In Bosnia-Herzegovina, both teachers and students find it hard to talk about the war, which many of them experienced first-hand. German experts in designing textbooks are helping teachers find ways to address the topic.
"How can I tell students about our borders without automatically having to talk about the war?" asks Sibela Jevtic. She has taught geography and history in Banja Luka since 1993. Jevtic lived through the civil war here, in the north of what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, and its absurdities were also apparent in her own family: Her father fought with the Serbs, her three uncles on the Croatian side.
"I tell the students about my own experiences," Jevtic says, hoping that this approach will help the young people to keep an open mind. "War is not simply black or white."
The teacher and her students alike have deep-seated, painful memories of the war. Discussing the issue in school is extremely difficult, Jevtic says. But she firmly believes that addressing it is important, which is why she decided to participate in a project offered by Germany's Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research (GEI) aimed at designing new school textbooks that specifically deal with the civil war.
Encourage an understanding of the past
"We began to tackle recent history for the first time in 2008," Katarina Batarilo-Henschen explains. The teaching material doesn't deal with controversial war issues like the concentration camps and the Srebrenica massacre. Instead, it examines everyday life during that period, the GEI project coordinator says. Local authorities unanimously agree that, even today, that's as far as they can go.
Everyday life was the same for Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks during the war, so the students have shared memories. They all experienced what it was like going to school in wartime, or when food became scarce, or there was no electricity.
In cooperation with the German Foreign Ministry, the Braunschweig-based institute has been involved in the project for the past ten years, helping educators like Sibela Jevtic in Bosnia-Herzegovina to address the war in class. The institute cooperates with institutions and textbook authors worldwide to develop school books for crisis regions: for South Africa in the 1990s and, more recently, for the Baltic States, Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine.
Textbooks for crisis areas
GEI experts also helped compile a joint history book for Israeli and Palestinian students. Neither side allows it to be used in schools, but "the fact that the book exists at all, and that Israelis and Palestinians worked on it together, is a success," according to Georg Stöber, who heads the institute's Textbook and Conflict Department.
It's no easy feat to provide for a common examination of history in such regions, the textbook researcher says. Both sides harbor too many prejudices and too much pain. Stöber remembers launching the project in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats sat in separate groups and wouldn't mingle even during short coffee breaks. As the workshops progressed, it was important that they "no longer debated as Serbs, Bosniaks or Croats, but as university lecturers; their professional identities came to the fore."
Bosnia-Herzegovina initiated a textbook reform in 2003. Older teachers in particular found it difficult to allow for different perspectives of the war, Baratilo-Henschen says, adding that they were still heavily influenced by the Communist training for history teachers.
Melisa Foric would like there to be a standard history textbook for all students in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Active learning is an important element of teaching the Balkan Wars in class, says Melisa Foric. The historian and textbook author, a member of the European Association for History Educators (Euroclio), survived the four-year siege of Sarajevo as a child, and has been a part of the textbook reform team since its early beginnings.
Foric would like to see a standardized textbook for all students in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but that is not yet on the horizon. The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement split Bosnia-Herzegovina into many cantons, which led to a heterogeneous education sector with 13 education ministries.
"There is no control over what is taught in the classrooms," the textbook author warns. But at least the war is now officially part of the curriculum in every canton but one.