finally say enough is enough.
PETER KORCHNAK: The students took to the streets; earned the backing of the OSCE and other international organizations; recruited allies among nonprofits and activists, including the school’s alum, Beharić; pressured the authorities; and attracted significant media attention, in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and around the world… Most importantly, they persisted.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: These protests were pretty vibrant at the time, I remember being very impressed by them and impressed that these kids who have kind of grown up in this postwar, Dayton Peace Accords-world of like ethnic isolation and economic ruin have the desire to kind of fight for this. I find that very impressive.
PETER KORCHNAK: “What makes us kids angry the most is that they are affecting our lives for their own purposes and ideas,” one student leader told Radio Free Europe. Another, wearing a sweet “God Bless America” t-shirt, said adults are unable to move past the war, which, though terrible, is no reason to pass on the hatred to the children. “Darkness cannot be erased by darkness,” he said. “War cannot be erased by war, only with love and light.”
Another student protest leader told the OSCE that she campaigned against her school’s segregation out of “a desire for unity. Three constituent peoples live in our country, and it is wrong that we are being taught only about our differences. I believe that together we can achieve much more.”
For his part, Beharić told Radio Free Europe that “children and their parents are hostages to an unscrupulous political game.”
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: Ordinary people live ordinary life [sic]. And outside of the pre election time, it’s pretty much simple, normal. You know, they cooperate together, they are neighbors, they go, you know, two Christmases, to Bajrams, to each other, they work together…
And the only thing is when there is tension between ordinary citizens is exactly around pre-election time. This is the time when ethnic polarization comes to its peak, when we have, again, politicians trying to divide not just young people, but general population in order to profit politically off of it.
And then what they usually do, they are usually very successful in doing that, then there is a real really interesting paradox going on, which is that those politicians, notably from the main Bošnjak political party, SDA, and main Croat political party, HDZ, which are like the two biggest nationalist camps, among Bošnjaks and Croats, they win, usually the majority, it’s these two parties and their satellites, so to say, which are in coalition with them, they go into the municipal council, and then what happens that’s really like remarkable, every four years, they go into a mutual coalition.
So even now, you have HDZ and SDA, these two camps that divided the citizens during the political campaign in order to get their votes, in order to get into the municipal council, and then form a coalition between each other. And not just in Jajce, they are doing this, for example, in in [the] central Bosnian canton and many other municipalities.
It was exactly the SDA and HDZ, both in the local council and in the cantonal council, it was their councilors who voted for segregation of the existing schools in Jajce.
PETER KORCHNAK: While students came out to protest in droves, teachers were notably less visible.
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: When it comes to teachers, I’m very much disappointed in teachers here in Jajce. I mean, teachers generally in Bosnia. I mean, we do suffer, young people do suffer from really bad teachers on all levels. I had bad university professors, I had bad high school teachers, you know.
The teachers are also entrenched, they’re working in a public institution, which is a school, high school or primary school. To get a job in Bosnian public institution, you need in some way, in 90% of cases, in the majority of cases, one needs to be affiliated with one political party that will give him or her that job and that position. And unfortunately, [the] majority of the teachers, I do not find like difference from them and from the politicians. That’s very much disappointing, because it is the teachers who should bring young people not just about, you know, the curriculum, but about the life and about the ideals, about the ideas, and about critical thinking. And it was like three or four teachers, three or four teachers who were working with young people, and you know, helping them, assisting them in their struggle.
PETER KORCHNAK: One such teacher told the OSCE, “I am proud that the students questioned a political decision which affects them and their future, rejected it as harmful, and then demanded different solutions using all the democratic tools available.” The vocational school’s principal said, “The students showed courage and maturity and served as an example to the adults. We must never forget that we are here for the students, and not them for us.”
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: The rest of the teachers were cowards. And not just cowards. In a lot of cases they were even discouraging students from going to protests because it was bosses in the political parties who told the teachers, you know, try to prevent your students from going to protests.
PETER KORCHNAK: As for parents…
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: The biggest obstacle that young people have when they go to school, it’s not their teachers, it’s not the politicians, it’s not the media, it’s their parents. Their parents are the first obstacle within the four walls where students come after school and then parents tell them either, “do not rock the boat” or “go and fight for your rights.” [A] small minority of parents say, “Okay, go for [SIC] a protest, I wish you luck.” Because it’s also the parents who are entangled in corruption through you know, jobs through you know, they’re pressured by by politicians. As much as we need to work with young people, we also need to work with older generations, with their parents, with their teachers. And I mean, needless to say, with politicians as well.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: One of the sort of arguments that has been used to bolster the system on the side of local politicians there is, you know, parents have the right to choose what school their children will go to, so we can’t integrate it and say, you know, you must go to this unified school.
And another thing that’s raised often is that children have the right to attend school in their own language. And so you would actually be taking away their rights by forcing them to go to a unified school where they speak, presumably, you know, some other tongue, which they cannot understand, which, again, that’s the language issue. And that if you start believing that that’s true, then all of this becomes, you know, it makes sense but if you think about it as one language, it’s more and more absurd.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 2018, the cantonal administration backed down. Though the decision to segregate is technically active, the secondary schools in Jajce remain integrated (while, I must add, the primary schools remain segregated).
The same year, the OSCE recognized the Jajce students’ accomplishment in preventing their schools’ segregation. Quote: “Acknowledging the tenacity and moral authority of the brave students of Jajce, as well as recognizing the need to nurture their quest for inclusive and better quality education, the Jury made the unanimous decision to reward the students of this town in Bosnia and Herzegovina with this year’s Max van der Stoel Award.” End quote. The award quote, “recognizes extraordinary and outstanding achievements in improving the position of national minorities in OSCE participating states. It is awarded every two years to a person, group, or institution by the Dutch Foreign Ministry in co-operation with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and honors van der Stoel, a prominent Dutch statesperson who was the first High Commissioner.” End quote.
The irony: the organization that established the system of two schools under one roof recognized a grassroots effort to prevent the system from growing.
[INTERLUDE – School bell sound effect]
Two Schools Under One Roof: What Is to Be Done?
VALERY PERRY: The intent when this was done as an interim measure was that, once the kids got into the schools and started learning, that there would be a continuous and progressive effort, education reform in those communities, but also more broadly throughout the country, so that eventually this would wither away as a vestigial limb of apartheid, that hopefully one day everyone can look back on and laugh at.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: It’s just that that never happened.
PETER KORCHNAK: Over the years, there have been several attempts to abolish the two-schools-under-one-roof system. In 2010, the Federation’s parliament requested the cantons, which govern education in the entity, end the practice; the request was ignored. In 2014, the country’s Supreme Court ordered the two schools under one roof system to be suspended because it divides students on ethnicity; the decision was not enforced. And earlier this year Bosnia’s Supreme Court again decided the practice is discriminatory and must be ended within 60 days; again nothing happened.
The international community, least of all the OSCE, has been calling for the system to be abolished as well. But what the internationals have set up as a temporary system, from Dayton on down, has a strange, if not perverse, way of remaining in place, indeed getting entrenched from the top down.
VALERY PERRY: It’s very easy to point to the two schools under one roof as an unintended consequence from international efforts to actually try to break down some of the educational segregation that had been plaguing the country.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: Like the Dayton Peace Accords that were not intended to be the Constitution of the country for 30 years, it’s just something that remained stagnant and just frozen [in]to place. And so now, we have kids who are born after the war, who have no memory of the war or of Yugoslavia or something who are growing up in these ethnic enclaves.
VALERY PERRY: But unfortunately, we’ve seen that sometimes interim solutions, if not accompanied by continued will, can take on a very strong sense of permanence and really become a part of the reality and the environment of the community itself.
There’s around 54 or 56 of these two schools under one roof that remain in the country. Everybody should be ashamed that they exist, including the international community, they spent hundreds of millions on public administration, reform, peacebuilding engagement, etcetera etcetera. Everyone should be ashamed that 25 years later that this is still going on.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: Sometimes, what the international community imposes ends up not really serving the local populace very well, but it really helps the local politicians. So that’s one reason why they have never changed it. It’s a benefit to them to have, you know, new generations that are growing up completely ethnically isolated, who are going to end up voting for the same ethnic voting blocks as their parents and can continue this like ethnocracy or ethnic oligarchy, continue the system of state capture which seems to be, at the root of it, just about like greed and power and not really about ethnicity or patriotism or any of these things that they claim it’s about.
And it’s very puzzling that the international community in a way is sort of condoning that system. It’s almost like they would like to make a stand and do more and yes they want to give a prize to the students and all that stuff but they don’t really want to rock the boat. You know, I think at the end of the day, what benefits the international community is stability on Europe’s periphery and, you know, the ethnic stabilocracy as they call it, like it’s a system you can count on. And even though Dodik raises the specter of partition every five minutes, you know, I think at the end of the day, they’re pretty confident that like, this is a system that’s like, it’s mutually assured destruction. And so I think that they just, you know, don’t really have the motivation to do much more to change it and the local politicians definitely don’t.
PETER KORCHNAK: The few successful attempts at change have been from below. The Jajce story in particular has been a positive example.
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: I would say, the struggle of the students in Jajce has set up a new norm, not just for your Jajce, but even beyond. Because what students in Jajce achieved is a unique experience of young people in terms of activism in the postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. Never in the democratic history of Bosnia, [a] group of, you know, minors, basically like 14, 15 year olds, managed to, you know, stage a protest, a long-term protest over like, two years, basically, and through their activism to, you know, overturn a political decision coming from not just the local level, but also cantonal level.
PETER KORCHNAK: The nonprofit Youth Center Jajce works with young people from segregated schools by bringing them together in informal settings like camps where the activists share their experiences from the campaign and how they did what they did.
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: The only way how to succeed is through unity and through keeping these success stories alive.
PETER KORCHNAK: But—
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: Primary schools in Jajce are still segregated as they were during the time when I was attending those schools.
We did manage to prevent further segregation of schools, which are integrated today. We want to desegregate those schools where students are still divided. For that, I’m very hopeful, and I’m very optimistic in terms that this story about [the] struggle of students in Jajce not fall behind in a way that people forgot it, you know, it’s still out there.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jajce was one prominent example of grassroot success in fighting the system, pointing to a potential powerful vehicle for change.
VALERY PERRY: We have seen over the past 25 years countless amazing examples of personal and individual and community courage throughout the country, whether that would be parents of children with special needs banding together to try to advocate that their children get the education that they need and deserve, whether that would be environmentalists trying to stop the destruction of some of Europe’s last wild rivers, whether that would be people coming together to try to stop the destruction of parks in cities.
PETER KORCHNAK: I have an article coming out soon in the Earth Island Journal about environmental activism in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Across the country, activists have been succeeding in halting the construction of small hydropower plants on pristine rivers. I’ve found this campaign to be a model and inspiration for grassroots activism uniting people for a common cause.
VALERY PERRY: But what’s very frustrating is that these many different individual efforts happening, you know, in the north, south, east, and west, have been able to make this micro level impact, but because of the broader structural incentives of the Dayton constitution and the power allocation that results from the Dayton constitution, they always hit really like a glass constitutional ceiling and aren’t able to band together and expand and be scaled up.
This never really manages to upscale to a broader level nationwide. I mean, these are always sort of maintained as like a small flash in the pan success that doesn’t influence the system. Because there are a lot of policymakers and political actors who don’t want a broader post-Dayton vision for the system, who don’t want kids to suddenly realize that their whole society was built on this ethnonational house of cards. And so unfortunately, these kids’ voices don’t expand up into the system.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: The big protests in 2014, we did see that people know that nationalism is something that they’re being sold in order to continue to fill the pockets of these, you know, nationalist politicians. But nothing really fundamentally changed after those protests, so…
It does at times seem really like, where can we possibly go from here? That’s not to say there aren’t amazing people doing such great work there and like, all of my respect is with them. The people who have to live in that system are fighting against it, but the odds are really stacked against them.
PETER KORCHNAK: It is the ethnically-based political parties and their leaders that stand in the way of reform. Why end the system that creates their voters? Goes the thinking.
One explicit excuse is that authorities simply don’t know how to end the practice, that it’s a good idea in principle to end it but implementing it is fraught with challenges. Which of course is simply politician speak for doing nothing.
Writes Hadžiristić in Open Democracy: “The ineffectiveness of political leaders to implement laws or court rulings should not merely be ascribed to a lack of know-how. Indeed, for the ruling ethnonationalist parties of the country, ethnic segregation suits them quite well, as it solidifies ethnic divisions, breeds fear and mistrust, and leads to homogenous voting blocks. In short, it keeps them in power. Wartime ethnic cleansing is continued by other means, with similar goals: ethnic homogeneity.” End quote.
Another excuse: ending the practice would endanger the people’s right to study in their own language, the implication being that Bosniaks and Croats speak separate languages.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: The question of what language people speak in the former Yugoslavia is an open question, you know, it’s called Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Bosniak, Montenegrin. Linguists argue that this is all the same language, and it’s part of a linguistic continuum, and they’re all really dialects of the same language, and they’re all mutually intelligible, which I think is the most important part. There’s no reason why someone speaking Croatian cannot understand someone speaking Serbian or Bosnian, etcetera.
PETER KORCHNAK: In Open Democracy, Hadžiristić also wrote that “in Bosnia, the entire country speaks the same dialect…. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find two people in Bosnia who could not understand each other, but the absurdity of the language question is so far gone that it is rarely questioned even by local social critics…. The fact that minor dialectical differences have ballooned into a major stumbling block to unified education in Bosnia is thanks to two decades of concerted efforts by ruling ethnonationalist political parties to mobilize minor differences between ethnic groups.”
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: But the fact of, you know, the language is kind of splintering into these three groups, it mirrors the splintering of the country. And because the Bosnian population is so mixed and all three ethnic groups live there, including others, it’s just become a very hot button issue there. So I think that [the] idea of unmixing the people and doing ethnic cleansing and all the things that were the goal of the war, and kind of reifying these ethnic religious identities, unmixing the language is really a big part of that.
So I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a cigarette pack in the Balkans. But, you know, it will say, yeah, in all, in all three official languages, it will say, Pušenje ubija, Pušenje ubija, Pušenje ubija.
PETER KORCHNAK: Smoking kills.
TÉA HADŽIRISTIĆ: I mean, it gets the point across through the repetition, so maybe that’s good, you know.
PETER KORCHNAK: Hadžiristić also maintains that the “idea of mutual incomprehensibility is reinforced by the international community, which sometimes treats the three dialects as distinct languages (for example, having all three options on their website) and provide translations of documents into each.”
An additional challenge to change is the Federation’s administrative setup: each of the ten cantons has a separate education ministry. So in terms of pure logistics, unifying educational policies across the Federation is pretty much out of the question.
This setup is outlined in the country’s constitution, which is part of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995. Dayton divided Bosnia and Bosnians along ethnic lines, which has led to the prevalence of ethnically based political parties who have in turn reinforced the divisions and, consequently, have little interest in change. I discussed Dayton in Episode 18, “Peace and Division in BiH: 25 Years of Dayton,” and the next episode will be dedicated to it as well.
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: To be honest, back then it was a [sic] progress just as much as [the] Dayton Peace Agreement was the progress for the time of the war. But [the] Dayton Peace Agreement is not anymore a blueprint for progress of [sic] 21st century. We should have overcome it as much as we should have overcome the two schools under one roof. But we have a politicians [sic] who are, you know, riding this wave and misusing it.
PETER KORCHNAK: So changing or replacing the country’s constitution, its very setup, is one potential way out. But it’s a huge, if impossible lift under the current circumstances, the system just seems that entrenched. Particularly at a time when one half of the country (or its representatives) challenges the common state’s very legitimacy, agreement on change is quite impossible.
Working within the system, one solution, if you think in terms of democracy, is quite obvious.
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: The best way how to punish politicians is at the elections. Not to elect them, not to vote for them, but for that we need, you know, very much high awareness among the ordinary citizens.
PETER KORCHNAK: A few promising developments have taken place at the ballot box, like the recent election of the new mayor of Sarajevo. But that’s far from the magnitude of change that needs to happen. What’s more—
VALERY PERRY: —that is not to say that if one were to wave a magic wand and get rid of or somehow integrate those 54 or 56 two in ones, that there would be no discrimination in the country, because the entire educational system in the country is predicated on the notion that each of the three constituent peoples has to be educated only according to their version of truth and their own set of alternative facts, and that there is no opportunity to learn together. And this has unbelievably damaging impact across the country, in terms of education, in terms of democracy and human rights, but also in terms of the economy.
So this is why a fundamental wholesale reform of the education system, based on understanding that history is complex, based on understanding that you need to have a wide range of teaching tools to ensure critical thinking, critical analysis, media literacy, is necessary if you want kids to sort of be able to have the opportunity that they need to get.
One of the reasons I stay cautiously optimistic is that I never fail to be amazed at how there are so many brilliant students coming out of this unbelievably flawed system. You’ll read stories about kids from one part of the country winning like an engineering architectural competition globally. You hear about kids going and winning a debate, competition globally. I meet kids who speak three, four languages fluently and have a better understanding of literature than I ever had at their age.
And I can’t help but think that everything that they’ve achieved has been in spite of all of the obstacles being actively put in front of them, as opposed to because the system is there to nurture them. And I can only imagine what they’d be capable of, if they actually had a system that nurtured this and supported this and allowed them to learn from each other. So that gives me hope.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Welcome Departure” by Ketsa]
PETER KORCHNAK: When I first heard the story of high schoolers in Jajce who stopped their school from getting segregated, my heart jumped. This is it, this the solution, I thought. Individuals rising up against nationalist elites and, more importantly, for what they believe. But the deeper down the story’s maze I went, the more depressing the whole thing became. For example, I could not find a teacher to speak with me on the record, and others who were willing to talk would ask me to turn off my recorder.
Either way, one swallow doth not a spring make. But a flock, that’s a different story.
Every political system, every regime uses the education system to mold its youth to its own ideology, to its own purposes. The communists were creating Yugoslavs living together in the grand palace of brotherhood and unity; the nationalists are creating Serbs and Croats and Bošnjaks living apart in their ethnic houses. But whatever they learned in school, in the media, or at home for that matter, there have always been people who rebelled, against the dominant narrative, against the oppressive regime, to create a world they wanted to live in.
I’m not big on inspirational stuff. But I was a good little communist soldier in my own country, and then, barely a teenager, I witnessed a revolution there. So I know there is a way, there must be a way for kids in Bosnia to go to school together again. It’s happened before, it can happen again. And I am hopeful for that future.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
AIDA HOZIĆ: Dayton has become kind of a symbol of a successful peace agreement. So there’s this kind of a specter of Dayton, I think.
PETER KORCHNAK: For twenty-six years the Dayton Peace Agreement has been Bosnia and Herzegovina’s blessing and a bane. With the country on the verge of unravelling again, what has Dayton achieved or created? What has it harmed or destroyed? And what’s the point? On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, the Dayton Peace Agreement 26 years later.
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[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, links, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
And remember, every little bit of your support, whatever you can afford, counts. Please consider a donation to Remembering Yugoslavia today. And if a donation isn’t in the books, consider doing the next best thing: write a review on the podcast wherever you can. I am truly grateful.
I am Peter Korchňak.
[INTERLUDE – School bell sound effect]