Bosnia and Herzegovina

Creating a safe environment for children in divided schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Taleen Vartan

NEW YORK, USA, 13 July 2011 – Many schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina still reflect the ethnic tensions that triggered protracted armed conflict in the region in the mid-1990s. They are divided into ‘two-schools under one roof’ and mono-ethnic schools, where children are segregated based on their ethnicity or nationality in mixed regions.

In these schools, children attend separate classes and have no interaction with students outside their own group.

For 15 months beginning in September 2009, UNICEF supported the Genesis Project, which endeavoured to create safe environments in 12 such ‘two-schools under one roof’ facilities. The Government of the Netherlands, through its global grant to UNICEF’s Education in Emergencies and Post-Crisis Transition programme, helped finance the initiative.

The project educated parents, schoolteachers and students about peaceful conflict resolution and communication skills.

Defusing ethnic tensions

In its initial phase, the Genesis Project focused on training teachers and parents of different ethnic groups on the importance of social inclusion and the need to integrate peaceful conflict resolution activities into the school day.

The project subsequently organized activities for children, such as puppet shows, to improve multi-ethnic cooperation within targeted communities. These shows and similar educational activities in classrooms helped educate students about non-violent conflict prevention and resolution, and the importance of communication.

“Every head teacher, every teacher and every principal finds it important to resolve any conflict,” explained teacher Darko Izindzic. “It is most important for us not to have problems here.”

The final phase of the Genesis Project worked to debunk lingering ethnic stereotypes by promoting arts and other creative activities contingent on child participation.

Trained peer helpers and teachers, as well as children themselves, shared peaceful conflict-resolution messages with their friends, relatives and neighbours. “It is important that we play, we hang out together, that we know we can be together,” said Osman, one of the students.

Children attend a performance of 'I Am the Most Important', a play put on by the Genesis Project in a primary school in Busovaca, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In total, the Genesis Project carried out 41 training workshops and seminars for nearly 1,200 teachers, school administrators and parents. The project also conducted 45 puppet shows for about 3,800 students and teachers. Various other joint activities took place in all 12 segregated schools, and more than 3,500 people participated in these educational activities. Students and teachers continue to organize these joint activities after the official completion of the project.

“Those stereotypes [among schoolchildren] are at a lower level now,” said Genesis Project manager Azra Talic. “It’s easy to show them that things are different through music, playing, laughing, cooperation, communication – through exchange, through socialization…. They say very sincerely that they thought about others in one way and now they can see they were wrong.”

‘Not the end’

UNICEF’s and the Genesis Project’s capacity to deliver peace-building education has helped children to overcome ethnic barriers and establish deeper and more sincere relationships. As a result of these and other efforts, communication continues to improve among segregated ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and school has become a more secure place for children and teachers.

“This is not the end,” said school principal Antun Milos. “We will go on and this is, let me put it this way, the first half of the match. We’ll play the second, as well, because we are ready.”