Following the news of President Paul Kagame’s re-election in Rwanda this week, I was reminded of an argument my friend made in support of Kagame’s ownership of Rwanda’s historical narrative and suppression of alternative perspectives. In response to my assertion that the inability of all sides to express themselves would impede true reconciliation, he countered that in the aftermath of a violent conflict it might be good that have a period of stabilization before moving forward; “when you’re bleeding, don’t you want a bandaid?”
Decades later, Rwanda’s bandaid maintains the nation’s restrictive status quo with no shake-up in sight. Five years after first hearing this particular analogy, I’m sitting in Sarajevo, contemplating its application in Bosnia. The division of the country into Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (and the neglected little Brčko District) has largely separated the Bosnian Serb population from the Bosniak and Croat populations, which share control of the Federation. A blog post describing all of the challenges this system creates in BiH would become a book, so I’m going to limit myself to education.
In FBiH, the entity controlled by a Bosniak and Croat coalition, government is highly decentralized. In response to numerous disputes about how to best re-integrate Bosniak and Croat students in aftermath of the war, the “Two Schools Under One Roof” policy was born. Bosniak and Croat students have been segregated throughout much of FBiH, as the policy’s supporters argue that the persistence of ethnic tensions will create an environment hostile to learning. Throughout FBiH there are schools where Bosniak and Croat students attend different classes taught by different teachers (of their own ethnicity), study different textbooks, and attend classes in shifts or use different entrances so that they won’t interact.
Bosnia’s own supreme court ruled this policy unconstitutional in 2012, finding that it violated the nation’s anti-discrimination laws. However, under Bosnian law, the ruling only applies to the parties in the suit; thus the decision only actually desegregated one district.
Aside from the illegality of this policy, there are a number of other criticisms. Students who protest it say that receiving such a one-sided curriculum, and a lack of exposure to other people and stories compromises the quality of their education. Further, maintaining the segregation of students by ethnicity will perpetuate the ethno-nationalist ideas that culminated in the war and genocide in the 1990s. In addition to the criticisms of the direct impacts of this policy on students, it complicates any attempt at education standardization or policy reform. The organization where I intern in Sarajevo has been working for a while to identify gender stereotypes and normalizations of domestic violence in school textbooks, and lobbying schools and politicians to remove the offending content. Two Schools Under One Roof means there are two separate sets of textbooks to search through and edit.
I stand by what I said five years ago (as someone who hasn’t live through a war, in fairness); that a real and lasting reconciliation requires a space for open dialogue. As authoritarianism prevents this from developing in Rwanda, the state of education in FBiH prevents this for many youths in Bosnia. Given the state of politics in Bosnia, it’s hard to envision an institutional change being enacted by those in power, for a multitude of reasons. But if the student-led protests in Jajce can start a trend, perhaps grassroots change can occur.