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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 Sara TerryCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 27, 2007

mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

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.

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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."

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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