THE BLOG
11/20/2015 09:30 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2016

Learning War in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Gymnasium Mostar/Wordpress

December 14 of this year will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the finalized Dayton Peace Accords -- the treaty that ended the brutal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As this landmark agreement approaches its second decade, it has suddenly reemerged within the American consciousness. Most people of a certain age remember the, at the time, seemingly unending war in the tiny Balkan state: from the graphic images of a devastated Sarajevo under siege to the impassioned pleas of the media for U.S. intervention. But few have any idea what happened after it ended -- what 20 years of peace actually looks like.

When I sat down to begin this piece, I tried to think of a way to sum up Dayton's successes in ending violence and balance them against its major flaws in state building. I tried for hours to fit all of the technicalities and complexities of the Bosnian political system (one of the most complicated in the world) into one article, explaining how the peace agreement's flawed design prevents any real or lasting progress in the country. I wanted to tell the story of two entities locked in a vicious stalemate with no feasible end in sight -- of a society divided, physically and emotionally.

I eventually decided, however, that in order to provide a proper window into the country's divided society, I needed to focus on a group that represented both the things holding Bosnia back and the things giving it hope for the future: Bosnia's youth.

Young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are a varied group. Some have grown up abroad, some have taken on the ethnic pride of their forebears, some come from mixed marriages -- all have come of age in the new connected world. They are good-humored and carefree, as most kids are and at the same time mature beyond their years -- aware of the frustrating and confusing circumstances that surround their everyday lives. For many of them, the place that causes the most confusion of all is the place in which they are supposed to find refuge: the schoolhouse.

One of the most devastating effects of the Bosnian War is its legacy in the country's schooling practices: specifically, the divided school, or, "two schools under one roof" system in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH). Under this set-up, students of differing ethnicities are kept completely separate throughout their education. Within the entity, this amounts to Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) students entering through one door and Croats entering through another. They are taught in different classrooms and receive different curriculums -- most unsurprisingly in the areas of history and world affairs, particularly in regard to the wars of the 1990s.

Initially a short-term strategy to rebuild Bosnia's fractured society, the divided school system has taken on a life of its own and is now the reality for 57 schools across FBiH. An entire generation of Bosnian youth born after the war is being instilled with the same values and notions that led their parents' generation into conflict: distrust, ethnic superiority over ethnic homogeny, and discrimination.

Things are equally problematic in the Bosnian Serb entity of Republika Srpska. Here Bosnian Serbs have the majority and control the education system. Despite the fact that schools in RS are mixed, minority groups-in this case, mainly Bosniaks-are denied fundamental rights; instead of being allowed to call their language Bosnian, for example, they must call it Serbian. The history curriculum, particularly surrounding the war, is taught from the Serbian perspective, most times stopping before the 1990s altogether, and little attention is given to the Ottoman period of Bosnia's history.

Adding to these issues is the case of Nikola Poplašen, the former president of RS, who has recently been appointed to the board of the Agency for Pre-primary, Primary and Secondary Education (APOSO), an organization tasked with developing a common core curricula in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This represents a massive conflict of interest for many reasons. Poplašen helped found the Serb Radical Party and maintained a close friendship with Radovan Karadžić, eventually testifying in his support at the Hague tribunal. Poplašen has also been granted the title of "Chetnik Duke" for "extraordinary achievements" in the RS army during the war. This is the man who is now expected to objectively determine the curriculum for three ethnicities.

There have been attempts to solve these issues at the judicial level in both entities, with little success. In FBiH, Human Rights NGO Vaša Prava (Your Rights) filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the divided school system. The Constitutional Court of Bosnia deemed the arrangement unconstitutional, ordering the culprit schools to integrate all students and reassign school materials accordingly. This reorganization effort was supposed to begin in the fall; however, there has been no progress and the number of divided schools in FBiH remains at 57.

In RS, Bosniak parents from Konjević-Polje, a town within the entity, filed a petition to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) regarding the perceived violation of a child's right to an education in his or her mother tongue. The ECtHR case was preceded by the Bosnian authorities' repeated failure to address the situation. Konjević-Polje has been wracked with tension over schooling, with parents protesting in 2013 and 2014 that the Serbian curriculum in RS was discriminatory toward Bosniaks.

How these issues will be resolved is unclear at present. The Bosnian courts appear powerless to enact any true change in the education system, and ethnic stalemate continues to inhibit middle ground. The one thing that is certain is that Bosnia's youth are getting the short end of the stick. Kids are being bred not to look at each other as compatriots and neighbors, but as enemies. The Bosnian government and the international community have more or less washed their hands of this matter, signaling their complacency with an education system that is reminiscent of the United States pre Brown v. Board of Education -- this is unacceptable.

If the international community has any intention of taking "20 Years of Peace" and turning it into a lasting and sustainable future for Bosnia, then this travesty in the education system needs to be resolved. Otherwise, we will doom Bosnia and Herzegovina's youths to the same atmosphere of mistrust that led their forebears to war -- and they deserve better than that.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords. The agreement that ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina -- after over 100,000 people were killed and over two million people were displaced -- was reached on November 21, 1995.