Segregation in Bosnia

Nouvelle Europe has a long, disheartening article (French) on the segregation of Bosnian Croat (mostly Catholic) and Bosniak (Muslim) students in schools. The system of “two schools under the same roof” has been official policy in Bosnia since 2000, although it depends greatly on the particular canton or municipality. In addition, as in much of the U.S. and Europe, residential ethnic segregation means schools are often virtually segregated in practice even if this is not enforced by law. The Minister of Education of the canton of Central Bosnia justified the system saying that “One doesn’t mix apples and pears.”

The system was originally designed to encourage refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return after the war by providing a “safe” place for their children. Being segregated, they would not face the risk of being a threatened as a minority. By 2008, almost half of refugees and IDPs had returned but the system has effectively become permanent. Reform efforts have proven dead letters. Parents and teachers generally want things to stay the way they are. Many Bosnian Croats, for example, prefer that their children have a Croatian education which allows their children to study in Croatia, a country whose future accession to the EU seems likely.

Bosnia remains an extremely dysfunctional state divided among its three ethnic communities (narod), sub-republics and cantons. The economy is persistently weak and suffers from extremely high unemployment (over 30%). The enduring nature of these problems, including the crystallization of ethnic identity, is occurring despite the massive military, political and financial intervention of NATO, the EU and the UN. That Bosnia and Kosovo really are easily the best-provided “protectorates” of the West illustrate well the limits of what foreign intervention can achieve in even culturally similar countries.

This segregation is a sign of the apparent impossibility of a Bosnian identity. The article notes that “[t]his young generation has never known anything other than segregation. The system appears normal to them. Why question it?” Yet one student’s father laments the fact that “[b]efore I was a sociologist, now I am a Croat.” Yet human beings also define their lives through their character, family, profession, hobbies, nationality, residence, sexual orientation, age and many other traits in addition to their ethnicity. As the article rightly notes, “No individual can be reduced to a single identity.”

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