Zlatko Čustović

Zlatko Custovic studies Nationalism at the Central European University in Budapest.

Map 1.Political and Ethnic Divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina


Each of these units has a specific demographic structure. Map (1) above shows that the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is mostly composed of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats, while Bosnian Serbs are the majority in Republika Srpska. The District of Brčko on the other hand represents a mixture between Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs (Nikolić, 2010).

The DPA created a system that functions on the principle of allocation of (unequal) political power according to ethnicity and thus administrative divisions. What was supposed to be decentralization of the state, ended up creating further political and social cleavages between the former warring sides (Rado, p. 22). The educational system was not immune to the fragmentation that occurred. It has since been used as an instrument to create three different educational frameworks that enforce separation of ethnicity, culture, history, instead of aiming to a common identification as Bosnians and Herzegovinians.

Education, as it will be explained below, can be a powerful tool when it comes to reinforcing ethnic divisions and maintaining the status quo that was left after the end of the war. I will first explain the relationship between education, language and nationalism. Then, what I will use as a case study is the phenomenon of “two schools under one roof” in B&H. Additionally, I had a chance to have a conversation with a former student of the “Grammar School” in Mostar where this system is still in force. Although the school is supposedly the example of “best-practices” when it comes to this divisive system, the reality, which will be further explained, is different. The language politics is what halts the system from developing into a more unified one. There is not one official language in B&H. Rather, Bosnian – that mostly Bosniaks use, Croatian – that mostly Bosnian Croats use, and Serbian – that mostly Bosnian Serbs use, are the three official languages in the country (Boračić & Kamber, p. 1). This linguistic division can easily be exploited by those who want to keep the current, very segregated educational system by simply stressing the importance for children of different ethnicities to be thought in “their language”. Accordingly, the mere non-existence of a state education agency is what prevents any hope for inclusive education.

Education, language and nationalism

The administrative boundaries in Yugoslavia never corresponded to the ethnic ones. Additionally, language was never an “objective and unchangeable” factor. Language in the Balkans always had an intermediary role in people’s quest for independence. (Greenberg, pp. 19-21)

What is specific for the language(s) used in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina is that people speak similarly, while “accents are local and not national” (Judt & Lacorne, p. 216). The Serbo-Croatian language that was used during Yugoslavia has its roots in mid-19th century when it was unified by both people, and created a language that was nearly identical in it structure (spelling, pronunciation, etc.) When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the language always occupied the middle ground. Bosniaks use the generally called “Bosnian” language. But what is interesting here is that the Bosnian language is not publicly enforced as a language different from Serbian or Croatian (Ibid, p. 225). The language is a mix between the Croatian language (Latin alphabet and iekavian forms), while generally adopting Serbian terms (p. 217). However, as Tony Judt and Denis Lacorne explain, “it is important to remember that Bosnia offers a particularly homogenous linguistic landscape, but a highly divided one from a cultural standpoint.” (p. 224). As already explained, the three officially recognized languages give way to those with interest to exploit the “symbolic differences”. Objectively speaking, the differences between the three languages are “statistically few and insignificant” (Ibid, p. 228). But symbolically speaking, the non-existent differences have taken roots in the society. This goes to say that language goes beyond the mere “communicative reach” (Kymlicka & Grin, p. 10). It serves the purpose of retaining cultural values, political goals, autonomy, asserting loyalties, etc. (Ibid, p. 11). As Judt and Lacorne state, “linguistic choices are indeed choices, often political ones”, that can serve the self-interest of the people. Additionally, fear among parents that their children might be taught in a language that does not correspond to their ethnic affiliation is present. They go on to say that multilingualism which is institutionalized is very “rare and not very durable” and that it exists in countries where the linguistic choices correspond to territorially dispersed people (p. 4; p. 226). Although there are no “official” territorial divisions between Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks, it is evident that there are specific areas in the country where on or the other predominate.

Hobsbawm said that “what made a state nationalism even more essential was that both the economy of a technological era and the nature of its public and private administration, required mass elementary education, or at least literacy (…)” (Tomiak et al., p. 8). Besides state/national elites, the powerful nature of education was recognized by non-dominant/minority ethnic groups that sought to fight for recognition and their own construction of nationess. (Tomiak et al., p. 9) The educational discourse has always been affected by language policies. Language has been also recognized as a “crucial factor in the formation of national consciousness (…)” and of “paramount instrumental value in state nationalism, nationalist movements and nation building.”(Tomiak et al., p. 9) The conducive value of education is noticed even more in environments where different communities have previously been engaged in a conflict, which is the case in B&H between the Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats.

In areas where one or the other is dominant, there are still large proportions of the “others” living there. This is especially the case in the southern part of the country, Herzegovina. This part of the country has always been a battlefield for power-struggle between Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats.

Two Schools Under One Roof

Besides being divided among the main administrative units, the education in the FBiH has also been subject to further decentralization, thus leaving the education policies in the hands of the cantons. Additionally, what makes the situation more complicated is Article 3 from the Section V of the Constitution of the FBiH, which states that each canton can “delegate its jurisdiction in relation to education (…), and it is obligatory to do so towards the municipalities in which the majority population, based on the national structure, is not the population that makes the national majority in the canton as a whole” (Parlament FBiH).

Education as such has been divided into the so called “two schools under one roof” system back in 1997, when children in the same school stared to attend curricula in accordance to their ethnic affiliation, and thus separate classes have been created. The system itself creates conditions for homogenization of one or the other (Sadikovic, pp. 26-28). The purpose of the system itself was to temporarily encourage minority return to their previous addresses ( But the system itself has been highly politicized. What was envisaged as a temporary solution, it turned out to be a very functional tool for the elites to enforce the ethnic and nationalistic discourse that works in their favor. There are currently 54 schools in three cantons in the FBiH that work under this divided system. (Antidiskriminacija, p.1)

What are the specificities of such a system?  These schools work on a principle of “national subjects” which include language, geography, history, nature and society, but also arts (Low-Beer, p. 1). This means that these subjects are taken as a point for differentiation and division among students, and leads to an environment where the students of different ethnicities learn completely different things, and even things which are not particularly related to Bosnia and Herzegovina (in the case of Bosnian Croats, which will be further explained below). Although physical interaction between the students is minimal during classes, it seems that outside the classroom inter-student contact is on quite a low level too. The Foundation “Schueler Helfen Leben” fights against discrimination in schools and it made a movie back in 2009 which included interviews with participants of such a program, including teachers, principles, students etc. Interaction between the students even in the playfields around the schools is relatively low, entrances are separate. Besides being physically divided, the students of different ethnicities also attend classes at different times. The division which occurs in the schools is unfortunately not only confined to the premises of the schools themselves. A lot of statements from the movie confirm that there is division even in the larger community where, e.g. Bosniaks have never visited or rarely do visit parts where Bosnian Croats live. An interesting example presents a girl from Mostar who has never seen the “Old Bridge”, which is the main architectural and historical point of the city . (Čengić, pp. 108-109)

I recently had the opportunity to be introduced to a girl who graduated from the Grammar School in Mostar that still employs the “two schools under one roof” system. During our conversation I found out very interesting information about the system. In this school, although it represents one of the ‘best-practice’ schools because of its administrative unification, it turns out that all subjects, except ‘computer science’ are taught separately. The books that are used are completely different. For example, Bosniaks who attend the ‘Bosnian’ program study from books that are published in Sarajevo, BiH. On the other hand, the Bosnian Croats study from books that are published in Zagreb, Croatia. Interestingly enough, even the sports classes are divided. However, the extra-curriculum activities are unified, and the girl to whom I talked to was one of the founders of a unified student council. What she finds to be a serious obstacle for students, as she attended the Croatian program, is that, for example, the Bosnian Croat students mostly decide to continue with their studies in Croatia, as they have been taught in Croatian language with the emphasis on Croatian literature, history, geography, etc. What I was mostly interested in was the things they learn in geography and history. However, it turns out that explicit differentiation is mostly obvious in those classes. This result was to a certain degree expected, as talking about geography and history in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina between Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats who are “forced” to share one administrative unit, is a very sensitive topic. In geography class, the Croats learn about the geography of Croatia and rarely mention Bosnia and Herzegovina. In history class, it is the same, since they study from books that are published in Croatia. Additionally, one would think that the context of war and how it is taught is important. However, from her experience, the 1992-1995 war in BiH was never mentioned. It was rather up to the goodwill of the professor if he/she wanted to talk about the war.

Even the Open Society Fund report on the things that are taught to children in schools shows that children are subject to completely different information. For example, in the history book that is published in Croatia and is being used in Mostar, there is a question that asks the student to elaborate on the example of the Homeland war in Croatia why are historical traces destroyed during the war (Husremović et al., p. 93). On a more general level, the research found that the number of these negative examples is mostly present in the Croatian curriculum in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the emphasis is placed on belonging to another country (in this case, Croatia) and giving much more space to Croatian history, geography, etc. On the other hand, the Bosnian program is much more inclusive, where there is no emphasis on one community, nor there are any stereotypical portrayals of others. (Husremović et al., p. 88) The students are provided with the information based on personal interpretations of events by teachers, and it gives the basis for the “construction of a collective memory of one group due to the lack of official historiography in the books” (Sadikovic, p. 80).

Article 2 of the Framework law states that “the purpose of education is to, through an optimal intellectual, physical, moral, and societal development of an individual, in accordance to this capabilities and opportunities, contributes to the creation of a society based on the rule of law and respect for human rights (…)”[2] (Sadikovic, p. 46). But, is a system that violates basic human rights capable of teaching children about the same? Living in an environment where the children are subject to the will either of the system or the family, to attend such segregated programs does not give strong basis for future prospects of a once, and still, war-torn society. Is exclusively learning about Croatian history or geography beneficial for the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole? It is hard to imagine that it is, as these children graduate from schools and ‘become aliens’ in the country where they were born and where they are likely to spend their lives. As Asim Mujkić said “the purpose of education is the transmission of knowledge and values on younger generations with the goal of creating a societal, cultural and political continuity of a socio-political community” (p. 42). Taking this statement into consideration, it can be said that the education in Bosnia and Herzegovina creates a continuity of social and political divisions. Instead of aiming for the goal of teaching these generations about the rule of law and respect for human rights, it rather turns them into victims of the highly divided system with little incentive for interaction and development of a unified society of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  To make things more complicated, the principles of these schools do not see where the problem is. The principle of a school in Stolac, and many other participants in the movie shot by the SHL Foundation, state that this divided system is completely democratic and does not violate human rights (Čengić, p. 96). The system itself provides education for all children which is most important. In a war-torn society, this system, but only temporarily, was a way to create an environment immediately after the war for children to regularly attend schools. It created a basis for minorities to return to places where they previously lived. But the system itself grew into something bigger and became highly divisive and politicized.

The Obstacles

The “two schools under one roof” system since its introduction has been subject to the linguistic politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  As already explained, “it is important to remember that Bosnia offers a particularly homogenous linguistic landscape, but a highly divided one from a cultural standpoint” (Judt and Lacorne, p. 224). The linguistic differences between the Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs are on a minimum level, and people can understand each other normally. But even the slightest differences have given ground for the political elites to exploit these symbolic differences and continue with the divisive discourse among the Bosnian society. The issue of the language ‘differences’ has been tackled before. Although the three languages (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) are constitutionally recognized as the languages of the country, the Constitutional Court of BiH stated that the “exclusive usage of one language is improper and in contradiction to the civic rights” (Čengić, p. 95). However, this has not stopped the schools to enforce the one ethnicity – one language discourse, where children are introduced to a system of belief that they are completely different from their fellow schoolmates that are in a classroom on a different floor. Of course, the multi-linguistic environment can only reinforce the idea of “national subjects”. Although history and literature, in their mild-exclusivist version, could be to a certain extent understood, it is then easy for one of the sides to say that they want to teach, e.g. mathematics to the children in ‘their’ language, as some of the terms might be different in ‘their’ language, although understandable to all. An additional force that works in favor for division is the ‘fear of assimilation’. A UNICEF report from 2009 showed that the parents feel less threatened if their children attend ‘uni-national’ classes, and that this fear is especially present in societies where these “two schools under one roof” operate (Mujkić, p. 54) Thus, language, and its high instrumental symbolic value in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina can serve as a ‘reasonable’ explanation for why these children should attend mathematics in their own language. This symbolic value of the language somehow resembles Benedict Anderson’s idea of an ‘imagined community’ where the print-language gave people the sense of unity with hundreds of thousands of other people that share their ‘uniqueness’ (Hutchinson and Smith, p. 94). In the context of Bosnian Croats, the existence of Croatian language in Bosnia and Herzegovina gives them a sense of unity with Croatians from Croatia, with whom they are geographically divided. Consequently, as Will Kymlicka said, “it may encourage linguistic minorities (…) to choose to break away from the state and join or rejoin their kin-state.” (p. 15)

Besides, the educational structure resembles the administrative structure of the state, and they reinforce one another. Bosnian Croats ‘share’ the territory with Bosniaks, and are numerically the smallest group. Education and language, with their instrumental value, can thus serve as a strong basis for their nationalistic discourse in order to retain what separates and differentiates them from the others, as vague as those points of differentiation might be. Another explanation for the segregationist system that exists might be the mere administrative/political decentralization that gives vast powers even to local-level authorities that can easily then appease their constituencies. The educational system reflects the administrative structure of the state and is thus highly divided and decentralized. The non-existence of a state-level agency or authority that could regulate such issues presents an obstacle towards a unified education. A unified educational system should incorporate factual historiography of all the peoples living in BiH. This system would introduce children to literature from all of the communities, would teach them about important historical events of all the people living in BiH and give more space to critical observation of specific events, instead of relying on professor’s subjective interpretations of the same. Of course, the issue of the war is hard to tackle. This is probably one of the reasons why a unified curriculum could present a problem for specific people, as it may ‘underestimate’ the loss or role of one or the other during the war. That is way factual historiography, based on real data about the war should be introduced to children in order for them to make sense of what really happened. This type of education could nurture a more inclusive and conscious society of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the future.


Although there have been certain steps towards the eradication of the “two schools under one roof” system, such as the administrative unification, or the Strategy for Development issued by the Council of Ministers in 2008 that envisaged the eradication of the system by 2010, no concrete steps have been undertaken. In 2012, the Municipal Court in Mostar passed a decision in favor of an NGO to cancel the “two schools under one roof” program. However, the Council of the Cantonal court in Mostar disregarded the decision passed by the municipal court. The reason behind it, as they explained, is the fact that neither the children, nor the parents or teachers have addressed the issues or search for protection against discrimination. Additionally, one of explanations was that the plaintiff cannot ask for better educational conditions than the parents of the children (, p.1).

From the above, it is obvious that such a system has high instrumental value for the parties involved. Retaining such a divisive system gives way for Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks to continue with the nationalist discourse that resembles the state structure and reinforces separation and differentiation. Such a system is counter-productive in a state that has relatively recently went through a war, and the purpose it served immediately after the war turned it into a political instrument for the Bosnian Croats to retain some sort of territorial, in lack of an official one, and symbolic differentiation from the others. Although legal provisions that prohibit such type of education exist, it can be said that without constitutional reforms no change can happen in the near future.


List of References Dvije škole pod jednim krovom („Two Schools Under One Roof“). Available at:

Boračić, S. & Kamber, Ajdin. Jezička politika u Bosni i Hercegovini („Language Politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina“). Institute for War & Peace Reporting. TRI Issue 721. 2011. Available at:

Čengić, Nejra N. Podijeljeno školstvo u BiH ili „volimo se po razlici“! (Divided education in B&H or „love eachother based on our differences“!). In. Dvije škole pod jednim krovom – Studija o segregaciji u obrazovanju, pp. 91-137. Center for Human Rights of University of Sarajevo & ACIPS. 2012. Available at:

Greenberg, Robert D. Jezik i Identitet na Balkanu – Raspad srpsko-hrvatskog (Language and identity in the Balkans : Serbo-Croat and its disintegration Croatian). Zagreb : Srednja Europa, 2005.

Husremović, Dženana, Powell, S., Šišić, A., & Dolić, A. Obrazovanje u Bosni i Hercegovini: Čemu učimo našu djecu? Analiza sadržaja udžbenika nacionalne grupe predmeta („Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina: What do we teach our children? Analysis of the content of books from the national group of subjects“). Open Society Fund Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2007. Available at:

Hutchinson, J. and Smith, A. Nationalism. Oxford University Press, Inc. 1994.

Judt, Tony & Lacorne, Denis. Language, nation, and state: identity politics in a multilingual age. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 2004. Mostar: Ukinuta presude u slučau dvije škole pod jednim krovom jer se djeca i roditelji nisu žalili („Mostar: Decision on the case of two schools under one roof renounced because children and parents have not complained“). Klix. 2013. Available at:

Kymlicka, Will & Grin, Francois. Introduction: Assessing the Politics of Diversity in Transition Countries In. Nation-Building, Ethnicity and Language Politics in Transition Countries, pp. 1-29.  Local Government and Public Servvice Reform Initiative. Budapest. 2003.

Low-Beer, Ann. Politics, school textbooks and cultural identity: The struggle in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Paradigm, Vol. 2 (3). July, 2001. Available at:

Mujkić, Asim. Obrazovanje kao proces naturaliziranja etnonacionalne ideologije (Education as a process of naturalization of ethnonational ideologies). In. Dvije škole pod jednim krovom – Studija o segregaciji u obrazovanju, pp. 1-25. Center for Human Rights of University of Sarajevo & ACIPS. 2012. Available at:

Nikolić, G.V. Nacionalna struktura Distrikta Brčko 2010 („National Structure of District of Brčko 2010“). Nova Srpska Politička Misao. Available at:

Parlament BiH. Ustav Federacije Bosne i Hercegovine (The Constitution of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Available at:

Rado, Peter.Decentralization and the Governance of Education „The State of Education Systems in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland and Romania“. Local Government and Public Service Reform Initiative, Open Society Institute. Budapest. 2004.

Sadiković, Melina. Kako učimo našu djecu? (How do we teach our children?). In. Dvije škole pod jednim krovom – Studija o segregaciji u obrazovanju, pp. 25-91. Center for Human Rights of University of Sarajevo & ACIPS. 2012. Available at:

Tomiak, Janusz (in collaboration with Knut Eriksen, Andreas Kazamias and Robin Okey). Schooling, educational policy, and ethnic identity. Aldershot, Hants, England: Dartmouth. 1991.

[2] Personal translation due to the lack of an official one



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Zlatko Custovic studies Nationalism at the Central European University in Budapest.

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