07 December 2016: Prejudice among schoolchildren in Bosnia and Herzegovina may be even greater now than before the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. But a worrying trend is not a foregone conclusion, as one organisation has proved with puppets in primary schools. Alizée Gau reports.


A puppet show performance in the segregated school of Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, bringing together Croatian and Bosnian children. Image credit: Alizée Gau.

We are all equally important

“I started playing because I was too tired to hear about war, madness and violence."
Wednesday 8 November is a special day for the children of Jajce primary school in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Soon after the 10 o’clock bell rings, pupils rush out of their classrooms and wait excitedly in front of the gymnasium’s big wooden door. Two teachers follow them and ask for silence, before a man in red overalls opens the door and beams cheerfully at the kids: “Welcome to the puppet show!”

The children shyly enter the gym. They look inquisitively at a large curtain, behind which four adults are hiding. One of the men comes out and starts warming up his audience. “Do you all know the ten elementary numbers? Yes? Well, do you want to hear a story about them?”

But the show is not about counting. Soon after numbers Zero to Nine introduce themselves to the audience, Six and Eight start a quarrel on their respective importance in the universe. All the numbers start fighting when the man wearing red overalls intervenes: “What about the number of seconds in a minute, or the number of hours in a day?” Two and Four look at one another hesitatingly, before agreeing to show up.

The play, titled “We are all equally important”, wouldn’t be so special if it wasn’t for the audience, laughing and beaming in delight, and for the fact that it is taking place in one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s segregated schools, which have kept Bosnians and Croatians separated for more than 25 years since the end of the Bosnian war.

“I started playing for the puppet show because I was too tired to hear about war, madness and violence, and I wanted to change something,” one of the actors explains. “The only time when the kids can be together is actually during our workshops.”

One roof, two schools

In 1996, soon after the peace agreement that ended the five-year war, two students and an attorney started working as volunteers in a refugee camp in the Serb Republic territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Among them was Dijana Pejic, who later founded the NGO Genesis. “We tried to entertain the children that were living there in such difficult conditions. We came with a mobile library; other days, we would organize a projection or a puppet show.”

After she graduated, Dijana decided to work full-time in the refugee camps. In 1997, Genesis was founded and the team opened a centre to help the children with post-traumatic disorders. The NGO worked for seven years within the Serb Republic territory. At the end of the war, Bosnia was divided into two entities, one of them 90% Serb-Orthodox, the other, the Bosnia & Herzegovina Federation (B&H Federation), mainly inhabited by Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians. Because of the war, and the ongoing nationalism dividing the country, few people crossed the border or knew what happened on the other side.

Dijana Pejic founded Genesis in 1997.

In 2005, UNICEF, who had been supporting Genesis, asked the group to carry out their workshops in the B&H Federation.

“I got in touch with a Croat headmaster to organise a workshop on landmine awareness for his pupils. I was very surprised when he asked me if he had to bring “the others” as well,” says Dijana.

School segregation was established at the end of the war, officially on parents’ request

It was the first time Dijana had heard of the segregated school system in the B&H Federation. “In rural areas which cannot afford to build two distinct schools, Catholic and Muslim children share the same building but at different times, following distinct curriculums with teachers from their own community. In some cases, bells might ring at different times so that children won’t meet in the courtyard, and toilets would be separated as well.”

The Dayton Peace agreements at the end of the Bosnian war have been heavily criticised for establishing long-term political division and administrative chaos in the country. Ethnic sharing of power has resulted in a country ruled by three presidents and divided into two entities and ten cantons, each of them ruled by local nationalist governments encouraging separatism and identity politics.

Against this backdrop, school segregation was established at the end of the war, officially on parents’ request. However, Genesis conducted a survey in 2009 revealing that 90% of teachers and students in segregated schools would be willing to get involved in mixed activities. So they started implementing mixed workshops in the B&H Federation. “We started working with the most open-minded headmasters at first. After some time, nationalist headmasters who had initially rejected us sensed that they were missing a lot of interesting activities for their pupils and eventually asked us to come back.”

A temporary dressing for a deeper wound?

“Children love our workshops because it is a big change for them compared to traditional schooling in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Eight years later, Genesis manages weekly activities in segregated schools across Bosnia, promoting tolerance between kids from Muslim and Catholic backgrounds. An impact study carried out with the help of the Banja Luka Psychology Institute shows that children are showing a greater willingness to socialise with peers from other ethnicities, and are taking a more active role in stopping violence.

Similarly, teachers who have worked with the programme say that communication with colleagues from other backgrounds has improved. Recently three teenagers who were involved in Genesis’ workshops as kids successfully managed a protest to postpone the opening of a segregated high school in the city of Jajce.

Two schools under one roof: pupils watching one of Genesis’ puppet show

This is not really a surprise. Genesis’ work could go much further if it didn’t have to first tackle the nationalist rhetoric fed to children from an early age. “Every election, politicians are still intimidating people with other ethnicities,” Dijana says.

“People can be easily manipulated. To be honest, I would say that the children have sometime more prejudices today than their parents used to have, because they have grown up in mono-ethnic communities. I hope that in ten years, people’s attention will eventually focus on education and the economy, instead of losing so much energy on how many mosques and churches we have!" 

 

Dijana Pejic and Genesis won the 2015 Tomorrow’s Peacebuilders award for Inter-Religious Peacebuilding. Dijana is on the jury for the 2016 awards.

This article is part of a new series of reports on post-conflict areas of Europe, Tales of the Afterwar.

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