Divided Schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Apples and Pears Still Don’t Mix

When the tolling of the first school bells announced the start of the new school year this week, classes in the small Herzegovinian towns of Capljina and Stolac were still divided according to students’ ethnicity. Croat students attend one set of classes, and Bosniak students other ones - a practice that has been in place in more than 30 schools across Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for almost two decades.

Last year, the Supreme Court of the Federation of BiH (FBiH) — the FBiH is one of two entities that make up BiH and is largely inhabited by Bosniaks and Croats — passed a decision confirming that the so-called ‘two schools under one roof’ in Herzegovina-Neretva Canton (HNC) is discriminatory and should be abolished. But the public is not optimistic that this will happen anytime soon.  

The legal aid association, Vasa prava BiH, filed lawsuits in 2011 against education ministries in HNC and Central Bosnia Canton (CBC) — the country’s administrative units that are home to divided schools. Emir Prcanovic, the association’s director, said that the process of implementation has been delayed, although his organization demanded the immediate execution of the court’s judgment.

In an interview for Kosovo 2.0, Prcanovic explained that the Public Attorney’s Office of HNC has lodged an appeal to the national Constitutional Court to reconsider the Supreme Court FBiH’s verdict. This will further prolong the existence of segregated schools, which was intended as a temporary solution for post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina but is still in place and is not being tackled by political stakeholders. “It is an absurd situation since this institution should not support segregated and discriminatory education, but protect public interest,” said Prcanovic.

However, the abuse of the courts’ decisions in ‘two schools under one roof’ cases is nothing new for Vasa prava BiH who have already seen the lawsuits drag on for four years. After the municipal court in Mostar ruled that schools in Capljina and Stolac should offer an integrated curriculum for children of all ethnicities by September 2012, the Ministry of Education of HNC appealed the verdict before the (higher level) cantonal court. Noting that, “political problems fell outside of the court's jurisdiction,” the cantonal court responded positively to the appeal and encouraged the division in classrooms of HNC, thereby leading to the case being escalated to the Supreme Court of FBiH. (In a similar case in CBC, the municipal court in Travnik rejected the legitimacy of the 2011 lawsuit, thereby permitting the continuation of divided schools in that canton).


“Political elites find it more important to create divisions and use education to build walls between children of different ethnicities than to create a democratic system in which decisions of courts are not questioned but implemented,” Namir Ibrahimovic, a Sarajevo-based teacher and co-editor of the education magazine Skolegijum, told Kosovo 2.0 when asked to comment on the non-implementation of the court’s decision. “Decisions of the courts are one level below the political decisions,” he said.

Forbidden Fruit Salad

As a provisional model, the ‘two schools under one roof’ scheme was introduced to FBiH regions with predominantly Bosniak and Croat citizens by the Federal Ministry of Education and the international community back in 1997. The aim of this experiment was to accommodate the constitutional rights of returnees to education in their language until a more sustainable solution would be found.

This, however, has still not happened. In towns across FBiH, there still exist schools where Bosniak and Croat children attend classes in the same building, but are physically separated from each other and learn with different curricula. In some schools, Bosniak students enter the school through one door, while Croat students enter through another. In others, young Bosniaks and Croats living in the same neighborhoods attend classes at different times and can never meet and communicate with one another.

In one of her TV interviews, former education minister of CBC, Greta Kuna, said that it was important that apples and pears did not mix. Although the public widely condemned her statement, political elites use segregated education for political purposes, and very few steps are being taken to bring separated children closer to one another. Until now, less then 20 schools have been unified with a single administration, and even these continue to teach with separate curricula.  

While local politicians use the system to promote their politics, the international community formally condemns it but in fact does little to abolish it. Over the years, the Office of the High Representative in BiH, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe have released a number of reports and press statements asking governments to end the practice of separating schoolmates. Yet no concrete political pressure has ever taken place.

In an article in the publication ‘Two Schools Under One Roof – A Study of Segregation in Education’ issued by the Center for Human Rights of University of Sarajevo and ACIPS in 2012, researcher Dzenana Kalas noted that the international community needs to shoulder its portion of responsibility for the current situation: “The international community spent an enormous amount of money, firstly to create segregated schools through the introduction of a so called ‘national group of subjects’ [mother tongue, history and geography], and then to moderate the effects of such a divided education through non-institutional programs of reconciliation and interethnic cooperation,” she stated.

What About Youth?

The effects of the long-running segregated education system that has so far educated thousands of children, on the future of BiH, are still not fully examined. Earlier this year, a TV show revealed the high level of prejudice and ethnic stereotypes among young people attending segregated schools in cities across the country. Disturbing statements about interviewed students’ perceptions of people of different ethnicities set off a flurry of comments by human rights associations and social media users. One of the interviewed youngsters, who held the most radical views, became a target of hate speech and the debate became an arena for destructive political clashes.

Similar findings were revealed in a 2011 report by the Council of Europe that noted that one in eight BiH students frequently avoids activities with students of other ethnicities, while one in seven students frequently expresses aggressive behavior towards the students of other ethnicities. Furthermore, one in six students does not want to be in the same class as students of other ethnicities.

When asked about the main problems emerging from the current value system of new generations, Ibrahimovic said: “The consequences of such politics will be felt by children, who only get to learn about mystified national cultures instead of developing their abilities to think, understand, and create.”

In a 2009 documentary movie about segregated education in BiH, produced by the German youth organization Schüler Helfen Leben, a high school student from Stolac was asked if he could follow the chemistry classes if they were taught by a teacher of a different ethnicity. After a few seconds of thought, he said: “It is not a question of if I understand it, but of if I want to understand it.”

Although nobody knows how soon BiH citizens can expect the national court’s decision in the case of ‘two schools under one roof,’ Vasa prava BiH’s lawyers have not lost hope. “When apples and pears and plums were mixed in the national cadet basketball team, we got gold,” said Prcanovic in a reference to the BiH cadet basketball team that recently won the European championships. “This is why we started this process and why we are still optimists.”

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