School Officials in Bosnia May Divide Muslim, Croat Children

A sign of the future in Bosnia, where efforts to divide ethnic groups led to war: Muslim children soon may be studying only with other Muslims, and Croats with Croats.

Officials have devised plans for separate education, insisting that giving each group the right to study its culture in its own language is how a European democracy protects its minorities. Critics, however, say Bosnia has to be treated differently - because such a policy will play into the hands of nationalists by emphasizing children's differences.

"We are supposed to create a new generation that will not recognize ethnicity as a factor in life," says Vildana Selimovic, a Muslim who teaches in Sarajevo. "But with this new proposal, we might do exactly the opposite."

At issue is whether Croats, who are a minority in the Muslim-Croat federation, should have their own school program and books, with a slightly different approach to history and culture, and taught in a slightly different dialect. The differences in speech are less than those separating a Northerner and a Southerner in the United States.

The federation, which controls 51 percent of Bosnia, was formed under intense US pressure in 1994. It links Muslims and Croats, who in some places were allies against the Bosnian Serbs, and other places fought bitterly.

Most Serb children already are getting a separate education and use textbooks from Serbia. Serbs live in the other 49 percent of Bosnia, where few of the Muslims or Croats expelled during the war have been able to return since its end in 1995.

The federation's Education Ministry is offering Muslims and Croats three options: separate schools, separate classrooms within the same school, or at minimum, separate classes in "national subjects" such as language, history, and art.

The Washington-based International Human Rights Law Group, which has attorneys in Bosnia who are training lawyers in human rights issues, said it is worried that parents will have no choice in the education of their children, and that children of mixed marriages will be harassed.

"Imagine the six children from mixed marriages in my class blinking in confusion when I confront them with the question: What are you?" says Ms. Selimovic. "It's like asking a child whether they love their father more than their mother."

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