Students mingle – sort of – in postwar Bosnia's only integrated school

In a controversial social experiment, boys and girls go to school under the same roof but sit in separate classes.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In the hallways between classes, it seems like any other high school. The students jostle. They joke. There's some flirting, some girls huddled in a small group, some boys goofing off. In one form or another, they boast the uniform of every teen: cargo pants, sloppy sweat shirts, backpacks emblazoned with the names of hip-hop and rap stars. But take a closer look and you'll soon find that this isn't just another high school.

In a rare social experiment in ethnically divided postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Mostar Gymnasium is a Bosnian success story: Since 2004, students from the Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat (Catholic) sides of town have gone to school under the same roof, the only education institution in postwar Bosnia to have accomplished a mixed student body.

But there is a hitch – the students are taught in separate classes, divided by nationality. In other parts of the world, such a "success" story might raise eyebrows. But in Bosnia, where much of the country remains divided along nationalist lines, the Mostar Gymnasium is one of the most visible signs of progress. "The war brought changes, it changed the mentality of the people," says Ankica Covic, the school's Bosnian Croat director. "It's been very hard. We say it's a great step forward that we're all in the same school."

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Just getting the students under the same roof took years. Prior to the 1992-95 war, the school boasted a multinational population of Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox), Croats, and Bosniaks. Built in 1898, during the rule of the Hapsburg Empire, the gymnasium, or high school, was one of the most important education facilities in the former Yugoslavia, with 2,000 students.

But when war broke out, the Mostar Gymnasium found itself literally on the front line of some of the fiercest fighting between Bosniak and Croat forces. Mostar's famous 500-year-old bridge – just a few blocks away – collapsed under shelling from Croat forces. The gymnasium suffered heavy damage: Even today, its pseudo-Moorish walls bear pockmarks from the fighting. The school itself is flanked by ruined buildings on every corner.

After the war, local Croats reclaimed part of the high school for their students and renamed it after a Catholic priest. Bosniak students, meanwhile, went to a school near the old part of town. When the international community stepped in about seven years ago, suggesting that the school be reunified, opposition was intense. It was particularly strong from Croats, who emerged from the war clinging to a threatened sense of national identity and who insisted on speaking their "own" language, even though the differences in language used by Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs are barely distinguishable.

"There was some fierce resistance initially, even the proposed name of the reunified school was subject to months of political debate," says Richard Medic, who was involved in reintegrating the school as part of his work as spokesperson in Mostar for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from 2002 to 2006. "I spun, lobbied, cajoled, and begged for two years before that resistance yielded. It started with the kids, of course, and then the teachers and parents. But I really considered my job done once the more hard-line politicians started attending poetry readings at the reunified school."

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The gymnasium today has 652 students – 361 Bosniaks and 291 Croats. The school runs two six-hour sessions a day, with third- and fourth-year students from both groups attending morning classes and first- and second-year students attending in the afternoon. In keeping with the national government's official stance of separate education – with each student having the "right" to be taught in his or her own language, and to learn his or her own religion and history – the gymnasium separates students according to nationality.

But school officials provide plenty of opportunities for students to mingle in sports, in the student council, and in several other extracurricular activities including chemistry and astronomy. (One donor paid for a science lab for the school with the stipulation that students using it had to be integrated.)

Going to school under one roof also means that students mingle in the halls during breaks. On any given day, it's impossible to tell who's who among the students. In fact, the only way to tell which classroom is Croat and which is Bosniak is by a small sign posted at the top of each door: Croat classrooms are marked with numbers, Bosniak ones with letters.

Enio Kapetanovic, a fourth-year Bosniak student who has been at the school since it reintegrated, says that during the first year students were suspicious of each other, trading nasty remarks and fighting outside. But as students began mingling, animosities dissipated.

"You look at them and you realize, they are not animals, they are human, like we are," he says. "It was the same prejudice from both sides. We were a bit afraid of each other because we didn't know each other."

Mr. Kapetanovic says that if he had his way, classes would be integrated today – even though many of his friends disagree with him. He regularly visits school friends "from the other side," and has dated Croat girls, despite his grandfather's disapproval. Integration, he insists, is simply a matter of time. "We did it before, why not once again?" he asks. "I think in 10 or 20 years, the students will all be in the same class."

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Yet in a country where nationalist politicians rule at all levels of government, many still push for divided schools. A local Croat education minister recently said that "apples and peaches should not mix," referring to Croats and Bosniaks.

Others, however, warn that a segregated education system actually threatens the future of Bosnia. The head of the OSCE mission to Bosnia, Ambassador Douglas Davidson, warned in a speech earlier this year that "Divided schools reflect the cultural schisms in this country in the worst possible way. The way children are educated poses just such a threat to the long-term stability of the country."

Branka Barac, an English teacher who is a Bosnian Serb, still has hope. She gets it from her students. On a recent morning, during a break between classes, she talks about how much she loves her work, how much she missed Mostar during her war years as a refugee.

In class, she often draws her students into conversations that deal with the pain of the war. During one recent English lesson called "The Great Escape," about people moving to other countries, she talked about friends who had left Bosnia during the war, giving examples from her own experience about learning not to judge those who had fled to find better lives.

Ms. Barac asked to be assigned to Bosniak classes when the school hired her in 2004. Her students have never said anything negative to her – despite bitter postwar animosities that exist between Serbs and Bosniaks in many parts of the country. "That's what makes me so optimistic about everything," she says. "They give me hope. They are what give me hope for the future."

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