Education Structure and Policy as Barriers to Transitional Justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Author: Aaron Reynolds, 2017.

Sarajevo Memorial for Children Killed During Siege

“Interethnic conflict leaves communities and societies of a state devastated. Those involved in the war, and the many generations that follow, struggle to reconstruct their country both physically and abstractly…”


Image is of the Memorial for Children Killed During Siege in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo by Aaron Reynolds.


Interethnic conflict leaves communities and societies of a state devastated. Those involved in the war, and the many generations that follow, struggle to reconstruct their country both physically and abstractly. Ethnic conflict often results in the destruction of interpersonal trust and the incapacitation of state-run institutions. A striking instance of this is what we see in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) today.

As Pilvi Torsti indicates, “History typically forms part of the construction of national identity in society” (“How to Deal with a Difficult Past” 77.) In post-war BiH, one of the primary barriers to reconstruction and transitional justice is the lack of a common historical narrative related to the events of the 1992 to 1995 war. This issue becomes increasingly concerning when considering the ways in which history is conveyed to the nation’s children through BiH’s various education structures and policies.


Education Policy as a Manifestation of Divided Identity

Historical context pertaining to ‘Bosnian’ identity

The ethnic and religious composition of BiH is directly related to the causes, course, and result of the Bosnian War. While the other republics within the former Yugoslavia each had a dominant ethnic group or subnationality, Bosnia was different. Tone Bringa notes that BiH “…was the only republic in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which was not defined as the ‘national home’ of one particular narod [nation]. Instead it had three – Muslims, Serbs and Croats- and none of them carried an ethnonym which identified them with the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina…”(27).

These three groups waged war against each other for nearly half a decade and, “whether they were nationalists or not, one community after another was confronted by the brutal violence unleashed by a deceptively simple question: ‘Why should I be a minority in your country, when you could be a minority in mine’” (Borger xxi)? The combination of identity politics and the nature of the conflict means that there is now “…no shared truth in BiH. Rather, three broad competing versions of truth exist…Each group seeks to portray itself as the main victim and to minimize, to deny, or to rationalize the suffering it inflicted on others” (Clark, “From Negative to Positive Peace” 361).

Institutional structure of BiH education

The war ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which solidified the ethnic lines drawn by conflict. Two entities were created within BiH: 49% of the country was carved out to create Republika Srpska (RS), dominated by ethnic Serbs, while the remaining 51% of the country became the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH). This second entity contains most of the country’s Bosniaks and Croats and is subdivided further into ten ethnically delineated cantons (Hromadžić 544; Bozic 320-321). The most notable aspect regarding the division of these entities, which is critical to our discussion, is that “…the borders of the FBiH and the RS were determined following the position of the frontlines at the time when the war ended, resulting in the creation of ethnic enclaves” (Tolomelli 93).

The above-mentioned political structures of BiH are directly mirrored in the education structures and institutions of the country. When the war ended, Dayton “brought an end to the shelling of school buildings, but it also reinforced the fragmentation in education created during the war” (Hromadžić 544). Whereas education under Tito’s Yugoslavia had been heavily centralized under a curriculum based on socialist identity, Dayton did not prescribe specific measures for education in post-war BiH and thus left it to local and entity-wide ethnically charged ‘sub-governments’ (Hromadžić 544; Torsti, “Segregated Education and Texts” 72). This plays out, impractically, with 13 different education ministries in a country of 4 million citizens (Clark, “Education in Bosnia-Hercegovina” 346).

Entrenched subnational narratives

Without a unified education system, prospects are dim for Bosnia’s younger generation to learn about or work towards a shared truth and history. Students from different ethnicities are not simply learning opposing interpretations of history from a somewhat disorganized central source. They are intentionally being taught entirely different histories using different textbooks, often in ethnically homogenous learning environments, situated in communities and regions of the country that have vastly different views on what it means to be ‘Bosnian.’

The use of different textbooks throughout BiH is one of the most challenging elements limiting transitional justice in the country. These various sources of history from which children learn one version about the state’s recent past, and which “…promote separate, exclusive national identities… to a large extent explains why we are not witnessing the formation of a unified nation-state, but its slow disintegration” (Bartulovic 51). The intentional use of nationalistic textbooks in ethnically homogenous areas of the country actively works against the future of the Bosnian state. Authorities responsible for this continued propagation of ethnic division “…want to create an ‘ethnically cleansed’ vision of the past and justify the existence of three communities in BH which allegedly cannot live together” (Bartulovic 65).

Education has historically been used in one of two ways with regards to conflict: either to stir up nationalism or to create a sense of statewide identity (Swimelar 166). It is clear from the educational structures and policies of BiH – such as ‘two schools under one roof,’ which we will be discussing in the following section – that education is being used in post-war Bosnia to stir up nationalism which will continue to hinder the country in its process of rebuilding. As Clark indicates, “as long as children are learning different versions of history, it is hard to envisage how any consensus about the past can be established; and if competing versions of truth cannot be reconciled, it is therefore difficult to see how relationships between people can be restored and repaired” (“Education in Bosnia-Hercegovina” 348-349).


‘Two Schools Under One Roof’

There are two layers to the ‘two schools under one roof’ policy: complete segregation at both the administrative and instructional levels, and ‘unified segregation.’ Complete segregation was designed to temporarily provide separate spaces for students, teachers, and administrative staff for the purpose of dispersing different curricula. ‘Unified segregation’ was implemented to reduce the effects of complete segregation. Under ‘unified segregation,’ the school administration has been legally fused, yet separate instruction is still provided in accordance with ethnic lines (Tolomelli 94).

The practice of ‘two schools under one roof,’ which is found primarily in heterogeneous areas of FBiH, results in groups of students who “…have little to no contact with those from a different group. They learn almost exclusively about their dominant group’s narrative, history, culture and religion…” (Swimelar 162). This separation is created by leaders and members from the various ethnic groups represented in BiH to prevent the other group(s) from gaining “control of the educational system and curriculum…and consequently control of the cultural and national memory” (Swimelar 173). Hromadžić informs us that for most Croats and Serbs, integration represents one of two paths: returning to the status quo present in the former Yugoslavia where ethnic representation was repressed, or absorption into the cultures and norms of a larger ethnic group. Both paths “are seen as dangerous to the survival of the ethnically defined communities” (554).

A hallmark symbol of the ‘two schools under one roof’ system is the use of different entrances for different ethnicities, which lead to separate floors or areas for each group within the school building. In the most extreme cases however, students of different ethnicities attend school in different shifts so as to avoid any interaction. This leads to instances of further discrimination against members of the ethnic minority, as seen in cases where members of the ethnic minority waited outside in the rain only to finally enter and discover that the heat had been shut off in preparation for their arrival (Hromadžić 554; Swimelar 170).

In the city of Mostar, the international community tried to intervene and put an end to the practice of segregation. The OSCE’s plan for Mostar involved integrated classes and curricula for ‘less controversial’ subjects while maintaining segregation for ‘national’ subjects such as history. Although a far cry from full integration, this “spread panic among the [majority] Croat community” who turned to Dayton to uphold their position as it “guaranteed control of ethnic groups over their internal affairs,” particularly the ability to receive instruction in their own language (Hromadžić 545).

The international community had initially proposed the practice of administrative division, however it soon realized that this was only worsening ethnic separation within the country despite its stated good intentions to increase and assist the return of minorities. In 2003, the international community dropped the project and “both political and educational stakeholders [were] instructed to carry out administrative unification…” (Bozic 328).

However, extreme decentralization means that there has been little pressure to enforce this, and thus the practice still persists. Furthermore, even where administrative unification takes place students are still separated in the classroom for ‘national’ subjects and in some cases, for all curricula; “thus preserving ethnic segregation” (Hromadžić 544-545). It is clear that through the “politicization of education…the solution eventually becomes a part of the problem”; at least in FBiH what residents face are “two Nations under one State, two communities under one town community, two schools under one roof” (Bozic 333; Tolomelli 102).


Impact of Education Policy on Bosnia’s Future


Bosnia’s war may have formally ended in 1995 but it is evident that the divisions that were so very present during the conflict are far from over. We have looked at the practice of segregation through ‘two schools under one roof,’ but research also shows that in communities which are considered ‘mono-ethnic,’ “students are still learning primarily with and about their own ethnic group and not others”; this has a similar effect to formal and intentional segregation (Swimelar 171).

A 2014 study conducted with Bosniak and Croat children revealed that students identified “contact with the other group as an element that impacts the relationship between them” (Tveit et al. 108). Separate from this study, Clark highlights that without contact, interpersonal relationships between individuals in BiH “cannot be healed unless people’s perceptions of each other change, and they are unlikely to change in the absence of new information” (“Education in Bosnia-Hercegovina” 351). We see that the current system of education in FBiH has “the potential to reinforce an emerging polarization” (Tveit et al. 110-111). This division is emerging because while under Tito’s Yugoslavia children of all ethnicities went to school side by side,“Young children who were not even alive during the war are now starting to learn ethnic hate at school” (Tolomelli 100-101).

It has been said that reconciliation “does not exist in present-day BiH” (Clark, “From Negative to Positive Peace” 316). While education is not entirely to blame, this paper argues that it is a significant contributing factor. Education in BiH does not simply maintain the status quo of ethnic division, but actively exacerbates the situation to work against any external attempts at reconciliation. Societal relationships can not be mended if ethnic groups continue to learn in isolation, as this only serves to propagate the false narratives of neighbors as enemies and their own ethnic groups as sole victims. Education in BiH is essentially “helping to fuel prejudice and stereotypes, [and] is a fundamental obstacle to reconciliation” (Clark, “Education in Bosnia-Hercegovina” 345-346).

In addition to interpersonal relationships, Safia Swimelar argues that the effects of the BiH education system impact the stability of the state itself. She writes:

When two or more sub-state groups use competing nationalisms and group rights to bolster their identity and security, this can weaken or threaten the identity and security of other groups and prevent the formation of a common national identity…[This] can threaten the territorial integrity and security of the state itself. (168)

This education system not only has implications for present-day BiH, but may also have “critical long-term consequences.” (Swimelar 170)


BiH is uniquely positioned with regards to its ethnic division, in that the competing ethnicities are not purely internal. The presence of nationalism in the education system means that Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs are pushed at an early age towards the country that hosts their ethnic majority; “children learn to consider Zagreb and Banja Luka (if not Belgrade) as the capital of their State, instead of Sarajevo” (Tolomelli 99). It can be argued that this destabilizes not just BiH, but the rest of the region as well.

In 2002 when the OSCE made its push towards ending dual administration of schools in FBiH, it did so by using accession to the EU as an incentive (Hromadžić 544). However, we know from our previous discussion that segregation is still very much present in BiH, which leads us to question the priorities of the state authorities. The continued presence of nationalistic textbooks and curricula indicates that “the desire to enhance national identity is stronger than the aspirations of the international community to bring the country to the gate of the European Union” (Bartulovic 53).

Apart from benefits to EU membership, which include increased economic development and freedom of movement for goods and people, the prospect of accession also has the potential to impact interpersonal relationships within the region. Štiks explains that with the dissolution of Yugoslavia, individuals were “neighbours that for decades were partners — and, even more, brothers — [who] were turned into enemies, but enemies were, eventually turned into neighbours again.” Overarching EU membership offers the possibility of those “neighbours [being] turned into partners again” in which case “we shall surely witness a brand new phase in the Balkans” (496).

Looking Forward

It is clear that no ‘quick fixes’ are to be had in light of the ethnic underpinnings to the country’s political and education structures. Scholarship indicates that the international community needs to “develop a long-term strategy for the implementation and replication of its reconciliation projects,” such as the attempts towards integration at Mostar Gymnasium (Hromadžić 561). However, this paper argues that the key to a better future in BiH lies with the individual and their power to change, rather than with the international community.

In post-war BiH, politicians continue to spout ethnic hatred from their positions of power. The Minister for Education in the Central Bosnia Canton, Greta Kuna, stated in 2007 that: “The ‘Two Schools Under One Roof’ project will not be suspended because you can’t mix apples and pears. Apples with apples and pears with pears” (Engelhart). In reality, “even if many citizens favor integration…it is often political leaders who direct education to nationalist ends” (Swimelar 175).

While this may be the case, it is important that we focus on the fact that many citizens do favor integration in the education system of BiH; this is where the potential for change exists. Authorities in BiH are only one part of the community, and although there is certainly a power differential between leaders and ‘ordinary’ citizens, the individual citizen represents an equally opposing force when they become part of a collective desire to move beyond the pains of war and division.

This power of the citizens’ collective voice is best illustrated by looking at the resistance against the ‘two schools under one roof’ program. Rights groups and progressive citizens can be empowered by a 2014 Federation Supreme Court ruling which effectively outlaws the practice of school segregation in FBiH (Engelhart; Dzidic). The decentralized structure of both politics and education means that implementation and enforcement of this ruling is not simple. Thus, “while legal rulings on the discriminatory nature of [segregated] schools languish, it seems to have fallen to students themselves to reject further or continued divisions” (Hadziristic).

The most recent, and perhaps promising, example of student-led action is in the town of Jajce, located in the heterogeneous Central Bosnia Canton which played host to Greta Kuna’s remarks. Following an announcement made by the town that a Bosniak-only high school would be built to replace the current ethnically mixed high schools, students engaged in a series of protests. Their persistence was rewarded in June 2017, when authorities reversed course resulting in an “unprecedented” victory for students and their supporters (Sito-Sucic).

A particularly encouraging aspect of the Jajce case is that the decision to halt the construction of a separate school was made at the cantonal level, which could impact other schools in Central Bosnia. Movements like Jajce, which involve students from all three Bosniak, Croat, and Serb sides, lend credence to the notion that integration in schools from a young age is possible. Nationalistic rhetoric would lead one to believe that ethnicities cannot mix, and that to do so would only cause problems in the classroom. However, research shows that “notwithstanding numerous media reports about clashes between Bosnian and Croatian pupils attending ‘two schools under a single roof’…such outbursts were rather exceptional and that school bullying was not related to political or national factors” (Černi Obrdalj and Rumboldt 533).

Under the premise that children are able to coexist in integrated schools without bullying each other on the basis of their ethnicity, and that high school students in one of the most mixed and contentious cantons of BiH can work together against government-imposed division, this paper puts forth the suggestion that ethnic tension and hatred in BiH is not inherent nor unavoidable. It is certainly influenced by politics, media, and community pressure but in the absence of these factors, the upcoming generation represents a true possibility for change.

We have seen that “it is the multiethnic character of the community in general…that facilitates intergroup contact among students,” however there should be a place in formal education for interethnic progress as well (Bozic 34). Contact and dialogue between students is vital, but this will only be possible “if policy makers and opinion leaders decide to leave the school ground far from nationalistic issues and religious divisions” (Tolomelli 95).

The stigma of ‘us versus them’ must be removed from schools in order to be lifted in the rest of society; the cycle of mistrust will otherwise be increasingly hard to disrupt. Through interethnic contact and the development of interethnic relationships, acceptance of truth can be facilitated and BiH can move closer toward a collective historical narrative. The intertwined relationship between ethnicity and religion in BiH is particularly challenging, and teaching controversial history will always be difficult as long as ‘others’ are seen as the enemy. This is why “teaching religion and culture of religions in a way that is in accordance with democratic principles is the only hope for new generations to learn about themselves and others in their region” (Stuebner 10).

Education reform is necessary in BiH, and will require the efforts of three groups. Firstly, and most important to this change, will be additional grassroots efforts by students and other citizens outside the political arena. Secondly, the international community should continue to apply pressure, particularly in connection with EU membership. It should, however, also recognize that societal reconstruction in BiH must be Bosnian in nature. Imposed international solutions for Bosnian problems will not achieve true reconciliation. Thirdly, the political structure of BiH must change through constitutional reform. BiH is overdue for a new constitution – one that is truly Bosnian; BiH should no longer use the Dayton Peace Agreement as a de facto guide. New political parties are also needed to address the educational needs of BiH, and they should be formed based on ideology, rather than on ethnicity or religion.



Twenty-five years after the end of the Bosnian War, the country still faces significant tension between its ethnic Bosniak, Croat, and Serb populations. The administrative divisions created by ethnic lines within the country are extensive, and their presence in the education sector only serves to delay reconciliation. This paper has analyzed how the education structure and policies of BiH have led to increased division within the country, particularly through the ‘two schools under one roof’ program. The decentralization of FBiH entrenches this policy deeply into the fabric of the heterogeneous parts of the mixed Bosniak and Croat groups. In the homogenous cantons of FBiH, as well as in RS, the segregation of schools is naturally instilled by way of the administrative lines drawn through the horrors of ethnic cleansing.

Despite the myriad problems subject to these practices, there is hope for the future of Bosnia’s school children and, by extension, the country as a whole. Students who were not alive during the conflict, but have been kept separate from their counterparts of other ethnicities, are beginning to stand against government-imposed segregation. Through this, there is hope that “education can be turned into a tool to achieve reconciliation and international peace” so that “students belonging to distinct entities [can] start to develop the sense of difference seen as an opportunity and not as a danger” (Tolomelli 90-91).



Works Cited

Bartulovic, Alenka. “Nationalism in the Classroom: Narratives of the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–1995) in the History Textbooks of the Republic of Srpska.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, vol. 6, no. 3, 2006, pp. 51–72.

Borger, Julian. The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt. Other Press, 2016.

Bozic, Gordana. “Reeducating the Hearts of Bosnian Students: An Essay on Some Aspects of Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” East European Politics and Societies, vol. 20, no. 2, 2006, pp. 319–42.

Bringa, Tone. Being Muslim the Bosnian Way: Identity and Community in a Central Bosnian Village. Princeton University Press, 1995.

Černi Obrdalj, Edita, and Mirjana Rumboldt. “Bullying Among School Children in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina: Cross-Sectional Study.” Croatian Medical Journal, vol. 49, no. 4, 2008, pp. 528-535.

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“From Negative to Positive Peace: The Case of Bosnia and Hercegovina.” Journal of Human Rights, vol. 8, no. 4, 2009, pp. 360–84.

Dzidic, Denis. “Bosnia Federation Rules Against Ethnically-Divided Schools.” Balkan Insight, 4 November 2014, Accessed 7 August 2017.

Engelhart, Katie. “Bosnia-Herzegovina Court Orders End to Ethnic Segregation of Schoolchildren.” Vice News, 5 November 2014, Accessed 7 August 2017.

Hadziristic, Tea. “Two Schools Under One Roof: A Lesson in Ethnic Unmixing from Bosnia’s Segregated School System.” Open Democracy, 3 March 2017, Accessed 7 August 2017.

Hromadžić, Azra. “Discourses of Integration and Practices of Reunification at the Mostar Gymnasium, Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Comparative Education Review, vol. 52, no. 4, 2008, pp. 541–63.

Sito-Sucic, Daria. “Bosnian Students Keep Up Their Protests Against Segregated Schools.” Reuters, 20 June 2017, Accessed 7 August 2017.

Štiks, Igor. “Nationality and Citizenship in the Former Yugoslavia: From Disintegration to European Integration.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, vol. 6, no. 4, 2006, pp. 483–500.

Stuebner, Renata. “The Current State of Religious Coexistence and Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” United States Institute of Peace, 2009, Accessed 2 August 2017.

Swimelar, Safia. “Education in Post-War Bosnia: The Nexus of Societal Security, Identity and Nationalism.” Ethnopolitics, vol. 12, no. 2, 2013, pp. 161–82.

Tolomelli, Alessandro. “‘Two Schools Under One Roof’. The Role of Education in the Reconciliation Process in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Ricerche Di Pedagogia E Didattica, vol.10, no. 1, 2015, pp. 89–108.

Torsti, Pilvi. “How to Deal with a Difficult Past? History Textbooks Supporting Enemy Images in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Journal of Curriculum Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2007, pp. 77–96.

“Segregated Education and Texts: A Challenge to Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” International Journal on World Peace, vol. 26, no. 2, 2009, pp. 65–82.

Tveit, A.D., et al. “‘Two Schools Under One Roof’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Exploring the Challenges of Group Identity and Deliberative Values Among Bosniak and Croat Students.” International Journal of Educational Research, vol. 66, 2014, pp. 103–12.


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