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War Veterans In Bosnia Are Angry About How The War Is Being Taught

Schoolchildren in Bosnia-Herzegovina have long been taught a sanitized version of the terrible tragedies of the 1990s, largely to avoid biased narratives. A Serb veterans’ group is trying to change that. (photo illustration)
Schoolchildren in Bosnia-Herzegovina have long been taught a sanitized version of the terrible tragedies of the 1990s, largely to avoid biased narratives. A Serb veterans’ group is trying to change that. (photo illustration)

SARAJEVO -- War veterans in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s predominantly Serbian region are waging a new battle nearly three decades after weapons fell silent there, this time over a ninth-grade history textbook that they say downplays Serbian suffering.

And the region’s separatist-minded Serbian authorities are listening: Republika Srpska’s government, led by longtime secessionist Milorad Dodik and his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) party, is preparing new history textbooks based on requests not from historians but from the veterans’ group.

Republika Srpksa’s Education Ministry and the Pedagogical Institute that helps choose textbooks have held multiple meetings with the Veterans Organization of Republika Srpska, which claims to be the region’s largest nonprofit and among the largest NGOs in the entire country, since it complained of the perceived bias.

The Veterans Organization insists that ninth-graders get “insufficient information about the defensive-patriotic war” -- potentially loaded language that suggests Bosniaks and Croats were the aggressors and the overwhelmingly Serbian forces of the former Yugoslavia were the protectors -- and it says central Bosnian authorities “tendentially teach students about the war” by presenting Serbs exclusively as aggressors.

“It’s very ugly that children there learn that,” Milovan Gagic, president of the Veterans Organization, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service in reference to the mostly Bosniak and Croat federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina that, along with Republika Srpska, composes Bosnia. “Do our children learn history as it happened and not from some tendentious stories?”

The wars of the 1990s still bitterly divide much of the former Yugoslavia along ethnic lines. The fighting killed more than 100,000 people, including more than 8,000 men and boys in one of the 20th century’s grimmest chapters: the 1995 mass killing perpetrated by Serbian troops and militia against Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, in what is now Republika Srpska. The massacre has been labeled genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Bare Bones History

Following the end of the war in 1995, the two Bosnian entities fostered separate national education plans and curriculums for the country’s Bosniak, Croat, and Serbian populations.

Fears of reigniting ethnic tensions, however, prompted the Council of Europe in 2000 to recommend that Bosnian schools exclude the war from school curriculums until historians “from all communities” could “develop a common approach.” As a result, teachers and textbooks only mentioned the barest details about the war. That changed, however, in 2018, when the Sarajevo region’s Education Ministry abandoned the Council of Europe's recommendation. Other parts of the country eventually followed suit, and textbooks used across Bosnia began to provide more detail about the war -- often with significant ethnic bias.

The textbook that the Veterans Organization is challenging was published in 2016 by the Institute for Textbooks and Teaching Aids in East Sarajevo, in Republika Srpska.

Its treatment of Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic -- in the chapter Civil War In Bosnia And Herzegovina: The Creation Of Republika Srpska -- highlights the way educators have frequently skirted substantive aspects of the Bosnian War.

Karadzic, Republika Srpska’s wartime president who was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity by a Hague tribunal in 2016 and is still in a U.K. prison, is described as having an “extremely important role in the creation of Republika Srpska,” but nowhere does it list any of his crimes.

Students learn that Mladic, who commanded Bosnian Serb troops at Srebrenica, “played an important role in the defense of the Serbs in Croatia in 1991,” but the actions behind his Hague conviction for genocide, crimes against humanity, and other crimes are never mentioned. The textbook describes the 1995 mass killings as “the capture of Srebrenica and [the nearby city of] Zepa by the Republika Srpska Army.”

Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity by a Hague tribunal in 2016.
Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity by a Hague tribunal in 2016.

Many Serb nationalists in Bosnia and neighboring countries still regard Karadzic, Mladic, and other wartime leaders as heroes -- a stubborn problem that prompted the UN-backed international civilian overseer in Bosnia to use his so-called Bonn powers in 2021 to demand that Republika Srpska withdraw official honors for convicted war criminals.

Those looking for signs of healing and reckoning in Bosnian society have warned that the consequences of a flawed approach to education are difficult to repair.

“Teaching something that is politicized, falsified, and malicious…will lead society toward self-destruction,” Branko Todorovic, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Republika Srpska, an NGO founded in 1996, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “We’ll become more and more closed, and we won’t be able to conduct any kind of social dialogue.”

Todorovic said the priority in Bosnia -- which just entered EU membership talks despite Dodik and his SNSD allies’ ongoing independence threats and awkward, ethnic-based voting and institutions -- should be reconciliation, tolerance, and accountability for crimes committed during the war years.

Instead, the existing system passes hatred and the glorification of war crimes on to new generations.

“It’s so unfair that political leaders with short memories and evil intentions shift the burden of the past to the youth, who won’t be able to resolve it if they incorrectly learn history,” Todorovic said.

'Patriotic' Aim Of Education

There has been no announcement from Republika Srpska’s government or other officials on what elements might be added to the textbook in question or when they expect to finish the job.

The entity's Pedagogical Institute confirmed to RFE/RL that its representatives have met on multiple occasions with officials from the Education Ministry to discuss “modern national history” since the Veterans Organization’s initiative. Asked whether veterans should be involved in the creation of textbooks, the institute said it would respect justified requests as it worked to define content.

“The goal is to strengthen patriotism and national identity,” the Pedagogical Institute said, “and to provide students with objective, science-based historical facts about events from the '90s of the last century to today.”

In response to an RFE/RL query, the Education Ministry said the initiative is aimed at an improved understanding of Republika Srpska’s history. It added that it is a result of discussions not only with the Veterans Organization but also with the professional public, “which believes that it is necessary for students to study the historical circumstances in Bosnia-Herzegovina from that period so that, in a well-founded and critical manner, from this distance, they can become acquainted with the history of their people.”

The current generation of primary- and secondary-school students in Republika Srpska was born at least a decade after the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the war and established Bosnia’s ethnic-based administration. But reminders of the war are ever present, from searches in Bosnia and elsewhere for the remains of thousands of missing Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats; to schoolchildren taking part in military anniversaries and commemorations; to ever-present landmarks from a violent and relatively recent past.

Successive Bosnian Education Ministries have adopted guidelines issued in 2006 by the Council of Europe on the writing and evaluation of history textbooks for primary and secondary schools. A follow-up manual in 2008 says that such materials should be objective, based on science, and aimed at fostering understanding and reconciliation among Bosnia’s various communities.

Melisa Foric, an educator at the University of Sarajevo who is active in the Bosnian branch of EuroClio, the European Association of History Educators, has written about problems in education such as the selective presentation of facts, raising the profile of victims from one group while minimizing or ignoring victims from other groups, and avoidance of blaming members of one’s own group.

She said the key problem is that, even on an academic and historiographical level, there is no consensus on major aspects of the Bosnian War. A solution to biased interpretations in curriculums and textbooks, Foric said, lies in the extensive documentation of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, including in materials from the ICTY in The Hague.

“On this path -- of an exclusive, selective approach in which you are served interpretations according to the wishes of those who bring educational content -- we won’t get far,” Foric said.

In the northern Bosnian city of Doboj, in Republika Srpska, adult residents told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that the debate around educating children about the wars of the 1990s is among the most complicated issues the country faces.

“For a long time, there won’t be any common history here that’s accepted by all sides,” said Cvijetin, who asked that we don’t publish his full name. “It’s better to let time run its course than to heat up the situation.”

Another local, Dino, said that differing interpretations are a recipe for trouble and even suggested they go against the spirit of the Dayton accords.

Keep it simple, he said: “On one page, in general, about when the war started, when it ended -- that is, when the armistice was signed. Anything else will cause problems.”

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Marija Augustinovic

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