resisting ethnic divisions in schools

Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs have very different accounts about why the Bosnian War occurred. As a result, each group has different perspectives about the wrongdoing of other parties, which allow politicians to politicize the stories of their own victims and incite further division.

So, what does that mean for the education system in Bosnia? How do you teach Bosniak, Croat, and Serb children while groups still don’t recognize the others’ versions of history?

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Modern-Day Good Samaritans in Bosnia

It’s good to be back home with Stephanie and Jack after an amazing trip.

Peace Catalyst friend and mentor, David Vidmar, and I went to Bosnia for 6 days (May 7-12) and spent a lot of time meeting with and listening to Christian religious leaders, imams, and peacemaking nonprofits. Our hope was to determine whether there could be next steps for us (the Careys) to work as Peace Catalyst staff in partnership with a local organization in Bosnia, and whether there was space for us as American Protestant Christians to genuinely help in peacemaking efforts going on in the region. (For a quick background of the conflict, go here.)

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the stories behind the numbers

It’s been very difficult to calculate the casualties and number of people who were killed, injured, raped, or forced to flee from their homes during the Bosnian War, primarily because the process has been highly politicized and “fused with narratives about victimhood” from nationalistic politicians on each side. Today, more than twenty years later, statistics about ethnic crimes and war casualties are still used to fuel political agendas and stoke ethnic and religious hatreds in the region.

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main ethnic groups

Bosnia & Herzegovina is home to three main ethnic groupsBosniaks are the largest group of the three (50.1%), with Serbs second (30.8%), and Croats third (15.4%). A native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, regardless of ethnicity, is identified in English as a Bosnian (so there are Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Bosniaks, etc.). Typically, Bosniaks are Muslim, Serbs are Orthodox, and Croats are Catholic, and religion is the primary marker of difference between the three groups. The terms Herzegovinian and Bosnian are maintained as a regional rather than ethnic distinction, and the region of Herzegovina is located in the southern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ethnic tensions remain high in Bosnia after the war in the mid-90’s, in part due to how the Dayton Peace Accords were only able to “freeze the military confrontation” without addressing root issues of the conflict. As a result, the territorial and political situation in Bosnia is “continually unstable and fractious since its implementation in 1995.” Ongoing religious intolerance in Bosnia has also contributed to ethnic tensions, both through political discrimination against religious minorities and some local religious leaders’ contributions to intolerance and increased nationalism through public statements and sermons.

today: a meeting of cultures

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Mount Bjelašnica, only 20 minutes from Sarajevo, is a popular tourist attraction for hiking and skiing

Bosnia & Herzegovina has stunningly beautiful scenery and wonderfully hospitable people. In fact, it is one of the most frequently visited countries in the Balkan region and is projected to have the third highest tourism growth rate in the world between 1995 and 2020. Bosnia and Herzegovina is regionally and internationally renowned for its natural beauty and cultural heritage and cuisine inherited from six historical civilizations, winter sports, and eclectic and unique musicarchitecture, and festivals, some of which are the largest and most prominent of their kind in Southeastern Europe.

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background & conflict

Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H, BiH, or just “Bosnia” for short) is a small country, just a bit smaller than South Carolina. It’s located in southeastern Europe, nestled between Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro in the Western Balkans. The Balkan region acts as a bridge between Asia and Europe and has been at the confluence of some of the greatest empires the world has known: Rome, Greece, and the Austrian and Ottoman Empires. Like many such land bridges, Israel-Palestine included, the region is a highly trafficked and politically disputed territory that has attracted tension and conflict for centuries. Today, the three primary groups that live in Bosnia are Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs.

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Ethnic groups in Yugoslavia in 1994 – Nationalistic politicians turned ethnic groups against one another in the early 90’s. But because the groups were so intermixed (intermarriage was common between ethnicities), the result in Bosnia was violence between neighbors.

After World War II and despite inter-ethnic tensions, the numerous ethno-religious groups in the Balkans were united into one country, Yugoslavia. The country experienced relative peace under Tito’s communist leadership for years. By the 90’s, after Tito died and just a few years after the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, nationalistic rhetoric increased and tensions between some of these groups mounted again, causing Yugoslavia to break up into independent states. Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and Croats (Catholic Christians) wanted to maintain “greater Serbia” and “greater Croatia,” while Bosniak Muslims were largely caught in the middle.

The breakup of Yugoslavia – Bosnia flashes grey on March 3, 1992, and then breaks into separate Serb, Croat, and Bosniak controlled entities. These would be reunited as one country (today’s Bosnia) in 1995.

War erupted. Even worse, the violence escalated against civilians, women, and children as different groups attempted to ethnically cleanse their own territory through mass killings, rape, concentration camps, and deportations. Calculating the number of victims and deaths resulting from the conflict has been difficult and highly politicized, but by 1995, more than 100,000 people were killed, perhaps up to half of them civilians and including as many as 12,000 children. In addition to the widespread killing and many additional injuries, 2.2 million people were forced to flee their homes, making it the largest displacement of people in Europe since WWII. What had once been a diverse society where people of different ethnic and religious groups lived as neighbors side by side had quickly become segregated into homogeneous communities.

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The ethnic distribution of people in Bosnia before (1991) and after the war (1998) – Muslim Bosniaks (green), Orthodox Serbs (red), and Catholic Croats (blue)