MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The Mostar Gymnasium, a bustling high school of 650 students, lies at the crossroads of Bosnia’s divides. Located on a boulevard that once served as a front line between Croats and Muslims during the country’s brutal 1990s war, the brightly colored, recently renovated building stands out among its neighbors, most of which are still in ruins.
But it’s not the discordant splash of peach amid the rubble that makes the school conspicuous here — it’s that inside, Croatian and Muslim students attend school together.
Fourteen years after the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war, Bosnia’s children are growing up more isolated from other ethnic groups than even their parents did. The war largely succeeded in separating the country’s three main people, Serbs, Croats and Muslims, known as Bosniaks. But the peace cemented those divisions into law.
According to the Dayton constitution, nearly everything in Bosnia is divided along ethnic lines. The country is partitioned into two largely autonomous entities, a Bosniak-Croat federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. The country has three presidents, one from each group, and a parliament in which Croats, Serbs and Muslims each have a third of seats.
Education is a touchy subject for all three of Bosnia’s peoples, each of which interprets the past through the lens of old grievances. Culture, history and even language have been imbued with the politics of difference. Officially, there are even three languages in Bosnia: Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, although everyone can understand each other. And every parent, in this country, has the right to educate his child in his own language.
“I was optimistic about the future, but as long as the schools are separate, the problems will not stop,” said Branka Barac, a Serbian English teacher at the Gymnasium, herself a graduate of the school before the war, when it was named after a famous Bosnian Serb writer.
In Mostar, a city still divided into Muslim and Croatian sides, the Gymnasium is the only mixed school. After the war the school — by then renamed for a Croatian priest — had only Croat students who attended lessons on a single floor of the building, then still in ruins. In 2004 it was renovated with donor money and began accepting students from both sides of the city.
But even here, the integration only goes so far: There are two separate curricula for Croatian and Muslim students. But sports, school activities and a few classes, such as technology, are combined.
On the school’s third floor, the United World College high school, which shares the building, has students from all three of Bosnia’s groups drawn from around the country, as well as ones from around the world. But it is run by a private foundation — which offers its select students free tuition — and instructs students in English using the International Baccalaureate system.
Darija Coric, a second-year Croat student, had never gone to school with Muslims before she came to the Gymnasium. Now, she said, she has Muslim friends and even knows of a few relationships that cross ethnic lines.
But she’s never been to a Muslim student’s house and says she doesn’t like to go out at night in the Bosniak half of the city. “I would like for Bosnia to be united and everyone to be equal, but I don’t know if that’s possible,” she said. “Even when I introduce myself and say I come from Mostar, people ask what side I’m from.”
But Armin Pekusic and Voljen Gubeljic, who became friends at the school and are now finishing their last year, said their time there has made ethnicity less important.
“We thought when we hung out with each other there would be problems,” said Pekusic. “But we found out it was easy.”
The current principal, Bakir Krpo, is a Muslim who graduated from the school when Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia. He said that during the war he was imprisoned in a camp by one of his former students, a Croat, and for a while, he despaired that Bosnians could live together again.
“We thought, ‘were we bad teachers that our students could behave this way?’ But now there are friendships, dating. They’re on the debate team together, the newspaper,” he said.
He had hoped that when the Gymnasium proved integration worked, other schools would follow. But so far, it remains one of the only integrated schools in the country. And politicians sometimes talk about closing it. Only time can heal Bosnia’s wounds, Krpo said.
“In essence, I’m an optimist,” he added. “But it will be very slow. I don’t think I will live to see it. Maybe my grandchildren.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that the Mostar Gymnasium is not the only integrated school in the country.