Bosniaks and Croats, Divided in Class and at Play

Bosniaks and Croats, Divided in Class and at Play


VITEZ, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA — Every morning at the local grade school formerly known as Brotherhood and Unity, the Catholic Croat children head to the right, and the Bosnian Muslims head to the left.

The Croats study in the school’s cheerful looking main building, which was recently renovated. The Muslims attend class in the crumbling, dingy annex next door.

The school ended up behind the Croat line during the 1992-95 war that killed some 100,000 people. It has remained there ever since.

(Photo:  Ziyah Gafic)

The children’s fathers fought one of the fiercest battles between Bosnian Muslims and Croats, former allies against the Serbs who turned against each other. Vitez was inside “the ring” — an enclave within an enclave — a Bosnian Muslim enclave surrounded by Croat militia, which itself was surrounded by Muslim forces.

Today, the divisions remain sharp, especially at the school.

“I would rather move out of town than send my child to a mixed school,” said Borislav Krizanac, 32, a Croat flooring installer. “There is big hatred here.”

These schoolchildren were not even born 15 years ago when the Dayton agreement stopped the fighting and created two entities: the Bosnian-Croat Federation and the Serbian Republic. The complex balance between the three ethnic groups — Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims — has cemented the divisions rather than healed them, local residents say. Reconciliation has definitely not happened.

At the school — now called Vitez Primary School, with 820 students in the Croat main building, and 500 Muslims in the annex — children say that fights between students are common, usually triggered by differences of religion or language. The two schools operate on the same schedule, and teachers say they have to make special efforts to maintain order during breaks.

“They can stop the fights,” said Rijad Pedljak, a Muslim eighth-grader with enormous brown eyes. “But they can’t stop the war.”

There are 34 such schools in the Bosnian Federation, according to the Federation Minister of Education and Science, Damir Masic, and while they come in several variations, the minister categorizes all of them as “divided.” Nine house two separate schools, Muslim and Croat, under one roof; 12 are unified but students study in separate classrooms; six operate as single legal entities that include classes for other schools; and six send students out to other schools for classes in a different curriculum. One school building houses both a primary and a high school with two curriculums.

Mr. Masic took his post in October and said that while unification is a priority, it will be difficult because education policy is almost completely run by the Bosnian Federation’s 10 cantons.

He has some budgetary powers to influence the cantons, but he expects fierce resistance from politicians who he says care only about playing ethnic politics and “trying to destroy this country.”

“These politicians all used to go to school together under one roof,” said Mr. Masic. “For centuries, we have always lived together, not next to each other,” he said in an interview in Sarajevo. “This is a problem which has only existed for 20 years.”

Several institutions in Vitez are still divided: neighborhoods, sports clubs and even the fire department. The Muslims held the fire station during the war so the Croats had to form their own.

“In Vitez every thing is duplicated,” said the commander of the Muslim firehouse, Senad Omanovic, 55. “If they have it, we have to have one, too.”

There is only one emergency phone number for the fire department. Calls are automatically forwarded to the Muslim or Croat branches based on the prefix of the caller’s mobile operator. Despite more or less equal service coverage, Muslims use BH Telecom and Croats use Eronet. It is no longer necessary to ask a Bosnian’s name to understand their ethnicity: their phone number is enough.

The Croatian firehouse is in a temporary structure in the center, the Croat part of town. Equipment is sparse. Mr. Krizanac, the flooring installer, who was getting his fire extinguisher inspected there, expressed strong feelings about his neighbors in Vitez.

One of the worst offenses, he said, is when Muslims use religious greetings such as “salaam aleikum” instead of “good day” in public institutions like city hall. To Croats, such postwar habits smack of Muslim triumphalism. “I get angry and I curse at them,” he said.

Asked how he would feel about calling the Muslim fire department to put out a fire in his house, Mr. Krizanac was unequivocal: “I’d let it burn.”

The Hotel Vitez was the former base of the Jokers, a unit of the Croatian Defense Council whose commander, Anto Furundzija, was sentenced in 2000 to 10 years imprisonment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague.

Recently renovated in cheerful colors, its spacious hallways are mostly empty.

“It’s a myth that the past is forgotten,” said a receptionist, Ivan Krizanovic, 26. Mulims and Croats are friends, he said, “only when it’s a business lunch.” He said the hatred emerges only after alcohol and most often during holidays: from Croats celebrating Christmas or Muslims during the Islamic Bayram.

At the municipal building in town, Deputy Mayor Marija Grabovac said that the problems of the school have been exaggerated by a Bosnian Muslim political party to score points. She said that Muslim parents send their children to the divided school, even if they have a better school closer by, “just to be able to say: ‘This school is so crowded, look at the bad conditions.”’

Muslims make similar accusations: that the Croatian political parties pressure parents to send children to the school from far away so that Muslims won’t fill the empty classroom spaces and eventually “take over.”

Many Croats in Vitez and elsewhere in Bosnia express fears of losing their voice among the larger Muslim population of the Federation, which is about 70 percent Bosnian Muslim, 5 percent Serb and 25 percent Croat, according to estimates by international officials.

“When I look at the kids in the yard after recess going their separate ways to school, it feels strange to me,” said the Croat school principal, Slavica Serbetic. “But for them it’s normal, its the only way they’ve ever known.”

In the hallway of the Croat school, Ana Blaz, 13, was doing hall monitor duty wearing a T-shirt reading: “Life is too short to date ugly guys.”

All kids should study together, she said. She doesn’t know why they don’t, although it might have something to do with the fights. “There is one boy, Martin, who is always starting fights” with the Muslims.

“We are fighting over words, and we will be for a long time” said Ana, who said she expects another war. “The way things are going it could be soon.”

Dajana Drmic, 11, disagreed about sharing classrooms with Muslims. “It’s better that we’re separated,” she said. She said she was more comfortable around Croats because Muslims “watch different TV shows” and use different words.

According to the principal of the Bosnian Muslim school, Armin Imamovic, “people are afraid of losing their language and their identity. They are afraid they will disappear if they study together.”

“It won’t change,” said Laris Horic, a tall and skinny 14-year-old Muslim who plays violin and has Croatian friends through her music class. “People are like that,” she said. “They don’t want it to change.”

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