War(s) of the 1990s in Schools: My Truth for My Child

The announcement that as of this school year, the history of the 1992-1995 war would be studied in more detail in primary and secondary schools is perhaps the most significant change in the history curriculum since the fall of communism and the introduction of a multiparty system in BiH, i.e. since the official (socialist) narrative was replaced by official (nationalist) narratives.

History teaching has been the most sensitive topic following the end of the war and start of the initially modest (re)integration of BiH society. When in 1999 my generation started learning history from our first textbook, printed in 1994, whole portions of the text were blacked out with marker. This was an attempt by the international community to remove offensive content and terms from textbooks. At that time, it was officially agreed, or rather imposed by the OSCE, that history of the 1992-1995 war would not be studied beyond basic information about when it started and when it ended. This embargo remained in force all the way up to 2018.

Lifting the Embargo Ourselves

On 15 March 2018, the Ministry of Education, Science and Youth of the Sarajevo Canton decided that 9th graders in the Sarajevo Canton would be studying an additional four history units: The Siege of Sarajevo and its Military and Political Aspects; The Siege of Sarajevo and Violations of Humanitarian Law; Ethnic Cleansing, War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in BiH from 1992 to 1995; and The Genocide in Srebrenica. These units have been allocated 8 class hours, which is one month worth of teaching.

At the same time, it was announced in Republika Srpska that as of the new school year, new history textbooks would be issued with lessons on the wars of the 1990s in line with the new curriculum units:  The Collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the Creation of RS from 1991 to 1995; The 1992-1995 Civil War in BiH; Major Events in the Creation of RS and the Dayton Agreement.

Changes to curricula to incorporate the 1992-1995 war were also announced in the Zenica Doboj, Tuzla and Una Sana Canton, where distributing a monograph on the Fifth Corps to schools was presented as the first step in the reform.

Finally introducing the events of the 1990s into the school curriculum should be welcomed, even if the intentions and aims of the authorities are entirely misguided. Schoolchildren are daily in full contact with the past, which makes the question of whether they should be burdened by difficult topics about the past war essentially extraneous. At home with their families, on the news, talking with friends, online, they encounter topics from the 1990s almost daily, but unfortunately mostly presented in a non-constructive manner. Not to mention that they walk through streets, pass by monuments and frequent institutions named after notable figures from that period.

This has finally defeated the foolish conviction of the international community and some domestic experts that the problem will disappear if they are sufficiently persistent in pretending that it doesn’t exist. Guess what – the problem did not go away, it grew.

The War and the Myth (of Peace)

The extent to which the problem has grown is illustrated by the fact that pupils will be taught these new curricular units by teachers whose university education did not cover the history of the 1990s. Namely, the history of the 1992-1995 war is not studied at history departments of BiH universities as they are waiting for enough time to pass in order to view it from the appropriate historical distance. Admittedly, a number of teachers and assistants have worked on various projects implemented by various (non-governmental) organisations that offered ways to constructively deal with the topics of the 1990s; textbooks have also been prepared promoting multiperspectivity as an approach that is made available to primary and secondary school teachers, but they are not required to use them, nor were the teachers consulted by the authorities regarding these most recent changes to the curriculum.

Unfortunately, whether from powerlessness or out of conformity, the existing institutional framework has been neglected, as best illustrated by the fact that neither history departments, nor even individuals who work there, have spoken out about the planned changes to the curriculum. Apart from the fact that it was not taught, the 1990s war has also been under-researched: not a single synthesis has been published, and the number of doctoral dissertations focusing on the 1992-1995 period can be counted on the fingers of a single hand. Without such foundations, it is difficult to expect historians to make the next step and start deconstructing myths and dominant national narratives about the 1990s wars, as was recently done in Zagreb by Dejan Jović in his book “War and Myth”.

My Truth for My Child

The publication of the revised curricula and new textbooks will lay bare the intentions of the authorities that are more or less clear already from the announcement.

The aims of these changes were best described by Dane Malešević, the RS Minister of Education when he said, “We want to convey our truth, that is, our view of the past war to the pupils in Republika Srpska, because there are at least four truths in this country.” (emphasis mine)

The OSCE, which had previously headed the education reform and imposed the embargo on topics from the 1990s, said that including content about events from 1992 to 1995, and what is more, focusing on just two events (the genocide in Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo) does not contribute to depoliticising history teaching. Researching historical topics entails scientific analysis and consensus, including a consensus on both domestic and international sources. Left without a carrot or a stick, under the weight of their own mistakes, today the OSCE is completely helpless.

At this stage, it is clear that any attempt at a common and constructive approach to the 1992-1995 war has been abandoned. Instead, conscious of differing views and perspectives, the authorities have decided to impose their truth on the territory under their control, as Minister Dane Malešević put it, and suppress other truths.

Avoiding multiperspectivity in history teaching and the fear of our children hearing something beyond our truth is a recurring pattern. Government decisions along these lines cement the state of affairs where parts of one dominant national narrative are simultaneously taboo within another dominant national narrative, which prevents any possibility of future constructive dialogue and imposes lines that must not be crossed. Take, for example, the determinants of aggression and civil war, the two most frequently used terms that have already been announced as pillars of the narratives to be conveyed to pupils. Aggression is the dominant narrative in one part of BiH, while the term civil war is a complete taboo that must never be mentioned out loud. On the other side, civil war is the dominant narrative, while the participation of Serbia and/or Croatia in the war is taboo. In an atmosphere of the ubiquitous belief that war against us has never ceased, it has just continued by other means, any crossing of imaginary borders is considered a betrayal of one’s own collective. Thus, the burden of a painful past is passed on from generation to generation, with each new generation adding its own frustrations and difficulties.

News from the Past

However, there are two new aspects to the whole story. The first is a complete absence of care for fellow members of the ethnic group—despite ethnic identity being proclaimed as primary and vital—in the part of BiH controlled by the other side. Thus, in Sarajevo, no one was much bothered by what Bosniak returnees in Prijedor and Srebrenica were going to learn in history class, just as the RS authorities could not care less about the pupils in Drvar. This seems to be the end stage of the ethno-territorialisation process.

The other significant aspect is that due to decentralisation, at least in FBiH, uniquely constructed national narratives that sought to suppress regional specificities are being abandoned. It will be interesting to follow how the conflict between the Army of BiH and HVO will be treated in different cantons, especially given the fact that in one part of FBiH that conflict was brutal, while in other parts (Posavina and Bihać) it was non-existent. It will also be interesting to see how the intra-Bosniak conflict in Krajina is presented.

The final arrival of the 1990s to school classrooms also opens other questions, such as the issues of dominant narratives, taboos, the possibility/need for reconciliation, how to turn the experience of war into a resource for reconciliation, etc. Last year’s Dialogue Circle with historians, as well as the International Conference Reconciling Histories?! held from 15 to 18 May 2018 in Sarajevo, both organised by the Centre for Nonviolent Action Sarajevo/Belgrade, were, among other things, a call for more active participation by various institutions and individuals who would have to use their standing as experts and their academic integrity to influence the authorities, given that the latter see teaching, and history in general, as a mere tool in the service of their nationalist policies. These were opportunities to be reminded once again that the choices we make today, including those concerning the heavy legacy of the past, will necessarily influence our tomorrow.

Perhaps the main question is what is the task of history and historians, from the heights of academia down to the school classroom. Is the purpose mechanical repetition and learning the desired narrative or a critical analysis of social structures that made and continue to make violence the possible and preferred means of conflict resolution?  Was the aim building up one’s own national identity, or empathy for all victims of war, encouragement for nonviolent struggle against social injustice?

Ultimately, is the desired citizen/pupil one who knows the (desired) answers or one who knows how to ask questions? In the words of the recently deceased professor Zdenko Lešić, Is the aim to humanise or to tribalise?

(This article was originally published in Oslobođenje, on 29 May 2018.)